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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Beautifully written. So enjoyed it.