Based on a true story.
May 7, 33 A.D.
Titus was his name. A slender, grizzled man, with dark hair and strikingly blue eyes. 34. Alert, as always. He watched as a hawk drifted lazily on a current of hot air high above the semi-arid landscape. Strangely warm for this time of year, he thought, sniffing. A bead of sweat dribbled down the right side of his face, which was dusty from a long day of guard duty and suntanned from countless hours spent outdoors.
In many ways, Titus was the embodiment of self-control and discipline, a paragon of industriousness and resolve and grit. He knew it, too. You wouldn’t surmise it from looking at him, but Titus was an enormously proud man. Proud of his upbringing in Rome. Proud of his steely determination. Proud of his ability to conceal his conceit and methodically win the respect of lowly infantrymen and powerful centurions alike. His future, he had convinced himself long ago, was bright.
And then there was Rufus.
“Warm, isn’t it, Ti?”
Rufus was lanky. Graceless. And a little slow mentally, Titus was convinced. His breastplate was two sizes too small, his mouth three sizes too big. He was always brimming with pent-up, pointless words.
“Yep,” Titus flatly responded, not even turning his head toward his companion. What a lightweight, he thought.
Rufus shuffled on his feet, pleased to elicit this spoken word from his stony friend.
* * *
Rufus was now formulating his next futile conversational attempt. Titus, meanwhile, attentively surveyed his surroundings, looking for any curious details he may have missed. His back faced a sepulcher—a roomy vault solidly carved into the face of a slanted crag of limestone. Its yawning entrance had been sealed by a sizable, oblong-shaped stone. The stone had been quarried and chiseled quite recently, from the looks of it. A draft of surprisingly cool, damp air escaped from the tomb every once in a while, graciously cooling Titus’s lean, sweaty body. He liked that.
In front of him stretched a garden, with all manners of flowers and vegetables emerging from the patchy gray soil. Whoever developed this garden, Titus had no idea. Regardless, it was a pocket of unexpected serenity in the midst of a notoriously tumultuous land.
Titus watched a bee scope out the place and descend upon a patch of azaleas.
Above Titus drifted two pale clouds, slight and meager.
To the guards’ right, a meandering dirt road led to Jerusalem. Although the walled city wasn’t visible from their point of view, they could both detect a muted sound emitting from the city and wafting through the air—a faded cacophony of people, animals, and markets, audible evidence of a bustling metropolis.
Jerusalem. Titus spat contemptuously on the ground, thinking about the walled city that had for so long been such an obstinate nightmare for the Romans. “City of David” the Jews called it. More like “City of Idiots,” Titus thought. The Jews and their tiny, cherished wedge of land along the eastern Mediterranean were inferior in every possible respect to the Roman Empire, which now sprawled across three continents and 1.2 million square miles. Titus half smiled, thinking about one frail Jewish scribe he had encountered a couple days ago. Amos was his name. A sad, delusional relic of a man, he had told Titus that Rome would one day be destroyed by a mighty act of God. The messiah was coming, he had said, quivering with zeal. The fervor and passion in his eyes had been unmistakable. He legitimately believed Israel would triumph. Titus smirked.
Granted, this was a bizarre, unsettling land. Insurrectionists, demon possessions, seemingly inexplicable wonders performed by religious fanatics. Constant rumors and hearsay and whisperings. Even under the capable and heavy hand of the Romans, Palestine was always teeming with a palpable air of—something.
“Hey, Ti,” Rufus ventured.
Titus sighed, watching as the bee buzzed away from the azalea bloom and zoomed eastward. The sun was now dipping toward a dusty bank of clouds in the west. Relief from the afternoon heat was finally on the way. He mopped the back of his neck with a rag. Then, slowly and deliberately, he turned his head and gazed at his companion with the look of a stern father who is eminently disappointed in a good-for-nothing child.
Words immediately tumbled from Rufus’s mouth.
“They keep talking about all kinds of miracles in Jerusalem. You heard about those? Seems like those Jews are all being worked up into a frenzy. Religious zealots getting more and more popular. They said one guy was healing people all over the place. Talking about God’s kingdom and this and that. All kinds of secret talk. You know, overthrowing us. Surely they couldn’t? I mean—but those miracle rumors. Kind of makes me nervous thinking about us having to fight against some angry god. I’m not saying it’s real. But some of those stories make me nervous. If—”
“Rufus, will you just shut up?” Titus interjected. He had had enough. Time to vigorously reprimand this utter foolishness. “Anyone who is scared of Jewish hearsay is a nitwit and a coward, or both. The Jews can’t hold a candle to us. They’ve tried again and again. We humiliate them every time. They’re not a threat.
“But you know what it a threat?” He paused. His eyes narrowed. Clenching his jaw, he formulated the following words carefully, with disdainful precision.
“Weaklings,” he snarled, staring frostily at Rufus. “Weaklings in our own ranks.” His words were now a low, venomous whisper, a hiss. Slow and surgical. “Gullible weaklings like you. Worthless, fable-believing weaklings.”
Titus squinted his eyes. He then returned his gaze to the garden, knowing Rufus would not speak again today.
Rufus hung his head in shame. He was crestfallen. Titus relished it.
The tomb sighed. Somewhere, an owl called. A light, frustratingly warm breeze ruffled the sun-baked leaves of the garden plants.
* * *
Mercifully, night was falling. The sun had sunk below the hazy horizon. Finally, Titus thought. But tomorrow would be another scorcher. He imagined the sun rushing, out of sight, from below the western horizon to below the eastern horizon, cruelly preparing to bathe the land in bright heat once again.
The guards’ surroundings had grown dim as twilight stealthily engulfed them. The distant clamor from Jerusalem had eventually died down. Everything was now quiet, save for the occasional droning insect.
Twilight surrendered to a deep, enveloping darkness. Titus leaned his back against the cliff wall and closed his eyes.
The night passed in tense silence.
* * *
May 8, 33 A.D.
Rufus felt it first. He immediately bristled, biting his lip and resisting the urge to cry out in alarm. What in the name of the gods was that? he frantically thought. It had been a rumbling, a deeply unsettling vibration. Like the ground beneath him had shuddered. It had only lasted for four or five seconds, but that was enough to unnerve him. He stood erect in front of the tomb, spear in hand.
Titus, however, dozed on. Propped against the oblong stone, head leaning to the right, completely oblivious to what had just happened.
A couple minutes passed. Rufus felt uneasy, fidgety. He nervously lobbed a couple fragmented prayers to the gods.
Then, horrifyingly, it happened again. The ground rumbled like a hungry giant. Small pieces of rock and dirt tumbled from the limestone crag.
Rufus desperately braced himself, his eyes wildly sweeping around, trying to make sense of his dim surroundings.
Impossibly, Titus dozed on.
Then, abruptly, the quaking stopped.
Rufus broke out in a cold sweat. A debilitating panic swept over him. His mind raced and his breath quickened. Every trace of drowsiness had vanished. Never had he experienced anything like this. With dismay, he realized his excruciating predicament. Should he wake Ti? Tightening his grip on his spear, he inhaled deeply and glanced at the eastern sky. The sun was still at least 30 minutes below the horizon. What to do? He cursed under his breath, realizing that the next shift of guards was still a couple hours away. How could this be happening? He tried to calm himself, but to no avail—his heart pounded like a battering ram inside his chest.
Suddenly—the Earth awoke. A roar!
Rufus screamed, falling on all fours.
The ground was alive: bucking, contorting, twisting. Clouds of dust engulfed the guards.
Titus was now wide awake. Severely disoriented, he instinctively leapt away from the stone in silent terror, arms flailing, stumbling away from the tomb, coughing and gasping.
The stricken guards hugged the earth in helpless panic and terror. They watched through the dust and darkness as the huge stone in front of the tomb began to roll. This was a sickening, supernatural, utterly unnerving sight. The stone came to rest beside the tomb’s entrance.
Then, quiet. The tremors ceased. The dust settled. All the guards could hear now was their own heavy breathing.
Titus, visibly shaken, sputtered an oath. He stared into the tomb’s yawning entrance. Then, as he began to pick himself back up, his companion let out a cry and fearfully gestured toward the sky, “Ti! Look!”
Titus jerked his head upward and stared in astonishment. A dazzling star had appeared in the heavens. Only, it was obviously moving, and getting bigger. And brighter. Titus gulped, feeling petrified and bewildered. The earthquake was gone, but now—this?
The “star” was clearly some sort of flying object, dazzling in radiance, lighting up the pre-dawn sky like a blazing torch. Closer it came. As he watched, Titus’s amazement turned to fear. This was clearly not some freak planetary conjunction. This was not a meteor or comet. Indeed, it looked, almost, human. This was a—no. Surely not. No no no no no no, Titus silently pleaded. But it was. Undeniably.
The guards were now staring at an angelic being rapidly descending toward them. Both Titus and Rufus again began trembling uncontrollably. Their limbs felt dead. They could now see that the angel’s clothes were exceedingly, blindingly white. Powerful, fearsome wings protruded from his body. He finished his descent and came to rest on top of the giant stone beside the gaping tomb door.
The speechless, trembling guards peered for a moment at the heavenly newcomer, shock plastered on their faces. Rufus was the first to run. He sprinted clumsily down the dirt path, not once turning back. Titus hesitated, petrified by dread. With dismay, he remembered the Empire’s punishment for any soldier who abandoned his post: fustuarium, death by cudgels. He gulped, considering the impeccable discipline and fearlessness and future for which he was so proud. His life and reputation were on the line. But this was too much. The angel’s presence was overwhelming and inexplicable and too dreadful for words.
Titus sprinted away from the tomb.
The angel watched Titus disappear down the road and out of sight. A smile slowly formed on his lips.
Once again, everything was quiet.
The angel took a deep breath, surveying his surroundings. For years he had anticipated this moment. He knew all too well that the three-word message he had been commissioned to deliver would spread like wildfire across Jerusalem and Palestine and the Roman Empire and beyond. These three words would emphatically change the course of human history forever. These three words would be dismissed by many as an incredible rumor, another bit of ludicrous Jewish hearsay. But these three words, he knew, were altogether, absolutely, wonderfully true.
With a whisper, he quietly uttered the long awaited-for declaration.
“He is risen.”
* * *
The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests
and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him,
“Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said
while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will
rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal
the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his
disciples from coming and stealing his body and
then telling everyone he was raised from the
dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we
were at first.”
Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the
best you can.”
So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to
Matthew 27:62-66 (NLT)