I was at a wedding this weekend at the Church of the Guardian Angel and I saw in a stained glass window looking down on the altar a crucifixion featuring the spear-carrying centurion who stabbed Jesus while he was on the cross.
I know now this guy is called Longinus. Interestingly, he probably only got that name about seven centuries later–and not surprisingly, the name basically means spear.
More interestingly, it got me thinking about the odd role of the antagonist in a story. At first it doesn’t seem sensible to include a villian in an iconic depiction of Jesus and Mary and the apostles. Shouldn’t the hero’s treatment, the artistic canonization that reflects the religious canonization, be reserved for the good guys in the story?
But of course that’s ridiculous. That’s not how stories work and it’s not how we experience stories. We don’t just remember Luke, we remember Vader too, and we go back to the story (the real story) for both of them. A villain who means something to us makes a story mean more, and makes the hero mean more.
And the great stories, the mythic ones, give us villains whose identities coil around our own like a helix. Villains who understand us better than anyone and who turn out to be the gatekeepers of our greater selves.
I know. Hardly shocking once you think about it for a minute. But still a powerful lesson when you see it in stained glass and think about how easy it is to waste a lot of time blaming the people who make our lives harder, instead of lifting the gate and letting them on the bus too so we can all keep moving.
I’m not Catholic or anything, but they certainly understood this (heck, some people say they invented the Devil). They made Longinus a saint.