For a long time, I have been interested in stories rooted in the traditions of the Jewish people—from The Red Tent by Anita Diamant to The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I seldom talk about the novel I’m now working on that is part of the Christian tradition—a reimagining of the story of Mary the mother of Jesus. It is a novel I have been researching and drafting off and on for about ten years. I hope to complete it before year’s end. More about that novel later. In the process of researching it, I have discovered much about the historical, cultural, and economic context of first century Galilee. That research found its way into a dramatic reading about three women in mourning that I recently wrote. The reading debuted on Maundy Friday at my church.
A Story of Three Women in Jerusalem
For more than a year, I imagined a conversation between Mary and two other women—one well-known and one lesser-known. Most people—even those outside the Christian tradition—know of Mary Magdalene. Little is written about her in Biblical text but unfortunately she has been erroneously portrayed as a prostitute, including in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. This occurred because her character has been conflated with other female characters. The third woman in this conversation is the Canaanite woman (also known as the Syro-Phoenician woman). The Canaanite woman—who goes nameless—is a woman who came to Jesus to seek help for her daughter possessed by a demon and who, according to many, changed Jesus’s mind.
While several aspects of the conversation come from my imagination, I also incorporate little known information about real conditions during that time. Few people are aware, for example, that crucifixions were commonplace during several periods of that century. What would it be like to raise children around that violence, even if you didn’t know that someday that fate would befall your son? The elites in that society imposed steep taxes on those who depended on agriculture resulting in loss of land and severe social upheaval.
The narrative lends itself to the genre of “magical realism”—one I prefer to write in. Mary Magdalene suffered from demons until Jesus healed her and she joined the group traveling with and learning from him. She was the first witness to his resurrection. The Canaanite woman also sought out a healing from demons from her daughter. In the course of seeking help, she asked that her status as someone from outside the Hebrew people—in fact, her people were considered their enemy—be set aside so that her daughter could be freed of the torment of these demons. In the dramatic reading, the two women share their experiences with possession and celebrate being free of it.
Due to a beautiful rendition by three talented women, the evening was as powerful as I’d hoped it would be. What I did not anticipate is what the impact would be for two people in the audience. After the service ended, several people came up to me to share positive words. Then I saw the face of a friend, a mother who had lost her son the previous year. She embraced me as she wept. A similar emotion showed in her husband’s face as he walked by me.
I had never considered such an impact of the story I’d written . This brought up conflicting emotions for me. I felt gratified that it had conveyed what I had intended—how the tragedy of loss affects those who love a person who dies under violent and barbarous circumstances. I also worried about the pain that it caused two people who had lost a beloved child.
In a world in which suffering comes to us regularly via the media, it’s important to me to lift up the impact of violent deaths on the survivors. They don’t have the luxury of moving past it to the next event. They will never forget. This is why I write, but not without considering the impact of what I write.