Dear Readers, Joanna’s story is a fictionalized account. I was inspired by Luke 8:1-3 and Luke 24:9-10 where she is mentioned along with Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and other women who supported Jesus. Asterisks connect to further information in the end notes.
Joanna*, a servant of Jesus Christ, wife of Chuza*, steward of Herod’s household,
To Luke, my dear brother in the faith.
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
You have asked for my account as an eyewitness of our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection so that you may write Theophilus*. I was a much younger woman then, but my memories have not faded over the years. I am convinced that even a thousand lifetimes would not dim my wonder when recalling those days.
This can’t be happening! My mind screamed the words over and over as I followed Rabboni* staggering under the cross toward Golgatha. No! They can’t be doing this to the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.
I couldn’t distinguish my voice from the wailing of all the other women around me. Someone, please stop this! People in the crowd tried to thrust their bodies between him and the Roman guards only to be beaten back with whips. He bled profusely, and we women who had ministered to all his needs for the past three years could not reach him, could not perform a final act of kindness, except to be there as he took his last steps on earth.
We reached the top of the hill to the sound of hammering and cries of agony. I’ll never forget the thud of wood against the ground and his scream as they hoisted him into the air. How can this be happening? A cross instead of a throne?
Susanna* and I kept wailing and clinging to each other, while up ahead Mary Magdalene was pleading with the soldiers to let her be near him. The rest of us were not so bold, so we stood at a distance. Rabboni’s mother, supported on one side by her sister, Salome*, and on the other by John, was already next to his cross. The sight of her weeping, shaking body, only intensified my own wails. No mother should have to witness such a thing.
The darkness that enveloped us in those hours matched the ugly atmosphere that prevailed. The crowd gloated, gleeful as if drunk on blood. I couldn’t take those smug Pharisees wagging their heads making snide comments like “He helped others; now let’s see him help himself.” I wanted to scream: You murderous snakes! You hypocrites, condemning an innocent man!
I turned to my friend. “Susanna, how can they mock? All he ever did was good!” She draped her blue shawl around my shoulders, and gave me a sad smile. Then she gently tucked into place some of the dark curls that kept escaping my head covering. Her gentle touch calmed me a little.
As the hours dragged on, I alternated between rage and grief. Then Rabboni cried out one last time. The ground shook and heaved. Susanna and I tried to steady each other. Was the earth going to crack beneath us? Oh, what did it matter if we all died. All my previous reasons for living had been pierced through with nails and hung limp and helpless on a tree.
After the shaking stopped, a hushed awe fell on the crowd. Our little group of women huddled closer together as we wondered, “What has just happened here”? His shout, “It is finished!” kept ringing in my head. The sheer power of it had defied logic. How could a suffocating man have the strength to shout? Much less in triumph? I did not understand this.
Up ahead I noticed new activity, soldiers slamming cudgels against the criminals’ legs. Suddenly one plunged his spear into Rabboni’s side. A primal scream pierced the air. Was that my voice? I could not tell. Up ahead Mary had sagged to the ground. For a while all sounds seemed to come from far away; even my sight felt dimmed, and I hardly breathed.
I seemed to return somewhat to my senses by evening when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arrived bringing several servants carrying spices. The crowds had dispersed and the soldiers now allowed us women to approach. Oh, that beloved face, bloodied and distorted beyond recognition. I would never see him smile again. I would never look into those kind, pure eyes again. Groans contorted my body as tears once again streamed down my face. I was too hoarse from hours of wailing to make much sound. All of us appeared to be in a similar state.
The men lowered the cross, extracted the nails, then lifted his body onto a linen sheet. Mary immediately fell to the ground next to him, weeping and touching his beloved face over and over. Was she thinking of the first time she held him as a baby? His first smile? His first steps as he toddled into her arms? I fell to my knees next to her. “Oh Rabboni, I will forever bless the day I met you.” The others, too, wanted an opportunity for a last goodbye.
Then Nicodemus’ servants began setting out the alabaster jars of spices they brought. We gathered around gaping. I had never before seen such a large quantity of myrrh and aloes mixture. Seventy-five pounds* they said it was! Four times the usual amount used to bury ordinary people. But then our beloved Rabboni was not ordinary. The resinous, astringent fragrance that filled the air began to calm me a little. How fitting that Rabboni would be buried in a manner equal to only great men and royalty.
Joseph and Nicodemus first washed his body and then proceeded to cover it in myrrh and the aloes mixture paste. We all stood around and watched, somewhat comforted by this honorable burial. Joseph tied a linen strip under the chin and covered the face with a burial cloth. To never see his face again! How could life go on? Then the men began to wrap his body in strips of linen, adding more spices and paste into the folds as they progressed, so that these would harden into a preservative cocoon about the body. As they wrapped, I thought about how everything that ever meant anything to me was being interred beneath those folds.
Nearby there was a garden with a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. I think it belonged to Joseph. The men lifted Rabboni onto a wooden stretcher to carry him there. We followed to see in which tomb they would lay him. Mary Magdalene and Clopas’ wife* wanted to stay until the men rolled the stone in place, but the rest of us left. By now I was exhausted.
Rabboni’s family was staying at the house of John Mark’s mother. Though my home was here in Jerusalem, most of the disciples had walked the eighty miles from Galilee to celebrate Passover and were staying with various friends.
And so we began the seven-day mourning period. The traditional prayers were offered and readings from the Torah shared, but all we could talk about was our shock and confusion over the horrific events we had witnessed. We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. How could we have been so wrong?
I kept feeling nauseous and could not eat or sleep. My thoughts raced uncontrollably. When I did nod off, I’d abruptly awaken to hear myself wailing from grief. The feeling of unreality, that Rabboni couldn’t really be dead never left me.
There were still some burial rituals that we wanted to complete. Oh, how much we desired to show our love and respect. So at sundown on the Sabbath, my friends and I went to the market. It felt good to have something constructive to do.
Mary Magdalene, Salome, and I purchased beautiful alabaster jars of frankincense and cedarwood anointing oils*. This gave me joy because over the past three years, we had provided for Rabboni out of our own funds. Nothing was ever too much or too good for our beloved teacher. Susanna and Clopas’ wife found spikenard and sandalwood. This was our last opportunity to serve our beloved teacher.
Since my house stood not far from the market, I took my friends there to complete preparations. My husband, Chuza, gave me permission to bring them over. As you know, he is a good man, but it took great courage in those days to associate with a condemned man. Especially considering that Chuza worked in the household of Herod.
The next morning, it was early and still dark when the five of us stepped outside. The air felt cool on my face as I scanned the neighborhood to get my bearings. How strange it felt to be in a world without my beloved Rabboni. How would I ever get used to this?
“You will need to lead the way,” I said to Mary Magdalene and Salome who were carrying oil lamps.
Mary Magdalene nodded, swallowing hard, and tears welled in her large brown eyes which brought tears to mine as well. In the flickering lamplight her young face appeared pale. Salome clutched a shawl to her chest, her eyes wide with anxiety. They turned and started up the street. Susanna, Clopas’ wife and I followed carrying the alabaster jars.
A strong, musky fragrance hung in the air as I walked with my companions. There was a certain comfort in it as I thought about performing the last burial rituals for my beloved Rabboni. We walked in silence, each absorbed in her own thoughts. After all, what more was there to say?
I kept my eyes on the ground, straining to see. I was grateful that we encountered no one on the streets. We were on a sacred mission.
In the silence my mind began tormenting me. Why, oh why, didn’t you intervene, God? I have never met anyone like him. No one that spoke with such authority. No one that loving, that kind, that . . . that holy. Why, God?
Fragmented images arose. His face, creased with joy at Zaccheus’ house. His face, wet and contorted at the tomb of Lazarus. His face, blazing as he wielded the whip against the money changers in the temple.
I stumbled on a rock and felt Susanna grabbing my arm to steady me.
His hands, making a paste in the mud for the blind man’s eyes. His hands, blessing the tousled heads of children crowding around him. His hands, breaking bread before a meal.
Meals! How many meals had not my friends and I prepared for him!
As light dawned, the phantom gray homes on the street began to take on the natural soft colors of clay and stone.
Why God? Why did you take him from us? From me?
That fateful day, I’d been following the crowd in my usual twisted, bent, and contorted way hiding behind some taller people. And hiding underneath my shawl the tumor on my neck. It so severely contracted the muscles, that my head remained perpetually pulled down sideways to my shoulder.
But he had seen me. And he had kneeled before me so that he could look up into my face. Kneeled! Only servants who wash feet do that. I couldn’t look at him.
“Daughter,” he said. “Take my hand.” And for a moment I hesitated.
“Don’t be afraid.” The words landed gently. I must have looked awkward as I contorted my head to peer at him and found myself astonished. What was it that I had seen in his eyes that day? Love? Compassion? Authority? Certainly all those things.
How protected and safe I felt when I put my hand in his. And then slowly he stood up. As he rose, my eyes never left his. I will never forget the feeling of how I somehow found myself rising too, growing taller and taller. And then that twinge making my hand fly to my neck and the incredulity, This can’t be happening!
Oh, how I wished he were here! If only there were some miracle that could make this present nightmare go away. And now my face was wet. Susanna put her arm around me. Wordlessly we looked into each others’ tear-filled eyes.
We were now climbing the hill that led to Golgatha, the place of the Skull. Images from three days ago pressed in on me. My stomach clenched and I felt sick. Once again I felt detached from my body and my surroundings seemed unreal. But this path was the only way to get to the garden and the tomb. Somehow my feet kept moving.
Susanna stopped abruptly, frowning. “How are we going to roll the stone away?” Why hadn’t we thought of this before? I guess grief can make you forgetful like that. We discussed what to do but nothing came to mind. Perhaps an answer would present itself if we kept going.
Behind the hill, violet and gold rays lit the sky, becoming more and more vibrant as the sun rose. When the garden’s olive grove came into view, I felt my sense of dread increasing. I have always hated the smell of death. Not even seventy-five pounds of spices would obscure that stench, especially after three days in the grave.
Suddenly Mary Magdalene gasped. “Look!” She pointed through the trees. “The tomb is already open!” We stared at each other wide-eyed. “Someone has surely taken the body!” She was gulping air and her eyes darted back and forth like a hunted wild animal. “Where have they laid him? I must find him!”
“We should tell Peter and John,” Salome said. “They’re staying at a house near here.”
Mary Magdalene volunteered, “I’ll go!” and darted off to town.
We continued to stare at each other, and no words came. Salome clutched her shawl tighter. Clopas’ wife kept shaking her head in disbelief. And I felt heat rising to my head. After all the injustice, now they were going to deprive us of a proper burial too?
“I’m going to investigate,” Susanna said, her voice resolute. Reluctantly, we followed.
When we entered the tomb, the first thing I noticed was a sweet scent, like almond blossoms. No hint of death. The air felt cool and fresh on my face. My eyes took in the hollow linen strips and the burial cloth that had been around his head, neatly folded, separate from the cocoon. But my mind could not comprehend.
As we wondered about this, suddenly two angels in brilliant white clothes stood beside us. We fell as one with our faces to the ground, shaking.
But the men said, “Do not be afraid.” Slowly I looked up. Their faces were radiant, joyful. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” I could not comprehend what they were saying. “He is not here; he has risen!” What did they mean? “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be crucified and on the third day be raised again?”
Memory lit a faint flicker of hope. They gestured, “But now go quickly! Tell his disciples that he will meet you in Galilee!”
And just as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone. Trembling, we stood to our feet. I was sure that my companions’ faces mirrored my own bewilderment and wonder.
Then Susanna said, “Let’s go!” and we run, run, run. Can it be true? Oh, it has to be true! I want it to be true. Where is he? Where can I find him? I must see him. He is risen? What does that mean? They won’t believe us. But we have to tell!
Jerusalem was awakening. People stared at us racing by. Don’t stop. Don’t tell anyone on the road. They’d think we’re crazy. Run! Get to John Mark’s house. Quick! Why is it so far?! Peter and John are closer. Hurry. Mary Magdalene. She’ll return with them. Anytime now. Faster! Maybe they’ll see angels. I can’t breathe. He is risen? Oh Adonai, this can’t be happening!
At the house. We’re shouting, all talking at once. Our words sound like nonsense. I can hardly believe what I’m saying myself. Their faces show they don’t believe. Of course. We are only women…
Susanna said, “Let’s tell Andrew and Nathanael!” We dash out the door and race down the street.
Oh, can it be true? The angels said . . . try to remember . . . hurry. We’ve got to tell them.
A tall stranger approaches us, silhouetted against the morning sun. “Where are you going?” he asks. I’m out of breath. I can’t think. No time for strangers! We race by.
Earth and sky and everything contained in them cease to move.
Sights and sounds cease to exist.
“Rabboni!!!” I cried. “You’re alive!”
And now I’m rushing at him, laughing and crying. My companions and I fall at his feet. Words of praise and worship flow like rivers from our lips.
While all along one jubilant thought never leaves me.
This! Can’t! Be! Happening!!!
*Joanna is mentioned in two places in scripture: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). ~ When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:9-10).
*Chuza, the steward of Herod’s household, Joanna’s husband. This office was generally held by a slave who was esteemed the most faithful and was often conferred as a reward of fidelity.
*Theophilus–Luke writes his gospel account to Theophilus. “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
*Rabboni—master, teacher. Used as a Jewish title of respect applied especially to spiritual instructors and learned persons. The most honorable of all titles.
*Susanna is mentioned along with Joanna in Luke 8:3.
*Salome (the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John, and some commentators say she was probably the sister of the Virgin Mary, John 19:25)
*Clopas’ wife (John 19:25), possibly aka “the other Mary,” the mother of James and Joses according to commentators. I used the identifier Clopas’ wife to avoid the confusion of too many Marys.
*Nicodemus’ 75 lbs of myrrh and aloes mixture would equal the size of a heavy rectangle bale of hay and be valued around $150,000 to $200,000 in today’s currency. The spices and aloes mixture was a paste that hardened and permeated the bandages until a hard preservative mould or cocoon was formed about the body.
*Common spices used in burial — frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, cedarwood, spikenard. These were generally in liquid form, perhaps similar to the way we use essential oils today.
*My research showed different suggested timelines are possible for how the events unfolded at the resurrection. It is very difficult to piece together the women’s movements in the gospel accounts because of scant, fragmented information. I decided to choose a timeline that seemed plausible for telling this fictionalized account featuring the women in the story.