And when the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that He thus breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”

Mark 15:39

Throughout this series, we have paused to highlight people who committed egregious sins who later became saints. The point of this has been to show us that sainthood is on the table for anyone. With God all things become possible and with repentance, anyone can come into reconciliation with God. There is probably no more improbable a candidate for sainthood than the person we meet in today’s reflection. On a Friday morning two thousand years ago, he woke up with the role of being the centurion presiding over the crucifixion of Christ. No way that morning when he woke up would he have thought he would be converted as a Christian and later become a saint. In fact, by the end of that day, he would convert to Christianity. His name is unknown but he has been named “Longinus”, which comes from the Greek word “Longhi” meaning “lance” or “spear,” as he perhaps was the one who thrust his spear into the side of Christ after He had died. Here is his story:

At the time of Christ, the area of the world where He lived was under military control of the Romans. It was under the religious control of the Jews. The Jews delivered Jesus to the Romans because the Jews were not allowed to condemn and kill people, but the Romans were. Pontius Pilate, the local governor of Jerusalem, presided over the hasty trial of Jesus and sentenced Him to death by crucifixion. The sentence was carried out the same day.

Crucifixion was a painful and humiliating way to die. In fact, it was the most painful and most humiliating way to die. Those who died from crucifixion died from a variety of causes all lining up at once to snuff the life out of the condemned—exposure, dehydration, animals coming and tearing up a body, and asphyxiation ultimately.

The person in charge of a crucifixion was a centurion, an officer in the Roman army who was in charge of one hundred soldiers. (Remember the word “century” means one hundred years, so a centurion was in charge of one hundred soldiers). The centurion was a man who was very powerful and who struck fear into people. And it was a centurion who presided over the execution of Christ. Overall, the Roman soldiers were heartless, cruel people who had no regard for any of the Jews. There was no due process and the Roman authorities fostered a culture of fear and intimidation, not only among the Jews but even among themselves. They would brutalize their own soldiers who they didn’t think were brutal enough. And this is the kind of environment that Longinus worked and lived in. And this was the kind of mood he woke up to that Good Friday morning. Another day of brutality, this time to be inflicted on two criminals, and later on Jesus, a person who was known to the Romans as a Jewish agitator.

Longinus would have been in charge of driving in the nails and putting up the cross. He would have seen the crown of thorns and the effects of the bloody torture that had been inflicted on Jesus by his Roman co-workers. He would have heard the people deriding Jesus and may have even participated in jeering Him. He would have seen the soldiers gambling for His tunic. He also would have heard the words of forgiveness that Jesus offered from the cross, His compassion on the repentant criminal, His care for His mother and His beloved discipled. He would have witness the agony of Jesus as He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) He would have seen the darkness over the whole land and he would have seen Jesus bow His head and give up His spirit. It’s possible that the Centurion was the one who pierced the side of Jesus with the lance and out came blood and water.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the extraordinary suffering and extraordinary forgiveness, the cosmic events of darkness and the earthquake, something stirred the heart of this hard and brutal man. Something stirred inside of him, and he realized “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) And then he realized something else, “Truly I have killed the Son of God!” And he changed his life, he became a disciple, right then and there, and ultimately he gave his life for Christ and today is a saint of the church.

We read in Matthew 28 that after the Resurrection, the Jews bribed the Roman soldiers to tell people that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus. Longinus, who had possibly also been involved with guarding the tomb, did not go along with this plan and instead preached about the Resurrection of Christ. He stopped being a centurion, was baptized and became a Christian. The Romans heard about the former centurion, now a devout disciple, and wanted to kill him. Longinus went to the Romans willfully and disclosed that he was the centurion they were looking for. Eventually he was beheaded.

The lesson of St. Longinus is a profound one. We know of many saints who started out as sinners. Saint Peter denied Christ and he is the rock on which Christ founded the Church. Saint Paul was persecuting Christians, as well as killing them, and he is regarded, along with Saint Peter, as the greatest of the Apostles. Saint Longinus presided over the death of the Son of God—He helped kill Christ! What could be more of an egregious sin than that?! And yet he repented and became a saint. The lesson of Saint Longinus is that we can all become saints, no matter what we’ve done, when we repent of our sins and believe in Christ. If St. Longinus can be a saint, then anyone can. If God can forgive him, anyone who comes to God in repentance can be forgiven. If there was salvation for him, then there is certainly hope for you and me.

When you go to church today and see the icon of the crucifixion, on one side of the cross you’ll see the Virgin Mary and the women who accompanied her, who would later be the myrrh-bearing women. On the other side you will see two men—John the beloved Disciple, and the centurion (who will be obvious because he is holding a shield). You’ll notice that the centurion has a halo over his head, because even though he presided over this moment of brutality, we remember him for how he ended up, a committed follower of Christ and a martyr for his faith.

All creation trembled, O Christ, seeing You crucified. From fear of Your power, the foundations of the earth were shaken. For You, being raised today, the Hebrew race was lost, the veil of the Temple was rent in two, the tombs were opened, and the dead rose up from their graces. The centurion shuddered when he saw the miracle, and Your mother stood near, and cried with a mother’s lamentation: “How can I but not mourn, and strike my innermost being, seeing You naked, as a condemned man hanging on the wood?” O Lord, Who was crucified, and buried, and did rise from the dead, glory to You. (Praises, Holy Thursday evening, Service of the 12 Gospels, p. 258, Holy Week and Easter, by Fr. George Papadeas)

Don’t give up and don’t despair, salvation is still on the table for any of us, no matter who we are and what we’ve done. Saint Longinus is proof of that!