The the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then the other who was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and out gushed blood and water.
There is so much that is interesting in this passage, particularly the way that John’s community of Jesus followers used blood and water as important symbolic elements that go together. But that’s for another day. Today I want to talk about the soldier.
On Saturday we went for a family trip to the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff and saw St Teilo’s church.
This is a church that was rescued and moved to the museum from an almost ruined state. Amazingly, however, in the ruins were preserved some of the original wall-paintings.
Old churches are very common in the UK: state churches in every parish. But in the reformation, the original wall paintings were whitewashed or destroyed. Go into an anglican church now and it will have a plain white interior. Almost no churches preserve the rich paintings that would have been universal.
St Teilo’s, in this restoration, shows the kinds of paintings that a small rural backwater church would have been able to afford. It is a truly amazing place, and anyone visiting Wales should go, I think (but I know I’m a religion geek). Anyway. Looking at the painting of the end of the crucifixion, I was unfamiliar with the roman soldier who looked to me liked he’d lost an eye. My wife speculated that there might be a folk-tale of the soldier who pierced Jesus’s side having been made blind by the act. So we did some research. And it is a fascinating story.
The soldier is first named in an appendix to the Acts of Pilate, a work of uncertain date (may be as early as late second century, most like to be much later, 5th or 6th century, possibly later still). He is called Longinus (a fairly simple pun on the word for ‘lance’ or ‘spear’). The character was associated with the centurion in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who says “Truly this man was the son of God” (forever John Wayne in many of our minds, I’m sure!) and Luke has saying “Truly this man was a righteous man”.
The story was concocted that Longinus converted at the cross, and then was hunted to martyrdom by his fellow soldiers. Martyrdom was a key symbol of a person’s authentic Christianity for many centuries (until surprisingly recent, actually).
Later, in around the 12th or 13th century, at the rise in popularity of Grail romances (fictions about the finding of religious artefacts, such as the Holy Grail, which could bestow huge power), Longinus acquired an extra complication to his story. He was said to have been originally blind in one eye. As he pierced Christ’s side, blood from the wound sprayed into his blind eye, instantly curing it. It is this scene shown in the image.
Longinus (as a Saint and Martyr) became fair game for the relic fervour that gripped the church in the medieval period, and bodies of Longinus were found, lost and refound. Tips of his spear (the so called “Holy Lance“) appeared in multiple places (there is still one in the Basilica in Rome). And pieces of the spear shaft were lesser relics sold by canny merchants.
He is still venerated today as a saint (in Catholicism and some Orthodox churches) and has a masked festival on the Philippine island of Marinduque.
Of course, this is all fantasy and invention. But it is striking how Longinus shows in microcosm the fetishes of the church over the millennia: from the concern for Martyrdom, to the rampant capitalism of relics, to the rationalization of saints following the reformation, to his relative obscurity today.
Had anyone heard of him before?
Edit: Added the link to Larkin’s Church Going, one of my all time favourite poems.