The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved: Part 4

     They were going to crucify him. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.

     Yet even in my despair, I felt a grim resolve grow in me. No matter what, Jesus would know that I loved him. That I loved him to the end.

     A crushing throng jammed the side of the road leading outside the city walls to the hill of Golgotha, the site of execution. I fought my way as far along as possible, determined to be at the end of the long road waiting for him. Meanwhile, I was utterly alone, bereft of even a single compassionate face in this maelstrom of vicious hate.

    “John? John, son of Zebedee, is that you?”

     Whirling in astonishment at the sound of my name, I looked around frantically, my eyes falling to rest on Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene.

    I rushed towards them, weaving through the crowd, thanking God for his intervention. I clasped Mary’s cold hands, looking intently at her eyes. “What are you doing here? This is no place for either of you!”

    Her unwavering voice belied her trembling hands. “My son needs me.” Dark hair framed her face, which was lined with distress.

     “After all the Lord has done for me,” Mary Magdalene spoke up, “I’m not going to leave him now.” She shivered, clutching her cloak around her shoulders, but her jaw was set firmly.

     I dropped my chin, painfully aware that these women had more courage than me, my brother, and our companions. “They’ll be coming along the road anytime,” I said. “Stay with me – I’ll try to keep you safe.”

     A shrill trumpet blast shattered the air, announcing the approach of the execution party and cutting off my words. Gripping Mary’s hand, I dragged her through the crowd, muscling out a path, until we broke out onto the side of the road. There, coming towards us in the midst of a detachment of soldiers, bent under the weight of an enormous crossbeam and covered in blood, sweat, and dust, was Jesus. He stumbled closer, never looking up, unable to recognize our faces in the sea of enmity.

     My dry throat refused to make any sound, but Mary called out, “Jesus? Jesus, my son.” Her voice was soft and lovely, undaunted by the barbarism surrounding us.

     And he heard her. Pausing, he stopped and gazed into her eyes so tenderly it made my heart ache. A profound exchange passed between them without a word. Then the moment ended as a soldier shoved him, spurring him on ahead.

     I took a deep, shuddering breath. Looking at Mary’s profile, I saw that her eyes were welling up with tears. Mary Magdalene’s were glazed, her face ashen. “Come,” I murmured in a hoarse voice. “We’re nearly to Golgotha.”

     It was a slow, arduous journey, but we finally made it by the time the noon sun was blazing overhead. “Please! Please let us through!” I begged. Once again, I had no choice but to push and shove a path for us through the densely packed ring of spectators, as nobody would yield. Gasping, I finally burst out on the edge of the crowd, still gripping Mary’s hand. Up on top of the hill, the Roman soldiers had gathered so closely that I couldn’t see Jesus. Two other men already hung on crosses, one on the right, and the other on the left. A third cross lay on the ground in between them. Then, as the crowded soldiers began to spread out, I caught a glimpse of Jesus being yanked closer . . .

     I turned away, stepping protectively in front of the women and burying my face in my hands. I could not watch this. I simply could not bear to.

     Time seemed to grind to a halt and stretch out so long it became unendurable. I waited, not daring to breathe.

     Then I heard the sound I had been dreading, the sharp ring of a hammer striking a nail.

     Mary cried out beside me; I cringed, squeezing my ears shut. All to no avail. A second blow followed, then a third, then a fourth, in a seemingly endless staccato rhythm. Each one pierced my ears with acute agony, as if it was boring into my own flesh.

     After an eternity, they stopped. I waited, motionless, then I heard the strained groans, creaking wood, and an ominous thunk.

     Heaving a deep breath, I forced my eyes open, wiping my clammy hands on my robe. I blinked. The world suddenly seemed darker. Was I actually hallucinating? No – darkness was slowly creeping across the sky, swallowing up the sun.

     I barely noticed the dying light once I turned around.

     My Lord and my God, whom I had followed these three long years, the one who cured the cripples, cast out demons, and raised the dead, hung on the newly erected cross, right between the two criminals.

     I quailed at the sight, terrible to behold. Nausea churned in my stomach. My knees shook, and it was all I could do to keep from collapsing. My head spun at the enormity of the equally terrible thought searing through my mind. This is the end of everything . . . How can there be anything good be in this world if even God Himself is helpless before the power of evil?

     I was still reeling with shock when the hail of abuse started. All around us, bystanders taunted and jeered. “You, who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!”

     “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”

     “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God!”

     Every word Jesus had ever spoken vanished from my mind in the face of such unspeakable horror. Despair gripped my mind, as I realized I didn’t have a single answer to the crowd’s accusations. My every muscle tensed with the desire to flee, run away from this disaster like James, Peter, and the others.

     Then Jesus spoke for the first time. His voice came down from the cross, calm and unflinching, cutting through the vulgarity and abuse. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

     I gasped as those words suddenly unleashed a flood of emotion deep within me. I no longer saw him hanging from the cross; instead, I saw him transfigured before us on Mount Tabor, radiant with dazzling light. Oblivious to the carnage before my eyes, I relived that fleeting but glorious moment all over again. Amid the foreboding darkness of the world, I clung to the shaft of light, and hope returned to me. This was my chance to prove that I loved him to the end.

     If I deserted him now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

     My resolve turned iron, as if from a strength that was not my own. At Mary’s nod, I took her arm and slowly led her up the hill, step by step. Mary Magdalene followed us. My legs trembled, but I forced them to keep working, keeping my eyes lowered until we crested the hill and stood beneath the cross. I raised my eyes, fresh tears flowing freely down my face at the sight of my Lord’s mangled, bleeding body.

     So this is the hour he refused to turn away from. This is what he meant when he asked James and me if we could share the cup with him. He knew all along that this was it, while we had no idea what we were asking for. We had no idea we were so unworthy of what we were asking for. . .

     I blinked through my tears, shuddering at the nails brutally piercing his feet. I was foolish and naïve then, but I was here now, doing all I could to share the bitter cup with him. Not even a legion of Roman soldiers could drag me away.

     Jesus opened his eyes and looked down at me. His gaze brimmed with so much love that I immediately felt ashamed for all my cowardice, ignorance, and bravado, yet also rewarded beyond measure.

     I jumped at the string of foul curses from the neighboring cross. While Jesus was serene in spite of all the blood and horror, the criminal’s face was contorted into the epitome of ugliness. “Are you not the Messiah?” he sneered. “Save yourself and us!”

     A new voice spoke up. “Have you no fear of God? For you are still subject to the same condemnation.” I craned my neck, realizing it belonged to the criminal on the other side of Jesus. He was looking at the abusive one with reproach. “And indeed,” he continued with difficulty,” we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” He paused while the other glowered. Then, hesitantly, as if gathering his courage, he shifted his gaze to the Lord. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

      Jesus didn’t hesitate. “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

     The simple sentence seemed to require so much energy that I doubted he could speak again. But at a muffled sob from his mother, he looked at her, long and searchingly. He said simply, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he turned to me, his gaze intensely earnest. “Behold your mother.”

     My mouth dropped open. He’s entrusting his mother to me? Those three words were charged with significance, a gesture of pardon for my many failures and a profound statement of love. Yet I also sensed another, mores subtle meaning in Jesus’ tone, one encompassing far more than I could ever comprehend, one stretching beyond me. Too choked to speak, I nodded to let him know that I wouldn’t betray his trust again, then turned to Mary. Her lips trembled as we made eye contact; I wrapped my arm around her as she sagged against my shoulder.

     I lost all sense of time, wondering how long this agony would last. Sheer helplessness twisted inside me as I wished I hung on that cross instead of Him. The brooding darkness still hung over the earth, grimly appropriate.

     Then Jesus let out a loud cry. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The abject anguish and misery suffusing those words chilled me to my core. My vision blurred; a wave of darkness surged into my consciousness, threatening to engulf me. I gasped, teetering at the edge of a precipice, about to tumble over the edge of despair into the devil’s waiting arms . . .

     Meanwhile, the crowd around me erupted into fresh jeers. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”

     Just as I was about to give up, and believe God really had abandoned us, a memory flashed into my mind, unbidden – Jesus at the supper table the night before, passing around the bread and the chalice after blessing them with those enigmatic words. Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

     And once again, that mysterious strength that was not my own returned to me, eradicating the darkness and flooding my mind with gratifying, nourishing light. I steadied myself and stood firm once again. Opening my eyes, I tried to shut out the callous atrocity surrounding me and focus on him, hoping I could help him by offering my wordless support, as meager as it was. He has given me trust I don’t deserve; now it’s my turn to trust him. I’ve trusted him this long, and he has not led me astray . . .

     “I thirst,” he murmured.

     More raucous laughter rang out. One soldier shoved past me, carrying a soaked sponge on the end of a reed, which he held up to Jesus.

His breathing seemed to grow increasingly labored. Then he cried out again, writhing in a spasm. When it passed, he whispered, in a hoarse, barely audible voice, “It is finished.”

     I squeezed Mary tighter, straining to look up into his face one last time. Our eyes met; he gave me an almost imperceptible nod. Then he bowed his head.“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

     He said no more.

     I stood petrified, my mind numb. The earth began to quake, as if groaning from within, throwing me to the ground. I clung to the splintery wood of the cross and pulled myself up. Sobs wracked my entire body as I gently touched the broken, bleeding feet, pressing them to my cheek. I didn’t move for a long time.

To be continued…

By Ellen Virginia