How can I, Peter, friend turned coward, tell of what happened to Jesus after he was taken by the guards and beaten? My mind was so beset by self-accusation, guilt and remorse. I had completely denied my master and I loathed myself for it. Joseph, from Arimathea, who would become my brother, was in a better position and more rational state of mind to witness to the details of Jesus’s demise. Later he would testify to the events of that day,
“Very early in the morning of Preparation Day, the day before the Sabbath, the whole of the Jewish ruling council met to decide the fate of Jesus the Nazarene. I was a distinguished member of that council—the Sanhedrin—and like all the others I had been eager to reach a decision. We had gathered, along with all the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law and we unanimously agreed that he should be put to death. We had him bound, led away and delivered into the hands of Pilate, the head of the Roman authority in Judea. And so he began the questioning we had primed him for.
“‘Are you King of the Jews?’ asked Pilate.
“‘Yes, so you say,’ Jesus replied.
“The chief priests bristled not only at Jesus’s answer but also Pilate’s mocking question, for the kingdom in Judea no longer existed. But they could only attack Jesus, so the chief priests gave him a royal tongue lashing. The accusations kept coming until Pilate prompted him, “Speak up. Where is your defense? You hear your accusers’ many allegations against you.”
“But still Jesus breathed not a word, which baffled Pilate no end.
“In the time since the nation of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, a certain custom had developed. Every year at this time a prisoner of the people’s choosing was released to them. A man called Barabbas, whose name means ‘the father’s son’, was being held for murder. He had been the leader of a revolution made in blood, but now languished in prison, awaiting the kind of death that surely had been coming to him all his life. We approached Pilate en masse to demand that he keep this custom.
“But Pilate was no fool because he could tell that we, along with the chief priests, had handed Jesus over out of envy, so he asked, ‘Do you want me to release to you the king who is among you?’
“Instead the chief priests began to ask for Barabbas, and we blindly followed their lead. Soon the whole crowd appealed for the release of the criminal Barabbas.
“‘What then, do you want me to do with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked us.
“‘Crucify him!’ we shouted.
“‘On what grounds; what crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.
“But we shouted all the more boldly, letting volume and violence drown out sense and reason, ‘Crucify him!’
“Pilate conceded to the will of the crowd and released Barabbas to us. At his word he had Jesus flogged, and gave him over to those responsible for crucifying him.
“The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace—the Praetorium—the legal heart of the entire region. I would learn later what happened there. The whole company of soldiers was summoned. Jesus was dressed in a royal purple robe and a twisted crown made of thorns was set on his head. The cry went up in military unison, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ They repeatedly struck him with a staff on his newly crowned head and spat on him. Falling on their knees, they pretended to revere him as they would an idol. And when they had finished their mocking parody, they took off the purple robe and put his clothes back on him. But his humiliation was not yet complete; for it was then that they led him out to crucify him.
“Jesus was led out to be crucified and I was not prepared for what I saw. The change in his appearance—from his ghastly crown to his marred face and body—deeply disturbed me. He carried the crossbeam his wrists would soon be staked to. Eventually another man was forced to carry his burden for him because he had become too weak. Later I would learn this man’s name was Simon of North African Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, who would later join us. Before they forced him to carry the cross he had been minding his own business, making his way into Jerusalem from the mountain roads.
“The whole procession brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, where, as tradition would have it, Goliath’s skull had been displayed after David had defeated him. Yes, this is where David had brought back his prize. After disarming his enemies he set about intimidating them with his victory. There could have been no mistaking which side God had favoured that day. Now, with a similar passion, the power-brokers stood by to see justice take its course, confident they acted on behalf of God and for the good of the people. They had championed their cause to see this usurper Jesus brought down, and they would not be denied their prize. My confidence in following this course, however, had already begun to be disarmed.
“There at Golgotha they offered him a poisonous concoction of wine and myrrh to dull the senses, but when it was held to his lips he did not drink it. Then they went about the hideous business of crucifying him. Having stripped him naked, they divided his clothes and set them out as prizes. Then they gambled for the last of his dignity, feigning delight in winning each blood soaked item. I could not escape the words of David’s ancient Psalm,
‘They play dice for the very shirt off my back.
They leave me with nothing, taking it all for themselves.’
“It was the third hour of the morning when they crucified him. As I watched I could not help but be drawn to the charge on the written judgement above him, which read: THE KING OF THE JEWS, which seemed to mock us as much as him. For he was not crucified alone, but between two dishonest men, whose death represented the way they had lived – a shameful waste, best forgotten.
“The abuse kept coming. People filed past and spat insults at him, shook their heads in disdain and said, ‘So! Here we all are with you—you who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days—don’t just hang around, there’s work to be done! Come down from the cross and save yourself, then we can begin the real work!’
“In the same way the chief priests and teachers of the law, men I respected, mocked him among themselves. Their ridicule grated as if bone against bone. They gloated, ‘Clearly he was able to save others, but now he can’t save himself!’ and scorned, ‘Let this Christ, this Anointed One, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may have our eyes opened and follow our deliverer. Then we will see who the Lord delights in.’ The two undesirables crucified with him also used the last of their strength to heap insults on him amid the smoldering city dump. The more the crowd continued, the more the words of that Psalm loomed over my head like a shadow,
‘I am the butt of every joke; every cheap shot hits its mark.
It seems the whole world has come to mock my pain.’
“I began to think that maybe we had made the most God-awful mistake in condemning this man.
“It was noon when, inexplicably, darkness came over the whole land for the longest time. Was the sun now veiling itself in mourning as he had said it would? Would the sky now collapse with exhaustion? And at the ninth hour Jesus gathered a lungful of air and in a piercing cry, shouted, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘God, my God, why are you so silent? Where are you?’
“These were the opening words of that very Psalm – which seemed to have scripted this entire awful drama. But when someone near me heard these words, he exclaimed, ‘Listen, maybe he’s calling for Elijah,’ I ran and found a sponge that the soldiers used and filled it with wine vinegar. Putting it on a stick I went to the cross of Jesus and set it to his lips to revive him. I stood back and said to the others, ‘Now let him alone and see if Elijah, the living prophet, comes to relieve his torment.’
“Instead, Jesus gave a loud cry and slumped in death, not to draw breath again.
“I had been there when the high priest had torn his clothes in rage and when the soldiers had stripped Jesus. But then, a rumour reached me of something altogether unbelievable: the immense temple curtain torn from top to bottom as though it was the very action of God tearing his robe and beating his breast. I wondered in that moment what would become of us.
“I found myself standing next to the Roman centurion whose job it had been to administer the sentence. While we stood there in front of Jesus, as both Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, having witnessed the way he died and having heard his last cry fade away, we understood something in the silence. Then this man beside me, who was surely estranged from God, took the words out of my mouth, saying, ‘Surely this man could not have been anyone other than the Son of God!’
“I made up my mind to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body, even though it was the property of the empire. As I turned to leave, I saw a group of women who had remained as close as they could to their master to the very last. Later I would learn that among them was Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James the younger and his brother Joses, and Salome. These were the mothers and sisters of Jesus, for they were followers of him, and being of means, had provided for the needs of his company. Also gathered there, watching at a distance, were other women who had journeyed to Jerusalem with him.
“So as evening approached I went—without regard for my reputation—to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, so that I might give him a decent burial. I remember how surprised Pilate was to hear that he was already dead. He sent for the centurion, to verify my claim that Jesus had already died. When the centurion told him that this was true he gave me custody of the body. I bought some linen cloth before heading out of the city. I had his body taken down and I wrapped it in the linen. Then I had his body taken to a cave-tomb and laid to rest there. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was placed. I had a large stone rolled against the entrance of the tomb. There I would seal along with it, my hope in the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. What else was there for me to believe?”
For me—Peter, friend turned coward—it would be the longest Sabbath of my life. For me, it was a silence akin to death. But the next day the strangest story would reach my ears. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to the rest of us breathless and afraid. It would become a story often told and handed on, but it would always remain theirs to tell. They said,
“Very early this morning, because the Sabbath was over, we left to buy spices so that we might anoint Jesus’s body. It was just after sunrise, as we made our way to the tomb, when we remembered about the stone that sealed it. We asked each other, “Who will roll away the stone to open the grave?”
“But when we came to that place we looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been removed. When we entered the tomb, we were so startled. We saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting to our right, there inside the tomb!
“‘There’s no need to be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus, that Blessed Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He’s not here. See the place where they laid him. The place of death has been emptied out. But go with this message for his disciples and especially for Peter.’
“So we got out of there and ran. We were so shaken and we didn’t know what to make of it. We said nothing to anyone along the way because we were so frightened. But here is the message given to us:
‘He’s on his way –
In between here and Galilee –
You will see him.
And all that he has said
will truly take hold of you.’”