Mary from Magdala at the Tomb
After the crucifixion Peter, John, James and the other disciples had gathered in a house not far from Joseph’s garden, where they sat like men bereft of their senses, stunned and silent. The execution of Jesus had come upon them like a thunderbolt out of a blue sky; of all things, they had not expected that. It was no less a shock than if the foundations of the earth had shifted under their feet.
As for the women who had gathered at the foot of the cross and helped Joseph take down the body, they had wept and prayed until they could weep no more. Mary the mother of Jesus had seen him into the grave, and soon she would return to Nazareth. The woman from Magdala, who was also called Mary, was going to remain in Jerusalem for a little while.
Very early on the morning after the sabbath, Mary the Magdalene went to the garden where the tomb was, taking some spices in case any more were needed to preserve the body. It was still dark. After the burial she had seen Joseph and Nicodemus roll the stone into place over the tomb, and she was surprised to see, in the half-light, the stone rolled back and the tomb yawning open. She wondered if she had come to the right grave, and she looked inside fearfully.
There she saw the linen cloth wrapped up and empty, but no body.
She ran out and hurried to the house where the disciples were staying, and said to Peter and John, ‘The master’s tomb is empty! I’ve just been there, and the stone is rolled back, and the body is gone!’
She told them everything she had seen. A woman’s testimony being of little value, Peter and John hastened to the garden to see for themselves. John ran faster and got to the grave first, and looked inside to see the linen cloth lying empty; and then Peter pushed past him and went inside, and found the cloth just as Mary had described, with the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’s head not lying with the rest, but apart by itself.
John said, ‘Have the Romans taken him away?’
‘Why would they do that?’ said Peter. ‘Pilate released his body. They wouldn’t be interested.’
‘What else can have happened?’
‘He might not have been dead when they took him down. Only fainted, like. Then he might have woken up… ‘
‘But how could he have rolled the stone away from inside? His legs were broken. He couldn’t move.’
They could make no sense of it at all. They left the tomb and hurried back to tell the other disciples.
Mary the Magdalene, who had remained outside, was weeping. But then through her tears she saw a man close by, and took him for the gardener.
‘Why are you weeping?’ he said.
‘They’ve taken my master’s body away, and I don’t know where he is. Sir, if you know where they’ve taken him, please tell me, I beg you, and I’ll bring him back here and look after him properly.’
Then the man said, ‘Mary.’
She was startled, and she looked at him more closely. It was still not quite light, and her eyes were sore, but surely this was Jesus, alive.
‘Master!’ she cried, and then moved to embrace him.
But Christ stepped back and said, ‘No, don’t touch me now. I shan’t be here for long. Go to the disciples and tell them what you’ve seen. Tell them I shall ascend soon and go to my father, to God. To my God and your God.’
Mary ran and told the disciples what she had seen, and what Christ had said to her.
‘It was him!’ she told them. ‘Truly! Jesus was alive, and he spoke to me!’
They were half-sceptical, but Peter and John were more ready than the others to believe her.
‘She told us how the cloth was laid out in the tomb, and we went and we saw it, just as she said. If she says he’s alive ?C well, that would explain it! It would explain everything!’
They passed that day in a state of half-hopeful wonderment. They went again and again to the garden where the tomb was, but saw no more there.
The Road to Emmaus
Later that day some of the disciples set out to go to a village called Emmaus, about two hours’ walk away from Jerusalem, to tell the news to some friends who lived there. Christ’s informant had set off back to Galilee, and was not among them. As they walked along the road they fell into conversation with a man who was travelling the same way. This too was Christ.
‘You seem agitated,’ said the traveller. ‘What were you all discussing with such passion?’
‘You haven’t heard what happened in Jerusalem?’ said a disciple called Cleopas.
‘No. Tell me.’
‘You must be the only man in Judea not to have heard about it. We’re friends of Jesus of Nazareth, the great prophet, the great teacher. He angered the priests in the temple, and they handed him over to the Romans, and they crucified him. And he was buried. That was three days ago. And then this morning we heard he’d been seen alive!’
Their talk was only of that. They didn’t look closely at Christ, because they were too excited and bewildered still; but by the time they came to the village night had fallen, and they invited him to stay and eat with them.
He accepted the invitation, and went into the house of their friend, where he was made welcome. When they were sitting down to eat, the disciple Cleopas, who was sitting directly opposite him, stopped what he was saying, took hold of the lamp and raised it close to Christ’s face.
‘Master?’ he said.
In the flickering lamplight the others stared in amazement. Truly, this man looked so like Jesus, and yet he was not the same; but surely death would change him, so he was bound to be a little different; and yet the resemblance was so close. They were struck almost dumb.
But one man called Thomas said, ‘If you’re really Jesus, show us the marks in your hands and your feet.’
Christ’s hands were unmarked, of course. They could all see them as he held the bread. But before he could speak, another man intervened and said:
‘If the master’s risen from the dead, of course all his wounds would be healed! We’ve seen him walk ?C we know his broken legs are mended. He’d be made perfect again, so his other scars are gone as well. Who can doubt that?’
‘But his legs weren’t broken!’ said another. ‘I heard it from one of the women! He died when a soldier stuck a spear into his side!’
‘I never heard that,’ said another. ‘I heard they broke his legs first of all, before they did the other two. They always break their legs… ‘
And they turned to Christ, full of doubt and confusion.
Christ said, ‘Those who see no evidence, and still have faith, are the blessed ones. I am the word of God. I existed before time. I was in the beginning with God, and soon I shall go back to him, but I came down into time and into life so that you should see the light and the truth, and testify to them. I shall leave you a sign, and here it is: just as the bread has to be broken before you can eat it, and the wine has to be poured before you can drink, so I had to die in one life before I rose again in another. Remember me as often as you eat and drink. Now I must return to my father, who is in heaven.’
They all wanted to touch him, but he stood back and blessed them all, and then he left.
After that, Christ took care to keep out of the way. He watched from a distance as the disciples, fired by the energy of their hope and excitement, became transformed just as the stranger had promised: as if a holy spirit had entered them. They travelled and preached, they won converts to this new faith in a risen Jesus, they even managed some healing miracles, or at least things happened that could be reported as miracles. They were full of passion and zeal.
And as time passed, Christ began to hear the story changing little by little. It began with Jesus’s name. At first he was Jesus, simply; but then he began to be called Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus the Christ; and later still it was simply Christ. Christ was the word of God, the light of the world. Christ had been crucified. Christ had risen from the dead. Somehow, his death would be a great redemption, or a great atonement. People were happy to believe that, even though it was hard to explain.
The story developed in other ways too. The account of the resurrection was greatly enhanced when it began to be reported that after Thomas asked to see the wounds, Jesus (or Christ) had shown them, and let Thomas lay his finger in them to settle his doubts. That was vivid and unforgettable, but if the story said that, it couldn’t also say that the Romans had broken his legs, as they did with almost every other victim of crucifixion; for if one kind of wound had remained in his flesh, so would another, and a man with broken legs would not have been able to stand in the garden or walk to Emmaus. So whatever had really happened, the story came to say that he died from the thrust of a Roman spear, his bones remaining unbroken. Thus the stories began to weave themselves together.
Christ himself, of course, had made so little mark on the world that no one confused him with Jesus, because it was so easy to forget that there had been two of them. Christ felt his own self gradually dwindling away as the Christ of speculation began to grow in importance and majesty. Soon the story about Christ began to extend both forwards and backwards in time ?C forwards to the end of the world, and backwards even before that birth in a stable: Christ was the son of Mary, that was undeniable, but he was also the son of God, an eternal and almighty being, perfect God and perfect man, begotten before all worlds, reigning at the right hand of his Father in heaven.
Then the stranger visited him for the last time. Christ was living under another name in a town on the sea-coast, a place where Jesus had never been. He had married, and he was working as a maker of nets.
As often before, the stranger came at night. He knocked at the door just as Christ and his wife were sitting down to their evening meal.
‘Martha, who is that?’ said Christ. ‘Go and see.’ Martha opened the door, and the stranger came in, carrying a heavy bag.
‘So,’ said Christ. ‘What trouble have you brought me this time?’
‘Such a welcome! This is your work, all the scrolls you gave to me. I have had them diligently copied, and it is time you had them back and began putting the story in order. And this is your wife?’
‘Martha,’ said Christ, ‘this is the man I told you about. But he has never told me his name.’
‘Please sit with us and share our food,’ said Martha.
‘I shall do that with pleasure. That little ritual you invented,’ the stranger said as Christ broke the bread, ‘has been a great success. Who would have thought that inviting Jews to eat flesh and drink blood would be so popular?’
Christ pushed the bread away. ‘That is not what I told them to do,’ he said.
‘But it’s what the followers of Jesus are doing, Jews and Gentiles both. Your instructions were too subtle, my friend. People will leap to the most lurid meaning they can find, even if it’s one the author never intended.’
‘As you explained on another occasion, you think very little of people.’
‘I see them as they are. You too used to have a realistic idea of their capabilities and limitations. Are you becoming more like your brother as time goes past?’
‘He knew them well, and he wasn’t deceived, but he loved them.’
‘Indeed he did,’ said the stranger, helping himself to the bread, ‘and his love is the most precious thing imaginable. That is why we must guard it so carefully. The vessel that will carry the precious love and teaching of Jesus Christ to the ages of the future is the church, and the church must guard that love and teaching night and day, to keep it pure and not let it be corrupted by misunderstanding. It would be unfortunate, for example, if people came to read some of his sayings as a call to political action; as we know, they are nothing of the sort. Instead we should emphasise the spiritual nature of his message. We need to make our position hard to argue with, my dear Christ, and by talking of the spirit we do just that. Spirituality is something we are well equipped to discuss.’
‘I have no taste for that sort of talk any more,’ said Christ. ‘You had better take your scrolls away with you. Let someone else tell the story.’
‘The story will be told many times. We shall make sure of that. In the years to come we shall sort out the helpful versions from the unhelpful. But we have spoken of these things before.’
‘Yes, and I’m sick of it. Your words are smooth, but your thoughts are coarse. And you have become coarser with your success. When you first spoke to me you were more subtle. I begin to see now what it is, this story you and I and my brother have been playing out. However it ends, it will be a tragedy. His vision could never come to pass; and the vision that will come to pass is not his.’
‘You talk of my vision and his vision; but if it were your vision it would have all the merit of truth as well as-‘
‘I know what your truth means,’ said Christ.
‘Of course you do. But which is better,’ said the stranger, breaking off some more bread, ‘to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?’
Christ felt sick for a moment, but he couldn’t remember why. Martha slipped her hand into her husband’s to steady him.
But as Christ sat and watched the stranger eating his bread and pouring himself more wine, he couldn’t help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel. And the childhood of Jesus might be studded with charming little wondertales of boyish mischief leavened by magic, which could nevertheless be interpreted as signs of greater miracles to come. Then there were matters of more profound narrative consequence. If Jesus had known about his execution in advance, and told his disciples that it was going to come about, and gone to meet it willingly, it would give the crucifixion a far more resonant meaning, and one that would open depths of mystery for wise men to explore and ponder and explain in the times to come. And the birth, again: if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of God himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be! And how much more profound the death that crowned it!
There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up.
‘I leave it in your hands,’ said the stranger, brushing the breadcrumbs off his own as he stood up from the table. ‘I shall not come to you again.’
And without another word he turned to leave.
When he had gone Martha said, ‘You still didn’t ask his name.’
‘I don’t want to know his name. How deluded I was! How can I ever have thought he was an angel? He has the look of a prosperous dealer in dried fruit or carpets. I don’t want to think about him ever again. Martha, I’m tormented; everything he says is true, and yet I feel sick when I think of it. The body of the faithful, the church, as he calls it, will do every kind of good, I hope so, I believe so, I must believe so, and yet I fear it’ll do terrible things as well in its zeal and selfrighteousness… Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again. A body of the faithful? It was a body of the faithful that decided for a dozen good reasons to hand him over to the Romans. And here am I, my hands red with blood and shame and wet with tears, longing to begin telling the story of Jesus, and not just for the sake of making a record of what happened: I want to play with it; I want to give it a better shape; I want to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences, and if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting truth into history. Jesus would have called it lying. He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people… But this is the tragedy: without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten… Oh, Martha, I don’t know what I should do.’
‘You should eat your supper,’ said Martha.
But when they turned back to the table the bread was all gone, and the wine-jar was empty.