“Can It Be?”

Imagine who might have been at Bethlehem the night Jesus was born – people beyond the stories in Matthew and Luke. Each story re-imagines the Christmas story from the perspective of their own lives. You can find all four stories here. (By Jimmy Reader  © 2021)

I’ve seen too much in my life, but never anything like this. I’ve been a Roman soldier since I was a youth and have served Caesar all over the world. I’m not sure I believe in any god, but what is happening at this moment … well, if there is a god, this must be the work of that god.

It’s noon in this barren, rocky, sun-drenched land, but a darkness has covered us like a heavy, smothering blanket. Then the lightning blinds us, and the thunder makes us deaf for the moment. Only an occasional wail or moan interrupts the almost total silence among the crowds surrounding this hilltop.

I can remember only one other moment in my life when silence itself seemed overwhelming. How long has it been? 25 years? 30? Maybe 33 years ago now? The memory of that night crept into my dreams often for many years, but it has been a long time since I’ve thought of it.

I was just a young soldier then, taking orders from everyone, assigned to outposts and the edges of civilization – or so it seemed at the time. Now I give the orders to a hundred men who do whatever I tell them. That night I was on duty at a small village not far from here, but it seemed like the edge of nowhere to me. I had come recently from Rome where I grew up – the city that rules the world. And there I was on my first tour of duty, walking the edges of the village to be sure there would be no trouble.

Caesar had decided that everyone in the world had to be counted so we could be sure to demand enough taxes from people all over the world – even from this dreadful place they call Judea. And even this tiny place was now filled with people who had to return to the town their families were from for generations. Houses were turned into what they called “inns” and they were all full. People were being turned away. Some were sleeping in the streets. There was no more room. One of the other soldiers told me when I took over the watch that he had seen a young couple go into a stable to sleep – although he thought the woman seemed close to having a baby. A baby born in a stable? What kind of people are these Jews? He said there was something different about them, though. They seemed at peace even to be in this smelly, dark place by themselves when the time came.

I had been on watch for about four hours. It was dark. Silent. Too quiet. I didn’t hear animals or babies or anything moving. It was almost as if the world had stopped at that moment – as if something was happening right then that would change the world forever.

Where did that thought come from? I’m a soldier, not a philosopher or a dreamer. I deal in the hard facts of reality. I live a disciplined life, sometimes a ruthless life – making people do what the laws of our government demand and enforcing those laws whatever I think of them – arresting, beating, killing (if necessary) those who refuse to obey. That’s why I’m here today.

It was so long ago. I had almost forgotten about it. But today on this hilltop – some place they call Golgotha – it seems as if it was last night. This moment and that moment – are they somehow … what? … maybe linked together in some way – almost as if they are the beginning and the end of one life. And not just any normal human life. Almost … no, I don’t believe in that…. Almost as if this were a son of a god.

The memory of that night is coming back to me now. In the darkness, in the silence, I saw light shining on another hilltop – outside the village, probably where the shepherds were with the sheep all night. I could not see anything but the light, yet I thought I heard a sound as well. Music? Singing? How could that be? My mind was playing tricks on me. That happens sometimes on watch at night. Then the light was gone. Silence again. I waited, wishing my watch was over.

Not long before someone came to take my watch, just before dawn, I heard a noise. At first I thought it was some animal, then I knew it must be human. I drew my sword. There were so many rebels in the hills in those days. They hated the Romans. They hated me because I was a soldier. They didn’t care who I was, and I guess to be honest I didn’t care who they were. I had a job to do. … Sword drawn, I moved toward the noise, and then out of the darkness came a few shepherds. They were whispering among themselves, scared and happy at the same time. There seemed to be a glow to them as if something from beyond this world had touched them, and they were looking for something.

As I stepped out of the shadows to confront them, they stopped. The leader smiled at me, a deep laughter coming up from inside him as if he had discovered the most important thing in life. And he moved toward me, held out his arms, slowly moved my sword toward the ground, and … hugged me! I was stunned. I couldn’t move. Even my family didn’t hug each other when I was growing up. Here is a stranger, a Jewish man, hugging a Roman soldier – and I just stood there. And then watched them move on.

They seemed to know what they were looking for – something, someone on the edge of the village. The glow of their joy – what a strange thing to say, but that’s the only way I could describe it – the glow of their joy drew me with them, leaving my post, just following them. They came to one of those stables. Maybe the one the other soldier had told me about? They disappeared inside, and yet it was not dark there. That glow, that light was inside.

To this day, I do not believe in any god. Ask anyone who knows me. And yet …. That night something drew me to the stable opening to see what was there. I stayed only a moment. The young couple was there – and a newborn baby – and the shepherds were kneeling and praying. Suddenly, I heard a noise behind me, and I realized soldiers were going to change the watch, and I knew I would be in trouble if I were not at my post. So I got up and ran back.

Life went on over the years. As a Roman soldier, I was assigned to other towns, other countries. I moved up in rank to Centurion. About two years ago, I was assigned again to Judea, based here in Jerusalem. I traveled through that village – Bethlehem, it was – and wondered whatever happened to that couple and that baby. Somehow I’ve always known he must have been special, chosen for something great. Recently, I’ve heard stories about large crowds gathering to hear a man speak – someone unknown to the authorities until he started attracting their attention with stories of miracles, even raising people from the dead. More than that, though, I’ve overheard talk among some of the Jewish authorities that this man – Jesus, they call him – has been stirring up people in Galilee and here in Judea against the authorities. We can’t allow that. Rome is in charge. I’m in charge of keeping order here.

That’s why I’m on this hilltop today. I hate this part of my job, but it’s what we do. If people are found guilty of crimes against the state, of challenging the authority of Rome, we crucify them. There are only three men today, but the one in the middle is different. He’s the one they call Jesus. I’ve heard stories about him, and one has troubled me – a story that he was born in a stable in Bethlehem and something about shepherds seeing angels at night. It can’t be! Can it? Can it be him?  This man would be about the right age. And while my men were putting him on the cross, I overheard someone nearby speak quietly to a woman standing there and saying something about her son. Could that be his mother, that young woman in the stable? … What have we done? What have I done?

Just at that moment – in the darkness, out of the silence – Jesus shouted out, “It is finished!” The earth we stood on shook violently. The rocks around us broke open. Some of the tombs down the hill from where I stood opened up, and people – the dead – began to walk away alive again!

In that moment, I knew! There is a God. That birth and this death – the beginning and end of one human life meant to change the world. And for the first time in my life, I shouted out words I had never thought I would speak: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

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Can you imagine a world of compassion and justice? How do we replace fear with hope for a better world? What can we do every day to build such a world? ... These questions are at the heart of what I write about. Follow my blog. Join Imagine - a learning community working for a better world. Let's do it together.

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