"Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor.
"Barabbas," they answered.
"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked.
They all answered, "Crucify him!"
He was sleeping when the key rattled in the lock. Sleeping, that is, as much as the cold of the dungeon and the weight of the shackles on his arms and legs would allow. Roman prisons were not known for their comfort, but Barabbas had gotten used to them in his career. This was the latest stop in his lifelong tour of Roman correctional facilities. It looked as if it would be his last.
He rubbed the sleep and grime from his eyes. A centurion stood in the doorway, saying something to him, holding out a key. Whether it was the cobwebs in his brain or the strange dialect the man spoke, Barabbas was having trouble understanding him. He didn't really need to, though. He knew well enough what the soldier was saying. He had been waiting for this moment ever since he had been sentenced to death by crucifixion. He had broken the rule he cautioned everyone he worked with against breaking: "Don't get caught." His luck had run out when he had slipped his dagger into that Sadducee right in the temple square. He had misjudged the witnesses who had seen it, not counted on how offended they were that it happened in the temple precincts. He hadn't even made it to the gate before the temple police were on him. The Romans hadn't been far behind.
Roman justice -- now THAT was funny -- Roman justice was clear on murder, especially cold-blooded murder like the Sadducee's assassination. Add to the mix that Barabbas' act was one of insurrection -- oh, there was a cross with his name on it before he even stood trial. The testimony of witnesses was incontrovertable. There was no real defense, no appeal, no possibility of parole; Barabbas' fate had been decided in a moment.
"Crucify him," Pilate had said with contempt.
Now Barabbas heard those same words chanted by the crowd outside. "Crucify him," they shouted, rhythmically, louder and louder. Barabbas smiled slightly, shook his head. So a mob had gathered. Funny, he had never attracted much of a following in life. It sounded like a fair-sized crowd had gathered to watch him die.
The centurion unlocked his shackles, pushed him a little more roughly than necessary out of his cell and down the corridor. He had pictured his death march as a bit more solemn; the centurion was behaving as if he was late for dinner. As they emerged into sunlight, Barabbas blinked his eyes. The first thing he saw was a dark, rough shape leaning against a wall. Two timbers: one would go into the ground, upright, and one would be nailed across it. That's the one that would hold him. He wondered in that moment whether the Romans would use nails or ropes.
That's when his nerve failed.
He suddenly felt sick. Dizzy. He felt a lump in his throat. He felt the panic overtaking him. He had seen people die on those crosses. He knew how painful it was. He had seen grown men, hardened killers like him, reduced to babbling incoherence. He was about to die in maybe the most painful, shameful way human beings had ever devised: slowly, naked, exposed to the elements and the mockery of bystanders. He would bleed, hurt, convulse, and finally suffocate. It would not be pretty. His knees gave out and he sank to the ground, three feet from his cross.
Only, it wasn't his.
Slowly, this dawned on him. The centurion was busy placing the cross on the shoulders of a beaten, bloody man Barabbas had just noticed for the first time. As the man shuffled past him, staggering under the weight of the timber and the pain of his wounds, Barabbas thought he recognized him. A miracle-worker, he recalled, some said a prophet, some even whispered "Messiah." Barabbas had laughed at that. A Messiah with no army? A Messiah who had never held a sword? Hardly the kind of deliverer to strike fear in the hearts of the Romans. Jesus, that was his name. From somewhere up in Galilee, Barabbas seemed to remember.
But now this pretender Messiah was shuffling past him, carrying the cross meant for him. The bloody, tattered robe he wore brushed against Barabbas as he passed, leaving a smudge of blood on his face. The eyes in the bruised face turned downward toward him. They looked at him with innocence and recognition. This man knew him, Barabbas realized. He knew what Barabbas had done. And he was innocent. And still, he shuffled on past Barabbas toward the road called by locals the Way of Sorrows, the road out of the city to Skull Place. As he brushed by, he left Barabbas with a look; a look of recognition, love, hope, and expectation. A look that told Barabbas that he was expected to do something with this gift he was being given.
He left him with that look, and a sticky-wet smear of blood across his left cheek.
Barabbas saw Jesus one more time. Just a few days later, after he had died. Except he wasn't dead. And he looked at Barabbas in that same way -- with a gaze full of forgiveness and expectation. It had dawned on Barabbas by then that there are other ways to free people than with a sword. He learned on the day he walked out of a Roman prison that a cross can be a symbol of freedom too. And Barabbas never forgot that day. The day he was set free. His Independence Day.
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