Saint Longinus the Centurion was present during the crucifixion of Christ. He was the soldier who pierced Christ's side with a spear, and who proclaimed after Christ's death that "truly he was the Son of God". Tradition holds that he converted to Christianity afterward, and died a martyr. We read from the gospel passages about Saint Longinus, his entry in the "Golden Legend", and an excerpt of a blog post about Saint Longinus by Father Andrew Stephen Damick (the full blog post is here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/asd/2016/10/16/truly-son-god/)
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we celebrate St Longinus the Centurion
Saint Longinus was a Roman centurion present during the crucifixtion of Christ. He is not mentioned by name, but church tradition identifies Longinus as the soldier who pierce’s Christ’s side with a lance, and the centurion who proclaims after the crucifxtion that “truly this man was the son of God”.
Tradition holds that Longinus became a Christian, and became a martyr for the faith.
St Longinus has the distinction of being played by John Wayne, in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told. For some reason, Longinus has a cowboy accent in this portrayal.
Let us first read some of the gospel passages that are associated with the story of Longinus. The first is from the Gospel of John, and the second from the Gospel of Matthew:
1 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c] 37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
One important source for the life of Longinus after the dramatic events of good Friday comes from the “Golden Legend,” a colleciton of the lives of the saints. Let us read the entry on St Longinus
Jacobus de Voragine
Longinus, which was a puissant knight, was with other knights, by the commandment of Pilate, on the side of the cross of our Lord, and pierced the side of our Lord with a spear; and when he saw the miracles, how the sun lost his light, and great earthquaving of the earth was, when our Lord suffered death and passion in the tree of the cross, then believed he in Jesu Christ. Some say that when he smote our Lord with the spear in the side, the precious blood avaled by the shaft of the spear upon his hands, and of adventure with his hands he touched his eyes, and anon he that had been tofore blind saw anon clearly, wherefore he refused all chivalry and abode with the apostles, of whom he was taught and christened, and after, he abandoned him to lead an holy life in doing alms and in keeping the life of a monk about thirty-eight years in Cæsarea and in Cappadocia, and by his words and his example many men converted he to the faith of Christ. And when this came to the knowledge of Octavian the provost, he took him and would have constrained him to do sacrifice to the idols, and Saint Longinus said: There may no man serve two lords which be contrary to other; thine idols be lords of thy malices, corrupters of all good works and enemies to chastity, humility and to bounty, and friends to all ordure of luxury, of gluttony, of idleness, of pride and of avarice, and my Lord is Lord of soberness that bringeth the people to the everlasting life. Then said the provost: It is nought that thou sayest; make sacrifice to the idols and thy God shall forgive thee because of the commandment that is made to thee. Longinus said: If thou wilt become christian God shall pardon thee thy trespasses. Then the provost was angry, and made the teeth of Saint Longinus to be drawn out of his mouth, and did do cut his mouth open. And yet for all that Longinus lost not his speech, but took an axe that he there found, and hewed and brake therewith the idols and said: Now may we see if they be very gods or not. And anon the devils issued out and entered into the body of the provost and his fellows, and they brayed like beasts and fell down to the feet of Saint Longinus and said: We know well that thou art servant unto the sovereign God. And Saint Longinus demanded of the devils why they dwelled in these idols, and they answered: We have found place in these idols for us, for over all where Jesu Christ is not named ne his sign is not showed, there dwell we gladly; and because when these paynims come to these idols for to adore and make sacrifice in the name of us, then we come and dwell in these idols, wherefore we pray thee, man of God, that thou send us not in the abysm of hell. And Saint Longinus said to the people that there were: What say ye: will ye have these devlls for your gods and worship them or have ye liefer that I hunt them out of this world in the name of Jesu Christ? And the people said with a high voice: Much great is the God of christian people, holy man, we pray thee that thou suffer not the devils to dwell in this city. Then commanded Saint Longinus to the devils that they should issue out of these people, in such wise that the people had great joy and believed in our Lord.
A little time after the evil provost made Saint Longinus to come tofore him, and said to him that all the people were departed, and by his enchantment had refused the idols; if the king knew it he should destroy us and the city also. Aphrodisius answered: How wilt thou yet torment this good man, which hath saved us and hath done so much good to the city? And the provost said: He hath deceived us by enchantry. Aphrodisius said: His God is great and hath none evil in him. Then did the provost cut out the tongue of Aphrodisius, wherefore Saint Longinus signed unto God, and anon the provost became blind and lost all his members. When Aphrodisius saw that, he said: Lord God, thou art just and thy judgment is veritable. And the provost said to Aphrodisius: Fair brother, pray to Saint Longinus that he pray for me, for I have done ill to him, and Aphrodisius said: Have not I well told it to thee, do no more so to Longinus: Seest not thou me speak without tongue? And the provost said, I have not only lost mine eyes, but also my heart and my body is in great pain. And Saint Longinus said: If thou wilt be whole and guerished put me appertly to death, and I shall pray for thee to our Lord, after that I shall be dead, that he heal thee. And anon then the provost did do smite off his head, and after, he came and fell on the body of Saint Longinus and said all in weeping, Sire: I have sinned; I knowledge and confess my filth, and anon came again his sight, and he received health of his body and buried honorably the body of Saint Longinus. And the provost believed in Jesu Christ and abode in the company of christian men, and thanked God, and died in good estate. All this happed in Cæsarea of Cappadocia to the honour of our Lord God, to whom be given laud and glory in secula seculorum.
The story of St Longinus inspires us to conversion, just as Longinus converted when he saw the crucifixtion, proclaiming that the man wrongly crucified truly was the son of God. This theme has been expounded by many preachers throughout the ages. My favourite is a reflection of St Longinus by the Antiochian Orthodox priest, Father Andrew Stephen Damick on his blog on the Ancient Faith Ministries website. I encourage you to read anything that Father Damick writes, he is a wonderful expositor of Christian truth. I will quote from part of his blog post. I encourage you to read the whole thing, the link is given in the episode description for this episode.
What’s striking about the life of St. Longinus is how he responded to what he saw. He saw how Jesus suffered, how He died and how He rose from the dead. And he was converted. He was changed. And even when it would have been much more convenient just to forget about what he saw and go along with the other soldiers in taking the bribe, he kept his faith. And he left everything behind and preached Christ.
Now, none of us here were eyewitnesses of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus like Longinus was. But we are indirect witnesses of a lot. We see that suffering and resurrection in our liturgical participation. And we see how history records that almost all the Apostles were martyred, going to their deaths proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive. We see how the Holy Spirit has preserved the Church in truth and purity throughout 2000 years of troubles. We see how the Scripture attests to the truth of everything God accomplished first through the Jews and then through the Church.
But we are not only indirect witnesses. We are also eyewitnesses. We are eyewitnesses of many other things that God is doing. We have seen people in our midst who are giving up their lives in Christ’s service when they could be doing so many other things—just like Longinus did. We have seen faith growing in our midst. We have seen people giving what they have for the sake of God’s mission on this earth. We have seen people repenting of their sins. All of this is just like what Longinus did.
And we have seen the beauty of God’s salvation here in our divine services and in the precision and clarity of our Orthodox theology.
And we also have direct experience of the blessings that God gives to us. He gave us our very existence. He gave us food, shelter and clothing. He gave us our intellect, our strength and our families. He gave us this holy church. He gave us each other. And most of all, He gave us His Son, Who gave up His own life so that we might live with Him.
Now, there are people who witness all these things and receive all these things from God and yet do not respond like Longinus. They do not respond by being converted. They do not respond by putting aside what would be easiest to just keep doing and then doing what makes sense in the light of what they’ve seen instead.
But that’s not what a Christian does or is. A Christian is someone who sees all these good things and receives all these good things and then responds with conversion. And what does it mean to convert? It means changing direction, to turn around altogether. You don’t have to have some big feeling to convert. You don’t have to have what some might call a “spiritual experience” to convert. You just have to start heading in another direction.
Becoming a Christian means having a sense that things will never be the same. When you see Who Jesus Christ is and receive what He is doing, you change. You start doing something new, something aligned with what has been revealed to you.
But don’t think that, if you’ve been a Christian your whole life, this doesn’t apply to you. Don’t think that conversion is only for the new Christian. Conversion is for everyone. Why? Because we get stuck in ruts. Because we progress only so far in the faith and then stop. Because we hold on to what we learned as kids and then never mature our faith as adults. Because we have sin that needs repenting of.
Conversion doesn’t happen only at the beginning of Christian life. It’s something we keep doing. It defines what it means to be Christians. When did I convert? Constantly! I’m still converting. We’re all converts. We’re all converting. This is what Christianity is—the faith of conversion.
And we convert from our hearts, because God has touched our hearts. That does not mean that we’re looking for particular emotions. You don’t have to get all sentimental about God to be a real Christian, to convert. But you do have to make an inner decision and commitment that you’re going to follow Jesus Christ from now on, that you’re going to sacrifice, that you’re going to keep finding new ways to become more like Him.
So be like Longinus. See Who Jesus is and what He is doing. And then convert. And keep converting.
Saint Longinus is celebrated on Oct 16 in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
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Let us end with an excerpt of a 1913 poem by William Lees Greenstreet, titled St Longinus the centurion
For when the nails were driven through His flesh.
And all His body quivered with the pain, In place of the accustomed bitter cry, He spake the words, — well known now, then so strange, — " Father, forgive them," and I standing by Heard them and greatly wondered. Who was this ? And who His Father ? and why in His pain, When men are wont to curse their torturers. Asked He that they be pardoned ? All day long I pondered on this mystery as I watched The cross and all the Jewish rabblement That came to mock their King. And when there fell That strange and awful darkness on the land, And strong men trembled, and the mocking voice Of all that abject multitude was hushed, And men spoke low in whispers, or were dumb. My wonder grew, and still the question came Unanswered to my soul, — " What man is this ? " And as I gazed upon His quivering form. Scarred, flayed, and furrowed by the cruel scourge. All suddenly there came into my mind Hercules dying on Mount Aeta's crest, Tortured by Nessus' poison, punished thus For saving his wife's honour, — Hercules, The son of Zeus the Thunderer. And then The thought came of Prometheus and his woes. The godlike Titan, who gave gifts to men, And therefor suffered torture ; and I asked Within myself, — Is it a trait Divine Pain to endure for giving gifts to men ? And I remembered then that one had told, — Bringing me Jewish tattle, — that a man Who seemed to be a prophet from the north. Had brought the gift of health to sickly folk, And even life to some who seemed as dead ;— Was this the man now dying on the cross ? The Jews had said He came from Galilee. — So through the hours of darkness did my soul Question and get no answer. Then there rang Through the black horror the most awful cry That ever smote my ear and stilled my heart, — A cry that bitter anguish of the soul, Not suffering of the body, might extort From one in mental torment. At that cry The firm earth trembled, and the crosses swayed ; And then the sky grew brighter, and I saw The face of Him I watched change suddenly As though illumined by some wondrous joy ; And from the parched mouth of that tortured frame. When breath was scant, and friends beside the cross Might scarcely hope to catch a whispered word, There came a loud cry like the voice of one Who shouts in victory ; and then I knew That He who hung there dying on the cross Could be none other than the Son of God.