(Welcome to our new Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we'll present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, from Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today's saint, Longinus, comes from Volume 4 of the series.)
"There were many who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago, among whom were grieving followers, but most of whom were onlookers who impassively watched three men die, one of them the Savior whose moment of death brought darkness in daylight and struck fear into all hearts. It remained for a soldier, who had knelt only before the Roman Emperor Tiberius, to recognize the wrath of God when the earth was suddenly plunged into darkness and to realize the divinity of Christ. When Jesus uttered His last words, 'It is finished,' and the light was gone from the earth, a Roman centurion went to his knees and said, 'Surely this was the Son of God.'
The Roman soldier was Longinus, who had been assigned to stand guard and maintain order while the execution took place. It was his further duty to make certain that the execution was carried out, and he did so with little realization that the Roman governor whom he represented was to order his own death one day. It was grim business he supervised that day, but the hill known as Golgotha, or 'place of the skull,' and the specter of the cross meant nothing to Longinus except that they were all a part of his job; however, when it was all over he was no longer a symbol of the might of the Roman Empire.
When Jesus died, Longinus symbolized, as he knelt before God, the victory of the Savior in the salvation of man. He who had fought for the Empire was now ready to fight and die for the kingdom of heaven. In three days he stood before the tomb of the resurrected Savior and declared himself to be a servant of the Lord. He joined the ranks of the apostles with the full knowledge that, although all Christians faced many dangers, his life was
doubly jeopardized, because in renouncing the emperor he was committing treason, a treason made all the more serious because he had worn the uniform of a centurion and been accorded the respect of the military.
Longinus was quick to absorb the teachings of the Savior and was a great asset to the cause of Christianity in Jerusalem because his conversion was a strong argument for the word of Christ. If the sudden darkness at the instant of the death of the Messiah was not enough to convince all the people, then the transformation of Longinus helped to convert those skeptics whose fear and ignorance had to be supplanted by love. He could have left Jerusalem for the comparative safety of the countryside, but he felt that he could be of greater service to the Lord in the city of Jerusalem where he had served as a soldier. This was to prove his undoing, and he was aware of it.
Soon enough a group of assassins was sent abroad to bring back the head of Longinus at the direction of Pontius Pilate, who had gazed at the innocent Jesus and publicly washed his hands of His trial and judgment, but now that his military establishment had been slighted, stood ready to bathe his hands in the blood of his former centurion. The search party of five had grown weary of the search and was invited to rest at a haven where Longinus had found shelter, and he entertained and fed them. Unaware of their host’s identity, they tarried at his bidding but soon let it be known that they would have to find Longinus or their heads would be severed in his place.
Longinus made himself known to the would-be killers, all of whom were thrown into a state of dilemma because they could not bear to bring themselves to kill a man they had come to respect and admire. Nevertheless, Longinus, in a gesture of supreme sacrifice, prevailed upon them to carry out their orders, not just for their own safety but for others who might fail. On October 16, 36, the head of the valiant Longinus was brought to Pontius Pilate, who in turn ordered it thrown into the public dump.
A blind woman, praying at the tomb of Christ, had her prayers answered when she heard a voice bidding her to take the head of Longinus from the refuse heap and give it a decent burial. When this was done, the woman recovered her sight. Many miracles have been wrought in the name of the stouthearted Longinus."
(From Orthodox Saints, Vol. 4, by Fr. George Poulos. Icon from this website.)