Good Friday 1998/2007
There were three other people there, three very close to the Cross from which Jesus hung. They were not passive onlookers
nor were they hiding away. These were the three people in whose close company Jesus spent the last painful hours of his human
life. These three were probably familiar with death, certainly one of them was well acquainted with it. For two of them,
this would be the last public execution they would see. For the third, probably not.
They were the two thieves and the Roman centurion. we have met people like these. Many of us have been people like these.
I certainly have. Here are several I knnow who fit these categories:
The first thief, the one who mocked Jesus: Ben was lying in his bed, pain written all over his face, tremors coursing through
his body. But Ben was also sullen and defiant. He didn't want to be in the hospital; he wanted to get out and get back
to his bottle. He still reeked of cheap vodka that had put him there.
Over the next several days as Ben's pain eased, the priest talked with him. Ben had destroyed three marriages in then years
with his drinking. He wasn't really sure where his four children were; hadn't seen or heard of them for several years. Didn't
seem to care. He refused to admit that he was an alcoholic, although he did admit that his latest binge might have had some
cause for his lying in that hospital bed.
The social worker had arranged for Ben to go to a fancy rehab place for alcoholics, but Ben refused to go. Ben was, after
all, certainly NOT an alcoholic, much less a common drunk.
Over the course of the several weeks, Ben seemed to look forward to the priest dropping by. Not that the priest was especially
sympathetic to Ben's plight; he wasn't. He was direct, even brutal in telling Ben what a mess he had made not only of Ben's
own life, but the lives of at seven other people for certain; no telling how many others.
But Ben remained in denial right up until the end. He didn't wait around to say goodbye to anyone when he was discharged
several weeks later. Ben's next brief appearance was in the death notices a month later. He had been found dead for several
days in a back alley. The priest said a final prayer for Ben, shook his head, and thought about another poor soul he had
met long ago.
The second thief, the one who accepted Jesus, and was promised to be that day with our Lord in paradise: Her name was Ruth.
She was sixteen years old when the Second World War ended. She was in a garrison town in Germany, whose military installations
had been taken over by the conquering Americans. Her parents had been killed in a bombing raid and there were no jobs available
for a young uneducated girl. Except one.
The American soldiers were mostly just several years older than she was then. And they were more than willing to pay for
her comradeship for an evening, then a night, until she was, by her late teens, able to purchase a rundown house near the
kaserne and bring several other girls into business with her.
She always charged a fair price and kept her establishment clean and healthy. By her mid twenties she had been able to refurbish
the old house, and add a new dormitory wing, restaurant, and bar. The White Horse had become a well known institution by
the time she was in her thirties.
Both the American and German authorities left her alone. She had a reputation for maintaining order among her employees
and clientele even when young soldiers were out on the town looking for action on Saturday nights. She allowed no fights,
and if a soldier drank too much, she, who did not drink herself, drove him to the gates of the Kaserne, where the military
police looked the other way as she delivered her cargo to the door of his barracks.
The priest, then a young armored cavalry lieutenant on courtesy patrol in 1964, recognized that she was a kindly person,
a good hearted woman, no matter what trade she was in. She really cared for her young female charges and for the several
generations of young soldiers who had trooped to her institution.
Ruth had a sadness about her, though, that showed through her smiles and kindness. She wished her life had been different.
But it hadn't been. Even now in her early forties she knew that the choices she had been forced to make in 1945 would hold
her captive until she died.
She had very little education and no time to get more; her establishment took up all her time from dawn until midnight.
She was aging rapidly and she was very tired. She hoped that someday she might be able to retire to a small cottage and garden
in a small town somewhere in Germany, far from the garrison, in a place where no one had ever heard of Ruth and the White
The priest occasionally remembered Ruth and the conversation he had had once with her long ago. He hoped her soldiers had
remembered her kindly on occasion as well.
The Centurion: They were newly minted captains, newly arrived in country, and they were flying in by helicopter to replace
veteran company commanders who had been with the battalion since its arrival in Vietnam a year ago. The colonel had agreed
to stay on another six months until this new crop of company commanders had either been seasoned, relieved, or killed and
replaced. He had had to see to replacements along those lines many times; too many times.
He waited in the shade at the edge where landing zone and jungle met, listening to the whop-whop-whop of the rotor blades
as the chopper arrived with this new crew. He remembered how he had been a scared young officer in late World War II and
even in Korea. He would remind the new captains that fear was a fact of life in war, that both brave men and cowards were
afraid; the difference was what you did about it.
He gathered the wide eyed young men around him and began to educate them into some of the realities of leadership in combat.
"The hardest part," he said, "is not the fighting. It's the dying. Sooner or later the time will come when one of your
own soldiers will die."
There was an especially still silence in the group. The young captains were all rapt attention, eyes wide.
"He won't die because he made a mistake. And he won't die because the enemy outsmarted him. He'll die because you and I
gave an order that put him in the path of the bullet that kills him. He'll die because he did exactly what we told him to
do. He'll die doing his duty.
"After that comes the hardest part. We call it a letter of condolence. You'll have to write a letter to his home and you'll
have to tell the people who loved him the most how he died. It isn't easy and it shouldn't be.
"Don't give a report of the action; describe the man they've lost; tell them something of how brave he was and how we will
miss him every day of our lives. Make sure that they know how valuable he was to us.
"And if there's time, listen to his final words as he lies dying. Remember those words and put them in your letter.
"And don't ever forget that what you put in that letter will be what they have left of him the rest of their lives."
The young captains were silent as he finished. He looked long and hard at them, wondering if they would also measure up,
despite their fears, their inexperience, the loneliness of their responsibilities. Time would tell.
The colonel nodded a dismissal and sent them over to where their first sergeants were waiting to take them to their soldier
deeper in the jungle.
Three who were there. Two thieves and the centurion. The crucified Christ lives in each of them -- and in each of us.