To my mind, there are three great novels published during the last century-and-a-half depicting the Passion of Christ: Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A tale of the Christ (1880), Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe (1942), and Louis de Wohl’s classic The Spear (1955). All three books are compelling tales of the Christ and should be required reading for anyone interested in how the life of Jesus, both historically and spiritually, can be incorporated into our lives through a literary genre rarely and effectively used today.
They also depict the best fiction has to offer in page-turning suspense, despite the fact we all know what the outcome is. And this is the epitome of the craft of story-telling. Because these novels achieve the impossible: to keep you reading with twists and turns which challenge your faith, then reinvigorate it, and finally leave you with a strong yearning to act upon it. Unlike non-fiction, yarns and tales of ordinary and sometimes extraordinary characters can and do challenge the reader, because the reader can identify with their plight, perhaps their station in life, their problems and confusions, culminating in a shared experience of hope and redemption.
All three novels are centered on enslavement. It’s hard for us to imagine today what it would be like to be a slave, even though slavery and indentured servitude were a sad yet important part of our history. We even ignore the very fact that slavery still exists in our world. Perhaps, we have been put to sleep; placated and distracted as we are by inane sit-coms, so-called “reality TV” shows, smart phones and sports. Very much like the mobs of Rome were tamed and assuaged by bloody gladiator contests, chariot races in the Coliseum, and given bread and wine for free, certainly an ominous precursor of a divine meal yet to come.
Louis de Wohl’s The Spear puts it right in our face. Because, unlike Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of his people, condemned to the galleys, or the Tribune Marcellus in The Robe, ordered to take over a remote outpost of the Roman Empire in Palestine accompanied by his slave Demetrius, De Wohl’s protagonist, Centurion Cassius Longinus, actually sells his freedom and places himself into the bondage of slavery in order to settle his beloved father’s debts and allow him to live his final years in dignity. What a concept: actually surrendering your freedom, your very life to abject slavery. Willingly subjecting your personal sense of honor to a system of government which will never acknowledge your sacrifice. In fact, who laughs at it because it doesn’t mean anything in their world as long as they are still free, or they think they are.
It should because we have arrived at a time in history where we have mimicked our ancient ancestors. Like the Centurion Longinus, we seek love and purpose in our lives, yet have no idea how to find it. Like the mob in Rome we are placated and entertained, kept ignorant of the suffering of our fellow brothers and sisters by seeking our own pleasures at the cost of others. And like Longinus, we have sold ourselves into slavery to a system, a government, a culture which laughs at the dignity of human life.
Longinus, hopelessly in love with a married young woman, who is condemned by her husband for infidelity, a sin she fully admits, is forgiven by Our Savior. Yet the centurion seeks only revenge upon the Nazorean who forgave her in the public square where she was presumably dragged to in order to be stoned to death. After all, she was an adulteress and the law was clear as to her fate. Jesus drew a line in the sand beneath His feet and changed the world offering a new paradigm. Instead of universal condemnation, He proposes mercy and forgiveness, but with this caveat: “Go, and sin no more.”
Blood and Water
Longinus is jealous of the love his beloved has for her forgiver, many who are now calling the Messiah, whom she now reveres as “her Lord.” She wants only to be with Him because He has saved her. The centurion has no concept of this kind of love. He’s sees it as a magician’s trick, a curse, as Tribune Marcellus would with the robe after the crucifixion. For such love as never been known before. Or has it? Surely, Longinus gave of himself and placed himself into slavery for the love of his father. And the world laughed at him for doing so.
Here the commonalities of Louis de Wohl’s story come together. The threads of the tale are woven with precision and present a complete mosaic of love and truth. Longinus is placed in command of a detail of Roman soldiers that are ordered to take Christ to Golgotha and execute him along with a couple of ordinary thieves. He does this with trepidation, because he knows his beloved adores this man.
There is, unbelievable as it may sound, an art to crucifixion. The Roman soldiers detached to the detail Longinus commanded knew this very well. A man could hang on a cross for a long time if certain vital organs and veins were left intact. Crucifixion is actually a death of suffocation. Some have referred to it as “riding the cross” because once you are nailed to it you are constantly trying to catch your breath. You do this by utilizing the “stirrup” or the piece of wood directly beneath the feet. With your arms and feet pinned you must use your legs to move upward, thereby allowing your lungs to take in air. It is supposed to be a torturously slow death. It was meant to be.
But, it was the Sabbath. The leaders of the Temple sent a message to Pontius Pilate that they wished the condemned to die and be thrown into a pit before sunset. So, Centurion Longinus instructed his soldiers to break the knees of the crucified, thereby disabling them to “ride the cross.” With their legs broken they would simply suffocate and die.
Longinus supervised the breaking of the knees of the two thieves, probably accomplished using an iron bar. They died soon after. When he gazed upon the body of Jesus, whose last words he heard from the dying corpus were “it is finished” or “it is accomplished,” moments ago, Longinus knew he was already dead. Nevertheless, he quickly thrust his spear into His body. There’s an art to this too, as any Roman soldier knows. Whether with a sword or a spear, if you want to quickly kill a man you do it through the underbelly, below the ribs, right above the liver and directly into the heart.
And then something else happened. According to legend and captured by de Wohl in eloquent words, the last remaining blood and water of the carpenter’s body sprayed out upon both the spear he was struck with and the Centurion who administered the final blow.
It was, and forever will be, a defining moment for mankind. Because it was a spear that changed the world. It opened up a floodgate to allow the blood and water of Our Savior to pour out upon and sanctify the earth. Never since the fall of Adam and the betrayal of Eve, has this happened. And, we are made new again.