“Is this what it feels like to die?” I wondered. The throbbing pains radiated from my back to all of my body, making me gasp for breath. They grew stronger, more frequent, and then suddenly, sweet release. One final agony, a final push, and my husband held our son in his hands, tears streaking his face.
I thought of that pain now, trying to compare it, but there is no comparison for this. The physical pain of childbirth ends in joy if the babe is healthy, and ours was. The soul pain of watching your child die: there can be no joy after that.
Yahweh, you're breaking my heart! Is this really your plan, your design? Why does my baby have to die?
I heard no answer, of course. Is there ever an answer to a question like that?
Do you feel this too, Yahweh? Does his pain hurt you? I feel every ounce of it, every labored breath, but I am his mother. Mothers always feel their children's pain. You are his creator – do you even feel? What do you see, Yahweh, that escapes us poor humans? What do you know, that makes my pain - his pain - acceptable to you? I see nothing but darkness, a world without my heart, where hatred wins out over love.
All his life, we taught him about you. “Yahweh knit you together,” we told him, “planning your entire life before you were even big enough for us to be sure you were there.” We assured him you had a purpose for his life, as you do for all lives; that your plans were for good and not for evil.
Did we lie to him, Yahweh? Did you lie to us? Where is the good in this? All I can see is evil.
When he first saw a locust shell, he looked at me wide-eyed, questions spilling a mile a minute from his lips. What was this? How did it get here? Why did the locust leave it behind? Wouldn’t it still need it? Would he ever leave his skin behind, like the locust left his shell? I smiled as I told him “no, he would never leave his skin behind, because we are different than locusts.”
I was wrong, wasn’t I? The Romans have almost skinned him alive with their flogging. It breaks my mother-heart to watch him now, but I can’t leave him. I don’t know how much longer we have together, but I need to be here with him until he is no longer here with me. Oh, baby boy, I wish I could ease your pain, but this is no scraped knee, no splinter from a chunk of wood.
You were so good with wood – as good as your father. Do you remember the first time you held a plane, and he showed you how to smooth the wood? You insisted I come and watch your new skill, and your face lit up with excitement as the wood shavings curled away from the tool. My smile then was tinged with sadness, knowing that you would no longer be my little shadow – you belonged to your father now, learning his craft and being his assistant. You loved wood, and could often identify the tree a board came from, just by looking at it, or smelling it. Wood was your partner in your creations, and now it is a partner in your death.
Yahweh, please stop hiding your face from us. We need you – I need you. I have no strength to endure this on my own. You gave me this son, against all expectations. I was so confused then – I wasn’t even married yet, but your angel left no doubt that you meant me, and not some other woman named Mary. You gave me this son, and you helped Joseph understand that it really was you who gave him to me.
My confusion then was nothing compared to now. If he is your Messiah, why are you taking him away? All his life, he has loved you. He saw your hand in everything we showed him. Before he was even a man, he was teaching the elders in the temple, and they were amazed at his knowledge and understanding. Now they call him heretic and deliver him to his death. Are they here with us, watching him die?
I wanted to search the crowd, find the faces that I knew were there, but could see nothing through my tears. The coming darkness was dimming my sight. “It shouldn’t be dark yet” I thought, and shook my head to clear the fuzziness.
John caught me before I fell. His arm around my back had the strength of acacia wood, and I leaned into his embrace, fighting for breath. I was breathing with Yshua, I realized; trying to breathe for him. Each breath a torture, each pause between breaths longer than the previous. A sandstorm raged in my eyes, stinging them to tears. I could not bear to watch this, but I could not bear to not watch. My tear-dampened robe billowed slightly with the breeze. Crows waited nearby, wherever they could find a perch, eyeing all three men. I swallowed against the bile in my throat, clenching my teeth to keep from spewing.
Carrion eaters! Even now, they croaked a raucous call -- wait -- that was no crow. Yshua! Heart in throat, I stared as he pushed himself upright, gathered air into his cramped lungs. My feet ached in sympathy with his, feeling the spike between bone and sinew.
“John—“ I could barely hear him. John’s arm tightened around me; we moved towards his cross, until a guard stopped us. Too close, I thought. That water streaking the wood is red; how does he have any blood left after last night?
“John…” we stood together, staring at this mockery of flesh that had once been a strong carpenter. “Your mother…” his eyes moved from John to me. John nodded, pulling me closer to him.
“Mother…” hoarse with pain, his voice did not sound human at all. “Your son.”
Another push with this feet, another gasp of air, and a cry as anguished as I have ever heard. It sounded like weanling lambs when they are first separated from their dams.
“Father!” My heart-cry echoed his, but his continued. “Why have you forsaken me?”
The crows folded and unfolded their wings, preparing for flight. Animals knew, I remembered. They can sense death. Yahweh drew a curtain across the heavens, hiding the sun. The rising wind unseated the crows, catching under their flapping wings and drawing them into the storm. Their protests echoed as they fled the coming rain.
But the rumble we heard was not the thunder of a nearby storm. The earth groaned and trembled, creation itself sharing the pain that stabbed my heart like a sword. The thought teased at my memory, but my son’s voice interrupted. With a resonance that reached the furthest edge of the crowd, his triumph rang out.
The earthquake pulled my feet from under me. John landed almost on top of me, shifting himself to form a barricade between me and anything that might fall on us. Nothing remained standing save the three crosses; two holding dying men, and one supporting the remains of my first-born son, my Yshua, who was supposed to deliver our people.
Tears streaming, almost unable to breathe, I pushed myself to my hands and knees. John stayed beside me, his own tears mixing with the dust in his beard, turning it to mud.
“Sword,” I murmured, eyes darting everywhere. “Something about…sword…piercing…” My searching gaze fastened on a guard raising a spear. Before I could react, he thrust it into Yshua’s side.
“My heart!” I screamed. “He stabbed my heart!” Wrapping my arms around my knees, I rocked myself the way a mother rocks a teething baby; the way I had rocked my Yshua as a boy. John reached to me but I jerked away, keening and groaning my distress.
I had no words, only memories. An angel glowing like fire, telling me Yahweh wanted me to birth his deliverer.
A rooftop vigil on a night with no stars while I waited for Joseph’s decision.
The donkey’s ears rising and falling with each step on that never-ending journey to be counted for the census.
The shepherds visiting us, with a lamb that fell asleep beneath my son’s first bed.
The temple on Yshua’s consecration day – an old man there, waiting. He had told me then what Yahweh had in store, but I had been too much in love with life to absorb it all. “A sword will pierce your heart,” he had said. I wished it were a real sword, so my pain would end, and I could join my son. Hiccupping as my sobs ended, wiping my eyes on my soggy sleeve, I nodded at Yahweh.
“It was all real,” I whispered, my throat too raw to speak louder. None of it was a dream. The angel, the journey, the stable, all were real, and planned by Yahweh.
“For what? “ I tried to scream at him. “For this? You orchestrated this dance of our lives for death? How dare you!?!” I scrambled up, ignoring John’s hand, shaking my fist at the sky. “You gave him to me, made me love him, and now you’ve taken him! WHY?
“What purpose can this possibly serve, oh maker of the universe? What gift of yours can redeem my pain?
“Why did he have to die?
I was on all fours again, pounding the ground in cadence with the question. The mud splashed out from each blow, splattering my face, my robe, my hands. John knelt beside me, slipping his hand between mine and the mud. Drawing me into his arms, he rocked me as I had rocked my Yshua, crooning a tuneless song.
I opened my eyes, staring at the blood-streaked wood that had taken my son’s life. “What was your plan, Yahweh?” I had no more anger, just the dull ache of a pain that hurts too much to truly feel. “Why was he even born? How can any of this be your plan?
“Help me understand, Lord. Help me to see what you see, to know that my son’s death served some purpose in your will.”
I waited silently for Yahweh’s reply. I was still waiting when John led me away.