With a trio of wooden crosses looming on a hill in the distance, ten Roman soldiers made their way up the rocky road from the city of Jerusalem. All, save for their leader Cassian, were begrudging their assignment—the grisly task of burying dead crucified bodies. The men had been assigned burial detail as punishment for offenses ranging from drunkenness to minor insubordination. They marched after Cassian in the early morning light, longing for another hour of sleep at the barracks as was currently being enjoyed by their fellow legionnaires.
As an optio, second in command to a centurion within a Roman legion, Cassian had jumped at the opportunity for an independent mission—even one that involved supervising malcontents for a couple hours followed by delivering a mundane report. He had to start somewhere if he hoped to move up the ranks.
The burial party arrived at the crest of the hill and looked at the wooden beams in disgust and alarm. Despite being accustomed to death, the soldiers were not prepared for the scene before them.
While the middle cross was bare, two corpses hung from the crosses on either side of it. One of the bodies was intact; the bloody nail wounds on his hands and feet were expected. The other cross, however, caused greater apprehension. Thirty vultures, more than any of the soldiers had ever seen before, were actively picking at the remains, now almost entirely devoid of flesh. The vultures must have been eating all night, Cassian thought to himself.
“How much longer has that one been on the cross?” a soldier asked.
“They died at roughly the same time. About twelve hours ago,” Cassian responded, bewildered by the difference.
“Then why did the vultures only eat one of them?”
“Oy, maybe the other one didn’t taste very good,” another soldier suggested. This elicited a nervous chuckle from some of the men as they stared transfixed at the birds and the skeletal remains on the cross.
Cassian broke the lull. “Men, get to work. I want half of you to take down the bodies and the other half to start digging graves.” He wasn’t yet a centurion but tried to compensate for his lack of formal command with authority in his voice.
The soldiers divided the tasks among themselves and distributed the necessary tools—shovels for the gravediggers and pliers and axes for the men at the crosses. The vultures flew off in a rush as the Romans approached the crosses and began their gruesome duties. Once he saw the men in motion, Cassian went over to inspect the uneaten body. He had a flicker of recognition as he looked up at the lifeless face of the condemned man.
“Oy, Optio,” Cassian turned away from the face at the call of one of the soldiers who was ankle deep in a partially dug grave. “Where’s the body from the middle cross?”
“He was taken away earlier. Special burial,” he responded crisply, unsure of whether to correct the informal tone of the soldier.
The soldier appeared stunned. “That thug Barabbas got a special burial? I didn’t think he was deserving of such honor after the things he did.”
Another soldier answered before Cassian could. “No, I heard the governor made a last moment switch. He let Barabbas go and instead executed that alleged Jewish king everyone has been talking about.”
The first solider looked even more incredulous. “He let Barabbas go? He was a really lucky brute then. I never thought I would see the day where a murderer is released like that.” He shook his head as he continued to dig.
Another soldier asked Cassian, “Who were these two men?”
“The one over there who the vultures seem to like is Gestas, a violent thief. And this one is…”
With a sudden crash, the bones of the vulture-eaten man clattered to the ground as the nails and ropes that held him in place were removed. A few of the bones broke apart as they landed in a heap at the base of the cross. Some of the soldiers nearby began to retch at both the sight and the smell. Cassian held a cloth over his nose and mouth to prevent himself from doing the same.
“Oy, you don’t see that every day,” the same grave digging soldier commented. With a grimace, he turned back towards his shovel.
Another soldier helping to lower down the still-intact criminal called out, “I heard it was a strange execution yesterday. The guards who were there couldn’t describe it to me last night. They were muttering nonsense and shaken like they had just come from battle.”
“Optio,” one of the bent-over soldiers near the reeking bones called out softly as he wiped the last traces of vomit from his mouth. He glanced at the remains of the two dead men and then back at Cassian. “What did happen here?”