In this series of prose poems, author Gary Jansen reflects on Christ's Passion, from his agony in the garden to his death and burial.
The coldest night of the year. A transparent moon hangs in the sky. Beneath it, a garden like the one where your ancestors played. You cry into your hands. There are whispers in the dark and the spirit of another watching over you.
You remember a young child, walking in the cool breeze by the sea with his mother and father. There were 12 rocks in the boy’s pocket, small ordinary stones taken from the shore, from the streets. You remember the child crying when he lost one.
The twelfth is missing, the boy said. Now there are only 11. His father beside him, touching his hair. His mother holding him in his arms, a prescient embrace. Her neck like the smell of roses. The deep air, a waking dream. The cup before you.
Is this yours? a voice asks, trying to lift it. So heavy for such a small thing.
Don’t touch it. Put it down. You don’t want this. This is not how things were supposed to be. There was a promise of something else.
Your stomach burns. A strange sweat on your lips. Please, you say. I cannot bear it. Then, a quiet voice. The wind, the perfume of flowers, touches your hair.
You can. You must.
You see a stone moving, giving way to light.
Your will, you cry. I will.
Betrayed by Judas
Middle of the night. Moonlight pours through a web of cypress trees. They have barely sprouted this year. Flares in the distance, torches like stars in outstretched hands.
I have been wondering when you would arrive. Old friend. Weak chin, sallow face, bony arms. You look older than I remember. At supper you were a boy with a secret, silver eyed and restless. Now, you stare at me like a scarecrow after harvest.
Something has always trailed you. I felt it earlier tonight. I feel it now. Even as you move closer, I feel its presence feather your heart. You have always been a beam of splinters. You have punctured the skin of all who drew near you.
When there was talk of mercy, I would watch your tiny looks, almost imperceptible. The subtle grimace, a narrowing of the eyes, a quiet laugh in the back of your throat.
Condemned by the Sanhedrin
Their voices emerge out of darkness. The scent of wine and vinegar. You stand before them. They pant like hungry dogs. No humor. No irony. Circles of shadow frame their disjointed faces, a room of cracked mirrors, fearful men reflected a thousand times.
Dark halos, their lips twisted like those who speak from both sides of their mouths. They talk of revolution. They talk of peace. They know nothing. The same angel of the desert who did this to Pharaoh is whispering in their ears tonight: Harden your hearts. There is nothing that can be said.
No truth. This is all just motions. A mock trial. Conspiracy of cowards. They feud among themselves. Their anger is so boring. They tear down what God created.
You will rebuild.
Denied by Peter
You loved him before you knew him. He, fashioned for loyalty, was always by your side. It was hard to get rid of him. Both of you would rise in the mornings before the cock crowed and walk the hills before dawn, watching the sun rise over this land of tombs.
Together, you would remember the cloudless evenings passing the portico, the overturned boats docked for the night. Then, the flutter of noisy birds. An omen, you said.
Of what? he asked.
The two of you would talk for hours. When you needed to be alone, he wouldn’t leave. You must go.
I won’t leave you.
Now, black winds. Night has fallen. Your hands are cold. Your heart is sleepless. You wait, knowing he won’t come.
In the distance, the crowing of early dawn.
Judged by Pilate
I thought he would be taller, but he is just a man. Let it be done.
He stands over you, a hollow man in hollow armor. He is the same age as you. You stare at his empty eyes. You have no power except what has been given to you by the Father.
Lashes on your back like birds screaming. Blood runs from the corners of your mouth. His blows burn like a bush on fire. He breaks your nose. Hands raised, you look to the sky and close your eyes, trying not to hear the thunder.
The crowning. The sovereignty of pain. Blood from his dirty fingers mixes with yours. You are now brethren as he raises you to your feet in a devil’s embrace. As boys, you didn’t know each other, but you both looked at the same stars and in the summertime prayed for rain.
Bears the cross
Bruised skin. Purple fingers. Dust coats your mouth. Heavy air hangs on you like another layer of skin. At noon the sun casts hardly a shadow. This wood is so heavy. How can wood be this heavy?
A voice. Not just one voice. Countless. The unfaithful. The murderers. The liars. The lukewarm. The poor. The sick. The lonely. They are all in your head, all on your back. So many. How is this possible?
Your shoulders burn, and you remember a girl walking in the cool breeze of a summer morning. She vanished from sight, leaving behind the smell of lavender. She has returned. Follow her now. She knows where to take you. Follow her. Follow her.
Helped by Simon
Dogs sniff blood on the streets. You fall. A soldier strikes your leg. You cannot move. The weight is too much. All this bothers the man with the boyish face, who looks on as if looking into the eyes of demons. A soldier seizes him.
He picks up the heavy wood. Struggles, but bears the weight. You look into his eyes. The color of desert sand. You think of water but know you cannot drink.
The women of Jerusalem
This crowded street. You see them through matted hair. They squawk like blackbirds, 13 of them, weeping, anxious voices, performing a dance to ease you into the next life. “Don’t cry for me,” you say. “The world keeps God away. Weep because of that.”
As a boy you would play in places like this, with the cracked earth and arthritic-looking rocks. An old man, a collector of bones, would pulverize the dead, mixing the meal with oil and malachite to paint astrological charts on the skins of lambs.
He told you that one day you would become a king. It was written in the stars, he said. You stood fixed, looking at his cart of curiosities, balls of crystal, amulets like eyes, butterflies pinned to bits of cypress.
Now you see traces of clouds. A knife, a rope, nails, and a hammer. You used these tools in your father’s workshop, joining wood together. Now, a crude carpenter joins you to a beam.
When the iron pierces your flesh, you think of a dove descending from the sky, whispering something in your ear. The promise of honey, olives, milk. The promise of love.
Promise to a thief
You look into his eyes. You never had a son, but you wish now you could be a father to this man. He was unexpected. You thought you were journeying alone, didn’t expect this man to be your companion into the next life.
God of surprises. God of mercy.
My son, you say, today we travel light.
You are a boy. You remember the dark room and hissing like steam from a kettle. You could not see it. But you could feel it, moving over the floor, inching closer. You knew you were going to die.
But then an open door, a bright light, and she struck, crushing the asp’s head with her foot. The snake’s tail flashed back and forth. Your mother, panting, said, “This will be the first of many.”
You look upon her now, mother of your heart, crusher of serpents. She holds her hands aloft, asking God to deliver you back into her arms. Soon she will hold you; soon you will feel her embrace. But now, bless her, and give her to another. She is no longer yours; she belongs to everyone.
Ravens fly overhead. Black feathers like smoke. Like a ghost in a tree, something quiet is watching you. The one from the desert has his hands around your throat. He squeezes. You have the desert in your mouth. You thirst. You raise your head to the sky and see rivers of suffering eyes, a multiplication of sorrows.
In this savage stillness, you feel it all. It burns like lightning. From your parched heart you call out to your Father, and the dark shadow disperses like fire thrown into the sea. Then the thunder says, he who was living is now dead. We who are living are now dying.
Into the tomb
This desert sunset turns the sea to wine. Your mother caresses you one more time, then hands you over to the one who would visit you in the dark, ask questions, listen.
He carries your answers around with him, in his heart that now beats, in the shroud he holds, in the cloth he wraps you in like the one from long ago when angels heralded your arrival. A slab of rock for a bed, a stone for a pillow; in this restless darkness you sleep.
But not for long.
For Grace, the love of my life.
Gary Jansen is the author of “Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross” (Loyola Press, $9.95).
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