44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23:44–49 ESV)
Pilate, beholding a living breathing Christ, found no guilt him. The thief, sharing The Skull with Jesus and dying on a another cross beside him, knew Jesus had done nothing wrong.
But it is in Jesus’ death that the centurion fully beheld the nature of the man dying — “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν)
And he praises God.
A believer. A gentile believer, present, there, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the whole sorry spectacle.
What kind of death is it that a man can die and demonstrate his innocence? I don’t know. The centurion was likely well-acquainted with death, having doled out a lot of it himself in his life. He’d seen men (and women) die in all sorts of circumstances. They were familiar, the ways of death, how men died, and something about this death — this execution — was different. Different enough to bear witness to the innocence of the one dying.
Different enough to cause a man to believe. To praise God.
Jesus was different. Because he was truly innocent. Innocent in ways we are not.
We are the thieves hanging beside Christ, getting our due reward. We either know that, and beg forgiveness, or we rage against the apparent impotence of God. “Save yourself! SAVE US!!”
I both like this understanding and I hate it. Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, struggle mightily with the morality and meaning of suffering. Especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, suffering undeserved. Often, we require our victims, in order to be proper victims, to be pure and blameless, to lead simple lives untainted by sin, to have contributed nothing to their own situation. And somehow, if they have, if they are sinners, well, they have brought their suffering down upon themselves.
This isn’t idle speculation. I deal with young people every day who try to make sense of the evil, the brutality, the violence they have lived (and sadly, are living) through, and sense in their bodies and their souls they somehow came to deserve it because … because why? And where was God in the dark and terrifying places where they were all alone with the people who abused them? What does it mean to suffer, and suffer virtuously, and be innocent and undeserving of one’s suffering?
As Christians, we confess our sinfulness. Our lack of innocence. We confess it. We believe it. We know it to be true.
Because Christ was innocent in ways we are not. Ways even children are not. Without sin in ways we cannot be. He responded to our fear, rejection, and violence with love, not despair or anger. His wounds bear witness to his love for us, and not our hatred toward him.
Jesus died the death of an innocent man — a death we can be part of, a death he willingly shares with us. A death we cannot die on our own.