The Saga of the First Christmas: The Legend
Act Five: The Legend of the First Christmas
Jesus’ long march to The Cross began over thirty years ago at His birth, which captivated the nation. And after watching Him, hearing rumors about Him, and dreaming that He really might be the Messiah, many shared the opinion of a soldier who witnessed His death: Truly, this was the Son of God! (Matthew 27:54).
When the Centurion said these words after watching and hearing Jesus die on the cross, it was not because an earthquake shook Golgotha. It was not because Jesus had cried out with a loud voice during the suffocating torture of crucifixion. As a Centurion, he had faced the worst of death personally and saw a lifetime of strange coincidences. This was a hard man, and hard men need time and evidence to receive such a revelation: Jesus and the Centurion had crossed paths before.
Earlier that day, he had walked with Jesus along the Via Doloroso, possibly even forcing Simon of Cyrene to carry the Savior’s cross. He would have witnessed the beating Jesus received from the soldiers, possibly even pressing the thorns on Jesus’ head himself. He oversaw the nails hammered through His flesh. He watched Jesus’ reactions to all who cursed Him, including the forgiveness He granted to the thief beside Him. (Luke 23:34-39) Nevertheless, those things alone would not be enough for him to confess Jesus as the Son of God, nor was that the limit of his connection to this strange preacher from Nazareth.
As an officer, he would have been keenly aware of Jesus’ actions and movements for the past three years. Many openly hoped that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government, so we can be confident that the military watched such a man as Jesus, because the Romans never took potential insurrectionists lightly. Even if he had not personally witnessed the miracles or heard the sermons, the Centurion knew the details. Centurions were senior military officers, so he would have been part of a vast network keeping track of potential troublemakers like Jesus. And I have no doubt that he would have heard the story of his fellow Centurion whose servant Jesus healed. (Matthew 8:8) Yes, he had known this Jesus for a long time. Perhaps not in person, but he was very familiar with the Legend of Jesus.
His years in the military would have made him an expert on the region’s anti-Roman movements. He would have been on high alert when John the Baptist started preaching and would have known when John claimed to have found the Messiah. As the Roman government investigated them, the Centurion examined the prophecies for their potential political impact. Without a doubt, 30-year-old stories of the Messiah and his forerunner being born in Bethlehem resurfaced. Could it be just a coincidence, or was this the same Jesus whose birth caused such a stir? And with so many years in the military, it is even possible that this very Centurion was a young soldier when Herod ordered The Slaughter of the Innocents. He could have even been in Jerusalem when the wise men visited Herod. He could have witnessed it all, from the very beginning, just as so many others in the area did.
We cannot know what finally pricked his heart, but we can be sure that this was not the first time he had heard the name of Jesus, because The Legend of the First Christmas had been spreading for over thirty years. And unlike the other frauds which preceded Him, Jesus smashed every expectation. The man he now faced on this cross was not only exceptional, but the culmination of a thirty-three year journey that started just a few miles away, in a stable in Bethlehem. The Centurion may not have been there for it all, but as a Roman officer, he was aware of every single facet of Jesus’ life. Knowing all of this, he looked into the eyes of Jesus on the cross and the eyes of Mother Mary, sitting at its base. Who knows what flooded his soul, but the brutal heart of that Centurion finally broke as Jesus breathed his last.
The Legend of the First Christmas was merely prologue to everything the soldier witnessed at Calvary. At that moment, he was the only person besides Mary able to see Jesus’ whole life in clarity, from His miraculous birth to the beautifully tragic consequences of His death on a cross. And as Jesus breathed His last, the Centurion exhaled a supernatural confession of faith: Truly this was the Son of God! (Matthew 27:54) Mary was not the only one who connected the dots between Jesus’ birth and death. Many like this centurion saw it, too.
As we celebrate this Christmas season, let us never discount the Expectation of the Messiah, which marked the first Christmas. Let us always be stunned by the Spectacle of His birth and the intense Focus on the baby Jew born in a stable. Let us soberly note its simultaneously terrible and miraculous Aftermath. But most of all, let’s put ourselves in the place of that Centurion as the Legend of Jesus Christ flashed before his eyes, bringing him to his knees before the cross. For we all, like the Centurion, came to Christ through Christmas.
The stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ultimately prepares our hearts to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. Because only through the Christmas story can we ever see Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the proper perspective. The Cross has meaning for us only through the virgin birth, the prophecies, and the societal upheaval captured in the Christmas story. The manger may have been peaceful for a short time, but Jesus’ life was a tsunami building for three decades, baptizing our world in His death, forever dividing history.
Let us never again see Christmas as quaint and serene. It was a messy, painful, and wonderful saga for Mary and for all of humanity. But as unprecedented as it was . . . let us never doubt that it all paled in in comparison to the events three days after this Centurion’s confession when three simple words brought The Saga of The First Christmas to its divinely ordained culmination:
He is Risen!
Copyright Tom Deighan All Rights Reserved