Remember the song “12 Days of Christmas”? That’s what we’re in right now; from December 25th until January 6th in the liturgical calendar is known as Christmastide – January 6th marks the day that the three wisemen, also known as Magi, visit the baby Jesus to give him gifts reminiscent of death; frankincense and myrrh were used in embalming and burials to hide the stench of death. I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s death a lot lately, in writing for my next book, For God & Country (in that order), Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals.
Jesus is said to have been “born to die” for us and for the world. From his birth, he was destined to be killed – his purpose, hie fate, if you will, was to die for us. From the moment he was born. You can’t have Christmas without Easter, no manger without Golgotha. It is poignant, then, that one of the readings for Christmas services is often from John’s Gospel (which oddly does not have a Christmas narrative); “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (v.1:5) But my book isn’t about death, it’s about service. It is about people that make (or should make) Christians think more deeply about their own beliefs. Two people have been in my mind the last several days; Judas and Longinus.
Judas was a disciple, chosen by Jesus to follow the Son of God toward a life of faith. He was known as Iscariot, which is linguistically vague and difficult to pin down. It might mean he was a sicarii, a member of a group of Jewish assassins that used short daggers to murder political enemies, like the Romans who had a fortress on Temple grounds. If that was the case, he was familiar with violence and probably did so thinking he was doing it in service to his community. Somewhere along the line, he took it upon himself to sell Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver, betraying the Son of God with a kiss at Gethsemane. The guilt that overtook him for having contributed to the death of his friend led him to hang himself.
Longinus is the name that Roman Catholics give to the soldier present at Christ’s crucifixion, who would have been a member of the Temple Guard that reported somewhat to the religious leaders on behalf of Pilate, the governor. “Longinus” is derived from the greek word longche, for the long spear that soldiers used in battle and that was also used by the soldier to pierce the side of Christ to ensure he was dead. Longinus was executing capital punishment upon a convicted criminal, and would not have had any reason to think he was not serving justice.
Both these men contributed directly to Jesus’ execution at the hands of the state. They each probably knew violence intimately. Judas used violence against others and ultimately against himself, the only tool he felt capable of affecting the change he wanted to see in the world; first to rid the world of his enemies as a sicarii and then to rid the world of himself. He certainly felt guilt for his complicity, but instead of repenting, he continued down the path of violence. Tradition holds that Longinus, who was even more directly responsible for Jesus’ death than Judas, was converted upon seeing the Son of God die upon Rome’s cross. Conversion always follows contrition and repentance. Instead of going the way of Judas, Longinus’ conversion led him to confess Jesus as the Son of God and tradition holds that he eventually left the military to be discipled by the apostles and become a monk.
There are two ways violence resurfaces in the lives of those who are familiar therewith. One way is to implode, evidenced by Judas, who committed suicide after realizing what he had done to his mentor and friend. He had visited violence upon others, and it was the only way he knew to respond when he became his own enemy. The other way is to explode, as many veterans in our own era are doing; mass shootings, murder-suicides, or otherwise making sure the pain inside oneself is shared (involuntarily) by others. But Longinus shows us a third way to respond to violence, which is to repent of it and not allow the darkness to overcome the light within. This Roman military person did not let violence have the last word, but faith. Seeing his own victim, Jesus, dying on the cross, he confessed the man he murdered as the Son of God and at that moment began to follow him. After becoming a monk, he was persecuted, having his teeth pulled out and his tongue cut off. He kept preaching the good news clearly (perhaps not unlike another soldier saint, Francis of Assisi, who said “preach always, use words when necessary”), so the local governor, whom he had once served in uniform, had him killed.
To this day, Longinus is called Saint. Judas is known only as Betrayer. One chose the path of life, the other knew only death. There is a fork in the road, and one path leads only to the world, of implosion and explosion. The other, less traveled path, leads to life and faith. Choose the latter. It is always open to you. It was open to the very man who oversaw and even guaranteed Jesus’ death on the cross, and it is open to you.