Today we commemorate the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus, the Christ. Below is an excerpt from my novel, Song of the Beloved – the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene, which tells of the passion from Mary Magdalene’s perspective. May this day be one of deep prayer and contemplation on the mystery of suffering and death – but more than death, the promise of the resurrection that is yet to come! (If you find it helpful, listen to this musical piece before or while reading the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWFXEsFNSZM)
I looked up as the soldiers tore Jesus’ tunic from his body, leaving him naked but for his loincloth. They pushed him down onto his back with the beam still tied to his wrists and shoulders. As Jesus lay prostrate, his shoulders and arms stretched out across the beam, the soldiers knelt beside him, one on each side, and held his arms against the cross as a third approached with a hammer and iron spikes six inches long and three quarters of an inch square in width. I held my breath as I watched the executioner kneel down at Jesus’ right hand, placing the spike over his wrist and in one stroke, he brought the hammer down. I will never forget the scream of pain that escaped my beloved’s lips. It seemed in that utterance, that the very rock upon which we knelt was split in two. The hammer came down two more times, each followed by Jesus’ screams of agony. The executioner turned to Jesus’ left wrist and did the same. I knelt transfixed and paralyzed by my beloved’s agony and it was only because of John’s gentle nudge that I remembered to breathe. I was torn between simply getting up and running as far away as I could from this violence and rushing forward to still the executioner’s blows. Instead, I clutched Jesus’ scarlet cloak even tighter to me. If I could not hold my beloved in his pain, I would clutch his cloak, mustering for both of us, the courage we needed to move through this pain.
After his arms were securely nailed to the cross, the soldiers forced Jesus to his feet, and dragged him, tripping and stumbling to the upright support. A rope and pulley system had been put in place, which was secured to the cross. A group of soldiers heaved and pulled, dragging Jesus off the ground while Jesus cried out in agony, gagging and choking as the air was slowly squeezed from his lungs. After Jesus was raised to a height, roughly ten feet off the ground, the executioner again came forward and nailed a wooden support at Jesus’ feet. In the same fashion as his wrists, the executioner nailed Jesus’ feet to the cross – first one, and then the other. After he was finished, another soldier approached with a ladder and a sack across his chest. He propped the ladder against the support beam, climbed to reach Jesus’ head and pulled a hammer, a single nail and a wooden plaque from his pouch. He nailed the plaque above Jesus’ head and on it was written the charges against him: “Here is Jesus, ‘the Christ’ King of the Jews.”
The soldier replaced the hammer into his sack, and pulled from his pouch a small clay bottle and a reed. He uncorked the bottle, inserted the reed and held it toward Jesus’ lips. Surely this was an apothecary’s blend of herbs to aid unconsciousness – intended to alleviate some of the suffering of death. Grateful for this act of compassion shown toward my beloved, I looked on in sadness as Jesus shook his head in refusal. The soldier shrugged his shoulders in resignation and descended the ladder. After this was all accomplished, another soldier stepped forward with trumpet in hand. He blew the trumpet and proclaimed loudly, “Here hangs Jesus bar Joseph, found guilty of being a traitor for proclaiming himself to be king – a crime against Caesar, against Rome and punishable by death.” He blew the trumpet again. The time was twelve o’clock noon.
As the last note of the trumpet rang, the sky darkened, thunder cracked and the earth began to shake. The “gods” were not pleased with this act of treachery. The Romans, who still worshipped the gods of earth and sky were visibly shaken by the elements’ response. They shifted their feet and whispered to each other in questioning tones. All the while, I smiled in silent knowing of Abwoon’s displeasure. The guard who held us at bay now invited us to approach, “You may go nearer to the cross.” We ran to the foot of the cross and stood in prayerful support for our beloved. The soldiers prevented us from getting close enough to touch Jesus, but we stood within an arm’s length.
“My beloved,” I whispered, “You are not alone. We shall be here praying with you until you draw your final breath.” As I uttered these words, I felt Jesus’ heart open in search of mine and when our hearts met, I felt his heart tear in two as mine had when John had given me Jesus’ scarlet cloak. “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” my beloved begged in heart breaking agony. At that moment, the impact of Jesus’ pain reached the hearts of the Romans, the others criminals who hung on either side of him, and any of the curious onlookers who remained. In unison, they fell to their knees in sorrowful penitence.
The soldier nearest us shouted, “We have killed a prophet, a Son of God, we are
doomed.” In the midst of his own pain, Jesus uttered a prayer of absolution, “Abwoon,
forgive them they know not what they do.” I wept in wonder over Jesus’
compassion as I began to chant the Aramaic formula of forgiveness:
“Washboqlan khauabyn wakhtahayn aykana daph khnan shbwoqan l’khayyabayn.”
For three hours we stood and wept, kneeling or lying prostrate in prayer as our beloved’s life breath was slowly squeezed from him under the weight of his body as it hung on the cross. We listened to his pain. He wept tears of loss, moaned in agony and in moments of fear, yelled out in anger toward his god. We rode the waves of Jesus’ final spiritual journey as he moved from pain and fear, remorse and loss, doubt and rage to resolution, compassion, surrender, peace and back again. For three hours this went on as the Romans stood in their own form of prayer beside us. As time went on other curious on-lookers began to join us in our prayer. At three o’clock in the afternoon, one of the Roman guards came forward with spear in hand and in one swift and final act of mercy, plunged the spear into Jesus’ side. Jesus’ head flew back in the face of this new-found pain, but instead of the grimace of agony, a peaceful smile played upon his lips and he whispered, “Abwoon, into your hands I commend my Spirit. It is finished,” and his head fell forward and released his final breath as blood and water poured out of his side.
As Jesus released his final breath, my resolve gave way and the grief and horror that I had contained erupted into wailing and screaming. I tore at my hair and at my garments wanting to be freed of anything that might stand in the way of release. It was finished. Jesus was dead. As we poured out our grief, some of the Roman soldiers who had been moved by Jesus’ love drew toward us, knelt on the ground and offered their own prayers. I, in turn, was moved by their compassion and in awe over the ability of Jesus’ love to transcend even the perceived separations of culture, belief and rank. Lazarus, Martha, Judas, Nicodemus, Joanna and Mary’s brother Joseph who had joined them after the noon hour soon joined us at the top of the hill. After a time, the commanding officer came and said, “We must take him down from the cross so you have time to entomb him before the sun sets.” We nodded in our assent.
We stood in silence as the soldiers worked together to remove Jesus from the instrument of his torture and death. They removed the spikes from his feet, and then lowered the crossbar as Joseph, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Judas and John bore the weight of his lifeless body. They laid him out on the ground as they removed the spikes from his wrists and the crown of thorns from his head. The men gathered about Jesus’ lifeless body as Mother Mary and I laid out the red cloak – the only thing we had in which to wrap his body. As they laid his body upon the cloak, I fell upon him, wrapping myself around his lifeless body. I held him to my heart as I cried and I rocked him as I would a child. My heart was broken, my soul torn in two. But as I held him to me, I was more and more certain that this body had been just a shell and that my beloved, no longer dwelled within it. And I heard my beloved’s voice as I had all those many times before, “Mary, do not be afraid. I am with you always, even to the end of time.” These words gave me the strength I needed to release his body. I stepped back and allowed the men to gather him up to be carried to the place of his entombment.
During the evening and into the morning, Joseph had accomplished the preparations for Jesus’ burial. First he returned to Bethany to retrieve the burial nard that had been set aside for Martha’s dowry, along with the burial cloths that were all housed in the wedding chest beneath her bed. He located a humble tomb near Jerusalem since their family tomb was several days’ journey to Capernaum. The tomb he had procured was in the potter’s field just outside the city walls in the hillside caves usually reserved for the poor. We took up Jesus’ beaten, broken and lifeless body and walked in procession the short distance to the potter’s field intoning the Kaddish, the Hebrew song of mourning. Three Roman soldiers followed us at a respectful distance, having been ordered to see that Jesus was properly buried and to stand guard at the tomb until three days had passed. The High Priests wanted to make sure that no one was able to fake a resurrection, thereby confirming Jesus’ prediction that he would be raised from the dead. We arrived at the tomb, a small cave hollowed out in the limestone. The space was large enough for us to enter and stand upright. The men lay Jesus upon the floor of the cave while Mother Mary and I prepared the burial cloths. The burial cloths were strips of linen which we first covered in the burial nard – a mixture of resin, oils and spices which were to mask the stench of death while deterring insects, vermin and other animals from feasting on our dead. We soaked each strip and carefully bound his body from foot to head. A separate cloth was used for the head which we first covered in nard, then draped over his face from neck to crown, then over the back of his head to his shoulders. This was wrapped in strips of linen as the rest of the body had been. After his body was anointed and bound, we said our final prayers, our individual goodbyes and departed the tomb.
I waited outside the tomb as John, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Joseph and Judas, along with three of the Roman soldiers rolled the stone in front of the tomb. Mary, Martha, Salome and I held each other as we waited. After the tomb was safely sealed, the men returned to us, John holding in his arms, Jesus’ scarlet cloak. He came toward me and gently laid it into my arms. I wept at his thoughtful generosity. We said our goodbyes as Mary, Judas, Joseph and John turned toward Jerusalem to deliver the news to the Galilean disciples waiting in the Upper Room. Lazarus, Salome, Martha and I turned toward the road to Bethany. As we turned toward home, I heard my beloved’s voice for what I was sure would be the final time, “Mary I am with you always, even unto the end of time.” This time, I found no comfort in these words, only the finality of death.