Of all the places in Israel I would have expected to have a life-changing revelation, a convent would have been last on the list.
Actually, a convent wouldn’t have been on the list.
Convents are for women. They are for Catholic nuns, to be a little more specific. I’m nun of those, if you’ll bear the pun.
And yet on my first visit to Jerusalem, our group took a quick detour into the basement of the Sisters of Zion Convent and it was there where I saw the crucifixion drama in a brand new light.
We had barely begun our walk down the traditional Via Dolorosa when our guide explained that the Via Dolorosa Jesus knew was below us. And when the Sisters of Zion needed to do some work in their basement, they found it.
The Roman-era pavement stones are easy to spot. We walked on them. We considered the history that had played out on these ancient stones. We learned that the stones were actually part of the Antonio Fortress, where Jesus had been held, tortured and tried.
“Look closely at this one,” said the guide, pointing to a single stone that was roped off.
The lines and shapes were faint after nearly 2,000 years of time had passed, but it was easy to see why scholars believe the markings were part of an ancient, very cruel gambling game.
Though details aren’t fully known, apparently Roman soldiers played the game with one another, and with condemned prisoners. By rolling dice made from sheep knuckles, a “winning” player might be made “king.” Soldiers would crown the lucky man, give him a scepter, and bow down to him. When they played among themselves, the soldiers also paid up.
But once the dice pointed the victim toward another fate, everything turned sour.
With every unlucky roll of the dice, losing players moved ever closer to a line that represented death. Once that line was crossed, execution happened. It was a perfect explanation for some of the things that happened to Jesus, including the ridicule the soldiers had given Jesus, complete with a purple robe, staff and a “crown” made of thorns.
They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:28-29)
Quite unexpectedly, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. To picture the dice rolling a final time, with the result somehow taking Jesus past the “line of death,” was just too much.
Our group was ready to move, and we quickly exited the convent basement. Jesus had also been moved quickly toward a busy city street. The bright sunshine and the loud voices of souvenir vendors was like an attack on my senses. It wasn’t hard to picture the noisy, horrible walk Jesus took toward the cross, stumbling toward Golgotha.
From all appearances, it must have seemed as though the Romans were in complete control of the entire situation. They could arrest a man, torture him, and nail him to a cross with barely a hint of a fair trial. By the time Jesus was crucified, soldiers were already gambling again, this time, for Jesus’ clothing. It seemed as though they held complete power.
But did they? Psalm 22 had been written some nine centuries before. Among the other vivid looks at the cross, those words include this phrase: “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:18)
As it turns out, even the powerful Roman empire was only playing a support role to the greatest story every told. God had been in control the entire time, no matter how strange that might have seemed to those watching.
It’s not the last time people have grappled with the idea that evil forces are having their way. It’s not the last time people have wondered where God was in the midst of a terrible experience.
Maybe you’re there, now.
If so, don’t forget how this story ends. As it turns out, God was in control. As it turns out, not even death could conquer Jesus.
Trust Him. Wait on Him. And believe it with all your heart.
God is in control.