The Sixth Woman: Salome’s story
My name is Salome. I know what you’re thinking but not that Salome. I grew up in Nazareth with Mary. We were inseparable until the angel came. Not that I knew it was an angel at the time. Mary just stopped talking to me, and then the gossip started: she was pregnant and it wasn’t Joseph’s. No one knew why Joseph stood by her. She’d brought shame right into his house but still he protected her. It made no sense to anyone. They were the talk of the village. They went away for the census and I didn’t see her for years.
Then one day, years later she and Joseph returned, with their little boy Jesus, they’d been in Egypt apparently. Years went by, the gossip subsided, and we became close again. I remember so clearly when Jesus started to travel and teach – Mary was mortified. After being in the spotlight all those years she had imagined a quiet old age, her family around her. It took her a while but eventually she understood and she’d reminisce about the strange events that happened at his birth. She’d always known, she said, that he wouldn’t be just anybody – she just hadn’t wanted to accept it.
At first I kept up with what he was doing for Mary’s sake but before long I followed him for my own sake. His teaching made sense of the world – it made sense of me. So I was there on that awful day. We were there…people often forget it but we were there. Later they said that all his followers had run away. That he had been left alone – quite alone; that everyone had left him.
‘Everyone?’ I would ask.
‘Yes, we all did’, Peter would say. ‘We’re all as bad as each other. We all left him. We all fled’.
‘All of us?’
‘Yes, all of us. Every last …oh’.
It often took him a while but most of the time he would get there in the end – until he forgot again.
‘Exactly’, I would say, ‘not…everyone’.
You see, we were there, Mary Magdalene and I. Obviously not in the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus had gone ahead with the twelve by himself, leaving us bemused and grieving on the roof. But the moment we heard what had happened – and it went round Jerusalem like wildfire - we followed him.
Just like we had in happier times in Galilee.
It’s what I’ve always done – when disaster strikes and I don’t know what to do, I do what I normally do -- day in day out -- until the moment comes when I do know what to do again. So when we heard, when it felt as though the world was collapsing around us, we did what we had been doing for the past few years, we followed him. We followed him to Caiaphas’ house and shivered through the long dark hours in the courtyard; we followed him to Pilate’s house, listening with incredulous horror while the crowd cried out ‘crucify, crucify’ all around us.
We followed him to Herod’s house and back again. And then we followed him where we never imagined we’d go – to his crucifixion.
At some point during the long miserable wait Mary Magdalene slipped away and came back with the other women, Susannah and Joanna, Mary, Clopas’ wife and Mary, Joses’ mother and of course Jesus’ own mother, Mary. It was pitch black by then so we inched closer and closer, and stood there all that cold, wretched day watching as breath by dying breath our hopes and dreams died before our eyes; and with them everything we held dear.
We’d talked over the years, Mary and I, about the strange events that had happened when he was born. In the end she even told me about Gabriel. We pondered together about it all, wondering what it all meant. The thing we talked about most was what Simeon had said to her when she’d taken Jesus to the temple as a baby. He’s said the strangest things about who Jesus would became, the outrage he would cause and how he would reveal who people really were. He was right - I’d seen it in so many of the people that Jesus met. I’d noticed it in myself. There was something about him and how that made you react that simply revealed who you really were – even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.
But it was the last thing that Simeon had said that Mary puzzled over the most. Apparently he’d turned to her at the end, looked at her with deep compassion and said that a sword would pierce her soul too. She’d wondered over the years what he’d meant. Perhaps he’d meant that awful moment when she’d thought Jesus was lost in Jerusalem. Perhaps he’d meant the pain of him leaving home, the desperate loss of her beloved first born son. Perhaps he’d meant the embarrassment she’d felt when she’d first heard that he had started teaching people without ever having studied with a Rabbi first.
Was that what he’d meant? We’d wondered together. As I stood there that day and looked at Mary then, I imagined that all those things felt like nothing more than pin pricks right now. As we were holding on to each other in our grief in a simple effort to stay upright, I discovered that she’d been thinking exactly the same thing, I heard her whisper quietly to herself: ‘So this is what Simeon meant’.
At some point during that long, lonely vigil – the beloved disciple appeared quietly by our side. I don’t know when he got there. That was just like him. Never with a fanfare. Never drawing attention to himself. Never forcing himself into situations. I think that was what Jesus liked so much about him – his company was gentle, undemanding, easy.
When so many people wanted so much from Jesus all of the time, he didn’t. He was just there. He was one of those people you felt better simply because they were there.
From the cross Jesus noticed him, at almost the same time we did. Jesus hadn’t spoken at during that long agonising time but just then he said: ‘Your son’ and, ‘Your mother’. Looking at one and then the other of them. Then he just looked at Mary. A look of pure love. It broke my heart and he wasn’t even my son.
A few moments later he asked for a drink and sighed ‘It is finished’ – then it was. Everything was over; everything bar our anguish. We stood there for what felt like hours, numb and shocked.
Then we did what we’d always done – we followed him. Some men we didn’t know took his body off the cross – so we followed them. They took him to a tomb nearby – so we followed them. We watched as they buried him – they didn’t anoint him or use spices they were in too much of a rush before sun-down. They put his body on the ledge, rolled the stone across the entrance and went away.
We stood at a distance, unsure what to do next. We couldn’t do anything the next day – it was the Sabbath – but we agreed we’d come back early on Sunday morning, before anyone else was up. We would anoint him then. You may be thinking that we hadn’t thought it through, and you’d be right.
Grief does that to you.
We had no idea about how we’d roll the stone away. The whole task – not just the rolling of the stone but the anointing and the ceremony, all of it was a man’s job really; normally, our job was to lead the lamentation. But we had no choice, they’d run away, all of them, and there was only us.
And after everything he been through, after everything we’d been through, we couldn’t bear the thought that his body would be left there uncared for, unwept over, un-anointed.
We were doing what we’d always done – following him, caring for him as best we could, even when no one noticed.
They said later that everyone ran away but we were there…people often forget it but we were there.