Thursday, December 24, 2020

Luke & Mary


"And then…?"

Mary sighed, pondering what to say next. Luke was always kind, but also persistent in his pursuit of the Story. Some parts were pleasant to recall, like ornaments long treasured. But some places still pierced her heart after all these decades. "Not right now, my friend. I am tired." She stood, groaning under her breath at the familiar ache in her back. "Let's go back to the beginning. Please read to me again the things you have written about me. Perhaps you can twig a few more details from the corners of my mind."

Luke smiled at her, watching as she lowered herself to a new position on the cushions. The corners of her mind were precious to him, nuggets of story he would find nowhere else. He was anxious to mine them while he could, but the extraction must be done carefully, gently, respectfully. The joy and sorrow this woman had endured in her lifetime, most could not imagine. He rolled the precious scroll back to the place where Mary's story began.

Clearing his throat, Luke read, "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, 'Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you!' But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting..."

"'Greatly troubled...'! My friend, you are too charitable! Did I not tell you, I was terrified?" Mary chuckled. "Tell me, Master Luke, have you ever seen an angel?"

"No, sadly, I cannot say I ever have. Perhaps our Lord pities my pragmatic mind. I might not believe my senses if I saw such a being."

"How can I describe this to you?" Mary paused in thought. "When I was young, my brothers were sometimes coerced into taking me on their boat. I was told to sit still in the stern, as ballast, where I would not get in the way. I loved it when the wind filled the sail and the boat heeled hard over as we rushed through the water. In that moment, the whole world turned on its side, and I in my seat perceived a whole new sense of what was level."

Mary's eyes were distant as she remembered. "That is how it was with the angel. When he appeared, I realized that my old familiar world was actually askew, and that the creature before me represented the universe's true plane—what was true, what was right, what was in alignment." She looked up at him. "My fear was not about his appearance, Luke, alarming as that was. My fear came from the awareness that I was very much out of line with the cosmos. Like Isaiah, my heart cried, Woe to me! For I am ruined!"

Luke pictured the familiar scene of Isaiah and his vision in the temple. "Thank you, Mary! That makes perfect sense." His quill was poised over the parchment. "I should change my wording, then?"

"No, no," Mary waved off the notion. "It is not worth smudging your beautiful hand. Indeed, I was greatly troubled - that will do. But you do understand now?"

"I can't say that I do, Mary. In my mind, I can't imagine you ever being out of line. I am sure you had nothing to fear from an angel."

"Which is what he said as well, that I had found favour in the eyes of God. But his choice of me was all grace, not my deserving. Blessed is he!"

There was a moment's quiet as each digested these words. Then Luke continued, "So the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God! Listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.' Mary said to the angel, 'How will this be, since I have not known a man?' The angel replied, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.'

"You write beautifully."

"They are not my words, Mary."

"Well, then I love the way you weave the words of God into a story. Yes, this is exactly right. Though at the time, it seemed such a strange way for God to express his favour toward me. He upset my entire world. As if the boat had capsized. The angel's words raised so many questions, all summed up in the one I dared ask him: 'How will this be?' I did not doubt his words—they carried far too much authority—but I did want to know by what miracle I would become with child, since Joseph was in no rush to marry me."

"I know what some in the village still say about you to this day. They refer to Jesus as 'Mary's son,' never Joseph's. And they are right, as much as they intend to dishonour you." Mary shrugged at his words. She was too old to care anymore what the village thought of her. Luke touched the words on the page. "When did you first know that what the angel said had come to pass?"

"That was a journey," Mary replied. "I didn't need any evidence to know I needed an excuse to leave town. I arrived at my cousin Elizabeth's home with the realization that my womanly period had not come. But it was Elizabeth's greeting that made me accept the reality of what was happening to me."

"Blessed are you among women," Luke read, "and blessed is the child in your womb! And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled."

"I had never heard my cousin speak this way before. She reminded me of King Saul, who unexpectedly found himself among the prophets." Mary shifted and winced with pain. "Her miraculous pregnancy had changed Elizabeth, and I began to see that mine would change me."

"In what way?" Luke queried.

Mary paused before answering. "I was always a good girl, the pride of my parents. But I never knew why I followed all the rules, why the thought of disobedience horrified me." She smiled at the memory. "But then my cousin confirmed that the miracle growing inside me was truly the Lord of heaven and earth. I realized for the first time that I was a creature, and that I was subject to a reliable, gracious, loving Creator. That to say yes to him was my greatest hope and joy. And those who turned their face from him did so to their harm, and the detriment of all those around them."

"Your song." Luke ran his finger along the words as he read, as his eyes were suddenly too misty to be trusted with their task.

My soul exalts the Lord,

and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, 

because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. 

 

For from now on all generations will call me blessed, 

because he who is mighty has done great things for me, 

and holy is his name; 

from generation to generation 

he is merciful to those who fear him. 

 

He has demonstrated power with his arm; 

he has scattered those whose pride 

wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts. 

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, 

and has lifted up those of lowly position; 

he has filled the hungry with good things, 

and has sent the rich away empty. 

 

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering his mercy, 

as he promised to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

"Amen!" Mary intoned. "I love hearing myself reflected in your voice. You too know the delight and wonder of saying yes to him." She sighed and nestled herself deeper in the cushions. "It has not proved to be an easy journey, nor a safe one, this saying yes. But good, yes, it has been good."

They remained in companionable silence for a time, and then Luke saw that, once again, Mary had drifted off to sleep. The lines of care eased from her face and she smiled in her slumber; but for the grey hair, she might have been that young girl again whom the angel once visited so long ago. Luke rolled up his scroll, carefully set his quills and ink in order, and left her in peace.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Joseph

Every village needs a carpenter, and I am him. There are others, of course, with all my skills and more, but they have opted to gather as much Roman coin as they can by constructing the elegant city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the north. When local Nazareth people need a door made or a wall repaired, they must - alas - turn to me. My abilities and experience are less than adequate but they improve, though I sorely miss the mentorship of my father. I don’t take their complaints much to heart. I am young, recently married, and would be content with a simple life.

But simple it proves not to be, more like Job with his troubles. The complications with my wife Mary began when we were yet engaged. I have watched over her from a discreet distance - but with interest - all her life, knowing we were intended. Mary grew from a happy childhood to a young woman’s reputation for kindness and diligence. The thought of marrying such a one elated me, for - as the Teacher writes - a wife of noble character who can find?

That is why the rumours were so hard to believe. I had not seen Mary for a while, then heard she had gone to visit her relative Elizabeth, south of Jerusalem. News came that Elizabeth was expecting a child in her old age, which was unusual enough. But now people were entertaining a darker reason Mary had gone so suddenly to her cousin - could she also be with child? I refuted them angrily, knowing full well the impossibility. But the rumours persisted, hurting my business and my pride.

Several months later, Mary returned to Nazareth and all the rumours were confirmed - she was indeed with child. My heart broke and visions of a satisfying domestic life fled away like the mist over Mt Hermon. How could this be? When I confronted her, she gave me some wild story that simply added to my sadness. When she saw that I didn’t buy it, she broke into tears. I watched her helplessly. 

Somehow, I could not find it in my heart to condemn this girl who was intended for me. I determined to break off our engagement and send her back to the safety of her extended family south of Jerusalem. Yes, I knew the Law and honoured the commandments, but I could not bear to see her disgrace in the village if she were to stay. Her journey south would cost me more than I could afford but I could not do otherwise. Then, in the midst of my difficulties, something happened that - rather than solve my dilemma - made everything that much more complex.

I was not sleeping well those days, as you can imagine. One night, I awoke - so I thought - to the brightest moon shining on my face through the window. But it was not the moon; it was a glowing man, sitting at the foot of the bed. His words seared into my heart like an iron and they burn there even now as I repeat them. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” he told me, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

It was the Lord! Or his messenger. I could not say a word in response and must have lost consciousness. I awoke to the first crow of the rooster as usual and wondered if it was a dream. But waking, I could still feel the warmth of his presence, and those reassuring, alarming words smouldered in my heart. The message must be true, if nothing else because it was so impossible. Conceived by the Spirit! Mary had not betrayed our troth! But who would this child be? Yeshua was a common enough name, but he would be no common child. 

What I was about to do was as insane as Abraham lifting his hand to slay his promised son Isaac. By command, I would go and take Mary home as my wife. Be father to this wonder child. When I told Mary this, she was overjoyed. But those next months were difficult on so many levels. It was a small and less than festive wedding celebration, just a quiet family affair. The fact that I married her satisfied the villager’s thirst for justice, but Mary suffered derision and I received more than one black eye defending her. At the same time, it was so strange for us to live in the same house as any married couple, yet without the intimacy. I had determined not to touch her until after the child was born. Mary seemed relieved.

Life in the village was trying. Mary had none of the support an expectant mother should enjoy. I was a spineless fool to some, to others an irresponsible rascal. Things became so bad for us that when the Roman proclamation was made, I could have jumped for joy. A reason to leave the village! I was required by the Romans to return to my family home for the census, and since I was in the line of King David, that meant travelling to the small village of Bethlehem. No matter that Mary’s presence there was not required, nor that her time was close. I would not leave Mary to the scorn and questionable care of our village. We would both travel to Bethlehem, even if we had to have the baby on the way.

I was thankful that we were not the only ones who needed to travel south. We caravanned with several of our extended families and others who also needed to show up in Bethlehem. Among us, we had a cart that I hoped might ease the passage for my very pregnant wife. I borrowed as many sheepskins as I could to create a nest for her. Nothing proved comfortable for long, however. Mary took the cart until she couldn’t anymore, then walked until she couldn’t anymore, then rode our little donkey until she couldn’t anymore. The closer we came to Jerusalem, the more exhausted and uncomfortable she looked, despite my every effort.

Nagging my thoughts all the way was the reality that, as much as Bethlehem was our ancestral home, we no longer had family living there. The small village would be overrun with David’s descendants. Would we find a place to stay? As we found out, Bethlehem was overrun with more than the family of David; there were Romans everywhere. The word was that they feared an insurrection, and what better place to make a statement than in the town of King David?

As soon as we arrived, our group dispersed. To my dismay, Mary was having a particularly bad time of it just at that moment and we had to find a corner for her to rest. Evening came on suddenly as it always does, the streets emptied and there we were: Mary, her inept husband and the donkey who refused to move another inch until dinner was provided. This was the nightmare I had imagined all the way here. Despairing, I lifted my heart with a wordless prayer, like Nehemiah before the king, pleading for a bit of compassion on our plight.

It did not come immediately, nor in a way I could possibly have imagined. There were few houses in the village large enough to accommodate guests and I tried them all. Full. So sorry, if only you had come an hour ago. Have you tried the Rabbi? Sorry, we have no room, no room, no room. I found myself on the very edge of town looking at an unpromising house backed into the side of the hill. Out of options, I knocked and received the old refrain. For you and your wife? Sorry, there is not an inch of room. I turned away and heard the word I was hoping for. But... let me show you what I have. It might do.

I followed him around the back of the house, wondering if he expected me to climb the hill. Instead, there was a dark opening that he lighted with the lamp he carried. It was a low cave that recessed into the hillside. Straw covered the floor, and the man’s few livestock were already resting in their wooden stalls. He looked at me and shrugged. What else could I do? He left me the lamp and a flask of oil for when I returned with Mary. I went to break the news to her.

As I approached the street where I had left Mary, my heart was frozen by a sharp, piercing cry in the dark. Mary! I rushed to her and found her breathing hard and shaking. She looked up at me with a pained smile. “He is coming.” I don’t know how I got her on the donkey, nor how she managed to stay on through two more contractions. We reached the cave and I carried her in and made a nest with straw and sheepskins and our one blanket. She laughed when she saw our “room,” but then doubled over once again in agony.

In the synagogue, men pray in thanks to God that he did not create them as women, which I always thought uncharitable. That night I discovered the true reason to be grateful: men could never endure the anguish of childbirth. I could hardly bear watching. Again and again and again, seemingly with no end, Mary laboured. It is ironic that this suffering was decreed in the Garden right after God promised that the Seed of the woman would usher in Satan’s defeat. She is the bravest of souls who bears a child.

Between contractions, Mary held me close, breathing hard. How unusual this first intimacy between us! We wept together, we laughed when we could. I wiped the sweat off her face, which looked up at me with love and gratitude. And then her face would go blank with pain and it would happen all over again. This went on and on, deep into the night; the wait seemed interminable, though the women who came to visit later would comment that Mary was fortunate to have such short-term labour.

Then, with a convulsion that I thought must rip her in two, and with a cry that did the same to my heart, Mary pushed with all her strength, and I was there for her and felt the warmth of blood and the rushing of tiny head and arms and legs into my arms. I didn’t know what to do but thankfully he did, as he burst into a healthy and welcome cry. 

Something instinctive took over - I dealt with the cord that bound him to Mary, then laid him in her loving arms. She gazed at him and breathed the words spoken over her, words I had found unbelievable nine months before, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

A light flickered in the doorway and a woman’s voice asked if we needed anything. “Come and see,” I invited her. When she took in the sight of Mary with the baby in her arms, the blood and the mess, she was beside herself with excitement and practicality. In moments she had gathered up the afterbirth and soiled blanket, rushed out and returned with several more delighted women, bearing warm water and clean cloths and more blankets. 

I was made to get out of the way for a while. As I stepped back, bemused by the scene and wondering at the great peace I felt inside, I nearly stumbled over a small wooden box, roughly constructed, the neglected feeding manger of one of the animals. I cleaned it out as best I could, found some fresh straw to make a bed in it, and brought it to Mary. The women laughed, but took the box and made it comfortable with a sheepskin and blanket. They nestled the child there, who was now tightly wrapped in strips of cloth, and set him beside Mary. Then seeing her eyes close in exhaustion, the women whispered and tittered their way out of the cave.

We were alone again. No - never to be alone again. He would be the One who would never leave us or forsake us, who would be with us to the end of the age. But those realizations came slowly for Mary and me. For now, watching over my sleeping wife and gurgling adopted son, I was overwhelmed with love and joy and relief. He is not mine, the thought stirred in me; rather, I am his. All is well, in a cave that was meant for livestock, far, far from home.

I suppose I slept. I woke to the sound of new visitors, men’s voices this time. And such men as I normally would not want near my wife and son. I went to the entrance to confront them - shepherds, hired hands no less, ruffians - and they told me a tale that again seemed unbelievable but must be true, it was so strange. I invited them in and they gathered around Mary and the baby in the box. 

Mary stirred, saw us and gasped, but I quickly reassured her and told the tale. We shared something in common with these men - they too were visited by messengers of God. The amazing part was it would be this very manger and the borrowed strips of cloth that would tell the shepherds they were in the right place. Here they would find the Saviour who was born to them, who was the Messiah, the Lord. The heavenly messengers spoke of great glory to God and peace to the people of his favour.

These rough shepherds, of the type who were likely not welcome in the town, were melted and mesmerized by the sight of this baby in a feed box. They whispered their delight in the child, looked with affectionate eyes upon the mother, thumped my back in congratulation. I think they would have stayed the rest of the night had I not pointed out that Mary’s eyes were again closed in sleep. They tiptoed out of the cave, but once outside raised their voices in excitement, not caring who they woke at that late hour.

Of course, all their noise roused Mary again. I snuggled in close beside her for warmth and protection, and we gazed at the child, hearts full of wonder and joy. Mary put it well later that morning, that he could not have come in any better way.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Disciples In Lock-Down

Thomas glided along the darkest corners of the street as if he was another shadow. The homes and shops were quieter now. Since sundown, every courtyard and byway had buzzed with chattering neighbours. Now, all slunk away to their homes, repressed by a nameless apprehension. Dreadful deeds happened here yesterday. Their atmosphere hovered over the city like a miasma.

    He came to a gate in a stone wall and found it locked. Three times he knocked, then three again, and three again. If it had not been so silent, he would not have heard the servant girl as she asked his name. Satisfied with Thomas' reply, she unbolted the gate and bolted it again behind him. He knew the way, so she left him to climb the steps to the upper room where all were waiting.

    Thomas knocked again, three times three, but the response was much slower this time. Someone unlocked the door and dragged him inside before too much light escaped. The bolt clanged shut, and a post kept the door secure. "Easy, John," Thomas told the man. "No fear. I am not followed."

    John grunted his reply, "You take too much of a risk, all the same." Thomas shrugged off his concern. "Was it worth it? What did you find out?"

    "Let's join the others first. They will want to hear." Thomas followed John to where the lamps gave more light. Men sat or lounged in every corner of the room. Two at the table played some kind of game with sticks. They didn't laugh or call out, which made their game seem all the more earnest. Peter snored, mouth open wide. Most of the others sat and stared into dark corners of the room, lost in their thoughts.

    They are in pain, like me, Thomas thought. A little more than twenty-four hours it was, and we are all still at a loss. Here we hide in fear, and we jump at every knock on the door, as happened moments ago. Then fear subsides to numbness, and numbness to despair.

    The hardest part is that no one knows how long this will go on. Our wait already seems interminable. It would help if we knew exactly what we are waiting for. But no one knows. We wait, not knowing what will happen after this. It is hard to imagine the world going on after all that has occurred. These men can't take much more, but more is all we have.

    As Thomas walked into the lamplight, all the reposing forms came to life. Andrew slapped Peter on the shoulder, who gasped awake with a cry. The men made room for Thomas and crowded in close to hear his news. "Tell us, Thomas," Peter took the lead. "What is happening out there? What have you heard?"

    For a moment, Thomas enjoyed the attention, but the gravity of his news ruined the novelty. "There is much talk," he began finally. "Too much. My head spins with it. Most that I heard was mere speculation, not worth repeating. Someone has torn the veil in the temple. People are walking the streets who should be dead. I saw one, surrounded by a small crowd who demanded to know how it happened. The poor fellow blustered to the point that he might have wished he was back in his quiet tomb."

    Thomas surveyed the faces around him. This was news, but not the news they sought. He wondered where to take them from here. "There is much discussion about the darkness and the earthquake..." Andrew looked as if he was about to explode, so Thomas stopped. "What do you want to know?"

    Everyone burst out at once. Thomas sat back, no longer glad to be the centre of attention. It took some heated words before James and John intimidated the last of them into silence. When the storm subsided, they all turned to Peter.

    "Thomas, what do they say about us? Are the authorities looking for Jesus' disciples? Are we in danger still?" Peter's eyes betrayed his fear. They were all afraid. Did Jesus not say that whatever happened to him would also happen to his disciples? If they hate me, he told them often, they will hate you. To follow him has turned out to be a death wish.

    "Yes, we are in danger. Everyone was asking if anyone has seen us, or if the temple guard has captured us. Yes, they seek us still."

    There was silence in the room for some time. Each man wrestled with the implications of their long-ago decision to follow Jesus. They were so confident he was the Messiah who would redeem Israel and set her free. All their hopes were set on being right there when Jesus set up his kingdom. Each had imagined his place in it: the wealth, the authority, the recognition. 

    Yesterday dashed all expectations as their Master hung on a Roman cross. His disciples had watched from a discreet distance. All except John and some of the women, who had the audacity to mingle with the mocking throng.

    Peter sighed, deflated. "What more, Thomas?"

    Startled out of his own reflections, Thomas stammered, "Um, they have... they have set a guard, at the tomb."

    This surprised everyone. "Why?" John countered. "Why at the tomb?"

    "They think..." Thomas glanced around, unsure of how they would take this. "They think... we plan to steal the body."

    There was a moment's stunned silence, then they all broke into laughter. It felt good, having something to laugh about. "What do they imagine we will do with his body? Hide it in another tomb?" The disciples ridiculed the notion. "As if we can return life to his body! Who would believe us if we said he has risen from the dead, but sorry, we can't let you see him?" They were overloud in their enjoyment of the absurdity. It took John's booming voice and large frame to settle them down again. 

    When they were all still, they looked at him expectantly. "Tell us, John," Peter pleaded. "You were close in all his councils. You remember Jesus' words. Is everything lost? Is this the end? What are we to do?"

John took his time in answering. His voice was low but confident. "I do remember. He told us, only days ago, as much as it feels like an eternity." He looked at each of the men in turn. "First, he told us not to be afraid. How are we doing with that, hiding out here like children in mischief? 'Do not let your hearts be troubled.' Is this not what he told us?" The disciples glanced at one another, abashed at first. But there were glints of courage as they remembered Jesus' words.

    "Then, he told us he was going away. True, he left us not in any way we could have imagined. But it should be no surprise to us. 'In this world, there will be trouble," he warned us. We should not be so alarmed or feel that the world has come to an end. It is only up-ended!" Voices murmured agreement. This is what Jesus promised.

    "But he also said he would not forsake us. 'I will not leave you as orphans,' Jesus promised. 'I will come to you.' Here we sit like waifs, abandoned in the street, without hope and without a future. Not so. He has gone from us, but his work is not done. Did he not tell us? 'Greater things than these you will do.' Is that not why he went to the Father?" Heads nodded. "Did he not send us, as his Father sent him? My friends, I do not believe he is finished with us!" The tone in the room was changing. "We are not in a cage; this is a waiting room. Something… no, Someone is coming."

    "You have not answered my question, John," Peter reminded him. "What are we to do?"

    "We wait!" John's voice was quiet. "We wait on Jesus alone; all our expectation is from him. God has not yet written the final chapter. We watch and pray, as he told us. I cannot believe we will wait long."

Many spoke up then, spirits lifted by John's words. Courage welled up with memories of everything Jesus taught them. Thomas was glad for their enthusiasm, but he was uncertain and restless and had to return to the streets. Nathaniel followed to bolt the door and gate after him. "You will be careful, Thomas? Take no risks! Jesus will come to us!"

    Thomas snorted as he slipped out into the night. "Seeing is believing!"

Friday, April 10, 2020

John Mark

I am furious. My father must be the most maddening man in Jerusalem. Our servant Rhoda had an unfortunate accident on the stairs to the banquet room on our roof. She injured her ankle, yes, but I did not think it severe enough that she should refuse to fetch the water for our noon meal.
Rhoda has managed to intimidate me most of my life with her superior grasp of almost every topic. She may also be aware that I am attracted to her. So Rhoda was as surprised as I when I reprimanded her. She glared at me and opened her mouth to make a sharp reply, but then put her apron over her face and burst into tears. It was pure bad luck that my father happened to walk into the room that very moment.
Rhoda shook her head when he asked what the matter was, yet she had no choice but to answer him. My father looked at me as if I was a slave myself, or a mere worm, then held out the water jar to me. I was mortified. He could not ask this of me. If I was a boy, it might not be so shameful a thing to carry a water jar through the streets of the city. But I am a man, son and apprentice to my father. I may as well run naked as carry a jug on my shoulder like some slave girl.
I suffer the stare of every person I pass on the street, most of whom I have known all my life. The children are the worst, following at my heels and plucking at my cloak. It is only half a Sabbath's walk to the nearest well. It feels like my ancestors' forty years in the wilderness. I try to pretend I am invisible as I draw water alongside the women, who laugh with their hands over their mouths. It does not help. I place the jar on my shoulder and turn for home.
Ahead of me are two young men who make no effort to hide their stares. They seem familiar. What do they want of me as they look me in the eye and confer together? I hope they do not want to fight me, teaching me a lesson for my unmanly deeds with the water jar. I pass by near to them and cannot meet their gaze. They lay no hand on me, but I can tell they are following close behind. I walk faster, they walk faster. How will this end?
I reach the gate of our house, pass through and slam it closed behind me. Safe. I breathe a sigh of relief and set down the jar. And then there is a knock at the gate. I do not move. The knock comes again, louder, and Rhoda limps out of the inner courtyard to answer. "Rhoda! No, don't…" She scowls at me, remembering my previous offense, and opens the gate.
The two men see me standing behind Rhoda, but they give their attention to her. "The Rabbi asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?" I immediately remember where I had seen them before.
My mother is fascinated with a young rabbi named Yeshua, to the great consternation of my father. She is an independent woman, my mother, carrying on almost as lucrative a business as my father. She is the reason we can maintain our large home, which features a banquet hall as an added second level. This is where we entertain guests of prominence and status. But for some time now, she has lost all interest in business and entertainment. She leaves home for days at a time to hear this rabbi and offer him gifts of food and drink.
She tried to bring him to our home once. He stood at the gate, with his several disciples behind him, but my father refused his admittance. I am now sure these men at our door are part of the entourage of Yeshua. Like my mother, they have left all responsibility to follow him. How dare they come here? Rhoda seems to think the same thing as she stares at them without speaking. I am happy they seem to have lost all interest in me. I am about to send them off when Rhoda invites them inside while she informs her master.
They enter, and the three of us stand there, not speaking. I realize they are only a few years older than I, but they are dusty, ragged. Homeless, they follow their rabbi wherever the wind takes them, sleeping out of doors if no one will take them in. Their cloaks smell of sheep, their feet are filthy. They eye me warily. My father will send them packing, I have no doubt.
But he doesn't. To my surprise, he asks them questions. How many are they? Do they have wine? From where? No, no, you can't have that for Passover. I can't believe my ears. He is welcoming them into his home. Not only that, but he is giving them the banquet room, which I am pretty sure is already set for our family. Our Passover. This is ludicrous! What has got into him?
I turn and see my mother standing just out of sight of our new guests. I know this look on her face. As I said, my father is vexatious much of the time. But she loves him. She looks at him as if she could not be prouder to have such a husband. Still, she must have hounded him to bring about this miraculous conversion. I know my father. He is offering his home to these disciples of Yeshua through gritted teeth.
Yet there is no sign of reluctance as he ushers them up the stairs to show them the room. It is long and narrow, and its main feature is a long, low table with many sumptuous cushions strewn around. The table is set with plates and goblets of all one design, resting on colorful tapestry draped across its length. I can hardly remember the years before we celebrated Passover in this room as a family. Not this year.
It is all arranged. The men leave for the market to gather everything they need. My father closes the gate and turns to his wife, hands raised in resignation. She runs into his arms and embraces him while I turn away, embarrassed and angry. Rhoda has such a curious look on her face, staring at the gate. She shuffles up the stairs to make sure everything is in order, though she knows the room upstairs is already arranged to perfection.
The men soon return, laden with platters purchased from the market. Flatbreads and herbs. Apples and nuts. A basket of eggs. Flagons of wine. The herbed lamb is still steaming and makes my mouth water. My mother and Rhoda correct the disciples' errors as they place the elements of the Passover on the table. They often run down the stairs to add or replace some item as I watch in silence from a dark corner. When the women are satisfied that the table can hold no more, we leave the men there to await their rabbi.
It is early evening when they arrive. The disciples are loud, jostling, excited for the feast. Though Rhoda has taken pains to provide basins and ample water and towels, they ignore it all, sparring with one another as they ascend the stairs. Their master goes up last, to my surprise. He does not seem perturbed by his followers' crude behavior; instead, he looks deep in thought. He looks up and smiles at Rhoda and me as he passes by, and it is like the last bit of sunlight escaping before it sets behind the horizon.
We celebrate our own Passover at the table in the kitchen, much like my family must have done before our current prosperity. I find I do not mind; the table upstairs always seemed too large for us, no matter what relatives happened to join us. Tonight it is only the three of us, and they invite even Rhoda to sit at the table once everything is in place. My father murmurs the words of the Passover. Most of the time, it is his Roman blood that courses through his veins, but on this night, he is thoroughly Jewish. I ask the required questions with no prompting needed. We remember the blood on the doorpost many centuries ago, when we came out from among the nations and became a people devoted to God.
I am so full of lamb, I don't want to move. But it is too warm in the kitchen. I go to my favorite seat near the front gate, where the evening breeze finds its way into the courtyard. The sky is clear and full of stars. I pick out the familiar constellations with contented pleasure. I have much to be thankful for on this dark Passover night.
There are footsteps on the stairs, and I realize the rabbi and his men are still up there. It is an extended feast indeed, as it is getting quite late. One of his disciples passes by me so close, I can feel the wind of his cloak. But then he sees me and pauses. My blood runs cold. The eyes that gaze at me are not the eyes of a man, but of a hungry demon. In a moment frozen in time, I despair and lose all hope, casting myself into the void forever. Then he releases me, opens the gate and leaves. I am shaking, appalled at the dark thoughts that assailed my mind.
It is quiet at the top of the stairs. What makes their celebration so late? I creep silently up the passage. Rabbi Yeshua is speaking, but I cannot make out his words. There is a long pause, and I glance around the corner into the room. The men are passing something around the table. It is a cup, because each one puts it to his lips and then passes it on. I know of no such custom and wonder if it is some Galilean twist on the feast. Then the men break into song and make to leave. I stumble down to my seat by the gate. As they file out behind their rabbi, the men banter about a certain garden where they might spend the night. I am not familiar with the place.
The image of the demon's face is still etched on my mind. I decide it is time for bed and the forgetfulness of sleep. The small acts of undressing and readying myself are a burden. As I lay down, my body is so ponderous it is a wonder the bed can hold me. I pass into a deep slumber.
Voices and a pounding at the gate. What is it? Can they find no place to stay, and so they are returning to the graces of my father's house? Why is no one going to the gate? I clamber out of bed. I am wearing nothing but a thin linen garment, but they are men like myself, so I am not concerned enough to get dressed. They are making a good deal of noise on the other side of the gate. Our neighbors will not be happy.
I open the gate and stand in amazement. It is not a school of disciples but an angry mob at our doorstep. They carry torches and clubs, and I see the glint of swords among them. My first thought is to slam the gate shut. But their leader, dressed as a temple guard, perceives my intention and thrusts himself forward. "The Rabbi! He is here in this house, is he not? Get him for us, or we will get him ourselves!"
My mind is reeling with sleep and astonishment. "He is not here!" I blurt out. "They left, I am not sure how long ago."
The captain shoves his torch in my face. "Where? Where did they go?"
"A garden! I do not know where it is, but they may intend to spend the night."
He stares at me as if to devour me, doubting my words. Another man steps forward, and I am amazed to see it is the demon-man, the disciple who came down the stairs alone. "I know the place. Gethsemene. We have stayed there before. Come! There will be no one else there this time of night. We have him!" I watch as they light up the dark street with their torches until they turn a corner and are gone.
What have I done! I have no love for this rabbi and his followers, but neither should I have given them away to this armed throng! I have not a moment to hesitate. Slamming the gate behind me, I give chase to their last flicker of torchlight. If only I can get ahead of them and warn the disciples of this threat to their Master!
But I do not know the way. I cannot get ahead of them without being seen. A chill wind blows right through my thin covering, yet I am covered in a cold sweat. My limbs will not obey me, and I get further behind the harder I try to keep up. I will not get there in time, I cannot get there in time. I have condemned this man to a merciless crowd.
At the edge of town, the torches weave their way through a large grove of olive trees and up a slight slope. Ahead is a clearing, and their lights form a half-circle. I crouch behind a nearby bush and watch helplessly.
At first, their interaction seems friendly enough. The demon-man approaches the Rabbi, kisses him and, with head bowed, listens to his master's welcome. The Rabbi Yeshua looks around at the crowd and approaches them, and to my great wonder, they step back. Some fall to the ground. But a few men rush forward with an angry shout and seize him by the arms.
Most of his disciples back away, some looking for a way of escape. One raises a sword and attacks a man dressed as a temple servant. I am sure he has killed him, and I look away. But when I look back again, I see the man is only injured. The Rabbi rebukes his disciple and touches the victim's head. I hear the man shout, and those around him point and stare.
In the meantime, they drag away the Rabbi Yeshua, none too gently. Others are trying to seize his disciples—to no avail, as they are quick with terror and several are armed. The chase is moving in my direction, and I realize their torchlight could find me behind this bush. I get ready to run when one large fellow spots me. Time stands still.
I will not forget his eyes. Rage and indignation are burning there that could not be about me. No one has ever looked at me this way. This is no rascal out seeking trouble. This is a man engulfed in righteous anger, and I am the offender. He is compelled by national pride, religious conviction, moral outrage. I am the rebel he must subdue.
He charges at me with a roar. At the last possible moment, the terror that paralyzes me is overcome by some other instinct. As he grabs at my shoulder, I twist and back away. My linen gown comes up over my head. I turn and flee for my life. When I dare look back, he does not give chase but is left looking foolishly at my sleepwear in his hand.
It isn't until I burst from the grove of olive trees that I remember I am entirely naked. There are many streets between here and home, and even at this late hour, they are not wholly deserted. I stop in the shadow provided by the corner of a building, heart pounding. There is nothing, not one thing in sight to cover my shame. Neither the shame of my body nor the shame of my part in the arrest of an innocent Rabbi.
I have had dreams like this before. I am in some familiar place—the market, the synagogue, my own home—and find myself naked. Men stare and mock me. Women scream and cover their eyes. Rhoda shrieks at me. Youths chase me (I never know what they will do if they catch me). And I can never find anything to cover myself. The humiliation is overwhelming.
But reality far surpasses the nightmare.
With great difficulty and without detection (I think), I maneuver within the length of one street from my front door. But my home may as well be on the moon. My father has often complained about the noise on our street at night. No one listens to him because his own gatherings in our upper room are often much louder. Our street is a favorite place of gathering for the secular element of our city. Foreigners. Prostitutes. People who have given up trying to attain the expectations of the religious elite. People call them "the sinners."
There are twenty or thirty of them sitting around a fire because the night (how I know it!) is bitter. But they want to remain outside. Or they are not welcome inside. I cannot get to our front gate without passing in full sight of them all. I am one part vexed at them and three parts terrified of them. I have no idea what they will do.
I wait, hoping against hope that they will give off their drinking and lewd joking. But in a short time, I am shaking from the cold and overwhelmed with apprehension. As if my body is not my own, I step out from the shadows and walk in full view down the center of the street.
The reaction is a sudden silence that is pregnant with astonishment, giving birth to raucous laughter. "Yow, look at him!" "Come over here, my man! Get to know us better!" "Hey, did she steal your heart or only your clothes?" And many other things worse than that—I will not put them down on parchment. I stride as if time has slowed to the pace of an ox, like I am walking through deep water. My front gate was never so far away, nor so welcome to my grasp.
I pass inside and slip into my room, grateful that the household sleeps soundly. Cold no longer, flushed with embarrassment, I cast myself on my bed and weep in consternation and ignominy. I can never step outside my door again. A small part of me reaches past my self-consciousness and remembers the sight of the Rabbi jostled by the armed and angry mob. My shame engulfs me, and I remember no more until I hear the morning movements of my household.
My consciousness returns like a conversation that I left for a moment and then re-entered. Humiliation wraps itself about me like nothing else had last night. I realize with a shock that I am still naked, but someone has thrown a blanket over me in the night. Who? That question overshadows any gratefulness that my shame was covered. Whether it was my father (quite unlikely) or Rhoda (heaven forbid!), my nakedness is known. Never mind stepping outside my door again—I cannot leave even my bed.
Hunger overrules my wounded dignity. I dress and go out to the kitchen. Rhoda is there, but she does not greet me or even look up at me. She has been weeping. Tears course unchecked down her face, and she sniffs loudly. Rhoda must have seen me naked on the bed! I feel naked still, and the blood rushes to my face. She places food in front of me without comment; her hot teardrop falls on my hand. I must say something. "Rhoda, I…"
"They have crucified him," she intones. She sets her bowl on the table and rushes from the room.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Washer

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Where does Jesus begin? The famous painting of this scene doesn't help us. Leonardo didn't know that people did not sit on chairs in that day. They reclined on one elbow, feet out, to form a fan shape around the table. John has only to lean back against Jesus' chest to ask his question. We can guess that his brother James lies on the other side, since they share the dream of becoming Jesus' right and left hand men.
James remembers the words of John the Baptizer, the greatest man to walk the earth, that even he was not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals. And now Jesus is untying his. It takes a long time, fumbling with the knots. Finally, Jesus slips James' feet into the cool water and looks up at him with deep compassion. You, my friend, will be the first of these to follow me to heaven. But when Herod's sword parts your flesh, I will be with you. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Jesus dries his feet with care.
Another man of ambition, Simon the Zealot, is perplexed as he watches the hands of his Hero scrubbing his feet. He appreciates the radical nature of Jesus' demonstration - he loves that about him - but struggles to understand what it means. What is he waiting for? More than once, crowds of thousands were ready to crown him, and Jesus walked away from the opportunity. Simon's king works hard at the dirt under his toenails. These hands say, trust me. I will wash all the hatred from your heart. Then you will rush out upon the Roman hoards and free them from their gods, their pride, their slavery - and lose your life for my gospel. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end.
It is Matthew who reclines beside Simon at the table. Lately, they have struck an odd friendship, despite their political differences. Matthew has always been a little self-conscious of his feet; they are very ticklish, and somehow Jesus knows this. Matthew squirms, and Jesus concentrates on his ankles, which are not ticklish but will one day be scarred by iron bands in a foreign prison. I would not wish those bands away for you, my friend, his hands assure him. They will remove the last of your fears until nothing on earth is of any value to you, only the stuff of heaven. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end.
Nathanael is conflicted as he realizes that Jesus will be at his feet next. Who is this man? Nazarene or Son of God? Servant or Master? He sighs. Jesus glances up, bemused, and keeps him guessing. Who am I? There is no more important question in all creation, and the answer is like a chest of gold hidden in a field. Seek me, push aside the dirt, put your back into it as you dig. As they chase you from house to house, you will know that what you have found is worth leaving all, selling all, putting all your eggs in this one basket. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Give me your other foot.
His friend Philip watches the wordless interaction and guesses at what it might mean. This is a difficult parable indeed, and he hopes for one of those rare explanations from his Rabbi. He wonders once again why Jesus sought him out that day, among all the young good-for-nothings loitering in town. Jesus takes Philip's feet in his hands and holds them for a while. He appears to be in prayer, mouthing words Philip cannot hear and could not understand anyway. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Jesus rises to dump the basin and refill it with fresh water from the jar in the corner. Which is what he is doing with me, Philip's eyes say as they watch him.
Andrew is distracted by his brother Peter's obvious discomfort on the other side of him. Wait your turn, man. I don't always live in your shadow. See how Jesus takes my callused feet, looks at me as if to say, when did you last wash these? The Teacher is teaching something, and I don't get it either, but have patience! I would follow him anywhere. Jesus stops and traces a spot on the top of each of his feet. Andrew feels a spasm of pain as if his feet are driven to a post. Yes, even there, Jesus, I will follow you. My heart is not troubled. You have loved me to the end.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." Do not let your heart be troubled, Peter. I have loved you to the end.
Thomas is a private person, and not happy to have anyone - even Jesus - touch his feet. He plunges his feet into the basin like a man throwing himself in front of a cart. He splashes both Peter and Jesus. They all laugh, Peter a little wryly, and Thomas relaxes into Jesus' capable hands. You will travel far on these feet, my friend, to a land you have only heard about, a land with more gods than people to worship them. You will be a small lamp in a world of darkness, a darkness that will pierce your soul. But do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. I will go there with you, and there I will stay.
James the Smaller, Little James, not a Son of Thunder but more inclined to quiet meditation, is not overlooked by Jesus. The friendship between them is evident, and with him, Jesus is gentle but intentional. James grows in stature by the very presence of his Master. I am a bruised reed, and you have not broken me. I am a smoldering wick, but you have never smothered me. I believe in you, Jesus, because you first believed in me, which was the kind of love I needed most. I wish that I could dare ask to wash your feet, as you have mine, but I know my place and cannot match your servitude. My heart is untroubled. You have loved me to the end.
I should have sat next to the Zealot, Jude muses. The suspense is killing me. What is that smell? My namesake beside me is sweating like a horse and shaking. He smells like fear, the strange little man; I have never understood him. Jesus seeks Jude's attention, finds it and loses it again. He hums a tuneless melody as he works on his feet, and Jude listens, drawn to the sound. It is not flattery to call you one of my sheep, the melody says. Hear my voice, know my voice, follow no other, seek no other, worship no other. Jude is focused now, as if memorizing Jesus' face, his melody, his presence. Do not let your heart be troubled, because I have loved you to the end. Don't forget.
The distress of Judas is apparent to those near him. He trembles as the basin is set in front of him, and Jesus waits, looking troubled himself. As he takes Judas' feet in his hands, Jesus begins to weep, his shoulders heaving and tears falling into the basin. Judas stops trembling and pulls his feet from Jesus' grasp, tucking them still wet under his cloak. There is an appeal in Jesus' face that rips Judas apart and assaults his resolve. But Judas' heart remains frozen, cold and hard as the thirty pieces of silver in his pouch. Fear turns to anger as bitter as myrrh. Jesus sighs. I know why your heart is troubled, Judas. I have loved you to the end. I will miss you always.
I know why you choose to be beside me this evening, John, the disciple whom I love. The water swirls around John's feet. Jesus takes his time. You will find it hardest tomorrow when you see me suspended between earth and heaven, and watch my life-giving blood flow down for you. I want you to grow to be an old man, John. Your children will be as the stars in the sky, and you will be a father to sons and daughters from every nation. You have heard me, you have seen me with your eyes, you have looked upon me and touched me with your hands. You will tell of me, again and again and again, long after your days. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. I am love.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.