It is Christmas Day, the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ some people’s Lord and so my thoughts turn to the thin man and his various travails. It’s clearly not easy being a messiah, but worse still would be enduring all the sufferings of a messiah and not actually being one. Either way, the historical Christ (because it seems fair to say there really was such a man, whatever distortions the Gospels present) had a pretty rough go of things, what with his unpleasant interface with carpenters’ equipment, the unreliability of his close friends, his unfortunate choices in holiday retreats and his less than ideal relations with women.
Take Mary Magdalene, who, by all accounts, was quite the Bedouin betty. Now women, for many of us, are pretty tempting all on their own, but there’s nothing more tempting, more head-fogging and toothache-y than a hot-blooded temptress. All the normal appeal of a woman, plus the mischievous glint in the eye, the wry-cornered smile, the seductress’ laugh and the musky, beckoning pheromones combine to make the temptress the most feared and reviled female among men and women alike. More dangerous yet is that particular kind of temptress who takes it on herself to corrupt only the purest of men, to sprinkle a little sludge on their undriven snow, to canker their alabaster rose. I once knew a woman who only dated men who were in the seminary. While they struggled to get frocked, she offered them an entirely different altar on which to burn their incense. Her success rate equaled their attrition rate: 100 percent. Their black collars were traded for dog. I’m surprised there isn’t a Chicago-wide priest shortage.
Another woman I knew, back when I too was lamb-like enough to attract such a one, sought out the least experienced freshmen on campus, and seduced them like a hailstorm over lilies. For her, the rouging of male cheeks was more of a turn-on than the standard dinner/movie/walk-in-the-park. And so she traipsed, dandelion to dandelion, extracting pollen almost everywhere. I was one exception; mortified by her forwardness, I fled the scene, not to return. Fear often works in the service of purity.
Which happens to be Magdalene’s argument to Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous retelling of the Gospels in novel form, The Last Temptation of Christ. Christ won’t sleep with her, she argues, not because of his piety, but because he lacks the spine and resolve of a man. He is cut off from his body and uses his wanting to “save” her as his excuse, or so she says. In any case, things between the harlot and the savior aren’t quite as steamy in the book as they are in the scandalous film adaptation, but it’s pretty clear that Christ was smitten. And close to giving in. Too close for his comfort, certainly. But close enough to give us readers a little vicarious thrill for Christmas. I just hope your presents were this good.
From The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
“Jesus,” the voice next to him repeated, “you asked me if I remembered when we were children and played together . . .”
Magdalene’s face, reflecting the light of the flames, glowed like red-hot iron. But the youth, submerged in the desert, did not hear.
“Jesus,” the woman said again, “you were three and I was one year older. There were three steps leading to the door of our house and I used to sit on the highest one and watch you struggle for hours, unable to mount the first step. You fell, you got up again and I did not even lift my little finger to help you. I wanted you to come to me, but not before you suffered greatly. Do you remember?”
A devil, one of her seven devils, was goading her on to speak to the man and tempt him.
“Hours later you would finally manage to climb up the first step. Then you struggled to mount the second, then the third where I sat, motionless, waiting for you. And then ”
The youth gave a start and held out his hand. “Be still,” he shouted; “don’t go further.”
But the woman’s face gleamed and flickered; the flames licked her eyebrows, lips, chin and uncovered throat. She took a handful of laurel leaves, threw them in the fire and sighed.
“Then you took me by the hand yes, you took me by the hand, Jesus and we went inside and lay down on the pebbles of the yard. We glued the soles of our feet together, felt the warmth of our bodies mix, rise from our feet to our thighs, from our thighs to our loins. The we closed our eyes and ”
“Quiet!” the youth shouted again. He lifted his hand in order to cover her mouth, but restrained himself he was afraid to touch her lips.
The woman sighed now and continued, lowering her voice to a murmur. “Never in my whole life have I felt such sweetness.” She paused, and then: “It is that sweetness, Jesus, which I’ve been seeking ever since from man to man; but I have not found it.”
The youth buried his face between his knees. “Adonai,” he murmured, “Adonai, help!”