These excerpts are from my novel, Leaving Bethany, and cover the events of Jesus’s crucifixion and his resurrection. Each of the four Gospels give us a list of women who were present at the cross and tomb. However, they each list slightly different names and add that other unnamed women were present. For literary reasons and to aid the telling of the story, I have condensed these lists to five women. Miriam (Mary Magdalene), Jesus’s mother and Johanna, and added Martha and her sister Mary. The Gospels do not mention Martha and Mary as being present, but various traditions say that they were witnesses to both the crucifixion and resurrection. The story is told in Martha’s own words.
The path rose towards Golgotha, and a look passed between Miriam, Johanna and I. We hung back, not wanting Jesus’s mother to witness the moment her son was nailed to the cross. The screams, as soldiers hammered nails through wrists and ankles, hurt as if they were our own. Each excruciating hammer blow struck into our very hearts, shattering them into many pieces. I held my sister tight as she screamed with each strike. The criminals struggled and shouted, but the more they cursed the more the soldiers laughed. Soldiers raised Jesus’s cross upright and slotted it into a hole in the ground sending a jolt of pain through his body.
“Father, forgive them because they don’t know why they’re doing this,” Jesus said.
Used to abuse but not forgiveness, the soldiers stopped and looked at him in amazement, before shrugging and continuing their gruesome task. The crowd parted as the priests from outside Herod’s Palace arrived to witness the death penalty being carried out. Caiaphas, who would not soil the soles of his shoes by appearing at Golgotha, sent his second-in-command. He looked up at the charge sheet nailed above Jesus’s head which read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Red with rage he strode up to the Centurion.
“I insist you change the charge against this man. It should say he claimed to be the King of the Jews. This is an outrage,” the priest yelled, pointing to the sign.
With a contemptuous look, the Centurion replied, “The Governor wanted that, and that’s what he got.” Grinning, he took hold of his sword. “If you insist, you could try to take it down and change it yourself.” Grumbling, the priest backed away to a safe distance, and the soldiers sniggered.
After stripping the three men, the soldiers divided their clothing between themselves. An argument arose as to who was to keep Jesus’s cloak and appalled, I watched as they threw dice for it, cheering when one of them won. Their mockery showed complete and utter contempt and disregard for the men’s suffering and that of their families. At this, I gave way to anguish and despair. All thoughts of staying strong gone, I fell to my knees and sobbed. Jesus’s mother fell next to me and beat her chest, wailing until Miriam held her, and inconsolable, we rocked back and forth.
A large group of people gathered around the three crosses. Most were there to see Jesus, and like ourselves were grieving for a man who had spoken about love being cruelly cut down out of jealousy. Many others came out of curiosity, wondering what Jesus would do.
A woman shouted above the noise, “We’ve seen him do miracles, and only last month he healed my neighbour’s baby. I wonder if he’ll free himself?”
Her husband agreed. “If he’s the Messiah he will because God wouldn’t let him die like this.”
Someone behind me laughed in contempt, and despite the heat, I shivered.
“He said he could destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. That’s impossible because he can’t even save himself from death.” It was Jonas.
Unseen, Jonas had joined the priests, who continued to shout insults. The priest who had confronted the soldiers strode up to Jesus’s cross.
Pointing his finger and with spittle flying, he shouted, “If you come down now, everyone will believe you’re the Messiah.” After waiting a few moments, he turned to the crowd and said, “You see, he’s just another insignificant nobody from Galilee.”
Jonas joined in the taunts. “No one will ever remember his name.”
He put his head near mine, and I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see his face. But nothing could protect me from his bad breath or grating voice.
“Now we can forget him and get back to life as it was.”
Many in the crowd continued to mock and sneer until it was clear Jesus wouldn’t free himself. The criminal on his right side summoned enough strength to join in the taunts. In agony, he turned his body and shouted at Jesus.
“If you were the Messiah, you’d save yourself and us along with you.”
On hearing this, the other replied, “Don’t you have any fear of God? We are both guilty of the crimes and deserve our punishment. But this man did nothing wrong.” Through his tears, he shouted, “Jesus, remember me when you get to heaven.”
Jesus turned his head towards him. “I’ll tell you the truth.” Each shallow rasping breath now took what little strength he had left. “Today, you and I will be together in heaven.”
An elderly woman on her knees in front of this man’s cross turned to Jesus.
“Thank you, rabbi,” she said through her tears.
We were not the only women to lose a cherished one that day.
The two criminals cried, one in derision and the other comforted by Jesus’s words.
Startled, I shrieked when a hand appeared on my shoulder and, turning, I saw a hooded figure. The hood was removed to reveal a pale and drawn John who put his arms around Jesus’s mother. His arms enclosed her body, and she wept into his shoulder.
“I had to come,” he said, looking up at Jesus.
“Where’s Lazarus?” I asked.
“He’s in the upstairs room.”
With an effort Jesus opened his eyes and lifted his head. “John!” His voice barely more than a whisper rasped in his throat; each word difficult as he struggled to breathe.
“Yes Jesus, I’m here.”
“Look after my mother.” John nodded his agreement.
Mary, shielded by John’s arm, looked up at her son. Unable to speak, her lips trembled.
“Mother, John will care for you.” Even near death, Jesus needed to know his friend would care for his mother.
A drop of blood seeped onto his pallid skin from under a thorn and into his eye. He blinked, and it trickled down his face and chin. Mixed with sweat and blood, it fell down his chest, onto his legs and dripped off his foot. Suspended in the air it waited until splashing in the dirt like the first drop of rain after the summer drought.
It had only been five days, but it seemed a lifetime since my conversation with Jesus as we returned home from Jerusalem. He had said his body was the Temple, which I could see being destroyed in front of my eyes. After the destruction, he asked me to believe that he would rebuild it after three days. Confident, I had replied that I did, but now my belief, like his lifeblood, was haemorrhaging away and pooling on the ground underneath his body.
Locked in our anguish, we were unaware of time passing, but it had only been three long wretched hours since arriving at Golgotha. By now it was noon, and the sun should have been at its height. Instead, darkness descended over Jerusalem and muted blue-black clouds slipped overhead with thunder rumbling among the hills. It was as if a bad storm was threatening. This was no normal storm, but something far deeper, mysterious, and foreboding, and we were to be witnesses. The Son of God was about to give up his life.
Small groups gathered, and a fretful silence settled upon the crowd, more frightening than the jeering and shouting. Removing his helmet, the Centurion looked up at the sky, biting his lip. Experts in war and death, these soldiers were as frightened as the crowd, their mockery finally silenced. The Centurion wiped the sweat from his brow before barking orders to the soldiers. The unnatural darkness lasted three hours, and we watched helplessly as Jesus’s life ebbed away. His skin grey with the chill of death, I hoped he wouldn’t have to endure much longer.
“I’m thirsty,” he rasped, his breathing now shallow.
Someone in the crowd dipped a sponge in wine and fixing it to a branch, lifted it to his blue lips. With one last effort, he pressed his mangled feet against the nails, straightened his legs and took a final deep, harrowing breath.
“God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he cried, desperation etched on his face. Then in an unexpected loud voice which shook to the core, he shouted.
“It’s finished! Father, into your hands I offer my spirit.”
Closing his eyes, his head dropped forward.
And he died.
© Susan Sutherland, Leaving Bethany, 2020
Sunday morning dawned, and my sister shook me awake after another fitful night’s sleep. This was the third day in a row and my head felt as if it was being crushed from the inside. I groaned as I remembered what I had to do that day. Lazarus opened the door and Johanna, Miriam, Mary and I left in silence before he locked it behind us. The sky was lightening with the promise of a new day, but it would not herald a new dawn for us. I didn’t believe my own words to John but wanted him to stay another day. Just in case. But the tension in the depth of my stomach, and because we were carrying spices to anoint his dead body, told me I believed it was an ending, not a beginning.
I walked behind the others in silence with a grave headache and a worse temper. Johanna took my hand and, without speaking, we continued the short walk to the tomb. A wave of nausea hit me when in the slow creep of light, I saw the place of execution. I held onto the city wall to stop myself from falling and tried to blot out the memory of Friday, knowing I could never forget. When we approached the tombs, Miriam stopped.
“We’ve forgotten something,” she said.
“We have the spices and water,” Johanna answered.
“No, not that. We’ve forgotten that the rich men had servants to roll the stone back into place. It’s too heavy for us to move on our own.”
“I will return to get help to move it,” Johanna turned to leave.
Mary had walked ahead, then she halted before running back to grab me. “There’s somebody here,” she gasped.
“Stay here with Mary,” Miriam whispered, and she and Johanna went to investigate.
A minute later they beckoned us to join them. Johanna pointed to the campfire, the embers still glowing. Discarded cloaks and bags surrounded the fire.
Despite her fears, Mary bent to pick something up. “Here’s a dagger.” She held a short-handled dagger favoured by Temple guards.
“Put it down,” I urged.
“No, give it here,” Miriam held out her hand. “I don’t want to leave it lying on the ground.” She slid it inside her bag slung across her shoulders. “There have been soldiers here, but something made them leave in a hurry.”
“They must have been guarding the tomb in case someone tried to steal Jesus’s body. Jonas will have reported where the tomb was,” Johanna answered.
“But why would anyone steal his body?” Mary asked.
“Jesus’s claim that he could raise the Temple in three days will have worried the authorities. Maybe they thought he referred to his body or wondered whether we might take his body away,” Johanna answered.
Horrified at the prospect of soldiers, I looked around. “Where are they now? Guards don’t leave their post, otherwise they face the death penalty.”
Mary walked up the slope towards the tomb. “Look!” she shouted, pointing to the entrance. “Someone has rolled the stone to one side.”
Without hesitation, I ran towards the darkness of the open tomb. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and I saw the shelf where the men had laid Jesus’s body was bare. Folded linen strips showed where his body had laid, and lying separately, the cloth which had covered his head.
“Someone has taken him away from me. Why did they have to do that?” At this final ignominy to Jesus, my legs gave way, and I crumbled to my knees putting my head on the shelf where I’d last seen his body. I’d given everything and didn’t even have a place to mourn. Sobs racked my entire body, and my fists banged the shelf in despair. Broken like my pot, there was nothing left to give.
An unexpected brightness filled the emptiness of the tomb as if lit by the brilliance of the noonday sun. Johanna gripped my shoulder, gasped, and fell beside me. In dazzling luminous robes stood what looked like two men, but these were not human. Recognising them as heavenly beings we sank to our knees. One of them spoke, in a thunderous yet gentle voice.
“Why are you here?” No one dared answer. “Why are you here in a tomb when you are looking for someone who is alive? Remember he said he would die and be raised to life on the third day. He is not here, because he is alive.”
My heart thumped loudly within my chest, echoing in my ears. Jesus asked me three times to believe him and three times I replied that I did and then failed. And here I was looking for his dead body in a tomb.
With my voice faltering, I said, “Yes, I remember and now fully believe.”
As abruptly as they appeared, they vanished, once more shrouding the tomb in darkness. I blinked as my eyes readjusted to the dark and we held our breath, looking at each other in astonishment. The only sound was the beating of our hearts as, speechless, we took in the enormity of their words.
© Susan Sutherland, Leaving Bethany, 2020
Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.
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