It was just before the Passover, and I thought Jesus would stay back in Bethany for the Feast. But, he insisted that we return to Jerusalem. “Go into the city,” he said. “A friend of mine will show you are large, upper room, furnished and ready.” Strange. Peter and I rounded a corner and there, coming out of a narrow alley was a man we didn’t know, but he looked at us as if we were expected. He gave us the key and told us to “Help ourselves,” so we made preparation for the Seder meal.
Peter went to the market to get the herbs, the matza, and the wine. Herbs to remind us of the bitter slavery of our ancestors in Egypt. Matza bread – not given time to rise – as our forefathers hurried away from their chains. And the wine, red wine, like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, like the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice. It was the same meal as every other year of my life. With my parents and grandparents, and for these last few years with Jesus. I roasted the lamb myself this time – Peter is no good at such things – he barely got all that was needed from the market; he was too busy arguing over the price of olive oil with the merchants to pay attention to his list.
Jesus and the rest of the brothers arrived right on time – for a change. The sun was setting as they came through the door and the smell of the fresh spring evening was only outdone by the smell of the lamb on the fire – if I do say so myself. Everyone was their rowdy, regular selves. Simon was arguing politics with Nathaniel. Thomas was on some philosophical rant about what can be known or not known. Judas was dark and brooding, maybe more than usual, come to think about it. James came over to sniff at the lamb, convinced that I had ruined it. He took a taste and gave me a smile – the proud smile he flashed when we were kids – and he tussled my hair like the time I finally mastered the throwing of the net from the bow of our father’s boat. And Jesus, Jesus was uncharacteristically solemn. Oh, that mysterious, dancing light was in his eyes to be sure, but he seemed so…burdened.
When we gathered around the table to eat, I understood why. He began with the kiddush: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who chose us from all the nations, and…gave us, with love, Sabbaths for rest, festivals for happiness, holidays for joy, and this day of Passover for our freedom.” He stopped, and I thought he would cry. Then he spoke, barely a whisper: “I tell you the truth. One of you will betray me.” The entire table went to pieces, as you might imagine, and Jesus did little to explain or to comfort us until he took a slab of bread in his hand. He broke it into pieces and handed it to us and said, “This is my body. Eat it, and remember me.” The bread was still stuck in my throat and questions i my mind when he raised the chalice and said much the same: “This is my blood which is poured out for many. Drink it, and remember me.” The red wine: Like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice.
For the longest time we just sat around staring at each other, confused. The munching of bread and our own pounding pulses were the only sounds that filled our ears. Finally, Jesus broke the silence, cutting the tension as he began singing “L’Shana haba’ah bi’ Yerushalayim”: “Next year in Jerusalem!” We all joined in the singing though none of us knew at the time that for Jesus, there wouldn’t be another year in Jerusalem. There wouldn’t be another day. And for the rest of us, no day or year would ever be the same again.
We followed Jesus from the Upper Room to Gethsemane. It wasn’t far, a mile or so. It would have been closer had we crossed the Temple grounds, but Jesus seemed to want nothing more to do with the Temple. So we twisted our way through the Upper City, an alley here, a sidewalk there, until we made our way into that blessed olive grove. The rabbis say the trees in Gethsemane are as old as Abraham. I don’t know – how could anything be that ancient? I do know that Jesus loved that place. We went there often. To pray. To listen to his stories. To get away from the crowds.
On that night, that dark Thursday night, Gethsemane smelled grassy, like summer, though only the blooms were first budding on the old trees. The men settled in a comfortable spot while Peter, my little brother John, and myself pressed deeper into the canopy with Jesus. He was driven on this night, as serious as I have ever seen him. He turned to me once and said, “James, my soul is drowning in grief! Please, please, pray for me and keep watch!” But “keep watch” for what, I thought? There was so much I didn’t understand. Finally, he pulled further away from us and seemed to collapse at the trunk of one of those primordial trees, his body twisting like its branches, in agony. I tell you, I was terrified for him.
But stronger than my confusion and fear was my exhaustion. Peter and little John fell fast asleep as soon as we knelt “to pray.” I can’t blame them. They had awakened early, gone ahead to Jerusalem, and prepared the Passover meal for the rest of us. So I know they were tired. I finally dozed myself. All that red wine, the heavy conversation, the night as thick and dark as the grave; what can I say, I feel asleep. Jesus came and gave us all a swift kick where we napped: “Could you not keep watch for just one hour?” he asked. There was such pain in his voice, stronger than disappointment. The man was…desperate. He returned to his prayers and I could hear him speak of God’s will and suffering and betrayal. It caused me to return to his words from the dinner table: “One of you will betray me.”
Who? Not we three. Not Andrew. He was the most thoughtful man of the bunch. Philip? Of course not. Matthew? Maybe. He did work for the Romans for a season, but he seemed so happy to be free of them now. Then it struck me: Where was Judas? He had been in the Upper Room, I was sure of it. He sat right there at Jesus’ side, but I couldn’t remember him on our walk to the garden. Was he in the back of the line? Had he lost his way in the dark? Maybe he paused to count the coins as he was so prone to do. It was then that I heard his voice in the distance: “This way…Just a bit further…Almost there!” he was saying. And there were other voices, many voices. As I turned to wake Peter and John, there Jesus stood, his sorrow now replaced with a steely determination that was as frightening to me as my confusion had been.
Judas arrived leading a company of angry men. They had arrest warrants, stamped with the seal of the High Priest. They were armed with swords, spears, and torches, dressed as a conquering army going to battle. We huddled behind Jesus like frightened sheep, waiting for him to strike them down. Judas stepped forward, his face illuminated by a flickering torch, and the suspense only heightened. “Rabbi!” he said, and he kissed Jesus on the cheek. Jesus, with a haunting, knowing gaze, fixed Judas in his sights and with the look of pity or compassion or distress said gently…“My friend, do what you must do.” Chaos descended. Those men fell on Jesus like predators on prey. All the disciples scattered like spooked birds. And yes, I ran. I ran as hard as these old legs could carry me all the way back to Bethany. I didn’t know what happened until morning, but by morning, it was too late.
It was the darkest night of my life, and believe me, I’ve seen some bad nights. There was that trip to Capernaum, a trip filled with too much wine and not near enough fishing. I was drunk for a week and felt dead for another. In Tiberius I spent an awful night in jail for fighting with the local magistrate; heavens what a disaster. And of course, there was that night after I met Jesus, on the Sea of Galilee. I’ve plied those waters since I was a lad – more than 40 years – and never had I seen such a storm. It descended on us double quick, and try as we might, I knew we were doomed – all twelve of us. Then, a phantom, or so it seemed, came walking across the water. I thought it was Hades come to take me for my sins, I did. But…it was Jesus.
I didn’t believe it at first. Who could believe such a thing? So I called out to the spirit: “If it is you, then bid me come to you on the water?” He answered, “Come on, then!” I threw a leg over the starboard side to go to him. Almighty, I knew it was crazy, but better to try your hand, or your foot, at walking on water than to go down without a fight, I say! Andy, my brother, he grabbed fast to my shirt tale, speaking of home and our mother and begging me not to play the fool. Well, I’ve been a fool my whole life, that’s nothing new, so I started across the water to Jesus. He saved me in that storm. He saved us all. And that’s what made that dark Thursday the darkest night of my life. I believed in this man. I loved him. Like nothing else I have ever wanted, I wanted to stand with him when he needed me the most – and I told him so. I told everyone!
“Peter, Peter,” was his reply. “The Devil will grind you into dust tonight. Before the morrow – before the rooster crows – you will deny that you even know me.” I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing – and he’s said some sharp things to me over the years! But this? And in front of everyone? Not me! Let everyone else sink with the ship; haven’t I proven that I will go further than anyone! Haven’t I proven that I will go to the wall, to death, if necessary? No sir, Simon Peter does not go gently into that dark night…But I did. God help me, I did. After Judas handed Jesus over, I resisted. I pulled my sword and starting swinging with all my might…and…Jesus told me to put the sword away. He said it with such force, I just dropped the thing, never went back for it and…I ran away. Yet, I found my courage and hurried to the home of the High Priest where I knew they would take him. I huddled outside. Waiting. Listening. Watching.
Then they bottled me up, my comrades around the courtyard fire. “Hey, you! Yes, you are with the Nazarene! I’ve seen you with him!” a servant girl said, the nosy little nebby. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I barked, before I even thought. Then another: “Yes, I’m certain you are with this Jesus! You too are from Galilee; your accent gives it away!” I was terrified of being arrested so I was even more forceful this time: “Heavens no!” I said. “I would never be caught with such a fool as that silly carpenter.” But it wasn’t enough. They ganged up on me, interrogated me, cornered me, until finally I thundered, “Damn you all and damn this Jesus! I tell you, I’ve never even met the man!”
Jesus was just inside the courtyard door. I could see him, standing there. The accused. Shackles on his wrists like he was some kind of insurrectionist. Just as the rooster crowed, he turned and looked at me; not unlike he had gazed upon Judas in the garden… Whether or not he heard my cursing or that bloody chicken cry, it was of no matter. He knew. So did I. As fast as I could, I’m ashamed to say, I left that place. I’d like to say I cried myself to sleep that night. I wept many tears, that much is sure, but no sleep came that night. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to sleep again. It was, indeed, the darkest night of my life.
James and few of the others crashed through the door, it must have been after midnight. They were trembling with fear. Breathless. Unable to speak. Never had I seen men so shaken. Lazarus and I did our best to calm them while Martha put a pot of sachlav on the fire to warm their bones. It took several minutes for them to be able to explain what had happened, and even then, it was too unbelievable to accept. Jesus…arrested? Judas…a traitor? The disciples…scattered and on the run? That’s when I knew I too had to run: All the way to Jerusalem to see things for myself. I grabbed my coat and headed for the door when Martha stopped me. “Mary, please don’t go,” she said as loving as a mother. “The night is late and the roads are filled with dangerous men.” I gave her a smile, the kind of smile that said what needed not be said; I had spent more than one late night with dangerous men. And now, the one man who had shown me how to live differently, the man who had changed my heart and my life was in trouble. I would not sit idly by if there was something – anything – I could do. So I covered the miles from Bethany to Jerusalem along the same road the fleeing disciples had just taken, as fast as I could run.
Along the way I thought of a few of our times with Jesus; Martha, Lazarus, and me. There was that dinner party years ago that began my conversion. Oh, Martha was slaving away in the kitchen – she’s always been the good daughter – and I know I should have helped more, what with the dishes running onto the floor and the soufflé threatening to burn. But I couldn’t pull myself away from Jesus. He knew things. He knew God. He understood people. He understood me. And he showed me that I could know and be loved by God. Then there was the time…Lazarus died. It started out as a cold – or so we thought – but the poor boy was gone in a week. Jesus came, too late to heal him, and we couldn’t understand why. Yet, it all became crystal clear when he had the body exhumed and brought Lazarus back to life!
Then there was yesterday. Just yesterday. Another dinner party with Martha cooking and Lazarus laughing at the table as full of living as ever. I was moved with such gratitude for it all that I retrieved that bottle of oil from my room and anointed Jesus with it. That’s when I knew I had changed, because that bottle was my escape hatch, you see. I acquired it with the money I made over all those years in the brothels and down by the sea. Oh, it cost me much more than money. I was going to sell it and start a new life somewhere else – in Cairo or Alexandria or even Rome. But Jesus gave me a new life right here, so I thought he should have it.
I arrived at the High Priest’s house, and met Peter running away from the courtyard. I tried to stop him and talk to him, but he bulldozed along, heaving with tears. I walked quietly to a back door where I knew I could peek inside without being detected. I…knew the way…and I knew that door…I had been to this home before with my previous occupation, though no one living there would ever admit it. Looking inside, I had to stifle a shriek that rose in my throat, though it’s doubtful I would have been heard. The Sanhedrin and priests were howling in blood-thirst. “Take him to Pilate!” they were screaming. “He is a blasphemer and doesn’t deserve to live!” They spit on him. They slapped him and kicked him to the ground. They dragged him around the floor by the hair of his head. I wept.
As the Temple guards took Jesus away I saw his blood splattered on the floor. Strangely, it looked exactly like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, like the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice.