It was cold in his cell. During the night the chill that descended over Jerusalem settled into the underground and the stone walls were icy to his fingers. He had only a thin brown blanket, not enough to keep out the chill, for Romans liked their prisoners to be as uncomfortable as possible. Normally, one of the guards would have been jeering at him as he huddled shivering in the far corner on the of stale, damp hay where he slept, but they had left him alone all night. The torch in the main corridor had burned out and he and the other prisoners were listening, for through the slit in the high walls could be heard the roar of a crowd. He had first heard it before dawn and for a time it had fallen silent; now he heard them again.
From somewhere above a wooden door creaked open and the sound of a bolt drew back. Barabbas scrambled up from the cold stone floor and approached, anticipating his usual breakfast of food unfit for a dog. But instead, the door of his cell opened and a Centurion ducked inside. “You,” he said, “come with me!” He grabbed Barabbas by the arm and threw him in the direction of the narrow passage, which stank of vomit. Inside Barabbas was a growing fear, for he did not know what was happening… he had not yet been tried for his crimes but it was customary for crucifixions to take place without warning. He knew better than to lag, for it would earn him a thrashing; he was not afraid to fight, in fact he would have welcomed a chance to snatch one of their swords and drive it through the nearest man’s heart, neither was he foolish as he was outnumbered. Shackles were placed around his hands and throat, weighting him down as he was pushed into the sunlight. It blinded him and he shaded his eyes, flinching away from it.
“Move!” ordered the soldier and he stumbled through the columns and faced the crowd. He was not alone. Pilate stood on his left and beyond him, another prisoner. Barabbas did not notice him at first, for his attention was fixed on the governor. Pilate looked at him with contempt but there was a different air to him than usual for he was drawn and tired, the hands gripping the seat of judgment white with strain. Barabbas eyed the nearest sword and imagined taking hold of it and putting an end to the Roman governor. They called him a troublemaker, a murderer, one who caused insurrection, hated almost as much by the crowd as the Romans for the punishment his actions had inflicted on them. He would happily be a murderer if it meant putting an end to Roman occupation. Anger was in his thoughts, hatred… and then he sensed someone looking at him. It was not Pilate, nor the crowd, but the other prisoner. Barabbas stared back at him with concern, for it felt as if his thoughts were known, his intentions laid bare. He did not know why, but as he stared into those compassionate, unconcerned, penetrating brown eyes, he felt ashamed, as if his anger was distasteful. Bitterness filled his mouth and he only half listened to the governor as Pilate asked, “Which of the two would you have me release to you? The murderer Barabbas or the one called Jesus?”
Jesus? So this was the one he had heard about, the one intended to “save” them. He had not challenged the Romans or encouraged the masses that followed him to revolt. For all purposes, and for the cause many men had fought and died for, he was a worthless Messiah. But as soon as he thought these things, he was ashamed of them, for staring at the man he could no longer condemn him. Previous words against him now entered his mind and he felt his skin flush. This messiah, he had sneered shortly before his capture, who turns water into wine and makes blind men see has not the stomach for war! He will do nothing for our Cause. It is up to us to establish our Kingdom free of oppression, not those who are weak and afraid of bloodying their hands!
Before him, the crowd was shouting something but he had not heard; he could not look away from Jesus. He felt cold, although it was warm in the courtyard. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, as if a presence greater than the mob moved among them.
Pilate was distressed. “You would have a murderer over your messiah?”
This shocked Barabbas and he looked away from the false messiah, staring out over the faces that a day earlier would have shouted for his blood. There were a few calling for Jesus but they were drowned out by a powerful collective voice, a hypnotic chant of “He is not our messiah! We wish to have Barabbas!”
The Sanhedrin smiled. Barabbas continued to feel cold.
“Prelate,” said a servant, his head bowed, and Pilate turned to him in anger.
“What is it; can you not see I am occupied?”
The prisoners were so near they could hear everything that was said. Barabbas took care not to look at Jesus again. His head turned to the governor and one of the Centurions jerked on the chain that bound him to the column, forcing him to stare forward again.
Creeping up to the stone chair, the servant said, “Please, Prelate… I bring urgent word from your wife. She says you must not have anything to do with this innocent man, for she has suffered much in a dream because of him.”
Barabbas had heard rumors about Pilate’s wife; it was unusual for a governor to bring his family to Judea yet he had brought her with him from his last post. It was said she often had prophetic dreams and that he valued them as highly as he would have the predictions of a seer, that the false Roman gods whispered into her ear, but also that she had a liking for this messiah. Pilate considered and dismissed the servant with his lifted hand, glancing across the courtyard at a window in the upper wall of the palace, where she stood staring down at him.
It was the first time Barabbas had ever seen her and he was struck by her expression, realizing that she was afraid. Not of him, or the mob, but what would become of them all if Jesus was not released.
The crowd did not want him. “Give us Barabbas!” they cried.
“And do what with this man?” demanded Pilate, frustrated.
“Crucify him!!” It was one voice among the masses and then many as they echoed it. Soon there would be a riot, for there were too many of them to fit in the courtyard; more were joining the mob in the street. Pilate looked at his guards and called his servant forward. The boy listened to his orders and ran inside then reappeared with a silver basin of water. Pilate washed his hands in the basin, the crowd quiet. Jesus stared at the floor. Barabbas, though he hated doing so, could not help but stare at Jesus.
“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” said Pilate. “It is your responsibility.”
Glancing at the empty window where his wife had stood, Pilate said, “Release him.”
Barabbas felt rough hands at the back of his neck as pins were pulled from shackles; the weight fell from him as chains slid to the ground. Even the crowd had fallen silent. The sword was within reach and his fingers itched to close around it; he could turn on Pilate. No one would stop him quickly enough; the evil governor would be dead. He moved slightly and again felt that gaze. Shame returned; shame at his intentions. He stopped.
A hand shoved him down the stairs and he fell into the crowd, the priests drawing back from him in disgust, a few women gasping and covering their mouths with their hands, men pulling back. It was not him they wanted, he realized; they wished the messiah dead. He was still hated, reviled, condemned. No one tried to stop him as he ran into the street, people moving out of his path. He would get as far away as possible before they changed their minds. He had always been a fast runner and now it availed him well as he put as much distance between himself and the Palace of Justice as he could. He was the only one going away from the judicial seat, for he encountered more people running toward it, some with excitement and others with stricken faces. But no matter how far he ran, he could not escape those eyes; they seemed to follow him, reaching into his soul, condemning his hateful thoughts with a kindness that made him feel unworthy. Never had he been ashamed, not of his ambitions or his deeds, but Jesus had, with a single glance, made him so.
Only when his legs gave out did he collapse far outside the city walls and near the burial tombs. He sat at the entrance of the caves, oblivious to the change in the wind. The skies darkened and in the distance was a scent of rain. He shivered and rubbed his arms through the simple brown tunic he wore. It was quiet, ominous. Darkness came where it should have been light, a total and obscuring night so thick he could not see his hand inches in front of his face. He felt fear, wondering if the wrath of God was about to fall upon him. He crouched there with his arms over his head, shaking. The wind bore a scent of suffering and the taste of blood.
The ground shook beneath his feet and a terrible sound came as rock was hewn in two; the boulder resting in front of the burial plot behind him split in half and he scrambled out of its way as it rolled aside. His heart beating furiously, he backed away as all became quiet, for emerging from the greater darkness was a shape. It grew into the form of a man still wearing burial garments, most of them eaten away, for he had been dead many years. Barabbas watched as the sunken flesh filled out, the skin taking on a natural and healthy hue. There were others in the burial grounds, emerging from their tombs. He had a terrible fear of ghosts and ran from them as he had never run before. He thought he was going mad and did not look back as he scrambled up the rocky and treacherous hillside.
Outlined against the dim skies, for the darkness had lifted, he saw three crosses and he knew.
He collapsed into the rocks, caring not that they scraped and cut his knees. He was shaking so hard that he could barely speak, uttering half prayers in a frantic voice. He had been wrong. But instead of him, they had crucified another. It was he who deserved to die, but the Messiah had been punished instead.
He had spilled much of it with a sword, out of vengeance and hatred; but this man, this Christ, this Son of God, had not spilled the blood of his enemies, but his own.
Barabbas tasted dirt as his face fell into it, his hands clutching at the stones; he lifted them in the air and cried out in anguish, tearing at his robes. The blood… the blood was not on their hands, but on his hands. It was in exchange of his life that Jesus had perished. But even as Barabbas had fled the courtyard, he had looked back—only once. Jesus had been watching him not with regret or envy or malice but with forgiveness; the same forgiveness that he had turned to Pilate, and the Centurions, and no doubt to the men who had crucified him. No man could have gone to his death without malice, and no mere man could have raised the dead from their slumber.
But then, he knew at last as the rain fell, this Jesus, this Christ, had been no mere man.
He was the Messiah.
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