Without a vision the people perish. - Hebrew Proverb
The loneliness of his cell was taking its toll. Gaius was naming the cockroaches and talking to them for company. He wasn’t going mad, but endless hours without human connection were difficult. His guards were under strict orders not to engage him; he was a pariah. The once proud Gaius Augustus Atilius, Princeps Posterior of the Third Cohort of the Tenth Legion, Centurion, was reduced to a criminal of the state, and for what? He had heard the words of an amazing man and believed. His faith sought to express itself through justice, compassion, and righteousness before his men. These were once the ideals of Rome, but she had lost her soul, and he had found it again in the truth of the Way.
A knock on the door and the clank of the food compartment shook him from his thoughts. It wasn’t mealtime, and he wasn’t being summoned for more questioning. A note lay on the plate. He pounded on the door as he picked it up.
Quiet in there!” the guard shouted. It was all the words Gaius would hear, but it was enough. He did the same thing at each mealtime. He banged on the door and the guard would scold him. All Gaius wanted was the sound of someone’s voice.
He fumbled with the folded note in his hand. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to read it. In the last note he had read only Aalina’s name. It had raised questions, speculation, and hope, but nothing else was said, and he never found out who had sent it or why. What would this note reveal? Good news or bad, hope or despair? He set it back on the plate and scooted across the small cell. He merely looked at the note, muttered to his friends, and then leaned against the wall and fell asleep.
Sleep was always restless. The damp, cold, comfortless cell made falling and staying asleep difficult. Creatures were always crawling in the corner and if allowed they would nibble on his leather, and in some cases his flesh. A couple of times he had jerked awake as pain shot through his leg: a rat had taken a small bite. He was determined not to allow that again and covered as much exposed skin as possible. The open wounds were not healing properly and, given the chance, he cleaned them with what meager water he had. Yet, sleep would come, as the endless night of his cell bid him to cross the great divide into unconsciousness.
“Gaius …” The voice spoke softly. “Why are you sleeping?”
Rubbing his eyes he was able to make out the outline of a young man standing in his cell. “Who are you? Who let you in here?” Gaius tried to stand but hadn’t the strength.
“The question is, Gaius, who are you?” the young man responded.
“I am Gaius Augustus Atilius, Centurion of the Tenth Legion.” He mustered as much confidence and pride as he could. “I know who I am, but I have not seen you before.”
The young man sat next to Gaius and put his hand on his shoulder, and with his touch Gaius felt an energy race through his body. The room didn’t feel as cold, and the aches disappeared. “How…what did you do?” There was a tinge of fear in his voice.
“Do not be afraid, I have been sent to you for comfort and encouragement. I will ask you again, who are you?”
“I have told you who I am. I am the son of Lucius Atilius of Rome.” This was a test. The Tribunus had sent this man into his cell to test his loyalty to the Empire. “You will not trick me. I am a loyal soldier. I have served the Emperor faithfully. I have spilt the blood of my enemy and my own for the glory of Rome.” His deprivation was making him suspicious and paranoid. “Why are you playing this charade? Openly identify yourself.” Gaius stood up and moved away from his tormentor.
“Yes, Gaius, you are all those things. You have spent a lifetime wielding the sword of Rome. But that is not who you are. I am not trying to trick you or test you. I am trying to help you.” He stood and looked at Gaius with compassion, “Gaius, who are you?”
This was a mockery. The man’s taunts were not going to break him. Gaius banged on the door. “Guard!” There was no answer. He banged again. “Guard, take this man away, and tell the Tribunus that I will not be tricked.” There was still silence. He turned his attention back to his intruder. “You want me to answer your question, and I have. Tell me who you are, or this meeting is over.” He was pacing back and forth in his cage, but the man just stood there. He was waiting for Gaius to answer, but he didn’t know what more he was supposed to say, so he ventured more information. “I am alone, that is who I am. I have lost my family, friends, and lover. I have given everything for Rome’s glory, and I am alone. What more do you want to take from me? My rank, my dignity, my pride? They are yours, and I am nothing but alone.” Gaius slumped to his knees and began to weep. The realization that he would die without family or friends was a weight too heavy to bear. He was experiencing the same ridicule and torture that he had afflicted on others. His identity was being stripped away. He was no longer a son, no longer a friend, no longer a lover, and most of all, no longer a soldier for the glory of Rome. He didn’t know who he was any more.
The young man did not move, nor did he change his expression. He merely waited for an answer. Time seemed to stand still for Gaius. It was surreal. He would have rather faced an enemy in battle then the stoic face of his interrogator. He wanted to strike him, but when he mustered his strength to land a blow he couldn’t move. He was bewitched and felt powerless. “Go,” Gaius yelled. “Go tell the Tribunus that he has won. Tell him he was right, that I allowed my faith to affect my judgment as a soldier. Tell him that I believe compassion is better than brute force. Tell him that I believe there is a glory greater than Rome, and one day she will bow before him. Tell him….”
At that moment the young man’s appearance began to glow. The room filled with light and warmth, and Gaius uttered the final words of his sentence, “Tell him I am Centurion…I am a follower of Jesus.” And the man disappeared.
Gaius jerked awake, and was breathing heavily. What had just happened? Was it a dream or a vision? It dawned on him that an angel had visited him. It was so real, fearful and exhilarating at the same time. The angel said that he had come to comfort him, and he did feel comforted because now he knew he wasn’t alone. As he was contemplating these things, Gaius caught a glimpse of the note out of the corner of his eye. He reached over, and picking it up, he unfolded it and read its message,
Gaius, the Tribunus has come to a decision. He is going to convene a court to pronounce his judgment in two days. I am sorry…. a friend.
Gaius mulled the words over in his head. Was it good news or bad? To him it was good because he wasn’t alone…. A friend.
“Zohar, talk to me. What has disturbed you?” Chaim didn’t like the change in his wife’s mood. He thought he had done something wrong, but he couldn’t possibly figure out what. “I am not leaving here until you talk to me.” He was adamant.
“I am sorry, Chaim. I haven’t been fair or honest with you.” She picked her words carefully. “You know my past, and you have been so gracious and forgiving. But I never told you much about the man who bought my freedom.” She looked into Chaim’s eyes and his attentiveness made her relax a little. “I loved him and he loved me. When he set me free I betrayed his love and left him. That is how I ended up in the service of Valerius.”
“My love, I am not naïve. Even though you had not told me, I know a man doesn’t pay so much just to be nice. There is always something behind his actions. If he loved you, I know what he saw, and don’t blame him for what his heart couldn’t help.” He, too, was careful with his choice of words. “As for your betrayal I can see your desire, but I can also understand the pain he must have endured. But that was a long time ago. What does that have to do with us today?”
Zohar shifted uneasily, then turned and looked into Chaim’s eyes. “I saw him. He is in Jerusalem.” She let the weight of her words speak for themselves.
Standing, Chaim walked across the room, turned, and then thought against it. He was immobilized, and speechless, and when he was able to utter some words he asked, “Do you still love him?”
She rushed to his side. “No, Chaim, that is not it at all. You are the only man I love.” She nearly knocked him over with her embrace.
“I’m sure seeing him again has stirred emotions that you are trying to reconcile. And I thank you for reassuring my insecurities. But if you do not love him anymore, what has upset you so much?”
“Well…” She tried to gather her thoughts. “I am afraid if he knows that I am here he will want to be with me again. I have been so afraid to walk out of the house for dread of seeing him. A soldier walks by and I turn the other way. I am living in constant fear.”
Chaim pulled her close and sat with her on the bed. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he just prayed, and though he knew God could give her peace, he felt helpless in her plight. “I hope the God will calm your heart. When did you see him?”
“During the Festival of Weeks. He was one of the soldiers who was in the crowd when the disciples of Jesus preached in the streets.”
He pulled back with a surprised look on his face. “Zohar, that was over a year ago. You have been carrying this burden that long by yourself? Why didn’t you talk with me sooner?”
“I was afraid.” She buried her head in his shoulder. “I know you love me, but sometimes my history overwhelms me and I feel worthless again. It has been your reassuring love that has kept me going all these years, and I couldn’t bear to lose that.”
“You will never lose it, but we need to do something about this or you will feel a captive the rest of your life.” He thought for a moment. “What if we try to go see him?”
A look of horror crossed her face. “No! Chaim, what if he is angry? What if he wants revenge? He could make life terrible for us. You know how the Romans are; they can be cruel and brutal. I can’t take the chance. I would rather live in fear and keep watch every day than risk our world falling down around us.”
“But, Zohar, if he truly loved you enough to let you go, then he will not hold it against you now. And when you explain what has happened he will understand, I am sure of it.” Though he really wasn’t, he believed it was worth the risk. “You have been meeting for prayer with some of the people of the Way, haven’t you? Then go to one of their leaders and ask them for advice. I will go with you.” Chaim had never gone with her to any of the meetings. Though she had not confessed to be a follower of Jesus, she had found a fond reception from the Jews who were. She sat under the teaching of Thaddeus and Thomas. She could relate to Thomas, because he had spoken of his doubt and Jesus’ forgiveness. She too doubted, and his patience had won her over. Now, Chaim was willing to go with her.
“I would love that.” They prepared for bed, and Zohar looked forward to the next day with a new calm in her heart.
“That name sounds familiar,” Thomas said when Zohar explained their situation. “Has anyone heard of a soldier named Gaius?” He had turned to the other disciples in the room.
“I have,” John answered. “I haven’t seen him for the past few months, but he came around often before that. What do you want with him?”
“This is Zohar and her husband Chaim. Suffice it to say, she has history with him and is wondering whether meeting him again would be prudent, to be sure that it is all behind them. What do you think, John?”
“Whatever his history, it is in the past. After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Gaius was the lone soldier who confessed faith in our Lord Jesus. He was even baptized that same day.”
Chaim put his fingers to Zohar’s chin and closed her mouth.
“I see that surprises you. God calls who he will.” He paused for a moment. I haven’t seen him in a while. Let me send a message to a friend I know who is familiar with the workings of the fort. Maybe he can get some information for us.” John motioned for a young man in the room to come to him. He gave him instruction and told him to return quickly.
“I might take a couple of hours. You are welcome to stay, or you can come back later.” They decided to stay.
Waiting was the hardest, and when the young man entered the room Zohar could hardly contain herself. He went to John and whispered in his ear, looked over at them, and then left. The look on John’s face wasn’t encouraging. Coming over he said, “I am afraid I have some bad news. Our brother Gaius has been in the fort prison. Accusations were made against him because of his faith, and he is awaiting judgment from his superiors. We can do nothing for him but pray for God’s mercy.”
She sat quietly for a moment and then respectfully said, “Excuse me sir, is it possible to send a note to him by way of your messenger?” John nodded assent and she wrote a one-word message: Aalina.
Weeks had passed and she hadn’t heard anything from Gaius. It was hard for Chaim to watch her anxiety over the matter. He cared not only for her emotional state; he was also jealous. He tried not to let it show, but how could he not? Ever since this came to light, all Zohar thought about was her past lover. It wasn’t right, but he pushed his impulse back and lovingly supported her.
“What’s wrong, Chaim?” Zohar noticed he was brooding.
“I don’t like this. I am trying to be supportive, but you are consumed with this soldier, and I…” Chaim was feeling guilty for even saying it. “I want us to go back to the way it was. We were happy, and this has caused a strain in our relationship.”
She knew what he said was true, but she couldn’t move past it; she needed to see him before she could put this behind her. She felt trapped, not between a love for one man or another, but between the past she wanted to forget and her longed-for future with Chaim. Their moment was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Slowly opening the door, Chaim blocked a view of the inside with his body. His heart pounded harder when the visitors proved to be Roman Soldiers. “Can I help you?” Chaim asked.
“I am Servius, Optio for my centurion, Gaius Atilius. I understand that you sent him a note a few weeks ago, and have been special to him in the past. He has been in solitary confinement, prohibited from contact with anyone. However, that has changed. The Tribunus, who is hearing his case, is ready to pronounce judgment in two days. He has allowed my centurion two visitors.”
Zohar was ecstatic and afraid at the same time. “Has he asked for me? When can I see him?” She had pushed her way in front of Chaim and couldn’t see the irritation on his face.
“He doesn’t know that I am here. He declined the offer of visitors, but I believe he doesn’t realize that you are even in Jerusalem. He has spoken of you briefly in the past, but each time I could see that he loved you deeply in the past. My hope is that you could provide some encouragement to him. We don’t have much time, so if you would come with us…” To Chaim it seemed more an order than a request.
“Chaim, I need to go now.” He couldn’t deny her look of urgency. Besides, what she saw as an offer, he knew was a command.
“I will go with you.” He said with as stern a voice as he could muster.
“That’s fine, but you will not be able to go into the fort, only Aalina.” Chaim almost gasped at the sound her old name. She hadn’t been called that for years, and it brought up every bad thought of her past he had worked so hard to forgive and forget. But he had, and he wouldn’t abandon her now.
Zohar didn’t know what she would say to her former lover. It had been so long, and deep down she had feelings for him. As they walked past the Temple, she reminisced over how far she had come, from slave to free, to slave and free again. She loved her life now, and the Temple reminded her that God loved her, forgave her, and had given her a wonderful husband and family. She would not forget these things, nor abandon them for the youthful passion of the past. When they reached Fort Antonia, Servius ordered Chaim to wait outside. He didn’t like the idea of Zohar going in there alone, but he was helpless to object. He knew what they could be like, but he prayed and trusted in God’s providence and protection. When the gate closed in front of him, he began to pace and wouldn’t stop until his love returned.
The prison was in the basement of the fort. Only the light of torches made visible the unseemly conditions of its captors, and the only light in the cells was what could find its way through the tiny barred window in the door. How could they treat men like this, especially one of their own? Zohar’s repulsion for the Romans grew with every step into the belly of the empires brutality. When Servius stopped in front of the last cell Zohar could hardly breathe. She doubted the wisdom of her presence, but it was too late. Servius opened the door and ushered her inside.
The meager rations were never enough to sustain anyone over a long period of time, and losing weight was inevitable. Gaius used a rock and loose nail to notch his belt. He wanted to look presentable when he stood before the Tribunus. When the door to his cell opened he was expecting the guard to escort him to sentencing. Time was difficult to track and he was hoping for a quick end. Surprise was an understatement when he saw a young lady led into his cell. He thought this might be his last passionate reward before judgment was passed. But when she said, “Hello Gaius, it’s me, Aalina,” his heart about gave out.
Gaius squinted his eyes. “Aalina, how… where… what are you doing here?” She didn’t take offense at his surprise.
“I have lived in Jerusalem for the past year and a half. How are you doing?” Aalina knew her question was inadequate.
“As you can see, I have lost a little weight.” Gaius leaned against the wall, his strength giving way. “But it is good to see you. I thought I would never see you again.” Servius stepped outside and closed the door behind him. “As you can see my fortunes have fallen. I never would have thought that my years serving Rome would end like this.” He paused for a moment of thought. “But I am content. I have learned there is a greater glory than Rome, and whatever comes it will only be a momentary affliction.”
Aalina knew about Gaius’ faith and said, “I have met John, the disciple of Jesus. He told me that you were baptized. I am happy for you and the hope it gives you.”
“Aalina, are you happy?” Gaius said tenderly.
“Yes, I have believed as well. God has given me a wonderful family. Chaim is my husband’s name and his family rescued me from Valerius.” Aalina quickly summarized her story since she left him so many years ago. His eyes moistened as she told it, and he rejoiced in God’s constant care. “I wish you could meet him. You would like him, and he would like you. I’m sorry about what is happening to you.” She began to weep.
He slowly stood and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, trying to be of comfort. “Aalina, my only regret is that I have not shared my life with you, but if you had stayed, we would not be here today, both resting in our faith in Jesus. I have lived a good life as a soldier for Rome. If I am to die, it will be with the same strength and honor that I have given to preserving the empire. I will cherish this moment forever.” The door opened and Servius said it was time for Aalina to go. She hugged him, not as a passionate lover, but as a sister of faith. Before he released her, he whispered, “He is the resurrection and the life.”
Before leaving, Servius stepped into the cell and closed the door. “Centurion,” he said, giving Gaius the respect he deserved. “I know you have refused any visitors. However, one other person would like to see you, but is unable to at this time. He has given me this letter and asks that you will read it before your day of judgment.” Servius handed Gaius the letter, set a candle on the small table in the corner, and left.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to read it. Who cared enough for him to leave a letter? The seal looked familiar, but in the dim light he wasn’t able to make out its markings. The only way to satisfy his curiosity was to open the letter.
From General Marcus Sextus of the First Cohort in Rome, to Gaius Augustus Atilius, Princeps Posterior of the Third Cohort of the Tenth Legion, may peace be with you in your trials.
I have been keeping abreast of your situation as possible, being so far away. You have always been like a son to me, and one of the brightest stars in the imperial crown. I sent you on a mission of great import and your efforts on my behalf were fruitful. Even with the downfall of Pontius Pilate, Tribunus Marcellus has proven to be a worthy ally. I have written him a letter as well, on your behalf, but I cannot interfere with his command. It is my hope that the charges laid against you will be dropped, but they are egregious and that likelihood untenable.
The least I could do was send my attaché, who is an able litigator, to stand with you at the sentencing. I know that this is little comfort for all you have done for Rome, but know that I have always held you in high regard, and wish the best for you in this unseemly affair.
May the gods and your ancestors smile on you.
Gaius straightened his back with pride. He was glad that the General had not forgotten him, and that he even considered Gaius a friend. In these last days, it seemed that these things were most important to home. He was less concerned with glory than he was with the things his father had taught him were important so long ago¾family¾and since he did not have a family of his own he was glad to have a few people who saw him as friend. The strength he gained from this comfort allowed him to face death with honor.