Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Reading for the Feast of the Ascension (a little late)

Mary stared into the glowing center of the disappearing cloud, all that now remained to be seen. She stared until the voice in her heart had convinced her eyes he was truly gone. Until the whitish blue of the sky began to look like the still surface of a lake when the wind quieted and allowed it to rest.
She looked around at the others. Their faces were crowded with unspoken questions. Mary looked at the place where he had been standing only moments before. A few blades of grass were still bending slowly upward from the release of his weight. She could trace the outlines of his feet in the morning’s heavy dew. Simon of Bethsaida stood silent, his bushy, unkempt hair flying in the wind and his weather-creased face cocked toward the empty sky, as if he might read there a cipher that could explain everything. But all that stirred in the morning air on the Olivet hillside was the breeze sifting among them, gently tossing the foxtail and wild barley on its way down the slope toward the
Kidron ravine.
 Mary looked out across the cityscape, which spread from the walls bounding the far summit of the Kidron valley, across the crest of the Temple Mount, and all along the sides of the Zion hill and its surroundings. The towers of the temple glowed reddish gold in the rising sunlight and the sea of rooftops was bathed in the peaceful light of morning. Jerusalem looked as she always did, as if nothing astounding had taken place just outside her walls, as if this leave-taking were no different than any other. Mary wondered how this could be. How could a single moment utterly alter the world of this small group huddled on a hillside and leave everything else untouched?
 If the length of a life could be measured in partings, surely Mary had lived far beyond the years allotted a simple woman from Magdala. She thought of the black afternoon­—forty days now, was it—when with delicate, horrified care the men tugged his corpse, bled white from the wrists, the ankles, the black-crusted gash in his side, down from the cross. She could still hear the noise his arms made as they were pulled free from the spikes and flapped limp against his bluish belly. She still remembered the way his head lolled back and forth as they carried him to the house of the wealthy man from Arimathea, the one who was of the Council of Seventy. She had walked behind them, fighting for each breath. How could it be? How could hope be so thoroughly slain? How could this man, of all men, be dead?
 And when they had closed him in the tomb and rolled the stone over the doorway, she had buried something with him, something she had lost long before and he had rekindled in her, something that was now killed again, killed forever; something precious and irretrievable.
Had she mischosen once again?
Mary walked over and stood beside his mother. Like Simon, the old woman still peered into the sky. Should she take her hand? Mary wondered. Just then, the older woman heaved a quavering sigh and looked around at the younger Mary. She was smiling and tears meandered down her wrinkled cheeks. The two women clasped hands.
 Mary turned away from the older woman and back toward the walls of the city. There was something gone, but was it lost? Or had he taken it with him as a remembrance? There was a sadness, but something about it was different in a way she didn't understand. Again she looked at the others. Yes, it was there. Even young john looked less downcast than puzzled, as if he were trying to remember the second line of a verse he had heard long ago.
 He has finished what he came to do, and he has left. You must go on as best you can.
 But not alone. He promised.
 And then, as had happened so often in these last days, the scent of myrrh filled her mind, and she remembered the light that was everywhere on them, that was corning from them, that was them.
 Mary heard unfamiliar voices and looked up to see two strangers speaking with Simon and some of the other men. There was something about them that was at once unusual and known. Their words sounded strange to Mary’s ears, but their meaning folded gently into her understanding, as if a place had been made ready there. He will come again, just as he has gone. They pointed down the hill, toward the city. And then Simon and the others were going toward the path that led to the road that entered Jerusalem from Bethany. They all followed.


 They were coming into Jerusalem on this same road, just before that last Passover. It was the day after that glorious, frightening day when all of Judea seemed to be littering his path with palm branches, hailing him as the son and heir of David and Solomon. That day they walked past some small freeholder's homestead, and he noticed a fig tree near the door of the hut. Some of the men were arguing among themselves under the guise of speaking to him, but they stopped when he suddenly left the road and walked over to the tree. "I am hungry," he said in a loud, firm voice. He had that look he often got: broad-shouldered, his feet set wide beneath him, eyes glittering with some inner intent. She knew he was trying to tell them something. She thought she often knew before the men did.
 He turned to the tree. "This tree has no fruit, only leaves." Again he turned to look at them. By now, of course, they had straggled to the side of the road, standing in a loose semicircle, all glancing at each other, trying to see who might be the first to guess the meaning of whatever he was about to enact. The woman who lived in the hut had come outside to see what all the commotion was about.
 He jabbed a finger at the tree. "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" And he stalked back to the road and set off again toward Jerusalem. They followed along in his wake. "What is the meaning?" James bar-Alphaeus murmured behind his hand to Judas of Kerioth. "It is not yet the end
of Nisan! Figs will not be ripe for weeks. Why would he—"
 Judas had shrugged and shaken his head, she remembered. "Who knows why he does anything?" he said. She remembered looking back over her shoulder as they went. The woman stood in her doorway, watching them go.
 That was the day he railed against the money changers in the temple courtyard, the day the sons of Annas and the other temple rulers learned to fear and hate him, the day they began with renewed determination to plot his downfall.
 And the next day, as they were passing the same way, the fig tree, green and healthy the day before, was as dry and withered as an abandoned nest. "Rabbi, look!" Simon said. "That is the tree you cursed only yesterday!" The woman from the hut was examining the tree, but when she saw him she hurried back inside, making the sign against the evil eye.
 He went on to speak some words about faith, prayer, and forgiveness, but Mary was troubled by the sight of the tree, blasted for no other wrong than failing to bear out of season. That he had the authority to deny life to the tree surprised her not at all; who should know better than she what potency lay within him? But she had never before seen him use his power to smite—only to heal, only to bless. There was something more here, she sensed, and yet it lay beyond her.


 As they filtered through the crowds milling about the Sheep Gate, as they ducked warily past the turrets of the Antonia Fortress, Mary felt a tendril of understanding. "He will come again," the men had said—and her heart had told her it was so, even before the two had spoken.
Everything was changed. They might no longer trust the familiar times, the seasons to which they had become accustomed. Life was no longer to be taken for granted—nor death. Well might a healthy fig tree wither, and a barren womb bear fruit. Well might a tomb become a birthplace.  

This excerpt is from Daughter of Jerusalem, a novel of Mary Magdalene, by Thom Lemmons. To see other titles by this author, please visit