“The captain of the guard and those with him, when they saw the earthquake and everything else that was happening, were scared to death. They said, "This has to be the Son of God!"
I will admit I am tired. I awoke at 3:40 this morning, tried to go back to sleep and finally surrendered to the morning at 4:30. I don't mind getting up early, but this whole week has worn me out emotionally and I need to recharge somehow.
I open the leather door on the calendar and there is a man standing there in full battle armament. I have no idea who this is. He is wearing a metal chest piece, a shield, spiked shoes, and a helmet and is carrying a spear and has a sword slung at his side. He is a fearsome man to behold. He is pacing frantically outside the doorway to the cave and he appears frustrated.
When he walks off about 20 feet, I crawl inside and find Joseph sitting cross legged in the straw. Mary is holding Jesus, rocking Him to sleep after nursing him. “Who is this man?" I ask Joseph. "A Roman soldier." Joseph answers. "He really wants to come in but he has seen inside this cave and he knows he has to take all that armor off just to get through the doorway. He is on duty -technically at least, and he isn't allowed to do that until his watch is over."
Joseph and I watch the large, menacing figure stalking back and forth outside the cave for a good 15 minutes. At some point Mary has placed Jesus in His manger and has joined us in watching this scene. She leans her tiny head on Joseph’s chest and he strokes her dark hair. "Do you think he'll come in?" she whispers. "I hope so," Joseph replies,
"He is so distraught. If he wants to see him, he should just come in and do it." Mary frowns a little, "Has he said anything to you?" "Earlier, when he first got here, he asked me if I could bring Him out to see him." Joseph says, "I told him that was impossible. If he wants to come see Him he is very welcome but he has to come inside the cave."
After a long while, the man outside heaves a heavy sigh. He walks to the cave doorway and squats down. He is a large man, about my size (6' 4") and he seems amused to see the three of us watching his antics from inside the cave. “Is it still okay?" he booms. "Ssshhhhh!" The three of us answer him simultaneously, and then look at each other with a grin. Joseph answers him, "Certainly, come inside."
The man stands up and looks around nervously. Then he begins to remove his armor. He unbuckles his sheathed sword and props it against the wall of the cave. He removes his chest plate and his coat of mail beneath. He takes off his helmet and his leather and spike wrist wraps that go all the way to his elbows. He removes the heavy, spiked boots on his feet and replaces them with a pair of leather sandals from his backpack and comes into the tent on his hands and knees.
He looks extremely uncomfortable as he crawls over to the three of us. He looks at me especially with a sort of amusement. Seeing another man his size, crammed into such a small space must seem cartoonish to him. Mary touches his hand lightly and he quickly withdraws his arm. Mary is slightly startled but with all the wonder she has seen on this night, little surprises her anymore.
“He is right over here, sir" Mary leads the man to where the sleeping Jesus lay in his feed trough crib. The man is suddenly reduced to childlike wonder. He smiles and looks at the little boy with a gentle face. He has transformed from a rough and tumble Roman soldier to a gentle man. His eyes sparkle and his body language speaks of great affection. Mary whispers to him, "Would you like to hold Him?" The man looks at Mary startled, with a quizzical look on his face. “Oh no Mary, I mean I would love, to but I couldn't. It wouldn't be right." Mary smiles gently and asks, "Why not?"
The man looks at the ground and sadness crosses his face. "Because I am a man of war...a Roman soldier. I have done horrible things in my past and I have blood on my hands." At this the large man holds up his hands in the oillamp light and shows Mary the crimson stains that he has never been able to wash clean. “It's permanent" he says, "I have tried every soap known to man, but these stains won't wash off."
Mary touches his hands gently; her eyes run over the red skin that extends from his fingers to his elbows. "And now?" Mary asks, the Roman replies; "I gained enough rank to transfer to a guard position. I don't see battle and bloodshed anymore, but I am still a Roman soldier and I still have this blood on my hands that won't wash off. I don't think its right to touch a baby with these hands of mine not this baby especially."
Mary smiles and a tear falls softly on her robe. “Sir," she whispers, "I am only just now starting to understand much about my son. I know he is here for a purpose. I am not exactly sure what it is, but something in my spirit tells me he would not mind your stained hands." The man chokes back tears and there is a look in his eyes of pity for Mary, like he might know something she doesn't and it isn't good. "You are more right than you know Mary...do you really think it would be okay?"
Mary nods and smiles, "Yes of course." She reaches into the crib and lifts Jesus tenderly and places Him in the man’s huge arms. The man trembles. Tears fall on the shreds of cloth that serve as a receiving blanket. The man whispers to Jesus, "I know who you are. I know why you are here. I saw you that day and I am so sorry, so sorry for what we did to you..." the man breaks down into stifled sobs. Even here...in this moment, he is still thinking like a soldier and blocking emotion. "I saw you then...I wanted to come and see you here...now" the man continues, "Before that moment. Before that awful, terrible moment. And I wanted to thank you, because you changed me. I had to keep it a secret, but you changed me."
The baby stirs and moves slightly and yawns and continues His slumber. Mary smiles and touches the man's shoulder, "He likes you," she says. Those simple words break the last vestige of toughness in this man's heart. He breaks into silent sobs, holding his tongue as best he can.
He pulls Jesus close to his chest and tells Him, “I love you." He turns and hands Jesus to Mary. She takes her little son into her arms and suddenly she lets out a small frail gasp.
“Sir!" she whispers, "Your arms. Your hands!"
The enormous Roman soldier moves his hands into the light of the oil lamp and he is in shocked amazement. The crimson is gone. His skin is as white as the newborn baby's he just held. He turns his hands over in the light and cannot find a trace of red bloodstain anywhere. The man smiles a disbelieving smile and impulsively throws his arms around Mary and Jesus in a gentle bear hug. "Surely this is the Son of God!" the man says.
Then it hits me, I know who he is! He is the Roman soldier who stood by and watched as Jesus died on the cross. When the earth quaked and the veil tore and the graves blew open, it was this man who recognized Jesus for who He really was. He has come to see Him as a child this time, to complete his encounter. The red stains are gone and the change is complete. He is suddenly softer and gentler. He looks at his hands over and over with a smile that defies description. He embraces Mary and Joseph, nods at me with a grin, and crawls out the doorway and walks off into the distance, looking at his snow-white hands. He leaves behind his armor at the doorway of the cave, he is a man of peace, at peace with the tiny Prince of Peace, and he leaves the armor as a testimony. A reminder that a man came to this stable without spiritual sight, and has surely seen the Son of God.
“Now all around the world, in every little town Everyday is heard a precious little sound
And every mother kind and every father proud Looks down in awe to find another chance allowed. Nothing but a child could wash these tears awayOr guide a weary world into the light of dayAnd nothing but a child could help erase these miles So once again we all can be children forawhile” -Steve Earle