Marius’ Mules

‘Lent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word,
lencten meaning springtime,
lengthening days.

As winter stores run short,
the last tightening of the belt
before the earth sprouts again
and birds return,
we look to seed-time.

Buried seed rises, life resumes,
seed-time leads to regrowth,
as regrowth leads to harvest,
and God who gives the seasons,
turns seed-time celebrations
to the greater one of Easter.

We mark this time of self-denial,
the desert of temptation
and the journey to the cross,
with Jesus’ words:
If any would be my follower,
let him deny himself,
take up his cross and follow me.

Then they heard Him differently,
not as we do now, but then.
Now we sometimes change the words
to include men and women,
but His listeners thought of men.

They saw lines of Roman soldiers
with crosses on on their backs,
their nickname, ‘Marius’ Mules’
from the general who led them
and made them wear cross-shaped packs
weighing over sixty pounds.

The pack was called a sarcina,
a military marching backpack,
but in their slang it was furca,
the word for two pronged forks,
for crucifixion crosses and punishment yokes;
furcifer was slang for jailbird,
gallows material.
All a man needed was tied, or hanged,
on his furca,
his cross.

There is more.

Soldiers can’t be individuals,
self-seekers or go-getters,
but a troop with a leader;
holding together as one.
Legionaire, centurion,
cook, quartemaster,
introvert, extrovert
or barrack-room lawyer;
soldiers are part of a company,
one esprit-de-corps,
watching each other’s backs,
carrying their full packs,
denying personal wants
for the sake of the legion,
following the one in charge.

We know our King was crucified,
His hearers, then, just heard the call:

If any would be my follower,
let them deny themselves,
take up their cross and follow me.

What was Jesus saying to that first century crowd? Many were waiting for a Messiah, a warrior in Joshua’s mould, who would drive out the Romans and restore Israel and David’s throne. Here was a stirring speaker with Joshua’s Aramaic name, speaking in soldierly language, calling for followers. Was He speaking to them?

We read His words knowing He was crucified, and interpret them differently, but so would his first-century listeners just two or three years later. It is as though He was not talking to that crowd, not then, not there, but to that crowd as it would be when His work was done.

John (ch.6:15) described how, having heard Him speak, with their high expectations they tried to force Him to be their king. Instead they gained the Servant King who so loved the world that He came as His own Son so they might have eternal life.

We often only understand God’s words and actions after they are fulfilled.

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