Waiting … the end

Never had I, or have I since had such a birth. The evidence that she was a virgin was clear, but so was the evidence that her time was almost on her. She was calm, which was not usual, and when the contractions began in earnest she did not groan and moan as we all do, though the pace of her breathing hastened, and she began to push as she squatted next to me; I held her. But there were none of the cries that were usual. The night was still, and of a sudden, there was a light, one so bright that it seemed that we were in a bubble of it, her and myself; alone, yet not alone.

Then the silence was broken. There was that tell-take cry. As I helped the babe out I held him and I felt something I have never felt before, something which has never left me.

Joseph came in response to the cry, as fathers will.

“Congratulations, you are the father of a healthy baby boy”, I told him. He smiled. “No, I am not the father.” Then, seeing the look on my face he said, “you would not understand, even if I could explain. Let’s settle for it being a miracle. You know now she was a virgin.”

I must have looked even more puzzled, as he looked at me and smiled. “Yes, and what is more, she still is. Her maidenhead expanded to allow the baby to leave, but has closed again.” I smiled back. “You are right, even if you could explain, I am sure I would not understand.” He looked me in the eyes. “Do you need to?” I shook my head. “No, no, all I know is this is special.”

“He is,” came the voice of Miriam. She was cradling the child in the swaddling band in which I had placed him. She had about her not only none of the post-partum exhaustion with which I was familiar but also something unique.

Young red-haired Mary touched me on the shoulder. I had asked her to stay because, well sometimes even an experienced doula needs a second pair of hands, but as it had turned out, she had simply observed.

“What happened, auntie?” I asked her what she meant.

“I have been at another birth, but it was not like this. There were blood and pain, there was anguish more like a death than birth.”

I admitted to her that this was different, but declined to explain; in fact, I could not have explained. Mary pushed me, but I would say no more and sent her for refreshments.

She came back with a welcome jug of wine and some bread. I gave some to Miriam, but she was so preoccupied with her baby that she hardly noticed. Joseph stood over her, over them, and I saw him as their protector; something told me she, they, would need it, but that he would do well. Mary asked me why young girls had to marry “old men” and I told her that there was much to be said for it. They would bother a girl less and die sooner, and they would have money – what more could a girl want? She said that sounded cynical.

The baby cried. I helped Miriam put him to her breast. He fastened on at once and gave suck. I could see she was a natural. Her baby was in good hands, and my work was done.

Then, of a sudden, there was a light and noise, the sound of men’s voices. “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” They were men of substance, but not from these parts. Young Mary quickly ran her fingers through her hair and looked interested.

Joseph asked them what they meant.

“We saw a star in the East and it was a sign, it led us here, and we were told we should find here the king of the Jews. We told King Herod, but he could not help us, though he said we should tell him when we found you.”

Joseph looked puzzled.

“Are you the Sages?”, young Mary asked. “You said you would be here earlier, I waited at the crossroads.”

“Here is a piece of gold for your trouble. Have you secured the accommodation as our man asked?”

Mary looked sheepish.

“Yes, I booked three places in case you wanted rooms for your servants.” That, it seemed, was why Joseph and Miriam could find no rooms.

They approached the babe.

“Here”, said the first of them to Miriam, “I have gold for the king.”

“Here”, said the second of them to Miriam, “I have frankincense for the god.”

“Here”, said the third of them to Miriam, “I have myrrh for the suffering.”

Miriam took the gifts and handed them to Joseph. She seemed unsurprised. The three men knelt before Miriam and the babe.

We left them. Mary and I stood outside drinking some wine. Across the far horizon, the signs of dawn were unmistakable. Joseph came out to join us and drank some wine with us.

“What will you call the babe?” Mary asked.

“He is named already by He whose name we do not say. He is to be called Jesus.”

“Well”, said Mary with a smile, “Here’s to Jesus.”

And so, as the sun rose on a new day, we toasted the baby.

Waiting … on the verge

It’s always the same! Babies conform to no known schedule or timing; like the wind, they come when they will. Any experienced doula knows that the thing to do is to establish a good sense of who the mother is and how she operates, there’s a deep connection between those things and the birthing. I learned that from my mother who had it from hers and so on back to the time of our father Abram. But how do you do that when the mother lands on your doorstep at the last moment of the last day?

When young red-haired Mary from the inn arrived flushed and in a hurry, I feared the worst. A doula gets to know things, and I knew that that young woman was no better than she ought to be, making sheep’s eyes at the customers and at the handsome shepherds. I thought that the inevitable had happened and that she was with child and needed “help” of the sort that some doulas would give. I was, on this occasion, wrong. She was so out of breath that it took me time to work it out, but when I did I grabbed my birthing things and sent the young minx off ahead to prepare hot water and clean straw.

Making my own, slower, way, I pondered. What on earth had possessed the husband to let his wife travel with him so late in her time? Men, they will, literally, be the death of us. It isn’t enough that their “needs” take priority, but they needs must have their heirs and their spares. Mind, shouldn’t grumble, my foremothers and I had made a good living from our skills, and I’d no doubt I could help this poor young woman. Mary had said she couldn’t have been above fourteen, which was good, as she’d be flexible in body and spirit.

As I approached I saw a man coming toward me. “Are you the doula?” I confirmed it, pardoning him and not responding “who do you think I am, Herod’s Queen?” He explained the situation. They’d come from Nazareth to the city of his birth the register for the census. My presence calmed him down.

His wife, or betrothed as, for some reason he insisted in calling her, was indeed a sweet young thing. But there was something about her. I never had a woman so calm; she was serene. I shooed her man away and asked her the questions a doula asks; they are more easily answered in the absence of the man. I needed to know if their intimacy had continued until recent times, I needed to know whether she had been a virgin when she conceived; many women weren’t, but their man didn’t need to know that. I’d never been as surprised in my life as I was by her answer: “Doula, I am still a virgin, I have never known a man.”

I patiently explained that what she and her man had done to create the baby meant she was not a virgin. But she persisted in her preposterous claim. I was not having that. Shooing her man away again, I asked her to give me access to her nether parts. I dropped my glass when I examined her. It could not be! In the twenty years, I had been a doula, and in the time of all my foremothers, such a thing had never been known, but the physical evidence left no room for doubt. She was still sealed; she was a virgin – and yet there could be no doubt, her hour was close.

She smiled sweetly at me. “You see?” I said I saw, indeed I had done more than seen. I had needed the evidence of my fingers and there was no doubting that. I looked at her, uncomprehending. Then she told me the strangest story of how an angel of the Lord had come to her and told her that she would bear a son who would be David’s heir and the long-awaited Messiah. Had she told me that first, I’d have thought her mad, but after what I had just seen and felt it was no madder than that.

“Do you believe me?”

The way she looked at me made dissembling impossible. I nodded. “What can it mean?” I asked. “That’s the Lord’s doing, but from what I am feeling, I think our wait is near an end.”

Waiting … the start

This is, of course, Christmas week. and this is the prequel to Jessica’s historical romance (a Harlot’s Tale) telling a plausible story of Mary Magdalene. Is it true, well, who knows? It strikes me as more plausible than some things we have loved such as the story of Judah ben Hur. Jessica does, I have found, this better than anyone I have read with female Biblical characters, so enjoy.

In a perhaps related note, tonight the planets of Jupiter and Saturn will line up to produce what may be the Star of Bethlehem for the first time since just before dawn on March 4, 1226. You can see it tonight in the southwest sky about 45 minutes after sunset. Neo.

 

The wind sent a chill through my shawl. I was glad of it, and that I had worn warm clothes under it; this was no time for worrying about appearance; a frozen corpse was just that, however prettily arrayed. At this time of the year the temperature plunged rapidly the moment the sun sank behind the trees; that was two hours ago.

 

The messenger had said they would be here today. But the day was far gone. I had watched for them like the watchman looked for the dawn, but they had not come.

 

It was at that moment of almost despair that I saw the others. I could see that the man was tired, he limped as he held the reins. The figure riding was smaller, a woman I judged. What in God’s name were they doing out on the road at this time? And where were those I had come to meet? I lit my lamp. They came toward me.

The man’s accent told me he was from somewhere up north; the woman’s voice told me only that she was near exhaustion. He told me they were looking for a place to stay. I must have looked quizzically at him; I saw the despair in his eyes. He explained that his cousin’s family had no room, neither did any of the inns, so he had thought to ride to the outskirts of town, but had gone too far. What now?

If they were not coming I could find a place for these waifs, though to be frank, I wondered at the inhospitality of his people. My uncle had a stable which was only partially full, and though it wasn’t ideal, it was better than the open road in this temperature.

 

I helped them settle down. There was plenty of fresh straw, and my uncle’s wife was happy to provide some food – after all one of the first rules of our religion is to feed and care for the stranger within the gate. She and I did not always agree on things, but here we did.

 

The woman, Miriam she said she was called, was young, even younger than me, and she was very heavily pregnant. I could understand her exhaustion and anxiety and stayed with her to help her get settled. It would be my lot in life soon, and my late mother had always been anxious that I should find a way of preparing for what would happen when I got betrothed and married.

 

It was all a mystery to me. When I had begun bleeding soon after my thirteenth birthday I had been afraid. My uncle’s wife told me it was the ‘curse of Eve’ and that all women had to suffer this. I wish she had prepared me for it. I wish she’d also prepared me for the attention I began to get from men, and at the inn, where I served, it could be difficult. But we women, she said, had to endure that too. It seemed to me that there were a lot of things ‘we women’ had to endure. It would, she said, be better when I was married – but the waiting would not be easy. Waiting never was. And now I was sat with little Miriam as she waited.

 

The question nagged at me, where were those I had been waiting for? Their messenger had been clear, they would be here by this evening, but I had waited and waited and – well nothing – unless Miriam and her husband were those whom I was meant to meet. Miriam was tired after eating, and so I helped her bed down. Her husband, who was very much older than her (did we all have to get married to older men? So many of us did, it seemed, but it suited both the man and our families, and that was all there was to be said about it), was content to see her sleep and thanked me.

 

‘You are our unexpected angel’, he said, which struck me as an odd thing to say. It was as though he was waiting for an expected angel. But, I knew from listening to the Rabbi that the Lord’s angels moved in mysterious ways.

 

‘Mary,’ I heard the voice of my uncle’s wife, ‘Mary. Where is that girl? Oh, how I wish she were back in Magdala rather than here, making sheep’s eyes at our customers.’ Sometimes I wished I were deaf.

A Harlot’s Way: 4 Bethany

Hebrew has too few names, as poor Luke has been finding. I have, as I know others have been feeding him snippets as memories come to me. It seems there is a real desire among those coming fresh to the faith to know more about Jesus, even if all we really need to know is known – that he is the Messiah and our bridge to salvation. I understand it, and Luke is an angel to put himself to the task. I know that Mother Mary has told him much that was known formerly only to a few of us. There, though, is the problem, that name – Mary.

I have suggested to Luke that he should solve his problem by referring to us by our place of residence or birth. Mother Mary, or Miriam as I first knew her, is not a problem – there is one of her. But all those other Marys, I am sure that one day someone will confuse us all. It’s to be hoped that Mary of Bethany never gets confused with me, it would be unfair on the poor creature. She is the sweetest of women and as fond of Jesus as any of us, and, unlike some, didn’t mind showing it because she knew it would never be misinterpreted – except by Peter – but then his capacity to get things wrong should never be underestimated.

Just in case anyone imagined that when Paul calls us “saints” it meant what you might imagine, that last barb of mine shows otherwise. I know Paul means well, of course he does, he says so loudly and often. He’s now as earnest for Jesus as he used to be about persecuting his followers. But he never met him in the flesh, never walked with him, ate with him, or talked the sun down the sky with him, and I sometimes think he feels it, not least when that other bull-headed apostle, Peter, rubs it in when trying to prove a point. Paul is a good deal smarter than Peter, but, as Peter is apt to remind us all when he feels threatened, “Jesus chose me first.” I have been known to remind Peter that he also chose me and that since the “first shall be last” it behooves both of us to bear it in mind. I am told that that scowl he shoots at me at such times crosses over into a “who does she think she is?” in private. He could, of course, try that line on me – but he doesn’t. I am quicker with my brain and tongue than he is. But if it makes him feel secure, let it be is what I say. Anyway, all that happens if I make such noises is that he and Paul suddenly close ranks and start muttering about women knowing their place and not teaching men. As though anyone except Jesus could teach two men who know everything anything! To listen to the pair of them, you’d not imagine that Jesus was surrounded by women as he preached, funded by us so that he and the others could live, or that women like myself and Junia were active in spreading the word. The Way is not the synagogue. Jesus did not segregate women, neither did he treat us the way any rabbi would or does. I can see that Peter and Paul would like to revert, and that’s one reason I support Luke’s project. Dear Theophilus has done a splendid job of providing the scribes and the papyrus, and I am glad that he and Luke like my idea of using codices rather than papyrus scrolls. The latter are cumbersome if you are traveling about, and Paul has already adopted the fashion for those letters of his telling his churches to buck their ideas up. Dear Paul. I’d like to like him, but much as I admire (and help fund) his work, he is often his own worst enemy, which isn’t the best idea when his manner provides a ready supply of the same.

It was a good job he was not there at Simon the Leper’s, though no doubt it is one of the things Peter will have raised with him. I remain unrepentant, but having started, should say more lest I lose the thread. The light fades earlier here than back home, and I need more papyrus, but that can await the morrow.

It was not long after Jesus had brought Mary of Bethany’s brother, Lazarus, back from the dead. Normally when passing through Bethany he would have stopped at Martha and Mary’s, but Simon, who had also been cured by Jesus, invited him – and the others – for supper. As I had been with Martha and Mary earlier, I thought I’d go over to see if there was anything I could do.

Whether it was Simon’s long absence from the norms of social life because of his illness, or whether it was his natural pharisaical sense of superiority, either way, the first thing I noticed was that Jesus’ feet were still dirty. It wasn’t the sort of thing which worried him, but it did me, so I went back to Martha and Mary’s and asked if they still had that oil which I had left there to be sold to support the ministry. They handed me the alabaster flask without asking what I intended to do with it, though I think dear Mary knew.

Jesus smiled when he saw me. I suddenly felt a chill. For some time he had been talking about what would happen when he went to Jerusalem next week, and on more than one occasion, Peter had remonstrated with him. On a sudden, it came to me. Jesus was telling us that he would have to die for our sins, that was what he had been telling us in his usual oracular manner, he was going to die.

That thought hit me as I knelt to begin to wash his feet before I anointed them with the nard. He looked at me and quietly nodded; he knew that I knew. The tears flowed. The others looked at me. Simon, who had neither forgiven nor forgotten my past, remonstrated with Jesus, asking with incredulity if he knew who I was. As my tears fell on Jesus’ feet, I used my skirts to wipe them, and then, as my skirts were damp, I unbraided my hair and used it to wipe his feet. If that upset Simon, the host with the least, as I called him, then what I did next upset both Peter and Judas.

Taking the phial of nard, I poured it onto his poor aching feet, and, with my accustomed skill, massaged it in so that he got the full benefit. Peter was indignant, but that was as nothing compared to Judas, who started banging on about how much money it could have raised for the poor. I couldn’t be bothered to point out that it was my nard, my money which supported him, and my business what I did with it. As it happened, I didn’t need to. Jesus told Simon a story about the nature of forgiveness and told Peter and Judas that I was anointing his body for burial. That shut them up, though I know it added to Peter’s irritation with all the talk about Jesus dying. Poor old Peter, he really only got it afterward – hence, no doubt, his defensiveness with me.

It was a bitter-sweet moment. Jesus knew, and I knew, that the next time I touched him, he would be dead. I had faith that he would do what he had always said he would do, and show that death had no dominion. I did not know what that meant, but I believed. That, as I told Paul on more than one occasion, is the definition of faith.

 

A Harlot’s Way: 3 Magdala


Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal Picture s/Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (9458441i) Rooney Mara Mary Magdalene – 

If the past is another country where they did things differently, it is also an odour that clings to you like the grip of a wolf.

My house and the little estate which enclosed it was just on the outskirts of Magdala. There was, naturally, immense interest in the newcomer, which turned into something else when it became clear that I was that “little Mary” who had left the village many years before. My aunt, while glad of the income she derived from helping me was, I suspected, behind the gossip which soon spread about how my wealth had been acquired. Before too long, as my maid Miriam confided to me, the legend of my sexual appetite and prowess had spread abroad.

When I went to the Synagogue on the Sabbat, the other women were not keen to sit near to me, while the men, including the Rabbi, seemed unsure whether to follow the example of their womenfolk or to find out for themselves whether the legends were true. A few rebuffs did not really help, as men rejected always blame the woman and claim virtue for themselves in resisting the rapacious demands of a loose woman. It made me heartsick, but in a world where a truly independent woman was as rare as a generous Levite, there was naught to be done.

Though I wanted, rather desperately, not to let the gossip and the disdain get to me, they did. I found wine helped dull the pain, and as I could afford a good deal of it, I drank a good deal. That worsened the problem. Drink lowered my inhibitions, and although I had begun discreetly with liaisons with men, I became reckless. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I thought. I did not much like myself, but from whence was help to come?

My steward told me of an itinerant preacher who had some local fame as a healer. He was, he said, a relative of that John who had incurred official displeasure for his preaching and his baptisms. No doubt, I thought to myself, yet another of those hard-line ascetics preaching that the end of the world was nigh. What did I care? I reacher for another flask and the oblivion it contained. The sex no longer acted as the release valve. It seemed I needed more extreme versions to get the same release. I knew I was trapped, but why even bother trying to get out? The locals would still hate me, my life would have even less purpose.

Then, there he was. I was walking to see my physician, looking for something to relieve the headaches I had begun to get. Yes, I knew not drinking would be a good way to start, but that was out of the question. Then, literally, I stumbled across him.

He was no more than my height and was accompanied by a crowd. I shuffled to get out of the way, no holy man was going to want to be sullied by a whore, and certainly not one whose time of the month was on her. I was a walking definition of “unclean” – stricken with the moral equivalent of leprosy. But he stopped my shuffle with a word and a look.

“You won’t remember me.”

I was startled. His eyes seemed to penetrate me more deeply than any man had ever done physically. He was right, and I said so, I didn’t remember him, though even as I said it, something stirred in the recesses of my mind.

“Bethlehem, the stable, you were there with my mother.”

Of a sudden, everything came to me, and it was as though I saw the universe from alpha to omega, and everything suddenly felt as though it slotted into place. I did not know what that place was, but he did, and in him, I knew, there was something greater even than the cure I was after; in a way, I could not then define, he was the cure.

“Lord!” I said, the words rising unbidden by me to my lips, and I fell to my knees and touched the hem of his robe. And I was whole, not simply as I once had been, but in a way undefinable, as I would be and was meant to be.

As though in the distance, I heard one of his followers saying something about needing to press on, but the light emanating from him filled me and he was all there was. It was as though at the omega of time he and I were alone and he stood in judgment and, even as I expected the sword, there came a kiss on both cheeks and I was healed of all that had ever ailed me.

“Mary,” he said, “you are healed of your demons. Go in peace,”

Finding my voice, more words came from whatever source the previous ones had come from:

“Lord, thank you and your Father. I see you and your followers are hungry. Let me, please, give you some sustenance.”

He smiled, and it was like the sun on a summer’s morning.
“I accept.”

And so it was we went back to my estate, and the cooks and the servers got together a meal for them all, and he sat with me as we ate.

“Mary, what will you do now you are healed of your demons?”

“Lord, there is little a woman can do, but what I can I will. I see you have a man of business with you, let him talk with my steward and let me give of my substance for your work here.”

“Do you not need the money, Mary, does it not represent the security you need.”

“It represented what I needed, but in you, I have more than I could ever have hoped for. I have no children, and cannot take it with me, so let my wealth be at your disposal.”

He smiled again.
“Truly, you know that it is easier for a camel to get through the needle gate than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. They say I am Isaiah or Elijah, who do you say I am, Mary of Magdala?”

The memory of that night in Bethlehem came to me anew and I saw plain what then I had seen as but through a glass darkly.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of whom the angels sang that night.”

“Your faith has made you whole Mary. But speak of this last to no one. The time will come, but it is not now. Now, is there more of that delicious loaf?”

And with that, we relaxed and he and his disciples ate and rested. The odd thing was that I had neither touched wine nor wanted any – and my headache – and heartache – had vanished.

A harlot’s way: 2 Babylon

Unlike the psalmist, I did not find myself weeping by the rivers of Babylon, and to be frank, I did not miss Zion one little bit; so there. What a bad woman I am.

My new Lord was generous. He wanted me not for himself but for the governor of Babylon, or, to be precise, Seleucia, which was beginning to replace the old imperial capital. There were many of my race and creed in Babylon from the old times, and the governor lusted after women from our race, but none could be had; now he had one – me. The man of business who procured me was paid handsomely, but I insisted on a share of his profit, telling him that without it, I would be sure to make his life a misery by disappointing his patron. A shrewd man of business, he recognised a kindred soul in me and handed over ten percent of what he received. In return for a discount on the twenty percent I had demanded initially, he negotiated me a regular allowance. I did not disappoint. I knew, in theory how to please a man, and my practice occasioned no complaint. He was an older man, not too demanding, and easily satisfied. He liked that I would read to him and that I would keep him amused. As I say, I knew how to please him.

Did that make me the harlot that my fellow Jews in Babylon called me? I took money in return for sex, that was true, but it was with one man, and I was one of many concubines, and no one called them whores. A better standard was expected from a Jewess, and I fell below it. My one attempt to go to a synagogue on the sabbat was a huge fiasco. I was turned away when I reached the court of the Gentiles. That was me put in my place.

Mind you, Mordechai, the treasurer of the Synagogue, did not disdain my gold when I gave it to his charge, not did he refuse to take interest from what it earned, any more than he refrained from suggesting that I might add “pleasure to business” – as it would have been his pleasure and not mine, we left it at that.

Orodotes, my Lord, was a generous man when he was in the mood, and I made sure he was often in the mood. Quietly I donated money to the fund kept at the synagogue for the poor and needy, but I did so via Mordechai, who no doubt took a fee. I knew my Torah, and if I could not keep it all, I could be charitable. I could afford to, but not everyone who could afford it did it.

My life continued in this way for more than a decade until, halfway through the second decade, Orodotes sickened and died. I tended him on his deathbed. I had grown genuinely fond of the old man and am not ashamed to say it was the one time I wept by the rivers of Babylon. I was in my late twenties, my looks, if I say so myself, were unblemished, and my skills almost at their peak. Orodotes man of business, Arsacres, suggested that I get him to negotiate a deal with the new governor when he was appointed. I pretended to consider the matter, but the morning after the funeral of Orodotes, I saw Mordechai and collected from him some gold and a note of credit to his banker in Jerusalem. I left the following day. I never saw the Euphrates again, but retain fond memories of it.

Traveling by stages, I reached Jerusalem two months later and presented myself to Mordechai’s banker who asked whether I would continue to use him as my man of business. I readily agreed, and as he was handsome, was happy to pay him commission in kind. I never liked to give away for free what men would pay for, but when men paid, that was business. I stayed with him for a year on my return, before deciding it was time to move on. The question was where? Enquries had established my uncle was dead and my aunt was no longer in Bethlehem. She had gone, I learned, to Bethany, so thence it was for me. Through my man of business I arranged the purchase of a house and some land. I would, henceforth, please myself, I decided.

Again, I could hardly have been more wrong, but what did I know? I could not have known as I took that road that it would intersect with what had happened in Bethlehem nearly twenty years earlier – how could I?

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