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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Four, "Sinai"
“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.”
Andrew and Nathanael hear from the men in the fish market, who heard it from a passing soldier.
James hears from John when he gets back in the late afternoon.
Simon and Philip hear from a passerby shortly after they wake up, panicked, in a filthy alley. Matthew and Thomas hear from them an hour later.
Peter, the big Judas, and the little James hear it from a servant who Joseph the rich man sends.
Their minds go blank. Their hearts break.
They feel weak, when they hear it, and sick to the bottom of their souls.
It is spring.
But the whole world feels dead.
It is spring.
But there is nothing to hope for anymore. Ever.
In what strange way has this spring come?
The men from Jericho can’t bear to stay in the city for the rest of the holiday. It’s a festival of freedom, but they’re too close here to the crosses on the hill to feel free at all. They buy some flatbread from the villagers and hurry home.
James’s mother leans on him and Jesus’ mother leans on John. Mary from Magdala suggests they walk to Bethany to see if any of the others are there.
Matthew and Thomas meet them on the road into the village and show them a place between two trees where Simon and Philip are hiding. Simon’s face is badly bruised.
“What do we do now?” asks Matthew.
“We’re ready to take you back home if that’s best,” says Thomas to the women.
As the older Mary imagines the road north, she’s filled with an echo of the long-ago dread of realizing, on the way home from the festival, that her son was missing. And she wants to look for him again now, to spend three days searching every corner of the city, though she knows she won’t find him this time.
“We can’t leave yet,” she says. “We have to go back to Jerusalem.”
Andrew and Nathanael don’t know where to go. They
waited all day in the market because they could never make it safely out through the gate toward Jesus but were never willing to give up and walk away.
But now that Jesus is dead, there’s no real reason to go through the gate.
Which also means the soldiers aren’t questioning anybody.
“Where are you going?” asks Nathanael.
“To see him,” says Andrew.
Nathanael shudders. “Why?”
“I’ll meet you back at the house in the upper city,”
Andrew says, and as Nathanael watches, Andrew walks straight past the soldiers and out the fish gate.
Joseph the rich man has spent most of the day waiting to see the governor. But when the governor has time to receive him, it’s only because what Joseph wanted to stop has already been done.
“With your permission, I’d like to take Jesus’ body and bury it according to our customs,” says Joseph.
The governor looks up from his meal. “The king? Is he already dead?”
A captain nods.
“I knew he was harmless,” says the governor to the captain. “Didn’t even last ten hours.”
The captain stiffens and bites his tongue.
“The body is yours,” says the governor to Joseph. “Just take it down from the cross.”
Andrew sees Jesus’ body from a distance.
It still doesn’t help him believe this could have happened.
Not far from the cross, another body is spread out on the ground, face down and lying almost absolutely still.
“Judas?” says Andrew.
But Judas doesn’t turn or answer. Andrew kneels down beside him, looks him over for signs of wounds—but his only injuries are scraped knuckles.
“Why didn’t they come?” says Judas. “It’s all my fault.”
“Don’t talk like that,” says Andrew. “We did what we could, there just wasn’t time enough.”
“You don’t understand,” says Judas.
“It’s going to be all right,” says Andrew. “Somehow it will be all right.”
“No,” says Judas.
“Let’s go back to the house,” says Andrew.
“You still don’t understand,” says Judas, “I killed him!” Andrew takes Judas firmly by both arms. “You didn’t kill anyone,” he says. “The Romans did this and none of us knew how to stop them.”
But Judas pulls away. “You don’t understand,” he says, and then he turns and runs before Andrew can stop him.
Joseph goes home to get a white linen cloth to wrap the body in. He checks to see if the three apostles waiting there are all right and finds ten of the apostles and three women in the upper room.
He tells them he has permission to take the body and that he has a garden outside the city walls with a newly-cut tomb. He says it will be better, in case anyone is watching, if none of the men come with him, but he invites the women.
Salome stays with her sons, but the Marys go.
Andrew is still at the cross when they get there, but no one seems to be watching anymore. He helps Joseph take the body down. The women wrap it, and then Joseph and Andrew carry it to the tomb.
It’s good Andrew is there to help, because the stone at the tomb’s entrance is too heavy for Joseph alone to roll aside.
Judas doesn’t know where to go. He thinks about going to the neighborhood where he grew up, but he’s not sure he could bear to be there now. He thinks about going back to face Peter, James, and John, but he doesn’t think they’d stone him like he deserves. He thinks about going to the high priest’s house, throwing the money in his face, shouting every curse he knows—as if it were the high priest’s fault and not his own. As if curses mattered in a world to which the Day of Judgment will no longer come.
He decides to go to the fig tree on the mountainside where Jesus wept.
All the leaves are brown and the branches are brittle. Even the roots have dried up.
Joseph, Andrew, and the women make it home just before sunset ushers in the Sabbath.
Everyone says the prayers together, and though they’re still devastated, an unmistakable part of the peace of the Sabbath settles over the house.
The Sabbath must be one of the greatest gifts God ever gave to mankind, because not even a tragedy as great as this can take it away.
Late that night, after everyone else is lost in bone-tired sleep, Andrew and Peter talk like they used to, like two young brothers worried about their friends. They talk about Mary, and about Simon’s wounds, and about how grateful they are to have Joseph’s hospitality and help. Then they fall quiet for a moment.
“I’m worried about Judas,” says Andrew, “I wish he were here with us.”
Peter doesn’t answer.
“I saw him, for a moment, in the afternoon,” Andrew says, and he fidgets with the knots on his sleeve. “I think he blames himself for what happened.”
Peter bites his tongue. He already hates Judas for betraying Jesus, but now he also hates him for how the truth will hurt his brother. His caring, trusting brother.
“Where do you think he might have gone?” asks Andrew. “How can we find him?”
“Andrew,” says Peter, but he can’t fit any words out of his mouth. The shapes they take in his mind are too awkward and ugly for his tongue to carry.
Andrew waits in silence. That’s the worst part. The way Andrew is always so willing to patiently wait for him to speak.
“It is his fault,” says Peter. “He’s the one who led them to Jesus.”
Andrew doesn’t say anything for a long time. Peter feels like there’s a fish hook caught in his side and the silence is pulling on it, but he doesn’t know how to beg Andrew to say something. Anything.
“Are you sure it was him?” says Andrew at last.
“He was carrying one of the torches,” says Peter. “He walked right up to us and pointed out Jesus. That’s how they knew who to arrest.”
“Why would he do that?” asks Andrew.
“Why do most traitors turn on their friends?” says Peter. “Maybe they paid him well; maybe he carried a silent grudge.”
“He feels terrible now,” says Andrew.
“Good!” says Peter. “I hope he feels terrible the rest of his life. Maybe someday someone will turn him in, and he can find out how it feels to be nailed to a cross.”
“Don’t say that,” says Andrew.
“He deserves it,” says Peter.
“Don’t say that,” says Andrew. “I’m worried about him. We should find him.”
“Jesus is dead because of him!” says Peter. “Can’t you understand that?”
“He’s my friend!” says Andrew, and he starts to cry.
“He betrayed you,” says Peter. “He betrayed all of us.”
But Andrew doesn’t stop weeping. And so Peter cries with him. He cries for his dead Master, for his dying hopes, for the crushing loneliness of this giant, violent city. But most of all he cries because the pleading tone of Andrew’s voice sounded so much for a moment like Jesus last night in the garden.
While the Jews of the city are observing their Sabbath,
the governor gambles with an old friend who’s come to visit. As he rolls the carved bone dice, the governor explains how he convinced half the city to support the execution of a man who claimed to be the heir to the old Jewish kings.
The governor’s friend laughs when he hears about the crown of thorns. “Probably the only crown he ever wore,” he says—and then he stops laughing when the dice rolled against him.
“Shall we play again?” asks the governor.
“I think I’ve suffered enough,” says his friend.
“Just once more!” says the governor. “You know the
whole city’s shut down on their seventh day: what else can we do?”
The governor’s friend hesitates. It’s true that Jerusalem is cheerless today—but that doesn’t give him more money to lose. “Why don’t you take me to see the king?” he says. “I’d enjoy that.”
“You’ve come too late, my friend,” says the governor. “He’s already dead and buried. For a king, there wasn’t much fighting spirit in him: he only lasted a few hours. We could visit the tomb, if you like. The man who took the body is quite wealthy, so it should be impressive.”
A soldier who’s been watching their game speaks up: “I saw where they took him. It is beautiful—a new place in a garden with a freshly carved cave. I think it was meant to be the merchant’s own when he died.”
The governor’s friend raises an eyebrow.
“Should we go?” says the governor.
“Aren’t you worried about this?” asks his friend.
“About the tomb?” says the governor. “Why should I be?”
“Does this man you crucified have a son?” says the friend.
“I have no idea,” the governor says.
“You should find out,” says the friend. “If a man claims descent from their legendary line of kings and is executed, his son is heir to both the kings and a martyr. And since the merchant gave this would-be king a nice tomb, where people can come to offer the wine and gifts for the dead every year—soon you may have big crowds and that grave will be a dangerous shrine.”
“Jews don’t give anything to their dead after the burial,” says the governor. “Except for their one god, they’re strict atheists.”
“Then maybe they’ll pray to their god in the grave or they’ll weep at the grave’s entrance,” says the friend. “Every nation does something. And suppose one day his son—or, who knows, maybe a younger brother?—comes and makes a fiery speech from the tomb. You might have a serious problem.”
The governor takes a slow drink of wine and rubs his temples against an oncoming headache. “I hate this place,” he says. “We should have left these fanatics to the Persians.”
“Do you want my advice?” asks his friend. “Just seal up the tomb now so no one can go in to offer sacrifices and put a guard there a few weeks to keep people away from the entrance. Then they’ll forget it. The easiest time to stop a shrine is before it develops.”
The governor leans forward, then rises and walks to a window that looks out over the hills to the north.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” his friend says, absently toying with the dice, “but in your position, I wouldn’t gamble on it.”
In the last hours of the Sabbath, Mary from Magdala thinks about her life. About how she stayed at home after all her sisters had married and moved on. About how lonely she felt when her parents died. About all the struggles with both mind and body she had before Jesus came and—with one touch of his hand—drove them out. About how much it meant to her when he said she had great faith.
She thinks about the time she spent following him. About all the people she’s told of his work and all the people she’s come to love like sisters and brothers. Is that life over now? She can’t imagine how it could go on with Jesus dead, but she also can’t imagine going on without it. She can’t imagine her life without the faith that’s made her feel whole.
She thinks about her savings, all gone now, so there’s nothing to start a new life with.
But she doesn’t regret how she spent it.
“I want Mary to,” he said, “I want her to anoint me this time and the next.”
And all at once, Mary knows what to hold onto in all her confusion. For tonight at least, her life still has a clear purpose. Jesus wanted her to help anoint his body for its burial.
The three women go out after sunset with their own lamps, carrying burial spices and oil Joseph has sent. They sing softly as they go, as they walk out of the gate and see the hill with rocks shaped like a skull:
The Lord is my light and my salvation: who should I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life: why should I be afraid?
I can do this, Jesus’ mother thinks. Women have always done this. I buried my husband and I can bury my son.
I need to do this, thinks the other Mary. If my whole life has only been to serve on this evening, I’ll be able to tell God it was enough.
Salome jumps back when her light shines on a figure outside the grave. Two soldiers are waiting there.
“What are you doing here?” says Salome sharply.
Her tone catches the soldiers off guard, and they’re not quite sure how to respond. “We’re supposed to be here,” one of them says. “We have orders from the governor.”
“Do your orders say to stand in the way of a dead man’s mother?” Salome asks, and she gestures at Mary. “She’d like to finish the preparations for her son’s body.”
The soldiers hesitate. “We can’t,” says one. “Our orders are to keep people away.”
“We’re very sorry,” says the other.
Salome looks at them. “You seem like kind men,” she says. “I know you have your orders, but couldn’t you just let his mother in? The rest of us can wait outside if you’d like.”
One soldier bites his cheek; the other shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
“We’re extremely sorry,” the first soldier says, “but they already called in someone to seal the stone. So we really can’t let anyone in, no matter how much we might want to.”
“We’re not even supposed to let anyone linger in the area,” says the other. “But if she needs a moment,” he adds quickly, “we won’t get in the way.”
The older Mary takes the other two women’s arms and walks right up to the entrance stone. It’s sealed all around. They should be able to find a time in the next day or two when the guards are asleep or willing to be bribed, but it will be hard to break in quietly.
Mary closes her eyes for a moment and hopes she looks lost in more typical motherly thoughts.
She nods at the guards. She hopes she appears at once grave and grateful as she walks away.
“Thank you,” Salome says to the guards. “I hope we see each other again someday.”
Joseph the rich man listens carefully to the women’s questions. People don’t usually ask a man of his dignity how to break into something, or how much to offer Jerusalem’s Roman soldiers for a bribe—which is a terrible shame, because his years of experience on these subjects, from his childhood in Arimathea up through the time when he first established himself here in the city, really should not be wasted. He gives them detailed advice on which tools they’ll need to break into the tomb, on how to use a cloth to dampen the sound, on how to walk the fine line between being gouged on a bribe and offending a soldier by showing insufficient respect. He gives them advice on how early to leave the house if they want to start their work when it’s light enough to see what they’re doing without lamps but still dark enough to keep them from being seen from a distance.
“How do you know all this?” asks Thomas, who’s a little skeptical about the whole plan, but Joseph the rich man just smiles. He wonders out loud if the three women, working together, will be able to push the heavy stone aside once they’ve cut it loose, but they insist they’ll manage and that it will be safer to commit a crime if they don’t bring any men with them.
Joseph sighs and then settles into helping Mary from Magdala practice some of his techniques with a chisel while Mary and Salome get some rest.
She stays up half the night working, Joseph serving as her mentor and a succession of apostles as chaperones, until she feels the plan has been successfully transferred from her mind’s memory into her hands’. She’s nervous, of course, but she tries not to think too much about that. She’s tempted to wait, to plan another day and train another night, but with a dead body to attend to, she doesn’t have much time. She has a purpose in life, and if she’s going to fulfill it, she has to try now.
The women get up in the last watch of the night to reach the tomb by early morning. Their bodies are exhausted from days of stress and pain but their minds are bright, because their minds are on fire with a love that will burn for the rest of their lives.
It’s still dim as they approach the garden, so they can’t see at first where the soldiers are.
They get closer. The soldiers aren’t there.
They move toward the tomb. The entrance stone isn’t there either.
They get worried. What’s happened? Has someone stolen the body from the grave? Are soldiers hoping the apostles will come: are they lying in wait to arrest them?
Jesus’ mother walks into the chamber anyway, the other two close beside her.
The body is gone, the linen burial cloth folded neatly where it once lay.
A shining being with eyes bright as lightning and a cloak spun of purified light stands on the cave’s right side.
Mary from Nazareth gasps. The angel’s face is just like her dead husband’s.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says in a voice that feels smooth against their souls. “You won’t find him here. He’s risen!”
The angel smiles like Joseph used to, and though he doesn’t touch her, Mary feels lost in his arms. Then he walks out of the chamber and leaps up onto the top of the great stone.
“Tell his friends first,” he says. “Then tell everyone!”
Then he leaps again, straight up, higher than any human being could go. The sun starts to break over the hills in the east, and he’s gone.
The women stare at that first sliver of the rising sun.
Sometimes, it’s hardest to believe the miracle you see with your own eyes.
“Should we go back to the house?” asks Salome.
“Yes,” says the older Mary.
Mary from Magdala can barely stand, barely see well enough to put one foot in front of the other after the brightness of the angel’s light. “I’ll wait here,” she says. “I should stay and watch so I can warn you before the men get here if any trouble comes.”
Salome and Jesus’ mother nod and hurry back toward the upper city.
Mary from Magdala falls to her knees, onto the soft, dew-damp soil.
“I don’t mean any disrespect,” says Thomas, “but are sure that’s what you saw? Not a trick of the early morning light?”
“Have you ever seen an angel?” asks Mary.
“No,” says Thomas.
“Obviously,” says Salome.
Thomas sighs. “I know we all would give anything to see him again. But there are some things no sacrifice can buy.”
“What if it wasn’t our sacrifice?” says John.
There’s a distinct element of danger. There’s a strong possibility the whole thing is a complicated trick, that the high priest or governor didn’t think one crucifixion was enough and is looking for more.
There’s also a strong chance of further heartbreak. If you abandon your rituals of mourning for impossible hope after impossible hope, how will the mourning come to an end?
But Peter, Andrew, James, and John don’t have the patience to listen to reasonable arguments from the others, and they go running to see the empty grave right away.
“He was here,” says Mary from Magdala when the four men arrive at the tomb. “I saw him. He talked to me.”
In court, a woman’s witness isn’t valid. But the four men who ran believe.
Peter, James, and John run back to the house to tell the others, but Andrew lets himself fall behind. They can bring the good news to the faithful: Andrew wants to find Judas.
When Judas hears Jesus is risen from the dead, he won’t be able to shut out hope any longer. And though he’ll still carry the guilt of all he’s done, the news may give him the courage to come back and be forgiven.
Then they’ll work together and they’ll pray together until Andrew and Judas stand side by side on the day when their risen Master lifts the veil that conceals the full beauty of the kingdom of God.
Andrew doesn’t know where to look, but he needs to find Judas. He needs to tell Judas. He passes the fortress and the Temple and searches through alley after alley. But he finds nothing. So he walks straight to the street where the high priest lives and knocks on the bloody door.
A servant answers: it’s still Passover, she says. Doesn’t he know the high priest is far too busy to talk with every poor pilgrim in town?
“I’m not here for the high priest,” says Andrew. “I’m looking for my friend.”
“Who?” asks the servant, and Andrew tells her what Judas looks like and when he might have come.
“We haven’t seen him,” she says. And she closes the door.
But Andrew doesn’t know where else to go. So he knocks again.
The door opens. “Why did you come here?” the servant asks. “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen to you?”
“No,” Andrew says.
Another servant comes to the doorway. “He was here,” the second servant says, and the first servant glares at him. “Are you looking for the money?”
“What money?” Andrew asks.
“You don’t know?” says the servant. “Then if you promise not to come back and not to mention any money to our Master or anyone else, I’ll tell you where your friend went.”
“I promise,” says Andrew. “But what makes you so certain my friend won’t speak with your Master about it again?”
The servant takes a long look at Andrew. “You didn’t hear the way your friend talked,” he says. “Or see the look in his eyes.”
“Besides,” says the other, “We saw him headed for the potters’ field.”
Andrew runs so fast he’s afraid the blood will burst out of his veins. He runs so fast he feels he might drown in the exertion.
But he’s too late.
Judas’s body is hanging from a tree.
Andrew screams out his anger: “Why?” he shouts, “I wanted to help you. Why didn’t you come to me?”
Andrew cuts the body down and cries over it. “I was your friend, Judas,” he says. “I’m your friend.” And he sobs until his throat aches and his mind feels numb.
Then he wraps the body in his coat, digs a grave with his hands through the clay-thick dirt, and says the prayers for the dead.
“Why couldn’t he wait just a little longer?” he asks God. “Why couldn’t he wait for me?”
As soon as Andrew steps back into the house, he can hear the others singing upstairs:
I’ll declare your name to my brothers; I’ll praise you before a great assembly. If you love the Lord, praise Him! All you sons of Jacob, honor Him! Let reverence for Him fill the whole house of Israel— because He hasn’t forgotten or forsaken the suffering one, He hasn’t hidden his face: when the sufferer cried out, He heard.
Only Thomas sits silent, still in mourning, here in the lower level. When Andrew joins in the song, Thomas stands up and leaves:
My praise for You joins the praise of the congregation, among those who honor him I will fulfill all my vows. The meek will eat and be satisfied; whoever looks for the Lord will praise him.
Andrew thinks about going after Thomas, but he needs to sing more first. He needs the strength he feels in this chorus, so he walks up the stairs:
All the ends of the earth will turn and remember the Lord, people from every nation will come and worship before Him: Because the kingdom is the Lord’s, and He will govern among all the nations.
Andrew looks around the room at the faces of his brothers and sisters. And he runs his fingers over the knots he tied on the fringes of his shirt.
Our children will serve Him, We’ll tell all His stories to the coming generations: they will come. And they’ll talk of his righteousness to a people yet to be born: they’ll tell them what he has done.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.