My family had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover that year, just like any other. My brother and I were still so young, and Jerusalem at Passover was so exciting. The atmosphere during the holiday was electric! Because Alexander and I were “men” (though clearly still boys), our father took us with him each time he went into Jerusalem, leaving our sisters and mother behind with our relatives in the neighboring village. The day before, while our sisters were helping our mother prepare the Seder meal, we pushed through the sea of bodies with our father, making our way to the towering temple. Imagine that! – standing before the very building where God dwells among men. My young mind could scarcely take it in. We would return the next day to sacrifice our Passover lamb, but for now, we just wanted to stand in the midst of the faithful, so close to the presence of God.
Then it was the first day of Passover, and we were again heading into the city, this time to purchase and sacrifice our lamb. My brother and I fought our way through the crowded streets, overflowing with pilgrims, toward the city gate. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. What had been charged and electric was now at fever pitch. Chants and jeers flew past our heads and we strained to understand what was going on. Alexander burrowed through the crowd as only a small child can, and I was close on his heels. “Alexander. Rufus!” our father called, as he raced to catch us.
Suddenly we burst through the crowd and onto the street. There before us was a man. Well, almost a man. His body was bloody and broken like I’ve never seen before. The image of this tortured man, struggling under the weight of a log as Roman soldiers screamed and whipped him, haunted my dreams for years. Then, for an instant, the man looked our way. He looked at us. Straight into our souls. I will never forget those eyes. They were not begging for mercy or pleading for help. They were simply full of love. How could this man, under such pain and distress, as his body threatened to fail him entirely, have such love for me? Only a boy. A child he had never met.
At that moment, the man’s body truly did fail him. He fell to his knees, and then to his chest, under the weight of that cruel log. And the Roman soldiers screamed all the more. And they whipped him to get him to stand. But the man did not. I could see the strain in his arms as he tried to rise under the log. But he could not. His beaten, bloody body had nothing left to give.
Suddenly a Roman soldier locked eyes on our father and grabbed him by the neck, pushing him toward the man and his log. My brother and I were terrified! What would they do to our father?! It was our fault – we had raced through the crowd, pushing to the front. He had merely followed us… The soldier forced our father to carry that log. Though terrified for our father, I was secretly grateful that it was lifted off that man who had suffered so much. Our father carried that log to the place of death, with the bloody, loving man following behind.
When we got there and the soldiers released our father, he wanted to leave quickly, but we begged to stay. We had to know what would happen to that man. I wish we had listened to our father. The cries as each man was nailed to his cross were excruciating. Haunting. Watching that crossbar being dragged up the base, with the men hanging from their wrists, steadily jerked up, their raw, torn backs dragging along the upright. I’ll never erase those memories from my mind. Eventually, our father put his arm around our shoulders and gently led my brother and me away, leaving the men hanging in the chasm between life and death.
The rest of that day was a fog for Alexander and me, periodically fighting back tears as we remembered the horrific images of that morning. Confused by the darkness around us. But I clearly remember that evening. The three of us had again gone to the temple. Having offered our Passover lamb, we lingered to be there during the evening sacrifice. Just as the priest began sacrificing the lamb for the nation, we were all knocked to our knees, as the ground violently shook beneath us. People screamed and cried out to God. When the shaking lessened, a priest ran out of the temple, his face ash white. “The curtain,” he stammered. “The curtain to the Holy of Holies – it has torn! From the top…” Other priests ran in to confirm these wild claims as the white-faced priest stood where he was, terrified.
My brother and I avoided Jerusalem for years after this. We were terrified to again enter through those gates. To see the magnificent temple gleaming in the sun. It was years before I understood what had happened that day. It was years before that day of horror and death brought me hope and life. Years before I knew the name of that bloodied man or the love in his eyes or the significance of that Passover sacrifice.