Book Five: Devarim (Words)
Mary’s hair is white and thinning by the time the foreign doctor comes to visit; her joints are sore and stiff. He speaks halting Aramaic with a heavy accent; she wishes she’d been educated, so she could talk to him in his native Greek tongue.
People have been talking about her son for decades, but no one has asked her so many questions before, or listened so carefully to her answers. He has some trouble understanding the rural accent she’s never lost, so she has to repeat some things several times before he seems able to follow. He says—if she understands him correctly—that he wants to know exactly what happened. He says he’s heard more than one version of every story and he wants to get it right. So she tries to tell him everything, but it takes so long, and there’s so much to talk about, she soon settles for smiling widely and nodding as soon as he seems to understand the heart of what she’s said.
After he’s gone through all the common stories and sayings, he asks her about when Jesus was born. No man has asked her about that before. Some men, back in the village, used to look away from her because of whispers they’d heard about it, but no one ever asked.
So she tells him. About the angel, and the prophetess. About how she almost fell off the donkey when the tightening pains became hard and rapid. She laughs as she remembers trying to tell Joseph to let her get down and have the baby on the side of the street, and explains how frustrating it was that whenever she’d get his attention, the pain would have grown too strong for her to talk.
He asks about Jesus’ childhood, but she quickly gives up trying to explain all the places they lived and why they went there. She tries to express instead what a perfect child he was, how infuriating that perfection could sometimes be, and how sometimes, even as a child, he’d say strange things that would sink straight down to the deepest part of her heart, where she’d keep them. Though it wasn’t until later, years later, after everything had happened, that she finally understood what he’d meant.
She falls quiet.
“Do you miss him?” asks Luke.
She smiles. “No,” she says. “He’s not gone.”
They keep telling the story: from land to land, language to language, generation to generation. The stories change as they travel: people remember the Passover matzah as loaves of their own leavened bread, Mary’s son’s spring birth gets moved to winter. But the heart stays strong even in such mistakes: it’s the darkest time of year when the people of the north celebrate the coming of the Light.
The stories don’t mind shifting a little to fill the shapes of their listeners’ deepest needs.
And I believe they’re all true. Because I’ve walked into the water, seen John’s shape carved across its surface. And that shape is a knife that still opens hearts, so that by the time you reach the water, you’re aching to give up all the wrongs you’ve ever done.
And you tell Jesus: “I can’t go on this way.”
And he says: “You don’t have to.”
And you say: “But how?”
And he shows you how to take the stories in your hand, and tear the pride of this world apart.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.
This is the final post from “The Five Books of Jesus.” To read the entire series, click here.