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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Three, Section Two
Don’t regret our breath’s use as air, our blood’s as oil— some lamps at last are burning in the night.
Mary from Magdala goes to the market with all the savings she has. For years, she’s managed money carefully, feeling that someday she would need it—she never would have imagined, though, she’d be spending her savings like this.
Mary gasps sharply when she hears the price of the myrrh, bites her lip at the expense of exotic cinnamon, tries not to think about what else she could be buying for the amount she’s asked to pay for cassia, and responds with numb resignation to the cost of calamus.
She doesn’t have enough left for the olive oil the vendors sell in the market, so she walks up the hill and spends the last of her money buying the oil straight from the press.
She pulls her robe in close over the goods and rushes to the village where Jesus will be receiving his guests tonight. She prays not to be robbed on the way, not to lose this gift that means more than any other in her life.
She’s too busy praying to notice that Jesus is resting in a nearby garden.
In the upper city, the high priest is feeling restless. He’s been working on the puzzle of Jesus all morning, sending out inquiries and gathering information. In the early afternoon, he summons his best informants and advisors, and by late afternoon, they’ve all arrived.
The servants seat the high priests’ guests along the sides of a large upstairs room. The high priest looks around at those he’s had summoned: sages, jurists, servants, witnesses, and a spy. He tries not to think about urgent Passover preparations he’s neglecting, so he can focus on the matter at hand. Experience has taught him never to let a routine crisis blind you to an unexpected one.
“What knowledge have we gathered since yesterday?” asks the high priest. “We know the man who created the disturbance in the Temple is named Jesus, that he’s from an obscure village in southern Galilee—”
“Nazareth,” says a young man with a heavy Galilean accent.
“—yes, Nebayoth,” says the high priest. “Apparently, in the northern countryside he’s quite well known, and many here have heard of him as well.”
A few of the high priest’s informants nod in agreement.
“But who does he think he is?” says the high priest, “And should his aspirations give us cause for concern?”
“He seemed to me like an honest and compassionate man,” says the second sage.
“I don’t trust him,” says the first.
The high priest turns to the spy. “What do you think?”
The spy brushes some stray hair back from his face. “I can’t answer either of your questions,” says the spy. “I can tell you that several leading Zealots are excited to support him, but that’s all. I don’t know how he feels about them or whether he has any plans, and I don’t think they know, either.”
“He’s both careful and clever,” says the first sage’s servant. “He knows how to be quiet enough to stay out of trouble but still hint enough to encourage his crowd. If he is planning anything, you can’t afford to ignore it.”
“I agree,” says one of the jurists. “People will lay down their lives for a mystery, and he knows how to speak in secrets. If he tells his people they have to take over the city for his secret to be unveiled, they’ll do it. And what comfort is it to us then if it turns out there’s nothing behind the veil at all?”
“We don’t have evidence that he’s planning anything,” says the second sage, “and we can’t act without witnesses.”
The young man with the northern accent, who’s a stranger to most of the men in the room, speaks up: “Before he left, he told his followers at home he was touring Galilee for the last time. I heard it from the mouths of men who heard him say it. He must be planning to do something here; I just don’t know what.”
Everyone sits for a moment in silence.
The high priest clears his throat. “It seems we agree that we should be concerned. Perhaps now it’s time to answer my first question: who does he think he is?”
“I asked him in plain terms,” says the first sage, “but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“He’s certainly a rebel,” says the sage’s servant, “but probably the kind who believes we need to purify ourselves before God will bless a rebellion. That would explain the Temple incident.”
“Don’t imagine he’s a purist or saint: he’s a blasphemer,” says the young Galilean, “a self-obsessed blasphemer. I myself heard him claim the authority to forgive a man’s sins.”
“And we can stand as witnesses that he disparaged the law,” say the jurists.
The high priest turns to the spy. “Who do the Zealots think he is?” he asks.
The spy shakes his head. “They’re hoping, of course, that he’s the son of David, but they’ll follow anyone who might take up the sword.”
“And what do you think?” says the high priest to the second sage.
“I believe he’s harmless,” the sage says. “But I also think he at least wonders whether he is the anointed one.”
“Then we have to remove him,” says the high priest.
“I don’t think he’s the kind of man who takes up arms,” says the second sage. “If he decides he is the Messiah, he seems more the kind to pray and wait for God to work a miracle.”
“And you’ll take the dead of this land on your conscience if you’re wrong?” asks the high priest.
The second sage doesn’t answer at first and speaks carefully when he does: “I don’t think he’ll act on his own, but if you try to take him by force, the crowd might act for him.”
“Then we need to find a way to take him when he’s alone,” says the high priest. “And we need to have witnesses ready to condemn him to death.”
The first sage, the jurists, and the young Galilean nod solemnly.
“To death?” asks the second sage. “Why?”
“Where were you,” says the high priest, “when Judah and Zadok’s revolt ended? You must remember as well as I do how quickly calm returned after Judah had been executed. People will do anything when they think they’ve found the Messiah, but it’s easy enough to bring them back to their senses, because they all know the promised one doesn’t die.”
Mary shows the apostles the myrrh first. Then the cinnamon.
“What is all this?” asks Judas. “It must be worth at least a hundred silver pieces!”
“There’s more,” says Mary, and she shows them the cassia and the calamus.
“Where did you get all this?” asks Thomas.
“I bought it,” says Mary.
“And why did you spend so much money on spices?” asks Thomas.
“We could’ve given it to the poor,” Judas says.
Mary takes out the olive oil and Thomas freezes. He finally understands.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asks.
And Mary has never looked quite so beautiful to him as when she says, “It’s time. Can’t you feel it?” Thomas aches. He wants to believe her, but he has such doubts. This should be a holy anointing oil to Me through all your generations, thinks Thomas. And it must be holy to you: whoever makes any like it, or puts any of it on an unauthorized person, should be cut off from the people.
“Do you think we should anoint him as a prophet or as a king?” says Matthew.
“Both,” James says.
“Who should do the anointing?” asks Peter.
“We’ll have to ask Jesus,” James says.
They all stare at the ingredients for a moment, motionless. Then Andrew moves carefully and begins to mix, trying to match the ancient proportions on this smaller scale. The smells are strong, almost intoxicating, and for some reason, though nothing could be further from the desert’s scents, they fill him with memories of his first Master, John.
John should be here for this, thinks Andrew. It’s John the Prophet who should pour the sacred oil on the anointed one.
Thomas has arranged for Jesus to stay in the largest house in Bethany tonight, so that he can receive the guests who are eager to visit him: prominent villagers, old friends of Simon, pilgrims from around Magdala and the north end of the lake, relatives of the martyred John. But Jesus went out with only Philip and Nathanael in the afternoon, and the three of them are still gone when everyone else arrives.
The Galilean pilgrims chat contentedly in the center of the courtyard with the locals; Simon’s friends sit patiently around the edges, talking more quietly with each other and with Andrew, Judas, and Simon. They all fall quiet with respect when John the Prophet’s mother arrives until Jesus’ mother greets her so warmly it seems as if they’d known each other for years. The two matriarchs wander off to talk in a more private place inside and leave Peter to greet members of John’s father’s family.
It starts to get dark. Matthew and Thomas light lamps to illuminate the courtyard, but many of the villagers start to worry they won’t have enough oil in their own lamps to make it home if they wait until the dead of night. A few at a time, they begin to excuse themselves. Many of the pilgrims didn’t bring much oil either and follow their hosts back to their lodgings for the night.
It gets darker. Almost all of John’s relatives go, leaving well-wishes for the most famous of the men their kinsman baptized. There’s a slight delay as they try to persuade John’s mother to go with them, but she insists she’ll be all right spending the night.
It’s almost midnight when Jesus arrives with the last two apostles, but Andrew is happy to see that he looks well-rested and more relaxed than he has for quite some time. Jesus greets his remaining visitors while Mary goes into the house to tell Jesus’ mother her son is back. The women come out into the courtyard just as one of Simon’s friends produces a sword.
He steps forward and kneels down in front of Jesus. “Master,” he says, “we’ve heard you’re filled with power like the prophets of old, and we present you this gift in memory of the sword of Samuel.” He lays the sword on the ground, hilt toward Jesus.
Another of Simon’s friends rises, produces a sword, and kneels in front of Jesus. “My lord,” he says, “we welcome you back to the kings’ city, and we present you this gift in memory of the sword of your ancestor, David.” And he lays the sword on the ground, hilt toward Jesus.
Another of Simon’s friends rises and speaks from the scriptures: “See my servant, who I uphold; my chosen one, who delights my soul!” he says, “I have put my spirit on him: he’ll bring judgment to the foreign nations.”
All of Simon’s friends rise. The one who has just spoken kneels before Jesus. “We’ve brought you these two swords in acknowledgment of your authority and power. We also offer our own swords and lives to your service—”
“Two swords are enough,” Jesus says.
The man’s mouth stays half-open, as if his uncompleted offer were trapped there. Should he push the rest of the words forward, or swallow back the words he said?
Jesus stands up and offers him a hand. The man bites his lip and then rises. He stands dazed for a moment, and then wishes Jesus a polite good night. Jesus wishes him a safe trip home and asks if he and his men will have enough light.
The apostles and the stunned men mumble goodbyes to each other and exchange awkward embraces. Andrew stays in the courtyard, but Simon and Judas accompany the men out and into the street.
Though he’d like to wait for the two of them to get back, Andrew decides to speak before he loses courage: “We made some oil for you, some very expensive oil. Was that right of us or wrong?”
“Why did he reject us?” hisses one of the men at Simon once they’re all outside the house. “We would’ve died for him!”
“I don’t know,” says Simon, “but he knows what he’s doing.”
“Does he?” says the man. “What sort of commander shows more concern for your lamps than your swords?”
“You saw him in the Temple,” says Simon. “You know he’s filled with the power of God.”
“The Romans aren’t defenseless Temple merchants,” Simon’s old friend says. “I can’t believe we wasted our days and our hope with him.”
“What did you expect?” says Simon. “Another sweet-tongued highway robber like Barabbas?”
Simon’s old friend spits. “At least Barabbas fought,” he says.
Simon wants to push him, then, wants to shake away all his condescension and pride. But he clenches his fists instead. And he watches old friends walk past him into the night.
But the last man in line lingers. “You’re sure you want to stay with him, Simon?” he asks. “It’s not too late: you could come with us.”
“I’ll never leave him,” says Simon. “Never.”
The man brushes some stray hair back from his face. “Good for you,” he says. “But I should warn you: the high priest and his friends are looking for a way to take your Master quietly and kill him.”
“It’s all right,” says Jesus in the courtyard. “Don’t worry. You’ve done a good thing.”
The apostles exhale in relief and Mary from Magdala goes to get the sacred oil.
“There’s one more thing,” Andrew says while she’s gone, “since John is dead, we’re not sure who should anoint you.”
Mary comes back into courtyard, holding the most important gift she’s ever given carefully in her hands.
“I want Mary to,” says Jesus. “I want her to anoint me this time and the next.”
Mary stares, uncomprehending. The apostles begin to protest, but Jesus shakes his head.
“She should anoint my head for the work I have to do,” he says, “because she’s the one who will come to anoint my body when that work has been done.”
“Which work?” asks James.
“You’ll understand,” says Jesus, “soon enough.”
Mary starts shaking as she walks toward Jesus. This is an honor for a prophet. Not for a woman.
She’s about to begin when she remembers to wait for Simon and Judas.
They come back in. Judas sees her with the vessel of oil held up above Jesus’ head. “What are you doing?” he says.
“He told me to,” says Mary, and for reasons she doesn’t understand, she starts crying as she pours the oil down on Jesus.
When the vessel is empty, Jesus turns to Simon.
“Your friends have lost interest in me?” he says.
“Yes,” says Simon, “they have.”
Jesus looks around at the twelve. “Do any of you want to leave me too?”
“No!” says Peter. Where else would they go?
“Maybe we should all leave here together though,” says Simon.
“Why is that?” Jesus asks.
“Because I just heard the high priest wants to have you killed,” says Simon.
“I’ll die when it’s the will of God,” says Jesus. “Don’t worry about what the high priest has planned.”
In spite of himself, Nathanael yawns.
Jesus smiles. “It’s late,” he says, “and it’s been a very long day. Go to sleep now, get some rest.”
And except for Judas, soon they all do.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.