when death gripped your throat,
hoping for a final victory.
it didn’t realize that it was
actually strangling


They took Jesus and led him away. Carrying the cross by himself, Jesus went to the place
called Skull Hill (in Hebrew, Golgotha).
There they crucified him.
—description of the place on the outskirts of Jerusalem where Jesus died (John 19:16-18)

Why, Rabboni? Why?

The beams of the cross lie heavy across his shoulders. I watch as he struggles toward the hill they call Golgotha. Skull Hill. The hill of death.

How could this happen? Why do you let them do this to you?

All of his miracles flash through my mind—healings, turning water into wine, telling demons what to do—I know all about that, about the demons part.

Not so long ago I heard voices in my head, in my soul. They told me to do unspeakable things. And I did them. I did them all. Everyone in my hometown of Magdala was afraid of me. But Jesus, with his laughing eyes and soft words, set me free.

Then he spoke my name: “Mary. Come, follow me.”

And once I was free, I followed him. Where else could I go?

But now . . . Now . . .

Why doesn’t he stop this? Where is all that power now?

I really thought he would be the one. We all did.

I can barely recognize him; welts and bruises hide his eyes, shredded flesh hangs from his back. He doesn’t look at all like a mighty deliverer, like the promised Messiah. He looks like a broken man.

Isn’t there anything I can do for you, Rabboni? Anything?

No. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. And there’s nothing he can do for me. Not anymore.

As we leave the city, the crowd swells around me, each face twisted in anger. The same voices that chanted his greatness a few days ago are screaming now for him to die. I don’t understand it. Any of it. My ears are full of their poisonous words. Everything is happening too quickly. Dust from the shuffling feet of the crowd is choking me.

As I watch him stagger up the hill, tears begin to cloud my eyes. They’ve given his cross to another man now to drag the rest of the way up Golgotha. But that’s only cruelty dressed up like compassion—this wayJesus will survive long enough to be tortured to death on the hill.

Everything is spinning and ending. Everything is wrong.

“Why?” The word drops from my lips like a dead kiss. I had loved him, or do love him, more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I loved the calm ease that surrounded him, and the touch of his hand on my arm, and the deep glorious ring of his laughter. I loved his stories of heaven, and his riddles about God, and his mischievous grin.

At one time I’d dreamed of marrying him. He knew that, of course. And more than once I’d seen the flash of love in his eyes. Sometimes he spoke of the day he would marry, or of the dream of seeing his bride dressed in white. Whenever he did, my heart would race. But he didn’t mean me. It wasn’t meant to be.

Nothing was meant to be.
I’d thought he was the one, and now I don’t know what to think.
The soldiers have him on the ground now. They’re positioning the nails against his wrists. I shudder. I close my eyes. I can’t help it.
“No,” I whisper. I want to scream, but only a whimper escapes my lips. “No, God . . . please, not like this . . .”
And in the darkness beneath my eyelids, I hear the hammer blows echo across the hill and through my heart. And I know I’ll always hear them, every time I close my eyes. Forever.
I shudder and try to look up, but I can’t. I fall to the ground and whisper the words over and over again. “No, God . . . please, no . . .”
But it does no good. Yahweh is ignoring me.
Even with my eyes closed, I can feel the day grow darker all around me.

God’s love is so inexplicable and unfettered and extravagant that it’s a mystery to me. Love is dying for his beloved there on Skull Hill.

The wounds on his back are crying out. The lashes are cutting deeply through his soul. There’s agony on his face, but it’s a deeper agony than whips or thorns or nails can bring. It’s the growing agony of loneliness. For this man is being despised and forsaken by his friends, by his bride, by his God.

Six hundred and eighty years before Jesus was born, Isaiah prophesied this would happen:

He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace.
Isaiah 53:3-5

But how could his wounds heal us? How could his beatings bring us peace?

When I was a kid my pastor explained that God’s forgiveness (he called it justification) was like a courtroom decision—God declaring us not guilty as he allowed his Son to be tortured to death in our place. I think I understand where that pastor was coming from, but the analogy never really resonated with me. Love isn’t forensic and sterile; it’s sacrificial. Grace isn’t a decree; it’s a gift.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale of “The Little Mermaid” (not the Disney version), a beautiful young mermaid has fallen in love with a human prince. The mermaid is a glorious singer beneath the sea, but she gives up her voice to be able to become human and love the prince. The deal is, if she can woo him, then she can remain human and receive an eternal soul. But if he marries another woman, the little mermaid will turn into sea foam, the fate of all mermaids.

Well, despite all her devotion to him, the prince’s heart remains enamored with a different woman, a princess whom he believes rescued him from a shipwreck. However, the little mermaid was really the one who had saved him. She wants desperately to tell him that she was his savior and that she loves him, but she has no voice above the sea, no words he can hear.

In the end, all three are sailing back to the prince’s palace for his wedding to the other woman. The little mermaid is about to turn back into sea foam when her sisters swim to the water’s surface and offer her a knife and a choice: if she will take the prince’s life, she need not give up her own. The magic can be reversed; she can become a mermaid again if only she will kill the prince. One of them must die before daybreak.

Everyone else is asleep on the boat. Silently the little mermaid approaches the prince and finds him in the arms of the other woman. As Hans Christian Andersen writes,

The knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam. The sun rose above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of the little mermaid.

The prince knew nothing of her sacrifice, nothing of her love. He didn’t know she had rescued him, given up her beautiful voice to become like him, and then exchanged her life for his. All this went on while he pursued another woman. She sacrificed all for her prince because she loved him, yet he never returned her love.

When the gospel is told like that, I can understand it.

God’s love didn’t happen in a courtroom but on a cross where Jesus threw himself from the ship and into the sea. The story I see woven all throughout Scripture is a tale of passion and sacrifice—not a deal brokered between a lawyer and a judge. It was a gift given from a lover to his beloved: in one final act of sacrificial love, he offers his life so that she might live.

We have a God who would let himself be nailed to a cross for his beloved. And there he would dare to die for her.

For us.

Hold onto this moment. See him hanging there, between heaven and earth. Between God and humanity. See him dying there on Skull Hill. Don’t turn away. Easter will never make sense without this moment.

touching the unseen

you know.
somehow, you know.
i can see it on the fringes of this story.
i can sense it being carried along
on the fragrance of your tale.
you know the ache in the back of the throat.
and the tears on the edge of my eyes.
you know the state of my heart.
you threw the knife away
and slipped into the sea.
your cold foam washes over my soul
as i sleep beside my other lovers.
what will i do about your love?