No Christian writings match the drama, poignancy and stunning revelation of the four Gospels’ inspired Passion Narratives. It is no wonder that the Church makes such effective use of two of these Narratives, those from the Gospels of Matthew and of John, in the liturgies of Holy Week. If heard, and considered, these proclamations of the trial and death of the Lord bring any believer, and indeed any hearer, into an encounter with the sublime meaning of the events described.
On Palm Sunday, the Liturgy of the Word will feature St. Matthew’s Passion Narrative. This narrative, along with the account in St. Mark’s Gospel, recall the profession of faith in Jesus, spoken immediately as the Lord expired, by the Roman centurion.
This is Matthew’s entry: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Mt 27:54).
This is Mark’s version, by the way. “And when the centurion who stood facing Him saw that He thus had breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Mk 15:39).
St. Luke’s Gospel also brings the centurion into the story, but in Luke the centurion’s exclamation is less profoundly theological. “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’” (Lk 23:47). Assessment of innocence may simply have acknowledged that Jesus was framed or was the victim of Roman judicial nonchalance when it came to applying “justice” in conquered territories.
The Gospel of John does not mention the centurion specifically at all, saying only that one of the soldiers pierced the side of Jesus with a lance, that blood and water flowed from the wound, and that an eyewitness verified that indeed this happened. Was the soldier with the lance the centurion? Was the centurion the eyewitness? John’s Gospel does not say.
Legend has added very much to what is recorded in the Gospels about the centurion. For example, the New Testament nowhere gives his name. Yet, he is known as Longinus. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus gives the centurion this name, and in any case, the name has endured.
The name suspiciously corresponds with the Greek word for lance, but, as noted, no canonical Scripture identifies the centurion with the soldier who pressed the lance into the side of the Lord.
What happened to the centurion after Good Friday? Both the Roman and Greek Churches revere him as a saint, obviously presuming that his expression of belief in the divinity of Jesus, spoken on Calvary, continued forward until the centurion’s own death. (The Roman Catholic Church celebrates his feast day on March 15.)
Another legend, more sobering, has him suffering great misfortune for participating in the crucifixion. Other legends have him as a martyr himself. Yet another legend even goes farther, giving the Abruzzi region of Central Italy as his birthplace.
This wealth of legend, and ultimately the poverty of exact details, revealed or in any other way left in history, prompt readers of the Passion Narratives to marvel at the centurion’s profession of faith, but in a way to leave his actually quite startling confession at that, without deeper reflection.
Deeper reflection is most valuable for Holy Week meditation, and for Christian pondering at any time. Reasonable conjecture aids the process. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are careful in saying that a “centurion” was involved. Centurions were important figures in the Roman imperial apparatus. As such they would have been visible, and almost invariably forceful, in maintaining Roman supremacy in the lands and among the populations that had been brought into the empire, usually by military power.
In the Roman system, a centurion commanded a centuria or “century.” Each centuria contained many soldiers, but not necessarily one hundred troops. Usually, centurions received better compensation than did the average man in the ranks. Seniority counted, as did extraordinary service. Promotions and privileges could come. Being a centurion could be likened to a career.
The downside of a centurion’s life, of course, was that he could be in harm’s way and often so.
Back to the centurion in the Good Friday narrative, the question is why was such an officer present, or even in charge, when Jesus was executed? In the broad perspective, not even the most fanatical among the Lord’s adversaries, not even the most nervous Roman official, rationally could have argued that Jesus of Nazareth, in poverty and simplicity, truly threatened the mighty emperor of Rome.
But the firestorms of great rebellions often spring from a single spark. The Romans took no chances. They acted first and asked questions later when it came to controlling the underlings. With regard to the trial and execution of Jesus, it is known that the Romans had met resistance recently among the Jews. Everything indicates that on Good Friday the Romans in Jerusalem were on guard.
Importantly, the day itself was worrisome. It was at the time of Passover, when Jews gathered, even Jews otherwise lukewarm in religion, to celebrate their race’s triumph over tyranny in days past — all punctuated by the pledge to be free once again.
Therefore, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who came from more comfortable Caesarea to watch for trouble in Jerusalem, likely left the execution on Calvary to the command of a trusted centurion. In any case, reasons left to speculation, the centurion was there, and it was he, precisely, according to Matthew and Mark, who professed that Jesus was the “Son of God.”
His exclamation brings the story to the level of high theological insight. It is more than about him, one Roman officer with the name of Longinus or whatever. A much wider context applies, and it is brilliant and challenging in its revelation.
Why? The centurion almost certainly was a pagan. So, he was not a Jew, not of the race to which the Son of God was sent in divine Providence.
The centurion was, and was seen to be, the assigned representative of the greatest repose of earthly power and wealth, the Roman empire. More broadly, he was “the world,” the earth, charged with defending earthly privilege and things material. The very setting of Roman unease, shown in Pilate’s choice to leave his accustomed seat of authority on the Mediterranean, with its heavy Roman population, and to go into the sticks and probably surround himself with more than the normal outlay of troops, dramatizes a meaningful theological contrast in its own sense.
The contrast is conflict, to the end; no compromise, one way or the other. At odds on Calvary were life and death, good and bad, God and forces in battle with God. In the centurion, not just imperial Rome at that time but the majesty of the world in all time fell before the supernatural, before the One God of Israel, the true supreme being, and the world’s instincts and attachments withered before the reality of God.
Another aspect is telling. The Synoptics leave no question about the soldier. He was a centurion, a Roman officer, not just anyone. For Jews at the time of Jesus, and for the Evangelists who would have been aware of, if not compelled by, Jewish feelings, no one could have been more loathsome than a Roman military officer. The Romans insulted God with their paganism and in the humiliation and misery they daily and unmercifully brought down upon Jewish life. In a word, for Jews at the time, a centurion would have been seen as the worst of the very worst.
The centurion proves that grace can enter even the souls of the wicked, so reconciliation and eternity are promised by God to any with faith and genuine love. Salvation is no longer an expectation narrowly offered to the Chosen People in the ethnic sense.
The centurion’s proclamation comes after a long series of condemnations and rejections by others, even persons who shared with Jesus the Jewish identity. The centurion’s understanding put in its place the vaunted logic of justice that Roman jurisprudence boasted to be its aim and its product.
The Second Time
To widen this effect of the sacrifice of Jesus, Matthew states that “those who were with” the centurion, surely other Roman soldiers or authorities charged with seeing that the execution took place, also believed. They too were gentiles.
(Actually, in Matthew’s Gospel [cf.: Mt 8:10ff], the Good Friday incident is the second time that a Roman centurion has recognized the identity of the Lord. In Matthew 8, Jesus healed a centurion’s sick servant, and the Lord said that this centurion’s faith eclipsed any that had been seen among the Jews.)
On Calvary, Jesus, for all time, and in every respect, has redeemed humankind, and not just the ancient People of God, the descendants of Abraham, the Hebrews, the Jews. All are saved — even the despised Romans, with their fearful centurions, are not excluded.
The timing of the centurion’s profession of faith is critical in the accounts.
Timing in the literary flow of the Marcan Narrative, and the use of terms, are expressive. The Gospel of Mark boldly began with the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God. “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), so starts St. Mark’s Gospel.
Interestingly, this particular, and essential, characteristic of the Lord’s identity never again appears in Mark until it is spoken by the centurion on Calvary.
All Is Fulfilled
The coincidence reveals that all has been accomplished with the death of Jesus. All has been fulfilled. All is achieved. It is complete. It is final. Jesus, the Son of God, has succeeded. Unswervingly, Jesus has obeyed the Father utterly true to the mission of salvation. Salvation reaches indeed to the farthest away from God, unless repelled, to the scorned and to the hated in human judgments.
In a time of disbelief and theological uncertainty, the story of the centurion strongly testifies that Jesus was more than a well-intentioned human. He was the Son of God! The Lord’s crucifixion was not just a turn of incredibly bad luck. It was divinely Providential. Amid all the ghastliness of Roman crucifixion, and the trickery of the trial before it, the gift of self on Calvary by Jesus was the perfect act of divine love.
For so many, including the centurion, it was supremely beckoning.
The centurion was profound, sweepingly broad in implication for every person, then or thereafter, when he exclaimed, “This surely was the Son of God!”
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest magazine and is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.