Saint Longing

Mark 15:34-39

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

"Saint Longing"

And he thought he had seen it all. 

The centurion absentmindedly ran his hand across his tunic, fingering the medals that hung there, each one a narrative written in blood.  How many military commendations had he been given?  He couldn’t remember the names of the countless battles, many in unpronounceable backwaters of the Empire.  Most of the time he didn’t even remember the killing, the thrust of the knife, the slash of the sword.  It had become automatic over time: “Kill, kill without mercy” had been drilled into his head.  Enemy soldiers, women, children, it didn’t matter who they were.  Kill!

            What mattered was following orders: conquering, killing, dominating, keeping the level of fear in the defeated stoked enough to maintain order.  He didn’t get to where he was by being a softie, by being kind, or understanding, or lenient.  He got to where he was as the leader of a cohort of 100 soldiers by following orders.  By being ruthless.  By allowing any sense of decency or humanity in his heart to die out.

            The centurion scratched under his helmet and looked up as the uncaring sun blazed down on them.  He had served on crucifixion duty more times than he’d care to remember.  Always it was the same: the prisoners protesting their innocence, their women wailing and tearing at their hair.  The soldiers getting a rush out of the drama of it all, laughing as they drove the nails through the soft flesh, groaning as they hoisted the crosses up against the terrible sky.  Thieves.  Murderers.  Political insurgents.  The soldiers were immune to the stories of those they put up on the crosses that lined the Roman roads.  Each cross was a reminder that Rome could crush the mere hint of rebellion.    

            The centurion jabbed his vine-wood staff in the back of one of his soldiers who had nodded off.  “Look smart,” he’d said.  He squinted up at the hand written sign above one of the prisoners: “This is the King of the Jews,” it said.  The man on the cross groaned a little, his head rolling from side to side, pressing the crown of thorns deeper into his flesh as he pushed his head against the back of the cross. 

            The Centurion was sure he had seen the man before, riding on the back of a skittish donkey.  Clutching the animal’s mane as the beast lurched down the road, the man had lifted his head when the crowd shouted “Hosanna!” But the man on the colt looked more sad than pleased.  The Centurion had wanted to say: “Don’t believe them.”  He had seen too many military parades where people who too quickly returned to their lives of comfort cheered soldiers on.  The crowds would forget what the soldiers endured on their behalf.  And as the man on the donkey passed by the soldier, the Jew had looked him straight in the eye.  And the centurion felt something he rarely felt anymore: uneasy, afraid.  He felt a tiny crack in the foundation of his life.

            The soldier grimaced as he thought of it now, seeing the broken wreck of a man now nailed fast to his certain death.  Whatever was there to fear from him?  One of the thieves laughed a crazy laugh and shouted at the man: “Why don’t you save yourself, if you are who you say you are.” But the other one cried out hoarsely:  remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  The man with the crown of thorns said: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.”  And the centurion laughed along with the rest of the soldiers.

And he thought he had seen it all.  But the man on the cross looked him in the eye again, like he did that day on the donkey, and the centurion saw and heard something he had never seen before, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life, something that would destroy the world he had created around him, something that would melt his frozen heart.

And he thought that he had seen it all.  But he had never seen this.

            The gospel writers do not give the Centurion a name, but Christian lore and tradition does.  The name he was given is Longinus, perhaps a Latinized version of the Greek for lance.  The Centurion was said to be the man who lanced Jesus in the side as he hung on the cross, to be certain that he was dead.  Legend says that Longinus the centurion was nearly blind, and when he cut open Jesus’ side some of the water and blood that spurted out landed in his eyes and his eyesight was restored and he converted to Christianity and eventually became a Saint. 

Another legend says that Longinus suffered greatly for his role in the crucifixion of Jesus, especially for piercing him in the side.  The story goes that Longinus was condemned to a cave where each night a lion came and mauled him.  Every morning his body was healed.  Longinus’ nightmare experience of being tortured in the depths of sleep and waking to find everything seemingly normal, when it is anything but, sounds like a soldier experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to me.  When I first read of Saint Longinus, I saw his name but my brain played a trick on me- what I read instead was Saint Longing.  And that is who he has become in my imagination.  Saint Longing.  What might he be longing for?  As a soldier, I think he longed for healing of what is now is being called moral injury.

            Rita Nakashima Brock is co-founder of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, where she does research with military vets exploring the notion of “moral injury,” which is different from PTSD.  In the book she co-authored with Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering From Moral Injury After War,[1] they write: “PTSD occurs in response to prolonged, extreme trauma and is a fear-victim reaction to danger.  It is a brain-based reaction to trauma that includes symptoms of “flashbacks, nightmares, hyper vigilance, and dissociation.”  Brock and Lettini say that “moral injury” is a wound of war that may surface after PTSD is dealt with.  They define it this way: “Moral injury is the result of reflection on memories of war or other extreme traumatic conditions.  It comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs.”  Brock and Lettini suggest that: “Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”  Moral injury is a hidden wound of war. 

            I suspect Saint Longinus had experienced moral injury but was so defended against it he didn’t know he was suffering from it.  As the leader of a large group of soldiers, he was buoyed up by the camaraderie and shared mission.  But something happened at the crucifixion that cut through the hardened layers of Longinus’ heart.  My fantasy is that his confession of faith, “Surely this man was God’s son,” was just the beginning of a lifelong journey of soul repair that the Centurion longed for, but couldn’t imagine, so immune had he become to the despair of war.  Saint Longing needed to be healed of moral injury. 

            Rita Brock says: “Moral injury feeds on despair.  When the narcotic emotional intensity and tight camaraderie of war are gone, withdrawal can be intense.  As memory and reflection deepen, negative self-judgments can torment a soul for a lifetime.  Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble cause.  It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.  Its torments to the soul can make death a mercy.”

            The centurion heard Jesus say: “Abba, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  At first he laughed.  Of course he knew what he was doing.  He was doing his duty, serving Rome and empire.  He was being true to his training as a soldier.  He was keeping Rome strong, which was for the good of the people.  War was necessary, he thought.  Violence a given.  Cruelty justified if it served the greater good.  But Jesus’ words ate away at him, and Saint Longinus began to remember his own humanity, which he had cut himself off from so long ago. 

And he thought he had seen it all.  But what the centurion had failed to see was his longing to be healed of the hidden wound of war: moral injury.  Saint Longing wanted his humanity back.

Rita Brock’s work with vets is not just about healing their moral injury, but challenging our culture’s desire to look the other way, to not give our vets the support, empathy, and compassion that is needed to help them repair their soul, to heal these hidden wounds of war.

Yesterday morning, while having breakfast at a diner counter, reading Brock and Lettini’s book, I noticed a young man sitting at the other end of the counter.  He had a military haircut and was neatly dressed.  He was talking incessantly: to the waitress, to other people sitting around him, to himself.  He was cheerful and engaging, but something seemed a little off about the way he was interacting with others.  He was trying too hard.  After he left, I heard the waitress, who had been kind to him, say “He has post traumatic or whatever.” It felt like a holy irony to be reading about moral injury while watching this young man struggle to fit back into his community, and none of us seemed to know how to reach out to him in a helpful way, at least not in that moment. Saint Longing is desperate for connection and understanding and compassion. 

We are haunted by Brock’s question: “What does it mean to belong to a society that asks human beings to surrender their moral agency for war?”  (P. 108) “The fact that many veterans live in anguish because of moral injury,” Brock writes, “while most citizens still sleep comfortably at night is not evidence of a collective clean conscience.”  War is complex and those of us who have pacifist convictions are called to cultivate compassion for soldiers who are caught in the complicated web of war.  We are called to ask how we can help them repair their souls.  Abba, forgive us all, for we know not what we do.

And he thought he had seen it all.  But he had never seen this.  The Centurion had never seen someone he had killed or tortured or destroyed look him in the eye and pray that God would forgive him.  Jesus looked the Centurion in the eye, saw what he was, what he had become, how he had betrayed any human dignity left within him…Jesus looked the soldier in the eye and said: “I forgive you, even if you don’t know what you are doing, what you have done.”  And Saint Longing felt the weapon of tenderness worm its way through the fortress he had built around his heart. “Surely, this must be the Son of God,” said his injured soul in recognition.  And his broken soul began its long, long journey of repair, the journey of learning to forgive himself. 

            Holy Week may begin in a joyful parade, but it ends in human violence.  We are on a journey to Golgotha.  You who have experienced moral injury, you who have done violence, you who have colluded with war and injustice by your silence… you are not beyond God’s forgiveness.  None of us are beyond God’s forgiveness, even when we don’t know why or what we have done.  

And he thought he had seen it all, but until that moment, he had never seen forgiveness. And it brought him to his knees.  We are all Saint Longing, may God forgive us all. AMEN        

[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini. 2012.  Soul Repair: Recovering From Moral Injury After War.   All quotes are from Kindle Edition.

  • Pastor Meg Hess