Part three of The Mary Passions: Mary Magdalene by Anne Wolf Fraley with Kate Hennessy-Keimig and Terri C. Pilarski
I had not slept. Since leaving Golgotha I have been overwhelmed by despair. Whether from gray skies and starless nights or the weight of grief pressed against my heart, I do not know. But I did not sleep—my mind raced, struggling to grasp our crushing loss. Was he truly gone, Jesus, my friend?
I was there, crouched beside his mother as we watched the wind whip against the bareness of his body, the force of which blew his hair across his face. I could not turn my eyes from his. I did not want the memory of his suffering to burn itself into my mind, so I looked only at his eyes. I must tell you, his eyes were extraordinary. They bore the pain of his injury, a tender, forgiving dullness outshone by deep and abiding love. I do not know how such contradictory expressions could be revealed at once, but I should not be surprised. He is no ordinary man.
I remember that my hands were numb. Mary, his mother, and I clung tightly to one another during those endless hours. She was drained of strength, stumbling several times as she stood faithfully near her son. A merchant whose curiosity had led him off the path as he left the city gates drew a cushion from his stores and brought it to Mary to ease her plight. He stayed near us for a while, a witness transformed by compassion whose heart began to break along with the rest of us.
Jesus’ breathing became shallow, and he did not fight what he knew awaited him. He raised his head a bit and looked at us. Upon his mother he looked long and with deep devotion. I felt the tension slip from her being with a deep sigh, and when I looked her face was drawn with comprehension and the tug of peace suggested a smile. My eyes shifted back to his, and in the deepening darkness of them I saw the world gathered to him. He did not smile, but the same peace that touched his mother radiated from him. Our eyes locked in wordless farewell, and with one last, penetrating gaze he entrusted his heart and wisdom to me and released his last breath.
Mary sank against me, and I was grateful for the need to tend to her as the enormity of our loss gripped my soul. I remember little else, for which I am glad. No one should endure the agony of love being stolen from them. We were swallowed by the deep darkness of night, and there remained until the song of the birds alerted us to this dawning day.
We gathered our oil and spices and ventured into the early morning light to go to the tomb. We did not speak. The ritual of this loving obligation to the dead was well known to us, and conversation flowed between us in the sorrowful echoes of our footsteps.
It looked as it did when his body was laid to rest two days before. The entrance to the tomb, small but easily accessible, was marked by the scars of its recent hewing, jagged and raw. I felt oddly comforted by its gaping darkness, as it reflected the state of my own soul—jagged, raw and dark. Perhaps it was for this reason that I gathered the folds of my dress around me without hesitation and ducked through the opening to confront the reality of my lifeless beloved.
The others followed behind me, and our eyes adjusted to the darkness with growing puzzlement. “He is not here,” my voice broke the silence after several moments. We looked at one another, fear beginning to creep into our blood. I set the ointment down beside the lonely shroud that had wrapped his body and made my way around the perimeter of the tomb. It was as empty as I felt.
Of a sudden the tomb was filled with light, as though the sun had breached the horizon and directed its rays to illuminate our devastated world. So vivid was the light that at first we did not see the two men who stood before us in radiating brilliance. It was too much for our heavy hearts to bear, and our knees gave way to our fear as we fell to the ground, averting our gaze from this terrible wonder.
“Do not be afraid,” one of them spoke gently. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
My thoughts reached deep into the mystery that was this man we all loved, Jesus, whose teaching changed our hearts and thus, our lives. The experience of him, of what had become known through him, began to take hold and banish the fear that had begun to settle in my heart. I had no answers, but neither was I afraid. “He is not here,” I heard my voice again, this time with a hint of confidence. Could it be? Was it possible that the promise of his triumph was more than a metaphor, that it was, in fact, the miracle we were blessed to witness here in this tomb?
“He has risen?” queried one of my companions behind me, and another shouted with excitement, “He is risen!”
In one heartbeat we turned to find the men gone. The light, however, continued to fill the emptiness, permeating our hearts with the fullness of love. Then grief gave way to awareness, and in that shattering awareness we began to leap with a joy that we had never known.
Before we knew it we were rushing from the tomb toward the village, and before long we came upon the place where the disciples had gathered. Peter, hearing our ruckus, got up and began to move toward us. When he saw who he were he stopped, puzzled by our exuberance. One by one the others got up and moved toward us, and by the time we reached them they were drawn together in a cluster of confusion and concern.
Peter grasped my arms in his hands. “What is it?” he demanded, fearing, I think, that our mourning had given way to delirium. We began to talk all at once, sharing the gleeful news of our Lord’s rising. The significance of our words began to sink in, but they were backing up and turning away, dismissing our claims as fantasy and wishful thinking. Only Peter continued to listen, but doubt, too, clouded his eyes.
At last we fell into silence, and Peter looked at each of us, furrows of weariness and the weight of sin etched across his forehead and his mouth drawn down. “Go home,” he said at last. “You are tired. We are all tired. We will talk soon.”
In stunned silence we turned away and began our walk to the place where we lodged. I turned once to look back, and saw Peter begin to move in the direction from which we had come. He picked up his pace, and before he disappeared from view I thought I saw him begin to run. Our heads were swimming, our hearts were bursting, and in a daze we returned to the city while the miracle of the morning began to take hold and fill us with hope and expectation.
That evening Peter came to see us, bringing with him the oil and spices we had abandoned at the tomb. I knew when I saw him enter the doorway that he had seen and believed. His face was no longer ravaged by the bitterness of the last few days, but was illuminated by the light of joy and renewal. I took the jars from him and wrapped my arms around him, and in that moment we felt buoyed by the love that been bequeathed to us and would now sustain us.
We talked long into the night until the full impact of all we had witnessed and come to understand was within our reach. We then chose to yield to the fatigue that we had pushed away, and Peter took his leave as I sought out my bed. Outside the door, stars hidden from my view the previous two nights seemed to sparkle with a new brightness, and though my heart still ached with loss, peace coursed through my veins like a soothing tonic.
He was risen. The world might appear the same, but in each breath I took I would draw in the power of love as I served God’s people with compassion and mercy. There was joyful news to share about the God of our people, and as the knowledge of that love unfolded in the days to come, lives would be healed and restored, love would bind wounds and forgiveness would open hearts to reconciliation. Our Lord had work yet to do, and we would be part of it. Amazing, indeed.
The Mary Passions were conceived by Terri C. Pilarski and written with Kate Hennessy-Keimig and Anne Wolf Fraley. These passion narratives reimagine the Gospel stories of Jesus' last days through the eyes of three women - his mother, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene.