GOOD FRIDAY – MARY MAGDALEN
“...and many women were there beholding afar off”
...and, yes, I was with them.
I speak to you from that shimmering distance. The cool of night has lifted. The sun burns into the sand. I speak to you from its hot wind shadows. I speak to you from its dolorous weight. God’s son asks for water. I am too far away to hear. They torture him with vinegar.
For two thousand years you have celebrated this day of slaughter. What have you learned?
I speak to you from a time of sorrow and weakness. Women were stoned for making love. Men were crucified for believing in God. What have we learned? And how did we ever learn to diminish, to kill each other so?
My heart hangs twisted between hope and despair. Sacred lives trickle and shift like sand raked by wind. I do not want his sacrifice to be in vain.
“Master,” I said, “must there be sacrifice at all?”
He looked up from the sand in which he liked to trace shapes and words. “Beloved, some things in life are worth a sacrifice. Peace is, and love is. Sacrifice is never necessary. Sometimes, though, it is the price exacted.”
He could have stirred up rebellion. Many would have fought at his side. His life-blood message was, you do not increase peace or love by fighting.
What does it feel like to watch your beloved prodded in the sun, thirsty, up the gritty hill, in order to be crucified?
Look around. Ask a woman whose husband is sent into action, whose son is sent to the front.
There is a numbness, a distance of disbelief. Death slides between you like a pleading grin that hangs in your faces as you try to reassure one another. The truth is, he just got a one-way ticket to death. He might not return.
You pray on your knees. You know that miracles exist. Riddled with doubt, you keep telling yourself that you believe. You pray so hard, you see stones glitter with pity.
A miracle is something like a simple law of life. If no one nails his hands, his feet to the cross, if no one raises the cross, then life continues. If no one raises these guns, these swords...so possible...the hammer not raised, the nail not nailed in.
You keep praying. You make your private deals with God. You remember even men with stones all ready in their hands have laid them down again when fearless words were spoken.
You would give your life if his could be spared that way. But your life is not wanted now. It is not nearly as important as his.
A mad thought grinds in the brains of people with clout, and you are helpless.
What does it feel like to have your loved one nailed to the wood?
I am numb. I am ill. I am so full of hope.
My nerves have forgotten me. I place one foot in front of the other in the sand. This cannot be. This is my friend, my master. He touched. He ate, drank wine. He slept.
I am waiting for the miracle. What will it look like? God’s will—I know this—cannot be slaughter. My heart knows this.
Was I his lover? His wife? Does it matter?
It was a man’s world then. It is a man’s world now. I was a footnote. Yes, and I sat at his feet like a child. I wanted to serve him forever.
And so I got sprinkled into unauthorized texts—a few kisses on the mouth, a special love. Two thousand years later, women are still footnotes in this awkward version of reality—ciphers, trophies, curiosities.
I stepped through the sand, heavy with dread and light with hope, tied to the reluctant muscle of my being. I wanted resolution. Not his death. I wanted to behold the miracle.
I was so convinced that there would be a miracle. I stood with the women, afar off, to watch the miracle take place.
I cannot understand how cruel we can be with one of our own. Never have I heard of lions joking and rolling dice at the foot of the cross of one of their own they have just nailed there to die. Never have I heard of tigers crucifying their males, stoning their females—savoring the spectacle, the agony, the body that keeps twitching with persistent will to live despite the pain, the depletion.
My torment was that I was utterly helpless.
Of course I was in love with him. There was nothing pious about my love, but it was sacred, oh, yes. He was a man with all of God’s beauty. How could I not love him, and in him the glory of life?
Such love—any love perhaps—is never deemed significant enough for history.
I loved him.
I would have given him all that I had and anything else he might ask of me, and more—oil, spice, my hair to dry his feet with a caress. He was a prince of peace among the paupers so intent on slaughter.
I stumbled in the sand and fell to my knees. Today the women kneel on cold wood or carved stone—old women often, with kerchiefs on their hair, or respectable hats. They come in their sadness and offer empty, broken, shriveled, yearning lives. They come and believe—he hears them. They dream of a young God righting the unbalanced, toppling world, giving himself, doing what gods do, with reverence for life.
They dream of redemption in this place where they were sent as girls to have a great weight placed upon their life’s exuberance, a lid on the bubbles of joy that burst from the effervescence of being. They pray to be given back that beauty of being—alive.
Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Tokyo, Paris, London, Dresden. A woman trembles in her lover’s arms on the eve of his leaving. Later she only trembles with his memory, and with the dread of what it means to have a loved one called up to likely death.
You walk up to Golgatha, one step, then another, with his mother by your side, your eyes on his body, bloody with torture and wretched with humiliation.
Have we bred no end of cruelty into our men? Now they are forced to force themselves upon the beauty of life and make it count for nothing. Nothing is honored until long after death.
The high sun breathes life-giving, but still indifferent power. Everywhere there is a cross, a death. The sand burns the soles of his feet, and mine.
“Master, are you trying to prove that you can live your truth without shedding another man’s blood? And can you do that without spilling your own?”
Is death just the ripeness of life tearing open to release its seed?
Am I the one he saved from being stoned to death? It makes a pretty story. I then followed him, a beautiful sinner, saved.
“Woman, where are your accusers?”
No one comes forward to accuse.
What is this preoccupation with sin? When just being alive seems already a sin, to love with touch is certainly unspeakable.
I am in love. I wish I could change his terrible philosophy, his love for this stark father vision of God, for barren laws. I wish I could make him understand that light and life is our gift from God, so much more beautiful than any of us could have dreamed.
But we twist it and twist it and twist it, until it is a hewn length of tree standing up, reeking of blood, pain and fear, and not bearing fruit.
Women often love a man in pain they hope to heal. So many of us stand at a cross, afar off, not daring to come closer.
We offer water with our pitcher when he passes by. We sob. We wipe up the blood with our clothes. We scream in our helpless souls.
“And still, Master, I do not want to stop you from doing what is so important to you.”
Here is my staggering dream: I reach the cross before the first nail goes in. I say, “Stop.” So simple. Just “stop.” Reaching out with an unbelievable hand.
Is there a knife in my back for dreaming too much?
In dreams I live in strength and tenderness. Footnotes contain the unwritten. Nothing is spelled out about the women watching from afar.
Yet once we enter the ritual circle of slaughter, we fear the knives in our backs, the stones poised to crush our skulls, our kidneys, our breasts, as though to teach us to practice for death all life long.
But death is easy. Our frailty is its guarantee. Life is what calls for mastery.
It’s not as I thought it would be. The sky tears. It is raining.
Among the women in the distance, I am too dizzy with dread to notice the soldiers roll dice for his clothes, or the vinegar sponge.
We shiver with fear and with fever, first in the sun, then in the rain. We do not have the strength left for another step forward to lay a hand on the soldier’s arm. We stand and we shiver.
What would it look like a few steps closer?
Perhaps I would not have that knife in my back, but merely provoke a quick, humiliating scuffle.
I struggle, slip and stumble on the sand. “No. Let me be. Let him be. Let me go to him. He has done nothing to die for.”
“Just look at the bitch! She has the hots for him still. Hey, bitch, he can’t do it to you any longer. But I’ll be happy to.”
A soldier grabs my shoulders, rips my black shawl. I spill from torn cloth to the sand. They spit with laughter. If I am lucky, one of the other soldiers stops him, saying, “Cool it, Tertius. Let her be.”
The other women shiver and look on with dread and love from afar off.
It’s not that God is indifferent. He yearns for our love as much as we for his.
Look how heavy his sky is with thunder and downpour, how sparkling his sand is in the sun, the dust in his air.
Can you not see that God isn’t the one destined to save his son from human hands? This was my loved one’s mission, to stop the slaughter by making it visible. If he doesn’t succeed, who will?
How much I want to reach for him.
After the death, the women dance their agony. They trample the green wheat of spring. How dare you, God? They sway at the altars, buckling in their knees, their spines. How dare you, God?
But God’s laws are simple, you see. Sons are not killed by God’s will, but by human bullets, nails, swords, bombs. Husbands, brothers, fathers, neighbors.
You haven’t come this far merely to poke in my suffering for jewels.
Why don’t you seek my joy instead? Why don’t you ever come to seek my joy, the spring blossom pleasure, the quivering lantern of dragonfly wings?
I know the answer of course.
I am one of you, twisted, and seduced by death, seduced for thousands of years, by a suffering that compels us to love, to wish that we could heal, allowing wounds, accepting the burden of soothing.
The women, the footnotes, are always funding the truth, some with their broken passions, some with frigidity, and some with money. And all the men seem so in love with pain.
“I wish you could love life enough to stay with us, my lord.”
It is not God who forsakes my beloved.
God is as helpless as the women lurking in the distance.
I beg you, women of the future, reach back into my past, give me the courage to step further still.
God is as powerful and as helpless as the sun. We have to finish the reality. That’s the contract we enter when we accept the prize of life.
God, give me the courage for one more step, for speech instead of silence.
Women hang back in the shadow with useless wisdom, huge-eyed like caged monkeys, oblivious to power, which has become a very complicated dance. Wisdom whispers it doesn’t have to be this way. Tradition spins, projecting and protecting, moneys, status, things, importance, impotence, and jealousies.
He loves. He is loved. He has the wealth of unbelievable power. Let’s cut him down a notch, or two. This is how power will always be stopped. For some, it is the hardest to forgive that someone else can draw from the wellspring of love while they have long forgotten the taste. Money tastes more familiar, doesn't it? The taste of laws and ownership is easy to remember.
Oh, let the law be love. And if it isn’t, let it become so.
The miracle is looking at each other, each by each, and starting to obey the simple laws of God. If you do not slaughter your brothers, your sisters, they need not die a violent death. There is no bargaining with this.
And there is this, the toughest law of God: God, too, obeys his own laws. God has no shortcuts. God can only nurture what reality has set in motion. The miracle is in my hands. My hands are tied. Oh, let my hands be unbound.
How far is the glistening arm of the Roman soldier? How much sand between me and his muscle?
God cannot intercede. Remember that.
Ecce homo. He wants to prove that peace is possible. What more could we want? Life is who we are. Life is what we wanted. There is no reason for rage in this world. There is no reason for love in this world. Why then choose rage over love?
Sometimes a restless woman paces far away, as though she smells a possibility beyond the fence of fear. But mostly the women stand still, huge-eyed and helpless.
Even if I am wrong, I must walk with courage.
My body trembled for him in artless desire. If only I could show him the joy of this world, I thought, perhaps he would choose to stay, for my sake, for the sake of celebrating life.
But he was too taken with sorrow for that.
When all our avenues for ecstasy are blocked, then sorrow seeps in, like seeds of depression attaching themselves to DNA. And suddenly the law is all there is.
And then the law starts growing out of proportion, a powerful vine, choking the heart.
My loved one knew how to heal, how to pick wheat on the Sabbath, how to outwit the pious crowd of men intent on murder who came to test him with a woman who, the law decreed, had to be stoned with stones till she died.
Laws have always circled harsh around women, chaining us to years and tears of silence. You cannot commit adultery alone. But you dare not repeat such thoughts to the inflamed. They only punish you more then. For being a woman, for being wrong, for being their awkward, ever-present temptation. It’s faster to kill the temptation than to enlighten the tempted.
Do you wonder that we stand feverish and watch, like sad crows from the distance, skittish like starving cats? We have grown smaller, stunted in the distance, ugly with fear, like monkeys scattering at a clap of hands.
My body was flooded with fear. Also with hope. I didn’t want to believe that a decree of men of little consequence would triumph over his power, his life; or that he, like one addicted in his DNA to suffering, should choose the solemn sacrifice over the wild dance and dignity of life.
I, too, am subject to the laws of God.
I didn’t believe he would go and let himself get slaughtered. Something, at the last moment, would happen to save him. I knew it. By the time I realized that nothing miraculous was going to take place unless I made it happen, it was too late. I was too weak with disbelief.
I was that miracle, you see, and I was too weak to happen.
We all dream that in the core of our being we can bring the seed of salvation to troubled men we love. We are not wrong.
Of course he was the son of God. Of course you and I are the sons and the daughters of life.
In my attention to grief I became one of the sinners, witness to all this, first flooded with sorrow, then calm with acceptance that we took this life, this God, and shredded him to pieces.
Why did I not step in front of his precious body?
I was so small, confused, befuddled, and I kept believing against reason that it wouldn’t happen. In my distance, I even believed in the ability of God to do something so powerful that my beloved wouldn’t die, like a parent who has the magic to fix what we have broken.
Well, your church masters say triumphantly, he didn’t die, did he? He is still with us.
Only, he was never human again. We believe in a savior who will not be human again. Do we then also believe in a salvation that will never be human again?
Ask the women with men at war how they pray, what miracles they beg for, how they believe their men will return, against all odds, and in the face of all reality.
I knew from the first I would be wounded by loving him, and by his love for a jealous God who excluded all else, especially all things of earth. Should he, in the desert, have chosen the green earth that Satan offered him, rather than the elusive love of God?
True God is not jealous. True God is not at war with angels.
I could feel both his passion and his errors. That was perhaps my greatest sin: to know his errors, and not speak of them, for fear of embarrassing him, for fear of stopping the passion together with the mistake.
I also felt his blessing ways. Each moment in his presence was a gift. Keeping respectful silence seemed a small price to pay. And yet it was too great.
When he was dead, yes, I went to the cross to touch, too late, the lifeless feet, the blood-crusted flesh. The flies sipped the last bit of life from his blood, which smelled metallic in coagulation. I remember the stench of fear. And still I kissed his stained feet. Behold, this is my beloved.
The diamond grains of sand ground into my knees, into the palms of my hands.
Did I rage against God?
No, God raged against me.
When my loved one cried out on the cross, did he realize at last that he had prayed at the wrong altar? It was not God he should have prayed to, but the men, the hearts of the men that had condemned him from senseless envy, the ones who were his equals, the ones who could have turned the tide.
And he should have prayed to the women who were on his side all along, because they were on the side of love and of life all along…but so afar off in their fears.
You seem to care a lot whether we lay together in love. Is that so important?
I wanted nothing so much as to touch him, to love my lord. The love was important, not how he chose to receive it.
I wanted to kiss him, even his lifeless flesh.
I didn’t want him to be gone. I did not want to be apart from him.
Sadder than all is that, near two thousand years later, not much has been learned.
Be gentle with each other.
Don’t weep with me or for me today. Rather, reach back in time and give me the courage I need to step out of the shadows and put my hand on the Roman soldier’s arm. And pray for me to reach forward in time to give you the courage for a future of peace.
Pray with me at the foot of the cross of my lord. Pray that we may not just receive the blessings of his teaching like children do, but that we may also start to grow with them, as adults, as God’s sons and God’s daughters, strong against the sin of silence.
Pray to step forward from among the women watching from afar, who have been ridiculed, who have been trivialized, who have been humiliated, and yet, who still go forth and celebrate the beauty of life.
This is where the tears fade, the smudges, the odor of fear, the slime of carnage. This is the truth of a woman who wanted to love and be loved. To live. To protect.
You’ve seen me, red-cloaked at times in your salacious fantasies, kneeling in despair, in tragedy, in sorrow. Don’t look there anymore. Look where my love for him was tenderness. I wanted to sit in the curl of his arm. I wanted to sit beside him and worship, for he taught me everything that he believed.
The walk was long up to the cross.
I am on my knees in the sand. If there is heckling, I can’t hear it. I only dream of standing up, of claiming my desire.
Come closer. I would offer you the future. Your hand on the soldier’s arm. Your word pregnant with power.
“Good Friday – Mary Magdalen” was first published in Moondance (Spring 2006).