Every breath was shallow and filled with the taste of blood, sweat, and dying. Still, the man relished each one as if it were a culinary delicacy or a fine wine. What was it that Solomon’s wisdom said? “To the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Three pulls of warm air, then he slowly let himself slide back down the wood. He wanted to scream as his flesh curled into strips, but he couldn’t waste the precious oxygen. The wood felt like a thousand hooks catching on his already torn body. The pain in his lungs, though, was worse. It was like giant hands squeezing and twisting, trying to wring the last ounce of air from an already emptied bag.
The crowd roared their approval as they saw the anguish on his face. Another moldy vegetable hit him, leaving a slimy trail as it mushed then slid down his bruised and broken body. A teen ran up and threw a rotten cabbage with all his might, striking the man in the cheek that the pommel of a soldier’s sword had fractured on the way up the hill. The man’s vision grayed and the crowd roared again.
Once the cheers died down, the only sounds remaining were the curses from the guards who were gambling for garments and the insults hurled from the celebratory masses and the thief hanging on the left. The crowd’s invectives were expected, but that thief should have known better. Every breath was precious; every bit of air a gift. Yet this idiot wasted what little oxygen he had to curse and taunt.
“Aren’t you the Messiah?” he jabbed. “Save yourself and us!”
On and on the thief attacked, until the man could take it no more. Pulling himself up by the nails in his wrists, he sucked in as much air as he could and called out, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you fear God?”
His shoulders gave way and he dropped back down. When his body weight caught in his wrists, he vomited and the crowd cried out their approval. Looking over, he could see the thief staring at him with hatred in his eyes. Pushing down on the bolt in his feet, the man managed to slide back up the cross and draw in another breath.
“We deserve what we’re getting. This man has done nothing wrong.” He held the thief’s gaze until the other man turned away. Again his muscles gave out. Again he dropped. Again he prayed the end would come soon.
As his head twisted with the pain, he noticed the man in the middle – Jesus, they called Him – watching him. The look in His eyes was so different than what he saw from the other man. Even though they were swollen to the point of being barely visible, there was peace in this man’s eyes; there was love. It had been many years since he’d seen anybody look at him with anything close to love.
It was in that moment that he knew – this man was the real deal. All the hope he never had, all the acceptance he never felt, all they purpose he never knew, everything was in this one person.
And now it was too late.
There were too many crimes, too much violence, too little time to atone for it all. He would need years to make up for his past, not just the few hours that were left in his future. If only I had met Him sooner, he thought. Although, if I had met Him sooner, I probably would have stolen His moneybag and left Him bleeding in an alley.
But the look. Those eyes. That love.
He had to give it a shot. Worst Jesus could say was “no”. That would leave the man in no worse state than he was now – condemned, dying, hell-bound. Seeing that Jesus had elevated Himself for another breath, the man clenched his teeth and pulled his way up.
His lungs burned as the air rushed in. “Jesus,” he rasped. Jesus turned His head.
“Jesus, remember me when You come into Your paradise.”
One corner of Jesus’ battered and bloodied mouth raised. In a voice that was barely audible, yet boomed like thunder in the man’s ears, Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Both dropped, and the man felt like someone was taking a smith’s hammer to his shoulders. Turning, he saw Jesus’ face contorted with pain. But the eyes – the eyes hadn’t changed.
Jesus died first, then some soldier came along and broke the legs of the two thieves. The man blacked out with the first blow. Sliding in and out of consciousness, he saw a spear thrust in Jesus’ side. Then some time later he awoke to an obviously well-to-do Pharisee taking Jesus’ body away. It was now almost impossible for the man to pull himself up for air.
After Jesus was gone, the crowd thinned out. The sport was gone – just the slow dying remained. The only ones left were those betting whether he or the other thief would open their eyes again. The other thief went next. He hadn’t said anything since he had been chastised, so the man didn’t know he was dead until he saw the soldiers taking down his body.
Finally, the man’s innate instinct for self-preservation gave out. He surrendered to the inevitability of death. His eyes closed and someone won a bet.
Then his eyes opened again, and everything had changed…