Malachi stood outside the cloth covered entrance to Nathaniel’s home, his tool bag hanging heavily on his shoulder. The smell from the oven in the courtyard made his stomach growl, but his mind was on something other than food. He was a man on a mission.
“Nathaniel, are you home?”
The cloth was pushed aside as Nathaniel appeared in the opening. “Good morning, Malachi. What brings you out in the dawn?”
“I am in need of a favor.”
“Oh, and what might that be?”
I am asking to cut down one of your sycamore trees to use for a job the Romans have asked me to do.”
“You are working for them now?”
“In these times I have to take work where I can find it.”
And what is this work that is so important it takes sycamore wood?”
“A special cross. They want it early tomorrow morning.”
Nathaniel looked at his friend in horror. “A cross to be used for a crucifixion?”
His face coloring even under his dark, tanned skin, Malachi replied, “Yes.”
“Have you ever seen a crucifixion, Malachi?”
“I have and they are things of horror even though those who are crucified are criminals. They bleed, they cry, and die slowly. I have been told they actually suffocate from the weight of their own bodies. How can you possibly justify making a cross?”
“I do what I have to do.”
Nathaniel looked long and hard at his friend. Strange, he had not noticed that Malachi looked tired and his clothes seemed more worn than he had seen before.
“Very well. You can have the one at the end of the grove.”
Nathaniel allowed the cloth at the door to close. Malachi began the short walk to the grove of trees behind the house.
Walking up to the tree Nathaniel had told him to cut, he noticed it was not as tall or as well formed as the others. Still, there would be enough wood for the special cross he had been hired to make.
He put the tool bag on the ground a bit away from the tree and took out his saw. Calculating the fall of the tree so it would not harm the others, he began cutting.
It too most of the morning to remove the branches from what was fortunately an extremely thick and straight trunk. Malachi, carpenter though he was, always approached the task of felling trees with reluctance. It wasn’t the hard labor. He felt a strange sense of guilt in turning a living thing into something that no longer had life. Still, it was necessary to provide shelter for people and so he sawed away.
By early afternoon, he was able to drag the stripped trunk and branches through the narrow streets to his home and carpenter shop. Again he was grateful that he lived at the edge of the city in the section inhabited by those who did not own land: Those who were considered among the lower class. It made hauling wood when he could not afford to have help all the easier.
With axe and adz, he shaped the trunk and branch into the all too familiar shape of the gibbet, the upright portion of the cross and the cross bar. There was no need to plane them. Sycamore was by its nature smooth and almost free of any splintering. There was no time to dry it properly, but the nails to hold the cross bar went in without trouble. By sunset, it was done. The only task left was to add it to the pile of crosses on the hill of Golgotha three miles away at the end of the winding and narrow streets of Jerusalem.
Before dawn the next morning, Malachi, sweating in the early gathering heat, dragged his cart containing the heavy cross through the streets, which were just wide enough in places, to accommodate its outstretched arms. Arriving at Golgotha, he found a Roman soldier already there, guarding a stack of other crosses. Few words were exchanged except when he started to put the cross on the stack with the others. “Not there,” the soldier said curtly. “You know the Garden of Gethsemane? Take it there. Now.” “Why there?”
“Do not question me, Jew. Just do it. Here is the money.” The soldier placed the money in Malachi’s palm avoiding touching his actual flesh.
Malachi loaded the cross back onto the cart and again navigating the narrow streets, now starting to be cluttered with people, and did as he had been ordered. While his body was engaged in the labor, his mind kept repeating the question, “Why?”
The garden was already full of people, jeering, laughing. As Malachi approached the crowd he saw the object of their derision. There was a man in the center of the crowd, his clothing torn and bloodied by the flail. Why was he here instead of in the usual place of punishment? Soldiers surrounded him but Malachi felt drawn closer. As he squeezed his way to the outer circle closest to the man, he found himself watching in total bewilderment. The man had been dressed in a purple robe, now in tatters, and on his head? Yes, it was a crown of thorns. What had this man been? What had he done?
“Ah, here comes our cross.” The obvious commander of the soldiers motioned Malachi to bring it forward. Malachi reluctantly joined the center of the spectacle and lifted the heavy cross from the cart. As he went to put it on the ground, the commander said, “No. Not on the ground. On his back.”
Malachi shuddered but did as he was told, his heart now full of pity for the beaten and obviously exhausted man. As he laid the heavy cross on the man’s shoulders, resting against his back, the man turned his head. Even through the drops of blood and sweat, to his puzzlement, the man’s eyes looked at him with pity. Pity? How could that be. It was this poor fellow who needed pity.
“Stand aside, Jew.” The commander used the butt of his spear to shove Malachi”. The soldiers moved into two ranks, four each. Why so many? What was this all about? The crowd parted as the commander, using the point of his spear, urged the beaten man forward and the procession including the crowd fell in behind the man as he moved forward, struggling under the weight of the wood. Half way to the hill, after faltering several times, the man dropped to his knees. Someone was summoned from the crowd to help him upright and carry the weight of the cross.
The procession wended its way back through the same streets. Behind him and the soldiers, the crowd grew larger and more raucous. Malachi’s heart felt as shredded as the poor soul’s back. No matter what he had done, he did not deserve this.
At the top of the hill, the crowd formed a semi-circle at the foot of the two crosses already in place on the left and right. Two men hung, suspended by a rope and the nails piercing their hands and feet. Malachi’s heart and stomach lurched. He had no real idea the purpose to which his carpentry was being put especially because he refused to think about it. Now it was before him and there was no escape. A small group forced their way forward. Was the spectacle not enough to see at a distance? The middle aged woman and the younger man were weeping. Malachi suddenly realized that the woman must be the man’s mother. Was this horror not enough without his mother having to bear seeing it? A Centurion stepped forward. What now? Was there anything more they could do to the man now stretched out and being nailed to the wood? Malachi felt outrage, pure fury. He wanted to strike out at the Centurion, the crowd. He even moved a step closer, but then stopped. Something held him back, made him look more closely at the Centurion. To his surprise he saw not glee, not satisfaction, but actual sorrow. Even a Centurion was moved by the plight of the figure now hanging from the slowly rising cross.
As he hung on the cross, the man to his left turned his head and said something that Malachi could not hear, but to which the central figure replied. Malachi could not stay a moment longer. He backed his way through the crowd and started the walk home. Suddenly, the clear blue sky turned dark as though it shared his sorrow and his outrage at what he had seen. The earth shook beneath his feet. Then it was over. Somehow Malachi knew that it was over for the man as well. And yet, it was not over, at least for Malachi. No matter how desperate his situation, he never made another cross and for some unknown reason, the shavings from that last cross were never thrown away.