My guide led me through the narrow congested streets of Jerusalem. He led me to a backstreet and a building with a staircase at the side. I followed him up the steps and into a room which was much larger than I imagined. Several people moved around, some talking, others praying and a group laughing at a joke a man had just told.
A woman sat on a low chair reading a scroll. Too intent on what she read, she was not aware of our presence, until my guide placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Mary,” he said. “This is Aemilia Metella, she has come for the interview.”
Mary turned and welcomed me with a kiss on my cheek and invited me to sit opposite her. A glass of wine appeared, accompanied by a bowl of almonds and olives.
“Welcome to the Upstairs Room, Aemilia,” she said.
I looked around the busy and somewhat untidy room. “Is this the room where Jesus spent his last night, and where he appeared full of life after his death?” I asked. “But it’s so…”
“… ordinary.” Mary finished my sentence for me.
I laughed, “I expected something rather grander.”
“So much has happened in this room in the last twenty years. Both fantastic and terrible things. We break bread and share wine every day as he taught us. Daily praying and reading the scriptures. It is both an ordinary and an extraordinary room.”
Mary put the scroll onto the table and took a sip of wine. I took the opportunity to look at her. It has been twenty years since the birth of this new movement of God, and I was in the presence of a woman who was there through it all. I thought that she must be in her fifties, but she exuded an energy that most twenty-year-olds I know would be envious of.
“What would you like to ask me?”
I picked up my tablet and stylus. “My readers would like to hear about your life with Jesus. I’ve heard that he healed you, can you tell me about that?”
Mary leaned back and closed her eyes before a smile appeared on her face. “It was such a long time ago, and yet it feels like yesterday.” She opened her eyes and looked at me.”
“What was the matter with you?”
“By the time of my eighteenth birthday, I could no longer leave my house, often laying on my bed for days without sleep. If the days were bad then the nights were worse. Voices, that no one else could hear, whispered and shouted from out of the dark. At night, I wandered the house searching for knives or anything to cut myself. My parents tried to hide them, but I was cunning and always found their hiding places. After each cut, the soothing blood trickled down my arm, bringing relief for a few minutes but soon the grim feelings returned.
“Our neighbours claimed I was demon-possessed, and they would hurry past my family in the street. My parents had long given up hope of a cure, until one day they heard Jesus was visiting Magdala, my hometown, and saw this as my final chance. When they said I had to leave the house, I panicked that they were going to kill me. In shock, I screamed and shouted, biting, scratching and kicking out in fear.
“At sunset, Jesus spotted me in the crowd. Mercifully, he came over and saw me, dirty and dishevelled, kneeling on the floor with my head on the ground, moaning and rocking from side to side. Placing his hands on my head, he prayed that I would be healed and made whole. Warmth spread from his hands into my body, and each angry and unpleasant thought untangled itself and into my muddled and dark mind came a light of peace.
“That was the day I was re-born to live my life from the beginning, but this time the life I was meant to live. Jesus once said that a thief only comes to steal, and that’s what my illness did. It stole life from me, bit by bit every day. But he went on to say that he came to give us real and eternal life, and a better life than we ever dreamed of.”
So engrossed was I in Mary’s story that I hadn’t written a word down. She leaned over and patted my knee.
“Would you like to see where Jesus died and the empty tomb?”
Not long after, I stood on top of a small hill, just outside the city walls. In Aramaic it is called Golgotha, meaning skull. It certainly had an ominous presence. Holes in the ground showed where the crosses slot into when an unfortunate person is crucified.
“How often are there crucifixions here?” I asked Mary.
“Every few weeks or so.”
Everyone in the Roman Empire has seen crucifixions and knows how cruel it is as a means of execution. So evil, they were reserved for non-Roman slaves and rebels. The fact that Jesus knew what was going to happen and went along with it struck me with force.
“By the time we followed Jesus to Golgotha, he was already in a bad way. He had been tortured and beaten so much that he couldn’t carry his own cross and the soldiers made a stranger help him. Evil was present that day and you could smell it. A few friends and I, including Jesus’s mother, followed and watched in horror as his wrists and ankles were nailed to the wood, and then the cross dropped with a jolt into one of these holes. The soldiers stopped what they were doing when Jesus told them he forgave them, so used to curses they were unused to this expression of love.
“Locked in our anguish, we were unaware of time passing, until darkness descended over Jerusalem, but it was only midday. Muted blue-black clouds slipped overhead with thunder rumbling among the hills. 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. 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’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.
“It’s finished! Father, into your hands I offer my spirit.”
“Closing his eyes, his head dropped forward. And he died. Everything stopped, and I was aware of nothing else, apart from Jesus’s lifeless body, his face now at rest. We later heard that the curtain in the Most Holy Place of the Temple was split from the top to the bottom. God was now available to all; the ultimate sacrifice had been paid.”
Mary led me away from the hill of death down a white stone path winding its way towards the tombs. The stones were worn smooth by the feet of countless mourners.
“His body was taken down and two rich men took it away to be buried in one of their tombs. We followed them here and watched as they wrapped his body in linen strips enclosing sweet-smelling spices. They left his body on a shelf in the tomb and rolled the large stone over the entrance. Jesus had said it was finished and that’s what we felt that day. It was over.”
Mary stopped by an empty tomb with the large stone still on one side. “That’s the tomb, right there. No one is buried there now, and it will be forever empty.”
“What happened on that morning, three days after he died?”
“It was a Sunday, the day after the sabbath, and I and some friends went to the tomb. Because we wanted to make sure he was buried correctly, we took water, cloth and spices with us. Partway here, I remembered that the men had servants to roll the stone in place, and we were not strong enough to move it away. But, when we arrived, we saw the stone rolled to the side, exactly as it is here. We ran inside and thinking someone had stolen his body we collapsed in shock when we found the tomb empty. Have you ever seen an angel, Aemilia?”
I shook my head. “No. But that would be a fantastic thing to see?”
“I tell you; it is more terrifying than anything else. Two of these supernatural beings stood in front of us, turning the gloom of the tomb into the bright noonday sun. He asked us why we were there in the tombs surrounded by dead people when we were looking for someone alive. They told us he was alive, then disappeared, returning the tomb into darkness once more. My friends ran back to the Upstairs Room, but I wanted time on my own and sat down on this rock.”
She sat on the rock as she had done twenty years before. The tombs were quiet and peaceful, and I listened to the sounds of birds chirping and hopping from one rock to the next.
“I got up to go home and saw a man with his back to me. Thinking he was the gardener I asked him if he knew where Jesus’s body was. I was desperate to see him, even if dead. The man turned around and said just one word, ˋMaryˊ. That was all it took for me to recognise him, that one word. My name. I ran and flung my arms around him until he told me not to cling so tight to him. He told me to go and tell everyone I had seen him, that he’s alive. I’ve taken that message to heart, and since then I tell everyone I meet, that I saw his dead body alive again.”
“I’ve heard it said that those who saw his dead body are delusional and that it didn’t really happen. What would you say to those people?”
“A delusion is normally only experienced by one person. I may have been the first, but I was certainly not the last. Many times, over the following forty days, he appeared to different people. Until five hundred of us had witnessed this.”
“It is also claimed by some people that Jesus’s body was stolen by you, and you hid it somewhere else.”
“That story started doing the rounds almost immediately. The soldiers sent to guard the tomb told everyone we had been in the middle of the night to take his body away. If that was the case, they weren’t very good guards not to stop us. In the last twenty years, many of those who saw his body come alive have died for our faith. Stephen was the first, and then James, John’s brother was killed, and many good men and women have died. Tell me, would you risk your life, even to being killed, for something you knew was a fake? No, I wouldn’t still be here if I knew we’d peddled a lie.”
I thanked Mary for her frankness and for spending time with me. She is a huge figure in our faith and a strong and courageous woman. What a privilege it is to interview the woman known as the apostle to the apostles. Someone who has travelled around the Empire even as far as Rome, to tell everyone she meets of the day she met the risen Lord.
In this fictional interview, Mary Magdalene tells my Roman journalist, Aemilia Metalla, her story as it appears in Leaving Bethany. In next month’s blog I will discuss how Mary got her bad reputation and how we have had her character wrong for so long.
She exuded an energy that most twenty-year-olds I know would be envious of.
That was the day I was re-born to live my life from the beginning, but this time the life I was meant to live.
Evil was present that day and you could smell it.
That was all it took for me to recognise him, that one word. My name.
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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