‘Golgotha and the Garden Tomb’

Mary of Magdala had a hard time rising on that second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. She lay quietly on the small platform bed, lay quietly as the sun underwent its daily birth and cast its radiant beams upon the earth beneath. She was awake but paralyzed with the thoughts of her fallen friend. Despite the bright rays that bathed her tiny body, only darkness dwelt in Mary’s soul, for another Son had set the previous day. Both died, Mary thought, but only one would rise again. Only one was daily reborn.

She forced her leg from beneath her blanket and rolled out of bed, the dirt of the floor cold between her toes. Sunbeams hit the dusty air, creating spears of light that cast radiant patterns about her feet. Most days she’d have welcomed the sunbeams as her dearest friends, but today the incandescent spears reminded her only of the javelin that had pierced her Savior’s side the night before. She cringed at the sunlight’s stabs.

Mary slowly unwound her sindon, the white linen sheet in which she slept, thinking as she undressed of the fine linen in which they’d wrapped her departed Master. Only He would never awake as she had. He would never shed His sindon at the beginning of a new day, for no new days would dawn for her fallen friend–only the cold, dark nights of Arimathea’s tomb.

Her small hand grasped the tight-fitting woolen garment, the kuttoneth, her most comfortable shirt. She lifted the cloth above her and slipped it over her head, straightening the wrinkles. The girdle about her waist, once fastened, pulled the shirt close to her body and revealed her frail frame. Mary was among the poorest in Jerusalem, lean from hard work and scarce food, and yet she had been one of the happiest in the Holy City. Happy, that is, until her best friend had left her–abandoned her, she thought. Mary reached for her tsa’iyph and pulled the white dress over her head, letting it hide her thinness. The large fringe covered her fragile feet.

She moved to the center of her room and knelt. Her face wore a slight frown as she placed her hands in her lap and bowed her head, preparing to call upon the Lord as all Jews do, offering her tefillah, hoping God had not forsaken her completely.

“Blessed be the Lord our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God; the Most High God, Who showeth… mercy…”

Mary paused with that last word. She inhaled as tears formed in her eyes, as the dew of sorrow already condensed upon her soul turned to relentless rain. Tiny hands wiped away salty drops, but the downpour of grief within continued unabated. If God was merciful, why did He allow His Son, her Master and her dearest friend, to be tortured and murdered? How she needed Him! Why did God take from her that which she cherished most?

“And kindness, who createth all things, Who remembereth the gracious…”

Unable to bear the weight of her sorrow, Mary’s head fell into her lap. She let her tears fall; to try to stop them would be like trying to empty an ocean with a bucket. No one noticed the little creature weeping silently, her tiny form shaking with each sob. Even God seemed to have abandoned her, seemed to have withdrawn His warmth from her soul and left only frigid loneliness. What had He said? What had He promised when He was yet with her?

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Where was that promised comfort now? Where was His friendly embrace and quick smile? Her comfort had died with Christ on the cross, crucified with her Master. She rose slowly to her feet, unable to finish the tefillah, and left without breakfast.

Hundreds of soles trod the dirt streets of Jerusalem, kicking up clouds of dust that suffocated Mary’s body just as grief suffocated her spirit. Despite the noise, Jerusalem was quiet that Sabbath. All marched to the synagogues, heeding tradition’s call that they worship Jehovah–the same they had crucified the day before–in their houses of prayer.

Mary walked the streets of the lower city in a daze, numbed by sorrow. A sudden rush of cold air greeted the young woman when she opened the synagogue door. The darkness within challenged the radiant brilliance of the spring day. Mary stood in the entryway until her eyes adjusted to the shadows. She quickly found her seat.

The Magdalene sat between isolation and loneliness near the back, pulling her legs up close to her body, needing something to hug. At least a hundred Jews filled the room, but Mary was alone. Resting her chin on her knees, she watched the ruler of the synagogue march to the lectern at the front of the room, dignified and authoritative.

“Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the world,” he began, following the rituals of Jewish Sabbath worship, “Who formest the light and createst the darkness, Who makest peace and createst everything; Who, in mercy, givest light to the earth and to those who dwell upon it, and in Thy goodness day by day and every day renewest the works of creation. Blessed be the Lord our God for the glory of His handiwork and for the light-giving lights which He has made for His praise. Selah! Blessed be the Lord our God, Who hath formed the lights.”

“Renewest the works of thy creation? Will you renew the life of my friend, who you created and then took from me? Yes, Lord–I know you formed the lights in the heavens–but will you return the heaven-sent light of life into my Master’s lifeless body?”

Mary was not angry with God–she had learned to trust Him–but how He puzzled her. Why had He taken her Master? Why had He let His Son die upon the cross? Why had He let her watch her Savior–her dearest friend–depart this brutal world? Mary inhaled, her tiny body expanding as the sorrow within her swelled, and then exhaled, the shadow of a sob hidden in her sigh.

“With great love hast Thou loved us, O Lord our God, and with much overflowing pity hast Thou pitied us our Father and our King. For the sake of our fathers who trusted in Thee, and Thou taughtest them the statutes of life, have mercy upon us and teach us. Enlighten our eyes in Thy law; cause our hearts to cleave to The commandments; unite our hearts to love and fear The name, and we shall not be put to shame, world without end. For Thou art a God Who preparest salvation, and us hast Thou chosen from among all nations and tongues, and hast in truth brought us near to The great Name that we may lovingly praise Thee and Thy Oneness. Blessed be the Lord Who in love chose His people Israel.”

“Yes, Lord! Have mercy on us! Our fathers trusted in Thee and their bones now rot in their tombs. If you have loved us with a great love–and I believe you have–how can you let us die, never to return, never again to ‘cleave to the commandments’ or to ‘unite our hearts to love and fear the name?’ What good is being chosen if in the end we rot as all men do, as my Savior who lies now in Arimathea’s tomb is rotting? I love Him, Lord! Will I never see Him again?”

Her soul spoke out, but Mary was silent. Tears fell upon her knees as the ruler of the synagogue began the shema, but no one noticed the trembling young women alone at the back of the room. No one saw her falling tears or spiritual sorrows.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” the ruler began, reading the prayer from the Torah before him. The congregation repeated, all save for Mary who remained silent, legs still pulled up against her.

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might…”

“Oh God, I do love Thee–I do–but why did You let them kill Him? I watched as His spirit left His body; I saw the flame in His eyes slowly dwindle until it finally went out. Part of me died with Him! Why did it have to be this way, Lord? Why does this have to be the end?”

“True it is, that Thou art Jehovah our God and the God of our fathers, our King and the King of our fathers, our Savior and the Savior of our fathers, our Creator, the Rock of our salvation, our Help and our Deliverer…”

“Help me, Lord! Deliver me from this sorrow! I’ve many questions without answers. How can you let us lie down forever in the grave if you love us? Help me understand, Lord! I know your love–I’ve felt it a thousand times–but why have you made death the end? Why does the grave win? Why is Your divine hand ever out of reach?”

“O Lord our God! Cause us to lie down in peace, and raise us up again to life, O our King!”

Mary no longer heard the ruler’s address, for sorrow had consumed her. She heard nothing of the Eighteen Benedictions, of the ruler’s plea that the Lord bless and keep his congregation, of the reading from the law or the prophets. Her soul’s cries resonated throughout her tiny body, a vast cavern in which her inward sobs echoed, reverberated, and silenced the universe. How she missed her Savior! How she longed for His tender embrace and loving counsel, but He had left her–forever, she thought–and now she had only her sorrow, only the emptiness within where once her friend had dwelt.

Several hours later Mary realized she was alone, this time literally. All had left the synagogue to partake of their Sabbath meal, but Mary had no family with which to eat, no family with which to offer the wavesheaf to the Lord on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The previous day she had watched her Master die on the cross and so had prepared no Sabbath meal. Mary wandered home and crawled into bed, too drained to remove even her tsa’iyph. She tossed until morning.

Eleazar began to climb the temple’s pinnacle. His feet shook as he struggled to place one in front of the other, as he marched up the staircase despite the arthritis in his knees and ankles. Age had left him thin and frail, but each passing year had only intensified his stubbornness; pain would not stop him now. The younger priest below stared skyward until he saw a tiny silhouette against the dark morning sky.

“Is it light yet?” Jephunneh yelled, his voice resonating through the crisp morning air. “Is it light as far as Hebron?”

Eleazar, now four hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor, turned his face toward the city of Hebron twenty miles to the south, the vista before him awe-inspiring. The Dead Sea loomed to his left; the Palestinian hills were frozen ocean waves painted green instead of blue. Sadly, his dim eyes could make only a foggy vagueness out of the contours of the surrounding terrain. The Mount of Olives and the fortress Herodium were but a blur, but Eleazar could see the sun’s light as it crept across the valley of Eshcol, in which slept the city Hebron.

“Yes! You may begin the morning sacrifice!”

Mary of Magdalene heard his shrill call as she hurried through the lower city’s sleeping streets. Remembering her Master’s hasty burial, the young woman had risen early that Sunday morning to anoint His body, to finally say good bye. The unlit houses of Jerusalem’s abandoned streets surrounded and trapped Mary, making her feel claustrophobic as she walked through the twilight. Even the heavens were closer that night, a beautiful ceiling that bore down upon the young Magdalene. Mary hurried to the house of Mary, Cleopas’ wife, searching for a friend to comfort her.

The Savior’s aunt heard the quiver in the young woman’s voice and understood, at least in part, her agony. She embraced her young friend, letting the Magdalene’s tears fall on her shoulder. How they missed Jesus of Nazareth! How they longed to talk with Him again, to sit at His feet as they had at the Horns of Hattin or at Solomon’s porch. The older Mary was heart-broken, but she knew the Magdalene hurt even more. The woman in her arms had been the Savior’s most devout disciple, had followed Him as He traveled from city to city. The younger Mary had watched Him as He blessed and taught the multitudes, had cared for Him when He fell ill.

“I won’t pretend to understand how you feel, Mary. I never thought it would end this way either. I never thought He’d die, but think about this, little one. I would rather have a single flower given to me in life than I would have my sepulcher banked with roses. You can remember Jesus in two ways. You can remember the way he was in life–you can remember the buds of kindness and the petals of friendship you shared–or you can remember the flowers about His tomb, memories of loss and sorrow. Remember the times you spent together, Mary. Remember the friendship and the love, for the flowers given in life always smell the sweetest.”

She wiped the tears from the Magdalene’s eyes, and the two continued northward toward the garden tomb. The lower city’s dark streets led them to the Holdah Gates on the temple’s southern side, enormous entrances to Herod’s greatest achievement. The stunning tapestries there always took the Magdalene’s breath away. The golden vines that hung from the temple wall attested to the holiness of the Lord’s house. But that night the two women, blinded by grief, wandered through the gate without noticing the craftsmanship. The white stones of the Royal Portico glowed in the moon light, but the two Marys walked on dim-eyed.

“Remember when He taught on this porch? ‘My doctrine is not mine,’ He said, ‘but His that sent me.’ What will become of His doctrine now that He’s gone, Mary? Who will carry on His legacy?”

The older woman pulled her friend’s frail body closer, a few tears falling down her own cheeks, too. She searched her soul for some answer to give, searched her soul for some words of comfort, but found none. Perhaps Christ’s legacy would die with Him. Perhaps even His divine teachings would fade with time, just as earthly ones do.

The younger woman’s shoulders stiffened when the two turned left onto Solomon’s porch. She stared at the Beautiful Gate on the court’s western wall, the gate where she remembered her Savior once standing. The portal’s Corinthian brass plates intensified the moonlight, stunning brilliance that paralleled Mary’s stunned spirit.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

“I will follow Him, Mary! I will follow Him to the grave, just as everyone will, never again to breathe the morning air or to embrace a dear friend or to hear a bird’s sweet song!”

Mary hugged her young companion, her gnarled hands stroking the young woman’s back. What could she say to the sobbing creature in her arms? All would follow Christ. Death was the end; the grave released no prisoners.

She slid her right arm onto the young lady’s shoulder, and the two left the temple precinct, traveling past the pool of Israel and the pool of Bethesda, on to Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. Calvary, a barren skull in the distance, now had new significance. They had passed Golgotha on the way to Sebaste dozens of times, had often been frightened by its crucified. This time, though, their vivid memories of a crucified friend gave the faceless criminal an identity. He was no common malefactor, but their cherished Messiah.

The ground steepened as they scaled the rocky hill, stumbling as they ascended. A brightening sky prophesied the approaching sunrise, and the warmth awakened morning birds. Tears kept the Magdalene’s soul in twilight. No morning bird could comfort such a creature; no sunrise could cast its rays on her sorrowing spirit.

The two women reached their destination, not at the top as they had two days earlier, but at Arimathea’s tomb. A large mass protruded from the hill, an immense bulge in Calvary’s side. Sorrow grasped their throats and choked them as they approached the spot. This was the last time they would see their friend, the last time they would administer to Jesus of Nazareth. No birds sang in those trees nearest His resting place. Only silence. Peace.

The sun, though visible from Hebron, still hid from Golgotha. April flowers, faithful guards, stood in bloom about the rectangular door, the entrance to the tomb, carved into the small cliff at the bulge’s base. The edge of the sun peeked above the horizon and bathed the scene in brilliant light, its piercing rays bolting through the unobscured entrance to the crypt and dispersing the shadows there–inside the tomb–for the large stone that had sealed the sepulcher stood now eight feet removed.

The two women paused, confused. They had not yet imagined their Master’s body stolen, nor had they spoken with the angel who would proclaim His resurrection. They didn’t realize what that open tomb symbolized. Christ, their Savior, had suffered infinitely at Gethsemane. He had been tried illegally before Caiaphas and mocked before Herod, forsaken by Pilate and scourged by the brutal whip. He had died upon Golgotha’s summit, and yet He had triumphed. He was afflicted, yet He overcame. He was degraded, yet not defeated. Scourged, but not subdued; forsaken, but not frustrated; murdered, but not mastered. Christ had risen, and many would follow Him, not toward death alone, but toward immortality and eternal life. This the open tomb testified. The sunlight that entered that crypt did not fall upon its Creator. It did not fall upon His lifeless body. In that instant the two Marys, confused by the empty tomb, did not understand. This gift, which only the great Jehovah could give, was not symbolized by the suffering at Gethsemane or by the tragedy of Golgotha, but by the beauty of that sacred, empty tomb.


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