Every year for Good Friday I write a story to try to communicate something of the mystery of this day to the children of our community. Here is this year’s attempt:

The Spear-Bearer

Today is Friday April 2nd and today is Timothy’s special day. It’s special not because it’s Friday but because April 2nd is Timothy’s birthday.

This year Timothy turns nine-years-old. And, as everyone knows, when most Roman boys reach the age of nine, they are big enough and strong enough for a very special job. Timothy is not very big for a nine-year-old boy; he almost didn’t get chosen. But he has worked hard to make himself strong. So today, even though he is smaller than most of his friends, Timothy gets to put on the special tunic of a soldier’s helper. He will be assigned as a spear-bearer for one of the Roman soldiers who guard the rulers of Judea in Jerusalem.

Timothy gets up especially early today to make sure he is ready in lots of time. He puts on his tunic and fastens the thick belt around his waist. He laces up his sandals with straps that go across the top of his foot and then tie with a special knot just below his knees. He carries his cloak and his helmet to the table where his mother has prepared breakfast.

After he has eaten, Timothy’s mother fusses adjusting his tunic and fastening his cloak below his chin. Finally, he puts his brass helmet on and walks into the streets that are quiet and still at this early morning hour. Timothy walks proudly to the four high buildings that surround an open courtyard of the Roman legion’s barracks at the centre of the city.

He has passed these buildings so many times. But today, for the first time, he is allowed to go in through the big gates into the courtyard. There is a great bustle of activity with soldiers forming into groups to be assigned their duties. Timothy joins the group of boys waiting at the edge of the courtyard all dressed in the same tunic and cloak. No one speaks as their names are called to be assigned to their own centurion. Finally, Timothy hears his name called. He marchs forward and is appointed to a soldier named Gastus. Everyone has heard of Gastus; he is one of the biggest meanest soldiers in all the Roman legion.

Timothy is determined not to show his fear as he stands before the mighty Roman soldier. Gastus looks down at Timothy. “You don’t look like much”, he says with a growl. “But, I guess you will have to do. Here, take this.” He thrusts the thick shaft of his mighty spear into Timothy’s hand. The weight takes Timothy by surprise, but he manages to hold it steady and stand beside Gastus ready to march.  

“We have a lousy job,” today Gastus says. “Some Jewish trouble-maker has to be executed. It’s an ugly business, but at least there is no danger for tiny spear-bearers. Just make sure you keep up. Be ready with my spear as soon as I need it and don’t ever drop it.”

In his strongest voice, Timothy replies, “Yes sir”, then adds, “I am stronger than I look.”

Just as Timothy finishes speaking, a door opens on the side of the courtyard near where he and Gastus are standing. Timothy hears shouting and cursing. A man stumbles forward, pushed by two soldiers. He staggers towards Timothy’s cohort. He is already bleeding from the lash of a whip. Gastus picks up a large beam of rough wood and places it over the man’s shoulders. A soldier on either side binds the wood to the man’s wrists so he is forced to bear its weight. Then the order comes for Gastus and his cohort of twenty to march out of the barracks into the streets of Jerusalem.

The streets of the city are no longer quiet. The soldiers march between large crowds of people shouting and shaking their fists at the man who is stumbling under the weight of wood he must carry. They spit at him; some throw rocks and if he comes near they kick him or punch him. One soldier walks behind with a whip; when the man falls the soldier lashes him until finally he staggers back to his feet and carries on his tortured walk.

Timothy and Gastus march beside the man. Timothy can see his face twisted with pain. The man does not look like a bad person. He does not seem like a dangerous criminal. His eyes are soft and sad, not cruel and hard like the eyes of the soldiers.  Timothy wonders what this man has done to deserve such a terrible punishment. But he is afraid to ask.

The crowd follows the soldiers and their victim out through the gates of the city. They take the road to a hill that rises up from the barren landscape around Jerusalem.

Timothy has heard of this place. The Romans call it Calvary. It means “the Place of the Skull” because it is shaped like a human skull. There are only two reasons to go to Calvary. You go there either to kill someone or to die. Today, Timothy and the Roman soldiers are going there to kill; one broken man is going there to die. 

It is not a big hill. But progress is slow and unbearably painful. The man stumbles and falls. The soldiers jerk him to his feet pulling on the beam of wood strapped across his back.  

When they reach the top of this ugly barren hill, the man collapses. He lies motionless with his face to the ground. It looks as if he might already be dead. But then Gastus bends down, takes one side of the wooden beam and flips it, so that the man is suddenly lying on his back staring up at the grey sky above. The crossbeam balances awkwardly on a long beam of wood that already lay on the ground. Three soldiers step forward with large hammers and great spikes. They loosen the ropes on the man’s wrists and push him aside to make room to nail the crossbeam in place. Then they stretch the man out on the cross and drive spikes into his wrists and feet fixing him to the cross.

Ropes are attached to the cross beam; soldiers lift the cross from behind, while others pull on ropes in the front. Timothy stands clutching Gastus’ spear; his heart is beating fast. He feels sick to his stomach. Then the vertical post falls with a thud into the hole that has been dug. The soldiers wedge it in with triangles of wood and heavy stones so it stands straight with the man hanging helpless in the air. The soldiers step back and examine their work with satisfaction. They sit on the ground to rest and wait for the man to die.

This dying on a cross is a slow agonizing process. The man on the cross speaks a few strange words in the language of this land. Timothy cannot understand what he says; but he knows the man will soon take his last breath.

Finally, the man cries with a loud voice and his head slumps forward. The sky grows dark; there is a mighty crash of thunder. Timothy shakes with a fear even greater than his fear of Gastus standing by his side.

Gastus shouts to Timothy, “Boy, hand me my spear.” Even though Gastus is close by, it is as if Timothy can’t hear the words. His body won’t move. Gastus calls again for his spear. Finally, Timothy comes to life and steps forward reaching out to hand Gastus the large shaft of wood; that’s when the terrible thing happens. Timothy lets go a second too soon; the spear falls to the ground. At that moment another soldier calls for his spear; his spear-bearer passes it smartly to his soldier who raises it above his shoulder and thrusts it into the side of the man hanging on the cross.

Gastus turns to Timothy who is scrambling to recover the spear. Gastus lashes out screaming, “That was my kill, you fool.” He strikes Timothy on the side of the head and Timothy falls sprawled at the foot of the cross. Gastus grabs his spear and storms away. Timothy lies face down on the ground feeling ashamed and horrified.

Finally, Timothy turns over so he is lying on his back looking up. The sky is dark, the man on the cross hangs lifeless above him. A terrible loneliness and sadness descend on Timothy. He cannot make sense of this dreadful darkness and violence he has experienced this day. It feels as if the pain will go on wrenching his heart for the rest of his life.

Then Timothy feels a drop of something wet fall on the side of his face. He reaches his hand to his cheek to wipe it away and realizes it is a drop of the dead man’s blood. At that moment all the fear and the horror Timothy felt suddenly vanish. In their place, Timothy feels a warmth and a strength he has never before experienced. The shouting crowd and the vicious soldiers fade into the background replaced by an unexpected peace that passes Timothy’s understanding.

A moment later, Timothy feels a hand on his shoulder. “Are you hurt?” a gentle voice asks. He sees the face of a woman bending over him. In her eyes Timothy sees that same deep strength he felt the moment the blood of the dead man touched his face. “Come, get up,” she says, helping Timothy to his feet. She puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “You must go home and tell what you have seen today. You will no longer be a spear-bearer. You now bear the mark of love on your body and that love will grow in you as you listen to the voice of this man you have seen die such a horrible death today.”

As Timothy makes his way down the hill, he knows the woman is right. He will never again bear a spear for killing. Instead, he will carry in his heart the power of love. He will live to tell of the true strength he has found in that one drop of a dying man’s blood.