POETRY: The Face Of Pontius Pilate, by J. Barrie Shepherd

The Face Of Pontius Pilate J. Barrie Shepherd

From Faces at the Cross

I had no business going there today;
disastrous had I been recognized,
although in that beggar’s robe,
disheveled, dirt smeared look,
I doubt anyone would have believed
that I was the Roman Procurator—
not even if I bellowed my name—Pilate—
at the top of my lungs.

On the other hand,
I couldn’t stay away,
had to see for my own self
what kind of ending that young Jew
would make of all his trials,
betrayals, and buffetings.
Yes, it may seem ridiculous,
but I almost half believed that
there would be some kind of miracle,
that a deliverance would take place.
No, not a rescue by his followers,
they were a pathetic lot by all accounts,
but rather an angelic intervention—
yes, something of that sort.
Hadn’t he told me at the Judgment Seat
of legions from the fiery hosts of heaven
who might intervene on his behalf
if he should will them to?

And then there was
that dream last night of Portia’s,
quite demented she was as she screamed at me,
right there in the Hall:
Hands Off! Don’t even lay a finger on that man
or your name, like some grim curse, will echo
down the corridors of history in shame and
foul repute.
Gave me quite a turn, she did, so that,
even though I felt compelled,
by the rabble and the temple leadership,
to ignore her frightful warning—
she has these spells, you know, from time to time—
her words do echo, in my head at least,
and may have helped to drive me out
to watch the execution,
mingle with that uncouth crowd.
I wonder when she’ll speak to me again.

My bodyguard stuck close, as always,
difficult to disguise them with their clean cut,
ready-to-die-for-Rome-at-any-instant look.
So their eager swords were ever near at hand.
Although I’m sure their quizzical captain
did not believe a word of my tall tale
of seeking to spy out the secrets
of the Galilean insurrection.

Anyway, there I was,
shambling along and crying out for alms
all the way out to Golgotha.
But when I got there,
when I stood at last, too late for the actual nailing—
people said he took it with a prayer—
when I stood beneath his cross,
my cross,
the Roman Army requisitioned cross
I pinned him up on,
I forgot to beg,
forgot this filthy smelling robe
that still droops from my shoulders,
forgot my roles entirely, yes,
both that of beggar and of Procurator of Almighty Rome,
and stood there feeling like a little child again.
It came to me that I had not done this to him,
but rather he had acted upon me,
that for all the purple bands edging my toga,
I was not in charge, had not been from the start.

I haven’t felt like that
since the time my father told me
I had been chosen to prepare for civil governance,
or at least since my enrobing by Senatus,
with Portia, our parents, the children looking on.
And even then I felt more in control.
Something vast was happening today,
I knew it in my bones and gut although
my head was spinning like a chariot wheel.
There was a power working on that cross
that made my legions seem like feeble toys.
And I stood in the shadow there and wept.

More than that, I begged.
Oh yes, that borrowed beggar’s robe,
snatched from the shoulders of a petty prisoner
as we left the palace gates,
that tattered rag had suddenly become
the perfect raiment for a moment such as this,
for a person such as I had long suspected
and now knew myself to be.
I begged, you see, to be forgiven.
In that graceless, horrifying place
where pain is king and death is stripped
of every shred of dignity I sought the boon
above all boons, the gift of grace that bears
the mending touch of love to heal
the darkest places of the soul.
And now I sit,
trying to warm myself before this brazier,
trying to nerve myself to face Portia
and the storm of mockery and rage
she will undoubtedly unleash,
trying to find again the peace
I knew for one amazingly bright moment
as he cried out,
It is finished,
lifted his face to heaven,
and yielded up—that’s how it seemed to me;
he yielded up, willingly and freely,
he gave back his life to God.

Trumpets are sounding
for the changing of the guard.
Something tells me now that far more
than the watch in this old palace
is being turned about.
Something says
I have by no means heard the last
about that lad I sent to die today
and watched give up the ghost.
Something tells me that my guard
has nothing left to watch over
because the treasure and the power,
all authority over lives and minds,
has been set loose from empire or religion,
has been set deep within that experience,
that moment that I knew there at the cross,
when all seemed given to me, all seemed new,
and I looked up and into life
right at the heart of cruel death.
And now they want to set a guard,
a watch about his grave.
Good luck to them.

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