Morning. 6:00 am. You never really slept last night, and now the ache is settling in. At 47, you are already quite old, and your body is beginning to betray you. This rootless existence you’ve led since your husband died isn’t helping any. Without warning an image floats into your mind of a beautiful young woman and her snuffling baby boy, the two of them curled up in sweet, dreamless repose, without back pain or worry. What you wouldn’t give …
How can I even think of sleep at a time like this? you ask yourself. Not a half hour ago, the sun rose over the baked bricks and cut stone of Jerusalem. Somewhere nearby a rooster cried and you startled from dozing. You caught a glimpse of Kephas leaving the courtyard, his head down, lips fluttering. Now none of your son’s friends are here except Ioannes. Of course, faithful Ioannes. More like a son than a nephew. Salome begged him to return with her to the little room she rented, but he insisted on remaining by your side all night, right outside the windows of Caiaphas’ palace.
7:00 am. There has been much coming and going already this morning, and the crowds have steadily grown. Angry faces flash. Brutal words are tossed and returned. Rumors swirl in little eddies of conversation, then break off and float away. Suddenly, an electric jolt and the crowd begins to move, slowly at first, then at breakneck speed. Carried along on the tide, you and Ioannes are helpless as the throng courses down narrow streets, turns left, then right, then left again before spilling into a large square before a columned courtyard. What is this place? you ask Ioannes. Pilate he answers, and you shudder at the name.
8:00 am. You would like to know what is going on, but you are wedged next to a wooden fence outside the stable, without a clear view of Pilate’s courtyard. There is a lot of shouting and cursing. The crowd roars its approval one moment, its condemnation the next. Between the roars a lone Latinate voice pierces the early morning air. What charge do you bring against this man? I find no fault in him! Shall I release him? Who do you want? As that last question ends, a low rumble begins in a certain segment of the crowd. it quickly rises to a chorus, and then a chant. Barrabas! Barrabas! You wonder Who is Barrabas? Perhaps this is all a mistake. Perhaps this is all about someone named Barrabas!
9:00 am. Somewhere you hear laughing. A man nearby shouts to his friend They just released Barrabas! That preacher is taking his place! Ioannes curses them under his breath. Taking his place how? you wonder. Suddenly, flashes of white and red dance at the edge of your vision. That sound of laughter is now mixed with the sharp retort of a whip and the dull thud of … something else. Curious, unsuspecting, you lean your head to peer through a slim gap in the fence. It takes a few moments to process the hell unfolding before you, and a few moments longer for the bile to rise in your throat and pour out of your mouth. Ioannes looks through the fence and recoils. He looks again and falls to his knees, wailing beside you. Then, as suddenly, he’s back on his feet and roughly carrying you away from the fence. Ioannes doesn’t stop until he reaches a column at the back of the courtyard.
10:00 am. Perhaps this is the worst that will come of it you say to no one in particular. Just then the crowd stirs to life once again. A Roman wearing the vestments and laurel of governor strides to his chair. Behind him the hunched, bloody figure of your son shuffles across the portico. A tattered purple blanket hangs from one shoulder. His head is encircled by a bramble of some kind. Behold the man! Pilate says, but all you can see is the boy, all skinny legs and tousled hair, with a wide grin and dark eyes. He always looked just like Joachim, and even now there is a way of standing, a set to his hips and shoulders that reminds you of your father. You watch as Pilate bargains with the crowd for his life. But they’re not buying. A man beside you screams “Crucify him” so hard that he begins to cough, his spittle splashing on your neck. By the time he recovers the portico is empty. They have taken your precious boy to be killed.
6:00 pm. Night creeps over the horizon. It is the Sabbath and you are in the room where Ioannes and his other friends are staying. Your son now lies in a borrowed tomb, his shattered body spiced with myrrh and wrapped in fresh linens. Ioannes tenderly cradles you. I am your son now, and you are my mother he sobs in a hushed whisper. Suddenly, an unimaginable sorrow wells up within you as you recall the words of that old man in the Temple, the one who spoke on the day of the brit milah: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
About the photo: A boy experiencing severe pain from TB meningitis is comforted by his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia. Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII.