Before the Dawn: an Easter reading

This is a reading for Easter morning. It would do well at the ending of an Easter vigil, or at the very beginning of an Easter service. It is meant to embody the hugeness of that turning point, not just the saving of the day but the reversal of unalterable fate.

The readers can either be visible to the listeners, or not. If you choose to have them visible, Mary Magdalene should rise and leave at the end of her monologue; after the fifteen seconds of silence after John's monologue, she should pound loudly on the door, and say her final sentence only after Peter or John has opened it for her.

After Mary's last words, the best follow-up is have a beat of silence, then have the music team strike up the most majestic and joyful Resurrection song they know how to play. (We used "Resuscito.") Lights come on, curtains are thrown open, dancers run out trailing streamers, whatever you've got. Joy happens.

Mary Magdalene

My eye is pressed to the crack in the shutters,‭ ‬looking for light.‭ ‬The doors and the windows are locked and barred.‭ ‬What are they so afraid of‭?

The sky is growing gray in the east,‭ ‬I think it is,‭ ‬I know it is‭; ‬soon it will be light enough to go.‭ ‬Shabbat is over now,‭ ‬that terrible Shabbat.‭ ‬Sitting in the dark,‭ ‬not moving,‭ ‬not speaking‭; ‬the shuffle of someone's foot in the darkness,‭ ‬then silence again.‭ ‬Nothing we could bear to say.‭ ‬I sat with the other women around the spices and the smell of the myrrh made me dizzy,‭ ‬and the shadows would shift and float,‭ ‬and I would come to myself again and again.‭ ‬Almost before I had time to think‭ ‬it's not real—it's a nightmare,‭ ‬I was jolted by the knowledge that it's not.‭ ‬It's true.‭ ‬It happened.‭ ‬I was there.

‬ He's dead.

‬He's dead and the world is not what I thought it was.‭ ‬He's dead,‭ ‬and it wasn't true.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬oh I know nightmares if anybody does,‭ ‬they walked beside me in the living day,‭ ‬in the time of my demons...‭ ‬I saw water turn to blood under my hands,‭ ‬I believed my touch would kill children‭; ‬I ran from them.‭ ‬There were voices,‭ ‬they were with me when I lay down and when I got up—whispering‭ ‬God hates you...‭ ‬Until he came.‭

He told me they were lies.‭ ‬He said to trust him.‭ ‬He asked me if I wanted them gone.‭ ‬They were flailing and screaming but I shouted over their voices,‭ ‬I shouted yes with all my strength—and he whipped them.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬if those men could have seen him then,‭ ‬those soldiers,‭ ‬those priests,‭ ‬if they could have seen the power in his hand,‭ ‬the light.‭ ‬His eyes were like the sun—terrible as an army with banners...‭ ‬And they really thought they could‭ ‬kill—Him‭?

And they did.‭ ‬They did.‭

There is no doubt.‭ ‬I watched him die.‭ ‬I watched his body broken on the tree.‭ ‬His breaths grew shorter‭; ‬farther apart‭; ‬desperate,‭ ‬fast,‭ ‬inhuman gasps,‭ ‬with silence in between.‭ ‬One last one,‭ ‬and then—no more.‭ ‬There is no doubt.

‬ He's dead.‭ ‬And the world is empty now.‭ ‬And everything he said‭—

I'm like‭ ‬them now—I never thought I'd be like them.‭ ‬Like my uncle Matthew and the others,‭ ‬when Judas the Galilean was killed and his army scattered,‭ ‬and they came home exhausted and with bitter eyes.‭ ‬They thought Judas was the Messiah.‭ ‬And they were wrong.‭ ‬You believe in a man,‭ ‬you put all your faith in him,‭ ‬the very life in your body is his—who's to say he didn't shine in their eyes,‭ ‬as my Lord shone when he drove my demons away,‭ ‬who's to say he didn't pull them out of the depths and back into life‭? ‬You believe in a man,‭ ‬you‭ ‬believe.‭ ‬And then they kill him.‭ ‬And you have to face the truth.‭

You were wrong.

‬ No.

‬ No‭! ‬I was wrong then‭? ‬Then what was he‭? ‬Tell me that,‭ ‬what was he‭? ‬Was he a liar‭? ‬Him‭?‬ He was truth itself and no one knows it as I do.‭ ‬Was he a fool‭? ‬Proud,‭ ‬hopeful,‭ ‬overreaching—weak‭? ‬Is‭ ‬that what demons of hell screamed and ran from‭? ‬No.‭ ‬He was the one,‭ ‬he was everything,‭ ‬he was the very son of God and they killed him.‭ ‬And now the world is dark and empty but I'll tell you one thing—I don't care if he's dead,‭ ‬I'm his—they can kill me too if they want but I'm his.‭

And I will always be.

‬ That's the sun.‭ ‬I can go now.‭ ‬I can go to him.


She'll remember.‭ ‬She'll remember,‭ ‬won't she‭? ‬She promised.‭ ‬Come home a different way,‭ ‬split up,‭ ‬come home five different ways,‭ ‬visit anyone they can think of on the way‭; ‬she promised.‭ ‬Not to lead them to us.

‬They won't arrest the women,‭ ‬not them.‭ ‬Women are no threat.‭ ‬It's us they want,‭ ‬it's us they're watching for.‭ ‬Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter‭; ‬he said it.‭ ‬He knew.‭ ‬That's what they want to know:‭ ‬if there are any shepherds left among us.‭ ‬If there are twelve of them maybe,‭ ‬or three.‭ ‬If they need to strike again.

‬ They don't.‭ ‬The others are looking to‭ ‬me now.

‬ And I wasn't even there.

‬ In the garden‭—‬then I was there.‭ ‬When they came.‭ ‬I was there ready to draw the sword for him,‭ ‬against the soldiers of the high priest himself—those cowards with their swords and clubs and six times our number in the dead of night,‭ ‬with all of Rome on their side...‭ ‬was that worth nothing‭?

I was willing to lay down my life,‭ ‬to save him.

‬ They grabbed him by the arms and forced his hands behind him,‭ ‬like a common criminal,‭ ‬like a thief.‭ ‬I swung for the closest one,‭ ‬I went for the neck and he ducked and my sword caught his ear—and he—he—the Master told me to stop.‭ ‬He told me to stop‭!

And they took him.

‬ Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.‭ ‬And who dies by the cross‭?

No,‭ ‬I wasn't there.‭ ‬I didn't watch.‭ ‬I didn't see him die.‭ ‬Do you think I needed to‭? ‬I've seen men crucified.‭ ‬They hang there gasping for breath for hours.‭ ‬Before long there's blood and shit mixed together,‭ ‬running down the beam.‭ ‬Do you think I needed to see that‭? ‬To hear my Master scream‭?

They'll tell you tales—they always do,‭ ‬they love them—tales of men who stood torture and never cried out,‭ ‬never twitched a muscle,‭ ‬never made a sound.‭ ‬Every word of those tales is a lie.‭ ‬Everyone wants to believe that there is someone they can't break.‭ ‬There isn't.‭ ‬Not even him.

‬ [long pause‭]

[low voice‭]‬ I don't want to be broken.
‭ ‬
I am a coward and I am a liar.‭ ‬What can I say‭? ‬He unmanned me.‭ ‬That sword was the only weapon I had.‭ ‬I don't know his way—I never understood—turn the other cheek and love your torturers,‭ ‬I never understood it,‭ ‬I never could,‭ ‬but I followed him‭! ‬He had the words of—of life...‭ ‬and I followed him...‭ ‬and I couldn't fight for him,‭ ‬he wouldn't let me fight for him,‭ ‬did he want me to throw down my sword and die with him,‭ ‬was that what he wanted‭? ‬To let them break me too‭? ‬How could he—how could I—no.‭ ‬No.‭ ‬Oh God...‭ ‬Oh God I hate myself.‭

He'll never forgive me.

‬ Because he's gone.


I can't,‭ ‬I can't,‭ ‬I can't believe it.‭ ‬No.‭ ‬I still can't.‭ ‬God‭! ‬What has God done‭!

I knew.‭ ‬There was no question.‭ ‬I knew him.‭ ‬We broke bread together every day,‭ ‬how could I not know him‭? ‬I watched him break the bread on the hillside,‭ ‬how his eyes were alight in the doing of it,‭ ‬how the bread never ended,‭ ‬his hands giving and giving.‭ ‬His hands.‭ ‬I saw his hands weary with touching cripple after cripple,‭ ‬I saw them go away dancing.‭ ‬But it was more than that.‭ ‬More.‭ ‬I saw him on the mountain,‭ ‬standing between Moses and Elijah,‭ ‬shining with an everlasting light.‭ ‬I knew.

‬He was the one.

‬ [To God,‭ ‬low and angry‭]‬ So‭ ‬what have You done‭?

You were testing him.‭ ‬I knew,‭ ‬I saw,‭ ‬I know what You do‭! ‬You test Your people beyond endurance,‭ ‬you rule them with a rod of iron,‭ ‬you put them through the green heart of the fire—and then you snatch them out and they're purest gold.‭ ‬You send them to prison,‭ ‬you drive them into the wilderness,‭ ‬you throw them in cisterns where they sink in mud up to their necks.‭ ‬You made Abraham put a knife to his son's throat before you called out to him to stop.‭ ‬I was willing.‭ ‬I know it's your way,‭ ‬for me,‭ ‬for him,‭ ‬for all of us,‭ ‬I know it's the only way—he was willing and I knew he was.‭ ‬I sat on the ground in the garden and watched him sweating and crying,‭ ‬his face to the earth,‭ ‬a few paces away,‭ ‬and I saw that he was willing.‭ ‬He could have stood up and walked away.‭ ‬Anytime,‭ ‬he could have.‭ ‬But he was willing.‭ ‬He loves You...‭ ‬loved You.‭ ‬And where is he now‭?

I was with him.‭ ‬I heard him scream.‭ ‬I stood there under his twisted body shaking,‭ ‬waiting every moment for the change.‭ ‬For the veil to be torn away,‭ ‬for him to be revealed in the glory of his Father—oh,‭ ‬if they saw,‭ ‬if he had ever showed all that was in him.‭ ‬And I waited,‭ ‬and waited,‭ ‬and listened to him try to breathe.‭ ‬And he pulled himself up and I saw what it cost him,‭ ‬the pain,‭ ‬the breath,‭ ‬and he gasped to me to care for his mother.‭ ‬To care for his mother.‭ ‬When he was gone.

‬ And the change never came.

‬ I never thought.‭ ‬In my wildest and most terrible dreams,‭ ‬I never thought of this.‭ ‬That You could let your servant pass into the fire,‭ ‬and never snatch him out.‭ ‬That I would hear him scream‭ ‬why have you abandoned me and look up into the darkening sky and hear the silence.‭ ‬Only silence.‭ ‬I never thought You were a God like that.‭ ‬I knew You weren't.‭ ‬I knew.‭ ‬He knew.‭ ‬He trusted You.‭

[With rage‭]‬Was he wrong then‭? ‬Answer me.‭ ‬Was he wrong‭?

[a time of silence—about‭ ‬15‭ ‬seconds‭]

[Mary,‭ ‬calling in a loud voice‭]‬ Peter,‭ ‬John,‭ ‬let me in‭! ‬You won't believe what I've seen‭!