As you most likely know by now, if you’ve been reading these posts, my friendship with Jesus began as a child of five when I invited Him to join me and my “imaginary” friends Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktif – little old British ladies in floral print dresses and flower-strewn hats – around our tea table at four every afternoon. Further, that while I don’t remember our conversations in detail, I do remember vividly the personality of The Man who sat across the table from me for days on end, and how close we became as we grew into true and devoted friends; close enough, in fact, that ever since those early days, I have been very protective of those teachings He gave to me back then, especially when it seemed that what I knew to be His active, merciful and generous loving-kindness toward every human being was so often denied by the those who professed to be His agents in the pews and pulpits around me.
I feared then, and still do, that by keeping the story of my friend Jesus epoxied to the institution of organized religion as it has been for all these two millennia, the political/bureaucratic nature of such established power structures would inevitably put a drag on the possibilities of Christly inspiration and association one to the other – Uncle Jesus to each and every one of His individual nieces and nephews without fault or favor. And so, when I took a few months off toward the end of 1996 to take a good look and analyze where I was in my life at the age of 46 and write up a plan for how best to utilize whatever remaining years I had, the very first self-imposed assignment on my list was to retell the story of my friend Jesus in a more accessible way, to write a work of historical fiction that would entertain as well as relate; would transport the reader straight back to those days around the Sea of Galilee where s/he might stand with the multitudes, might listen to His words ring out over the hills and watch His miracles unfold.
In the twenty years since, even as I checked off several other items on my list of hoped for accomplishments, I have pondered this project from every angle and I even finished one manuscript several years ago only to discover that it truly didn’t work in anything like the way I had hoped, at which point I tossed it out and went back to the drawing board to start over from scratch.
So, I have to tell you that I am overjoyed as I write these introductory words because, at long last, my retelling of “the greatest story on earth,” or, rather, my relating of the story as John ben Elijah Mark might have told it, is about to begin in earnest. Also, note that what I am posting here on the blog is only the heart of the novel, the nutmeat within the shell, i.e., a transcription of the original scrolls for “A Boy’s Tale” secreted by John Mark himself, as an old man, deep in a Maltese cave only to languish there for nearly two millennia before finally being discovered in 2014 by a Birmingham-Southern College geology professor who stumbles across the dusty chest while chaperoning a group of students on a Mediterranean study adventure.
I will be posting one chapter per week on Saturdays, beginning with Chapter One here and now, (with links to previous chapters attached to each new post to help those who may have missed anything go back and fill in the gaps). You will note that this first chapter is quite short – almost an “amuse-bouche,” if you will – but those which will follow in the weeks ahead are more traditional in length. I sincerely hope you will enjoy these pages which have been, for me, a labor of love and answer to a calling, undertaken eagerly and fully to honor my generous teatime Friend of long ago and lift up all His many gifts in the best way I can.
About A Boy’s Tale
To my mind, one of history’s – especially Christian history’s – most under-appreciated personalities is Mark the Evangelist. Oh, we’ve heard of him well enough, but only as the author of the Gospel bearing his name. The Book of Mark first surfaces around 68 AD and is widely recognized as the primary source material for all three “Synoptic Gospels,” (also including Matthew and Luke, both of which actually repeat many of the same words), but for most of us, that is about as far as it goes.
There are, of course, many discrepancies in the records of those early days of the Christian church, but that said, it does seem that Mark the Evangelist, or John Mark, as he has also traditionally been known, was the Forrest Gump of his times. Just the accepted “known” facts of his life place him with St. Paul in Antioch and the Apostle Peter both in Jerusalem in the earliest years of the faith and much later in Rome – where they wrote the Gospel of Mark together – just before Peter’s crucifixion. In the intervening years – for the better part of Mark’s adult life – he proclaimed the good news of Jesus’s life and resurrection in Alexandria as the founder of the Egyptian branch of Christianity – the Coptic church – which reveres him to this day as the first Bishop of Alexandria and first Pope of the Copts. Indeed, he was so successful in his evangelization that his martyrdom, the story goes, came not at the hands of the Romans, but rather at the hands of the Egyptian priests to Amun, whose dusty animism was being undermined by the success of Mark’s vibrant new faith. They unceremoniously tied a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets two days running until it killed him. But even then, Mark hardly kept still: in 828 AD his remains (except for his head) were stolen from Egypt (by then under Muslim rule) by two merchants of Venice, who took them home to the City of Canals where they have remained ever since, ultimately being re-interred, in the 11th Century, under the great church dedicated to his memory, the Basilica of San Marco (though his head, it is said, remains to this day in a crypt in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria).
But, that’s just the well-settled part of his story. Many other conjectures abound in the literature – both official and apocryphal – about his life as a boy, including tales that it was he who brought forth the basket of loaves and fishes with which Jesus fed the five thousand, that he was that “lad in a linen sheet” who mysteriously appears in the narrative of the Gospel of Mark (notably) just as Jesus is arrested, and even that it was in his house – and of course that of his parents, Mary and Elijah Mark – where the Upper Room of Christ’s Last Supper with His Apostles was served, where the forlorn Apostles had gathered and were first visited by the risen Christ, and where a majority of the earliest Christian believers were assembled a few days later when the “miracle of Pentecost” occurred. In other words, it would appear at least possible that John Mark, though only a boy in his teens, was an actual eye-witness to almost all of the most pivotal moments in the ministry of Jesus, and as one so young and open to new possibilities, would surely have absorbed the lessons and actions of his Teacher more purely and simply than even the Apostles, each of whom, after all, was already a fully-formed and opinionated adult by the time he was called to follow Christ.
How wonderful it would be if John Mark had left a written record of his youthful adventure, had chronicled his impressions and kept a journal of those teaching tours with Jesus! Well, who knows? Perhaps he did. Perhaps he did leave a sealed box full of scrolls in that cave on the southern cliffs of Malta. Perhaps this, then, is the story of Jesus and the Apostles as John Mark actually lived it in his youth, but was not able to fully tell until his waning years when, at last, he had enough time to set the story down, to finally and forever fill in the blanks and complete the picture as only he – with the help of his well-traveled, worn and tattered journals – could do.
A BOY’S TALE
Part I: The Wedding
“We have to go to Cana,” my mother said, as she pushed her needle trailing rose-red thread through a new piece of fine-spun linen.
In the scheme of things, it was not something you would expect to remember after a lifetime, but I do. I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by my animals and intent on working out the best way to load them onto the ark, but my ears perked up when my father countered with a low, slow, skeptical, “Why?”
Parental talk of any importance was almost always held out of my hearing, though I had noticed an easing since I had turned thirteen – the magic age.
“Well,” she extended the word as long as she dared, “we have been invited to a wedding.”
“Who?” he huffed, still skeptical, still not looking up.
“It’s Cousin Naomi, Abner’s daughter – you know, the one who sings. She’s marrying Johab, trader Nathan’s boy – a good match, I think, and it is sure to be grand – they’ve invited more than two hundred of the very best people in Galilee – we really must go!” She said it all in a single breath to prevent his interrupting.
“Too far to go for a wedding,” he said flatly, expecting that to be that. Most times, it would have been, but not that time. Much to my delight, Mama persisted.
I loved adventures, and going to Galilee – a five-day journey from Jerusalem – was one of my favorites. When Mama’s parents were still alive, we had made frequent trips to Capernaum to see them, but it had been more than two years since our last visit – to bury my grandmother – and already my mind was awash with possibilities. Galilee was the birthplace, I thought, of happy memories.
“That’s true, it is a ways,” Mama started in again as she added another stitch, “but, husband, it’s not really the wedding.” She looked up at him. “It’s Simon and Andrew.”
“Simon and Andrew?” he barked, annoyed but still not stirring from his shop accounts. “What now?”
“I think the elephants should go first,” she said, turning to me. “If you start with the biggest ones and end with the smallest, they won’t be as likely to eat each other.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If I do that, the lions would eat the hippos from behind. I think Noah would have put the lions in front, then the elephants…”
“Mary Mark,” another bark. “What about Simon and Andrew?” Papa finally looked up, demanding a response.
“Well, it seems they have gotten themselves into some sort of something,” she said, turning back to her sewing, “Naomi sent word that they have joined up with some crazy religious thing, but I find that hard to believe. Not those two. Andrew, maybe, with his mind always three steps ahead of his feet, but Simon? I don’t think so. Not with those three little ones and, now, his mother-in-law, too?”
“Which makes it no wonder,” Papa said, finally smiling, “that he’s found an excuse to get out of the house! And, what do you imagine you could do about it even if they have joined some silly group? There are prophets everywhere you look these days. The streets are full of them. Why, just this morning some fellow at the Temple gates was proclaiming himself Daniel reborn. Don’t worry Mary, your brothers are no fools. You know that. They’ll be fine.”
“Elijah, they are my brothers, my little brothers, and now that Daddy’s gone, it’s up to me to make sure they are alright. You know I promised him. This wedding is a Godsend. It’s less than a day’s walk from Capernaum and it will give us a good reason to go to Galilee without letting on that I’m concerned.” She said it with an air of finality.
“John!” Now Papa snapped at me. “Put those things away before anybody sees them. You know perfectly well the rabbi would boot you right out of school. You’re too old to play with toys, anyway. You are a man now. Be one!”
“They are not toys, Papa, they are sculptures,” I threw back at him, a little hurt since he had never complained about them before – he had even admired them – and his harsh tone rankled. I would have said even more but Mama flashed me a look, so I held my peace and began picking them up.
“Well, Elijah?” Mama stopped stitching to stare at him.
He held her in suspense for as long as he dared before he raised his head, let out an audible sigh, and asked, “When is this wedding?”
“Four weeks from today,” she said, leaking the least little bit of a smile as she stabbed the cloth with her needle, set it aside, and stood. “So I had better get started.” Then, sealing her victory with two quick swipes of her apron, she went to tend to dinner.
And suddenly, utterly, my world was upturned without even so much as a wisp.
The next three weeks were thick with preparations and, in what seemed like no time at all, it was time to go. Most of our trips to Galilee had been in summer, but since the wedding feast was set for late February (a choice that I found hard to fathom), some adjustments to our routine were required. Among other things, it meant taking an extra donkey to bear the added bulk of cold-weather necessities.
Packing for the trip was simple enough – we were experienced travelers – it was everything else that took time: sending word ahead to friends and relatives where we planned to stay over, ensuring the welfare of the shop, finding a diplomatic way to delay my upper-level course in the study halls of the Temple (a coveted appointment not easily gained, and one I could only pray would await my return), preparing the appropriate wedding offerings, choosing gifts for our hosts along the way, and seeing to the thousand other little details attending such a long, complex journey. In all, we expected to be away for nearly a month.
I wanted to take the best of my animals along to show my friend Legolas, but when that was overruled by my mother, I carefully stowed them to safely await my return. Over the course of several years I had managed to craft more than eighty pairs, male and female, out of the tablet clay Papa stocked in the shop – everything from crickets to peacocks to those elephants (with real ivory tusks formed from a broken stylus Papa had discarded). I was very proud of my collection and fully expected, as I pushed them as far back under my bed as I could, that more would be added upon my return. Dragonflies with mica wings, I had already decided, would be my next triumph.
The last few days before we left were the most hectic, especially for Mama, who baked all the breads and packed all the food. And, because we were blessed to live in Jerusalem, there was also shopping to do for the relatives and it seemed they had all submitted requests. Papa said if it didn’t stop we would have to hire another donkey to carry it all, but we managed, in the end, to make do with the two.
It was on a Wednesday, one week to the day before the much anticipated wedding, when we waved goodbye to Aaron, Papa’s shop manager, and were finally on our way. The sun was already high in the sky, and I was well past ready to leave.
The day’s walk, 126 Roman stadia to Bethel, our first overnight stop, was a comparatively short one. We could hope to make about 180 to 200 stadia on a good day if we left early enough and the weather was favorable, so the hilly road leading us north out of Jerusalem was merely a warm-up for longer days to come.
It was a route we knew well from years of practice. The second day, from Bethel to Sychar, presented the most intense challenge – an endless trudge up rocky hills with cliffs rising up on one side and deep, forbidding canyons on the other. But, that only served to make the third day seem like a stroll, as it was all downhill from the top of Mount Gilboa to the town of Jezreel on the edge of the Megiddo Plain. Once there, we would spend two nights, including the Sabbath, with Great Aunt Tabaitha before ultimately – following another day’s walk – reaching Aunt Martha’s house in Nazareth on Sunday.
This plan allowed for a full day of recuperation and would give us time to take care of any last-minute wedding preparations before going the short distance to Cana on Tuesday. The festivities were to start at the traditional time, Wednesday noon, and continue for a full week. Since all of Mama’s family had been invited, we were looking forward as much to the extended family reunion as to the ceremony, itself.
The air was cold, but the sun was warm and we were loosening our cloaks even before we reached the Damascus Gate, the main portal both for those going north, as we were, and those going west to the seaport at Joppa. Even in mid-winter, the road was heavily traveled, so once the city wall was behind us, we dutifully took our place in line for the first hour or so until the congestion eased. The oxcarts ahead of us seemed to move, oh, so slowly, and we took advantage of the lull to talk through our plans once more and satisfy ourselves that we had left nothing behind.
Eventually, the bulk of the traffic, headed for the coast, turned off to the left and we were able to quicken our pace to a good rhythm. We were truly on our way at last, and there was nothing more to be done but walk, anticipate the joys ahead, and relish our time together.
As the hours passed, we saw fewer and fewer travelers, and just as we were getting comfortable with the idea of having the road more or less to ourselves, we began to hear something or, more accurately, to sense something that gave us pause. It was a low-pitched tremulation that was there, and yet not; an almost inaudible sound. It seemed to be coming up from the ground, and at first we thought it was the beginning rumblings of an angry earth. More felt than heard, it made the newly sprouted hair on my arms stand straight up, but as we saw no reason to hold up, we continued on.
The unsettling effect remained constant for some time so that we came to dismiss our concerns about a quaking, but it did not abate and, little by little – as the murmur grew to a grumble grew to a roar – at last we began to understand. It was an army, it was on the march, and it was coming toward us! Faintly, at first, we began to discern the beats: drum drum, drum. Drum drum, drum.
We were astonished. We could think of no reason for an army to be coming our way, but there could be no doubt about what we were hearing ever more clearly: many horses, many carts and hundreds of troops. Drum Drum, Drum. Drum Drum, Drum. Every beat grew louder, and then louder still, and I remember at one point shouting to Papa that it must be around the next bend, but still nothing came into view. Finally, after rounding yet another hill, a great cloud of dust rose into the sky before us, turning the blue into a pinkish-gray and finally confirming what we already knew.
“Oh, my stars!” Mama said, and we all three pulled our scarves up to cover our noses just as the procession, and it was truly a procession, rounded the bend.
The first to reach our position were two Roman Centurions astride impressive mounts, erect and proud in their highly-polished finest. “Make way for your new Governor!” they shouted every few feet to no one in particular. Scouting the road, they scanned the landscape with piercing looks and, for a moment, the one nearest to us stared right into me. I’m sure my eyes were wide and I must have seemed anxious because, at the last possible instant, he threw me a wink before shifting his gaze and moving on. “Make way for your new governor!” they shouted again. Drum, Drum, DRUM! Drum, Drum, DRUM!
We quickly found a place beside the road to wait, but the dust was thickening and both of the donkeys were doing their best to bolt into the surrounding hills, so we moved even further back to a rocky knoll where we could watch without choking.
For quite some time we stood there as a seemingly endless stream of Roman excess passed by: tall riders in crimson cloaks affixed with golden fibulae, a large corps of infantry, ox- wagons brimming with goods, and, most impressive of all to my youthful eyes, no less than four ornately decorated litters borne by enormous Nubian bearers and draped on every side with weavings to shut out the cold and the curious.
I was slack-jawed. It was easily the most spectacular display I had ever seen and I was more than happy to stand and watch. Following the two heralds who had shooed us out of the way came another horseman bearing a great banner on a pole. It was topped by a beautifully cast golden eagle with wings spread wide that rose just above the thickening dust cloud. I could make out each perfectly formed feather in the bright afternoon light, and made a mental note to add a pair of eagles to my menagerie.
Following far enough behind to be unaffected by the dust of the first three riders, five senior Roman officers in full regalia led the main group. I was fascinated by the Roman military in those days – what boy wasn’t? – and was quick to discern the Legate and First Tribune leading the way. Between them rode a man without any insignia, but whose superior demeanor made it plain he was in charge. All of Judea had known for weeks that the new Governor was sailing from Rome to the port at Caesarea, and I was pleased to be the first of my friends to see him, though, if the man in the center really was the Governor, he was much younger than I would have thought. Two more Tribunes followed just behind, eyes alert, protecting him from the rear.
In the intense sun, the gleaming bronze of their hilts, helmets and shields threw darts of light through the rising dust like tiny leaves of sunlight dancing on every side. And, even though the governor was quite close – passing only a few feet from me – I was struck by the impossibly vast gulf between us. He was from a world I could hardly even guess at and, from his perspective so high on his horse, I was not even there. Drum, Drum, DRUM! Drum, Drum, DRUM!
Only a few feet behind the vanguard followed the litters, each accompanied by a group of six slaves, four carrying the load and two to relieve them. Though I had seen litters moving through the city, I had never really, until that moment, considered the finer points of long distance travel by such luxurious means.
Even as we watched, at the sharp command of an overseer trailing behind who I had not previously noticed, the six carriers on all four litters rotated their positions without missing a step. First, the two bearers who were trailing each sedan moved up to relieve those carrying the rear poles. Once they were fully supporting the weight, the two they had replaced swapped sides to balance the strain on their arms and moved forward to relieve the pair holding the front poles, who then completed the dance by fading back to refresh their energies until their turn would come again. It was beautiful to watch, but seemed an outlandish extravagance to my boy’s eyes, regardless of who might be reclining behind those heavy tapestries.
The main body of about four hundred foot-soldiers marched just behind the litters, moving past in ranks of four, and even the dust in the air began to shake to the rhythm as the drums reached our position – DRUM DRUM, DRUM! DRUM DRUM, DRUM! DRUM DRUM, DRUM! – two rows of drummers had been placed at the front of the ranks, two rows in the center, and one at the rear, presumably to ensure that all could hear, though that seemed an absurd concern from where we were standing.
At least two dozen oxcarts driven by household slaves and overflowing with all manner of furnishings and other goods followed the foot soldiers. One especially memorable wagon was entirely dedicated to moving a huge, brightly-colored, and apparently very heavy statue of the Roman goddess Aphrodite – in all of her glory but none of her clothes – riding right out in the open! She was impossible to miss, and I could easily anticipate the murmuring tongues she would unleash upon her arrival at the city gate.
Lastly, came the cavalry, impressive and intimidating. The horsemen rode past us in double file astride enormous, beautifully-tended beasts. There must have been at least a hundred, though they stretched so far back beyond the bend that I lost count. Held to the pace of those walking ahead, of the ox-carts and litter bearers, the powerful mounts seemed anxious to move more quickly, but their riders knew their steeds. I watched fascinated as some leaned forward to caress and cajole their impatient partners, while others sat erect and held the reins tight and close, moving sharply to dissuade any hint of disobedience. There were lessons learned as I stood and watched, and not just about horses.
And then it was over. The sound of the drums was already fading by the time the final two riders passed us by, and the sun had visibly shifted, not noticing.
“Well, well. Pontius Pilate,” Papa said, once the dust had finally settled enough for us to return to the road. “It seems our new Prefect has arrived.”
“Well, he can’t be any worse than ‘in-Gratus,’” Mama said, “and anyone would be better than Antipas.”
“At least Antipas is a Judean,” Papa responded. “I’m told that Pilate is a dilettante, a Roman soft-sole through and through, and you saw how young he looks! He knows nothing of us, our beliefs, our history, our culture. Who knows what he will do. Judea is not Rome, where religion is a pastime for the idle. For us, it is life, itself. I predict our new governor may have some surprises in store.” He said it without a smile, so I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or concerned. There was a little of both in his voice.
The previous Roman Prefect, Valerius Gratus, had served for 11 years – nearly my entire lifetime – but had undermined himself with the people, and especially my mother, by lording over the Temple priesthood and demanding arbitrary changes on a whim. Mama’s ire had been particularly roused when he removed the popular High Priest, Annas, who also just happened to be the uncle of Mama’s childhood friend, Salome Zebedee. Salome’s husband – everyone just called him Zebedee – had been in the fish-curing business with my grandfather in Capernaum, and my uncles continued to sell their daily catch to him.
Mama must have been thinking about all these things as we walked, for she soon said, “I wonder if Salome will be at the wedding. Her sons are all grown now. Maybe I can get them to talk some sense into those brothers of mine!”
The dramatic Roman spectacle we had just witnessed kept us talking for the rest of the day. We considered every detail of the litters with their brocades and shiny slaves, the steady beat of the drums, the glimmering horse mounts, and a hundred other details. The only thing not discussed was the painted lady, who, when I forgot myself and mentioned her, earned me a thump on the head from Mama.
We also found that we had all arrived at the same unavoidable truth: our new Prefect, riding so tall, was not the least bit happy about his Imperial assignment. Mama said he looked like he had just taken a deep swig of milk gone bad, and couldn’t get the taste out of his mouth.
Since the death, twenty years earlier, of King Herod the Builder – who, to his credit, had completed the reconstruction of the Temple, but then nearly bankrupted the nation with his compulsion to pile up ever grander palaces for himself – the leadership of Judea had been uncertain at best, and disastrous for the most part. For the first decade, more or less, a succession of inept Herodian sons, each in turn, abruptly took the throne by dispensing with the previous one. They were an unhappy bunch who thought nothing of taking each other’s lives – or wives. Finally, Caesar Augustus became so weary of it all that he dethroned the whole lot of them and placed Judea under direct Roman rule. Pontius Pilate would be the fifth Roman to take on that responsibility.
In a classic case of “the last shall be first,” the only one of the late King’s sons who had managed to survive the purge of his brothers was the youngest, Herod Antipas, and that was largely because he had inherited the lesser provinces of Perea and Galilee, which kept him well away from the family drama taking place in Jerusalem. As a result, he was nearing his twenty-fifth year of uninterrupted, relatively unmolested, rule. And this was true notwithstanding the fact that, in true Herodian fashion, he had so recently scandalized everyone – from the Emperor to my mother – by taking Herodias, who was both his niece and the divorced wife of his, by then, exiled and sole surviving brother, Philip, to be his own.
We were so engaged that time passed quickly as we walked and talked, and we were already nearing Bethel – we could tell from the increase in traffic – when Papa said, perhaps a little too loudly, “Silas, the head scribe of the Temple, told me the Emperor has given Pilate leave to rein in Antipas.”
“Shush, Elijah!” Mama said under her breath as she smiled broadly and nodded to a family passing by in the opposite direction. Then, once they were well out of earshot, she turned to him and said, “You never know who is listening, Elijah. You must be more careful!”
It was a time of many whispers; a time of many ears.
I always enjoyed our stopovers in Bethel. It was the one place where we stayed in a real roadhouse, and that was only because it was run by an old Greek soldier named Legolas who my father had known years before in Alexandria. Legolas always insisted we stay for free, but Papa consistently refused and always won the argument. It was, I think, a little face-saving game they played.
Between leaving Jerusalem later than planned, and the unavoidable delay of the Roman parade, it was nearly dark by the time we reached the inn on the far side of town. Nevertheless, when we finally did arrive – just as always – Legolas was waiting in the doorway, hands on hips and flashing an enormous, toothy grin.
His boy took the donkeys off to the stable while we gratefully followed our jolly host into the warm, lamp-lit room that formed the central part of the hostel. I loved Legolas deeply and was always thrilled to see him. In fact, it was Legolas’s skill with a carving knife that had inspired my own passion for sculpting.
An enormous, burly man with a deep, chesty voice and heavily matted dense gray curls reaching out from his face in every direction, he would have been a scary sight if he hadn’t been so clearly at peace with his life and lot. He laughed more than anyone else I’ve ever known, long and loud and deep from within.
The fast friendship between Papa and Legolas had formed while both were in the service of the Roman Legate in Alexandria, Legolas as chief of the personal guard, and my father as a scribe-interpreter. Papa had a gift for tongues, and could fluently read and write eleven of them – a huge advantage for a seller of scrivener supplies in a polyglot place like Jerusalem.
Legolas’s career as a Legionnaire had come to an abrupt end nearly two decades earlier, not by enemy sword or hostile lance, but rather by the strike of an asp to his right leg. Though he fully recovered from the poison after only a few days – it would have taken a great deal of venom to fell such a man – the flesh around his bite eventually festered to the point that the limb had to be removed just below the knee.
He was originally from Macedonia, but had long lost touch with his family, so when the opportunity came along to buy the inn – owned by the widow of a fallen comrade – he had grasped it with his usual gusto and made it his own.
An original thinker if ever there was one – and not one to spend the rest of his life leaning on a crutch – Legolas had devised a truly clever solution to help compensate for his loss; something that made him quite unlike any other one-legged man I ever knew. It was basically nothing more than a blunt wooden stake cut to the length of the missing leg with a leather harness on the upper end to secure it to his knee joint. It was simplicity, itself, but the result was brilliant: a substitute leg that worked almost as well as the original.
Now, one might think such a unique contraption would have been remarkable enough, but Legolas, with time on his hands, had taken it even further. Over the years, he had fashioned an entire collection of leg stakes, one for every possible need. There were plain ones and ornate ones, polished and rough ones, some for work and some for show and each carved from an even more beautiful piece of wood than the last. “Finding the right wood is the key,” he told me once. “Without the right wood, you got nothin’, because it’s only the wood knows what’s inside tryin’ to get out. I jest help it, best I can, by whittlin’ away what don’t belong.”
I was one of the few people ever allowed to see his full collection of legs. “Never let people see the whole of you,” he said. My favorite one was inspired by his time in Egypt. It was a replica of an enormous statue he had seen in the desert of an ancient Pharaoh. Carved in exquisite, minute detail from blue-blackest ebony, the shirtless figure wore a pleated skirt, false beard and an elaborate crown that went right up to the leather knee harness. Legolas had even given him black onyx eyes that made him look just a little bit evil.
It seemed a shame he could never wear it outside his bedroom, but Ramesses the Leg had to be our little secret. After all, such images were forbidden “by the law and the prophets,” and even one overzealous patron accusing him of blasphemy would have been enough to destroy his life.
Caked with the dust stirred up by the Legionnaires, we rinsed our faces and drank deeply from the water jar just inside the door before finally embracing our host. He was effusive and carried on about how much I had grown as he pointed us to our usual room, where his boy had already placed our packs and was setting out washing cloths and another large vessel of water.
We wasted no time removing the remains of the day, and soon, refreshed and wearing clean clothes, returned to the common room where Legolas was truly in his element, presiding volubly over the evening’s meal. He often boasted of the exorbitant price he had paid for his cook – previously owned by a Roman Tribune – and he had gotten his money’s worth. The food was well-spiced and hearty.
Hungry and mindful of strenuous days ahead, we ate copiously while Legolas roamed the room, moving from table to table to regale his guests with outrageous stories (Papa told me they were all made up, but I wasn’t so sure). I marveled at the way he managed, no matter how tragic the tale he told, to leave every group of travelers laughing as he moved to greet the next one. As we had come to expect, he left us until last, then came to sit just as the boy cleared our table and brought the wine.
With guests arriving from every conceivable faraway place and eager to share the latest news, the roadside inns of Palestine of those days were hotbeds of gossip, and there was not much happening in the Province that Legolas had not heard in at least two or three versions. So, I was not surprised when Mama, who had learned a bit more by then about the strange doings of my uncles in Galilee, began to probe.
“Legolas, what do you hear of this John, this ‘new prophet?’ It seems like he is suddenly all anyone can talk about? My friend, Drusilla, told me that hundreds of people are lining up on the banks of the Jordan just to get bathed by him! What have you heard? I know you know something. Tell me.”
“Well, now, he’s a sight, for one thing,” Legolas said.
“Have you seen him?” Mama asked excitedly.
“No, never laid eyes on him, meself, but his long black hair and bushy beard are the first things most folks remember. Second thing is his voice. Say it rings across the river like Zeus, himself, when he gets going good. Say he cuts a real vision.
“In a costume, he is, too, they say. Always the same. Sheepskin cloak and a homespun loincloth. Just like Elijah wore, I’m told, though I’m sure I wouldn’t know about that. One man in here even went on and on about how he’s the actual reincarnation of Elijah, himself. Humph! If he’s Elijah come back from the dead, then I’m the Queen of Sheba!”
“What else?” Mama couldn’t get enough.
“Well, the thing what’s got my attention is not so much the talk as just how many people are talkin’,” he replied. “When he was camped near the Jerico Ford I had at least two or three people a day comin’ through here either on their way to see him or on their way back, and seems to me most of the ones who had seen him – heard him – just couldn’t stop talkin’. Carried on like they never had a clear thought in their lives until he come along to shine the light. When he gets to them, I tell you, he really gets to them. Not all, mind you. A few have said it was all too much for them, too much doom and gloom, too much brimstone, too much ire. But one thing’s for sure, the man has the gift. He gets under people’s skin, you know? You can just tell. I seen it in their eyes.”
“Where is he now? Do you know?” Papa began to show some interest.
“Well, from Jerico he went upriver to the ford at Adam, and now I hear tell he’s encamped near the Pella crossing. I guess he only works on the river so he can bathe people.”
“Do you believe what they say?” Mama asked.
“Oh, Mary,” Legolas said, “You know me better than that! I don’t believe or not believe. As the old saying goes, ‘by the fruit it bears shall you know the tree.’ We may all know everything someday, but I don’t think anybody knows everything yet.”
Mama never mentioned my uncles to Legolas. It seemed to me that she was a little embarrassed, and didn’t want him to know her own two brothers had been taken in by a wild-haired preacher in a sheep’s hide.
But as I lay on my mat that night trying to get to sleep, Papa already snoring, I pondered what could possibly move them – my very level-headed, fishermen uncles – to join with such a strange apparition. Did they also bathe in the Jordan? And, what was the point of this bathing thing, anyway, in the cold of winter? I really couldn’t imagine, frankly, and finally fell asleep wondering.
We rose with the sun the next morning, broke our fast with bread and more delicious stew from the previous night, and were quickly on our way. The boy had reloaded the animals for us, and we discovered, after only a little distance along the road, that our host had also supplied us with a copious packed lunch to eat along the way. It was no wonder that his inn was always bustling with guests. He was a true master of hospitality because he loved people – all people – and it showed.
We knew the day ahead would be the most taxing of our trip in both distance and difficulty – a dawn to dusk hike up and down endless hills – but the long walk the day before had been good practice and our rhythm quickly returned. Now and then, the animals complained about all the climbing, but the road was smooth underfoot, and by noon we had arrived at the ruins of Shiloh, where we rested and ate. We agreed to reserve the unexpected bounty from Legolas for our evening meal, and, as planned, took a lunch of cheese and salted fish from our stores.
Once back on the road, the walk was so strenuous – and we were breathing so heavily – that we didn’t talk much; simply put one foot ahead of the other over and over again. The afternoon was long and it was almost dark by the time we caught the first gratifying glimpse of our campsite. We were right on schedule, but not a moment too soon for the donkeys, who had been in open rebellion for the last several stadia.
According to the routine we had long established on these trips, we camped on the edge of a forested park just north of Jacob’s Well, near Sychar. It was a natural stopping place since the waters that flow from the well are some of the sweetest in Palestine, and our thirst – and that of the braying asses – was soon quenched. Mama and I found a good place to tie up and feed the animals, while Papa built a fire and pitched our simple tent – a large blanket draped over a rope strung between two trees, and staked at the corners. At last, our chores done, we relaxed in the glow of the warming flames to relish our well-earned meal.
Legolas had filled the knotted cloth with an array of treats: dried figs, dates, a pomegranate, two loaves of bread (one dark, one golden), a small jar of honey, another of olive oil, grape leaves stuffed with hummus and preserved in brine, goat cheese, a rabbit pie and a smoked leg of pea fowl. It was overly generous – Papa said it was because he had no family of his own to spoil – but we were hungry beyond words, literally, and quietly savored every morsel except the meaty leg, which we put aside for the morning’s meal.
The old soldier had even included a small skin of wine that, mixed with Jacob’s sweet water, made the perfect end to one of the most memorable meals of my long, eventful life.
Filled and physically spent, we slept immediately and, in what seemed only the merest of moments, the sun was up and Papa was already removing the tent right out from over me.
The distance we needed to cover on day three, from Sychar to Jezreel, was even further than the day before, but what a difference! After two days of walking mostly up the dusty hills, we were finally on a long downhill slant, and even the donkeys seemed to dance with us as we descended the verdant Western slope of Mount Gilboa to meet the sprawling green of the Meggido Plain. I know we must have stopped somewhere along the way to take our midday meal, but I don’t remember it.
I do remember singing, laughing a lot, spending time working on my languages with Papa (I was already fluent in four) and doing Scripture drills to keep me sharp for the school days ahead. It was sunny and warm with a cooling breeze and, looking back, may well have been the happiest, most carefree day the three of us ever spent together.
The spring in our step also must have moved us along more swiftly than usual. We had expected to arrive in daylight, but not until the leading edge of sundown marked the Sabbath. As it happened, the sun was still well up in the sky and brightly bathing the view when we rounded the corner to catch our first sight of the winery and Great Aunt Tabaitha’s grand old house. She was my grandmother’s sister on Mama’s side, the only unmarried child of Seth, the Jezreel Winemaker.
As the youngest daughter and last remaining child in the home, the task of caring for her aging parents had fallen upon her shoulders. And, as they had both lasted into their seventies, she was well beyond the marrying years by the time she was freed of her obligations. In recognition of her sacrifice, she had been generously settled upon by her father while he still lived, and she seemed perfectly happy to stay where she was: giving breath and heartbeat to his splendid villa – a wondrous, rambling manse nestled among great swaths of ancient, undulating vineyards – and keeping his dream alive. In those days, Jezreel was said to produce some of the best wines in the Empire, a reputation largely built, it would seem, upon the achievements of my forebears.
Aunt Tabaitha was a stately woman, uncommonly tall, who always held the posture and bearing of a Grecian statue that had somehow come alive. Except for one stubborn coal-black shock in the front, she was blessed with an enormous quantity of lustrous silver hair that was kept pulled back and up, braided and wound around on top of her head in the Roman fashion – which made her seem even more imposing. Mama told me that when her hair fell down from her shoulders it touched the floor, but, of course, I would never have been permitted to see such a sight.
In contrast to her regal appearance, however, she was one of the most unintimidating of women. She rarely stood on ceremony, and her contagious warmth and sparkle always led the way when she entered a room. It seemed forever since I had seen her, and I had been looking forward to it all day. She had the knack of making even the smallest child feel as if he had something to contribute. She expected clarity, honesty and common sense from everyone, including children, and treated all of us – regardless of age – with the same respect. Hers was an example of equanimity that I have never forgotten, and to which I still aspire.
We were in high spirits when we arrived at her house, but when we announced ourselves at the open door, there was only silence.
“Well, this is a first,” Mama said as we ventured further into the entry. “Not a soul anywhere. I hope everything is alright.”
“She’s probably just in the back,” Papa said. “We are earlier than usual.”
“But, then, where are the ser…” Mama was cut short in mid-question.
“Wooooohooooo!” the startling sound came from nowhere specific at first, but rang from wall to wall, “Ooooeeooooo-eeooo, I’m coming, I’m coming!” it came again, louder this time, even as an unruly column of writhing fabric came floating into the courtyard like an oracle’s apparition.
“Ooooo, darling Mary, I’m so glad you’re here,” the ghostly figure with the voice of Aunt Tabaitha continued to wriggle. “I’ve caught my wrap on the hook of my comb and I’m completely stuck. Please, can you help me get this loose?”
Mama ran over and freed her in no time and finally the top of the column of fabric moved down to reveal, first, her upraised arms, then the mound of silver hair with the offending tortoise shell ornament rising up in the back, and, finally, her face and one shoulder appeared as her gown fell into place.
“Thank you so much, my dear. I’m just not used to dressing myself,” she said, pushing her hair back up on top of her head.
“There, now. That’s much better. Dear Niece Mary, Sweet Elijah, and little Markie, though not so little anymore, I see. You’re almost as tall as I am! I’m so sorry no one was here to greet you. Wouldn’t you know, I let the servants have the day off after breakfast so they could get to Pella before sundown, and, well, I’m helpless without them, of course, and you’re so early that I wasn’t even dressed,” she babbled on as she adjusted her belt. “But then, I guess you can see that. And, so, well, here you are! How wonderful! It’s been ages and a day!” Then, taking Mama’s hands in her own, she looked into her eyes and said, “It is so good to see you at long, long last!” No one else I ever met was quite like Aunt Tabaitha.
At first glance, one might be inclined to feel sorry for her, all alone with the servants in that big empty house, but that would have completely misread the situation. For one thing, her brother, Matthias, who had taken over the winery and vineyards when their father had lost his sight late in life, lived only a stone’s throw up a winding road. For another, Aunt Tabaitha was not only one of my favorites; she was also a favorite of everyone in her widespread family.
With twenty-seven nieces and nephews, nearly all of them married with families, someone was always passing through town, and Aunt Tabaitha’s house was likely to be home to at least a few relatives at any given time. This was especially true since Jezreel – once the ancient seat of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel – sits at the junction of two good roads and is “on the way” to many places.
I had always been intrigued by the adroit way Aunt Tabaitha charmed those around her, and eventually came to appreciate that it was because she actually listened – really paid attention – to other people. She cared not only about what they said, but often more importantly, what they left out. She asked loving questions of everyone: who they were, where they came from, where they were going and how they thought they were going to get there. She once told me she never met anyone that she couldn’t learn from, and, at least when I was around, she always made the most of her opportunities. With one notable exception, she was the best listener I ever knew.
As a result, not illogically, she was also one of the most well-informed people in Galilee.
In that sense, at least, she was a kindred spirit to Legolas. Because they both really worked at doing their best for everyone around them, they inspired nothing but the best from others. And, I think because they were both so true to who they were, you just knew you could tell them your deepest secrets and never, ever regret it.
After Papa and I unloaded the donkeys, I took them around to the stable, made sure they were fed and watered, and, by the time I returned, Mama and Aunt Tabaitha were already setting out the Sabbath meal.
“I don’t suppose, by any chance, you remembered to bring me some of that marvelous Engedi cheese?” Aunt Tabaitha asked.
“Of course we did,” Mama looked at me and we shared a smile. She had nearly forgotten, and sent me out for the cheese at the last minute on the morning before we left. “And even better than that, just wait until you taste the smoked oxtail I found. It’s cured by an old herdsman near Jerico and tastes exactly like Granddaddy’s.”
Mama caught my eye again and pointed to the water jar, which I dutifully took out to the courtyard to fill. By the time I returned, the meal was ready. I poured a cup for each of us and joined them at the table, where Mama and Aunt Tabaitha were setting out the oil lamps and preparing to recite the Kiddush. We stilled our minds and hearts as we gave thanks for each other, for the blessing of being together again, and for the food, which we then eagerly sat down to eat.
“Now, Aunt Tabby,” Mama asked as she passed a plate of pickled fish, “what I want to know is: just what is so important in Pella that you let the servants – all of them – desert you like this?”
“Don’t be cross with me, Mary. I know it’s an inconvenience,” Aunt Tabaitha said, “But nobody deserted anyone. In fact, I insisted they go. You know they are like my family – really are family – and it seemed like the right thing to do. I am far from helpless, and quite sure we will all get on just fine without them. We have food on the table, don’t we? And, water to drink?” she nodded in my direction. “We shall do nicely.
“But, to answer your question, sweet Mary, I let them go because they wanted to hear John, the baptizer, who set up camp there a few weeks ago. Surely you have heard of him.”
“Oh, she’s heard of him,” Papa said softly.
“Well,” Aunt Tabaitha continued, “your brothers were through here last week and they went on so about how we all should go hear him that the whole lot of them – Marla, Yoni and both of the girls – have been pestering me about it ever since. Then, Matthias’s stable boy came back from the river yesterday with word that the encampment will be moving back south to Jerico soon, so it was now or never.”
“So it’s true, then,” Mama visibly sagged. “They really have gone over the edge, my brothers, I mean.”
“Now, Mary, don’t go and get yourself all bothered,” Aunt Tabaitha said. “It’s not as bad as all that. I might have gone myself if you hadn’t been on the way. I’ll grant you I have questions – his strange clothes, and all. If he is as good a talker as they say, good enough to get your brothers to sign on, you wouldn’t think he would need to dress all crazy like that to get people’s attention.”
“Well, if that is what he is trying to do, it certainly seems to be working.” Papa said. “I can’t say I’m all that surprised he appealed to Simon, of course.”
Mama gave him a look.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he responded, “I love Simon. He is a good soul, fine father and able fisherman, but you both know he is so gullible he would eat a flax pie if you put honey on it. What I don’t understand is Andrew. Now, there’s the puzzle. He is one of the most clear-headed, well-grounded men I have ever known. Aunt Tab, what did he say?”
She broke off a piece of bread and dipped it in some oil, “Elijah, as usual, your instincts are dead on. Simon is all agog over this whole thing, but I tell you, Andrew seems every bit as committed to this John fellow as his brother. He was quite straightforward, even passionate, or as passionate as he ever gets. Whether you like it or not, they are both fully on board this man’s boat.”
“Oh, poo,” Mama said. “Haven’t we had enough of self-proclaimed prophets? Aren’t there enough Messiahs about?”
Ever since the Romans had occupied Palestine, the idea that a Heavenly Deliverer was due to appear at any time – a Messiah sent by God to reclaim the throne of David – had gained ground among the Jews. So much so, in fact, that quite a number of contenders had already announced themselves with great fanfare, usually on the steps of the Temple or other equally dramatic setting.
In the ordinary scheme of things, a claimant would start strong and, in a few days or weeks, gather about him a loyal coterie of disciples. Then, just when he began to gain a popular following, some scandal or other would uncloak his true, all-too-human nature and leave his fickle flock to scatter like a tree full of startled crows.
Thus, it was no surprise to anyone that yet another of these ‘prophets’ had appeared among us, nor that my mother was upset about her brothers coming under the sway of such a man. What was a surprise was the ease with which Aunt Tabaitha seemed to have accepted it all. Mama suddenly seemed unsure, as if the ground underneath her were shifting.
“So what is it about this man?” she asked. “Why is he any different?”
“Well, all I can tell you is what Andrew told me,” Aunt Tabaitha finally responded after taking a long sip of water. “When they first went to hear him, they had no expectations aside from what the other Capernaum fishermen had told them, but they found themselves astonished. ‘He has many gifts,’ Andrew told us when we all gathered around them to hear. ‘It’s not about the oddity of his dress, though it is odd, but about the light in his eyes,’ he said. ‘It’s not about the beauty of his voice, though it is beautiful, but the truth it reveals. It’s not about the logic of his thought, though it is the essence of clarity, but about the radiance of his spirit. He literally glows.’ That’s what your brother said. He actually said, ‘He glows.’
“And, you know your Aunt Tab. I couldn’t just leave it there so I asked him flat out if he thought this baptizer was the Promised One. But you know what he said?”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Mama said.
“Well, don’t be.” Aunt Tabaitha forged ahead, “He said that, at first, he was so moved by John that thought he just had to be The One.”
“I knew it!” Mama said. “Another pretender!”
“No, no,” Aunt Tabaitha quickly countered. “You see, that was what finally convinced them to give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems he doesn’t mind being called a prophet – indeed, he says he is one – but he refuses to be called ‘Messiah’ and chastises others who claim it for him. ‘No, no, no,’ he told Andrew, ‘I am not even worthy to carry his cloak.’
“Well, that’s refreshing, at least,” Mama said.
“Yes, well, but there is more,” Aunt Tabaitha paused for effect. “Quite a bit more, actually.”
“What do you mean?” Papa took the bait. “More what?”
“More to the story, dear Elijah,” she said, “After Andrew and Simon had dedicated themselves to be this John’s disciples, something happened that no one expected, and, well, there may be a Deliverer in the picture after all, but it’s not John, it’s his cousin, of all things, and, believe it or not, dear children, his cousin is someone that we all know – have known – for years!”
“Oh, dear…” Mama exclaimed, slumping on her couch and finally at a loss for words, defeated as much by Aunt Tabaitha’s delight in the telling as by what she had to say.
“Who?” Papa asked, less nonplussed. “Who knows? We know? What? We know The Messiah? How can that be? Does a god just walk among us leading camels?”
Aunt Tabaitha smiled. “You’re not all that far from the truth, Elijah, dear. But it is a long story, so, first, some wine!” She said as she nodded toward a jar sitting on a table by the wall that had, until then, gone unremarked.
Papa brought the jar to the table and Aunt Tabaitha asked him to fill our cups.
“This is some of the last of my father’s wine,” she said, turning to me, “Your great-grandfather was the best winemaker in Palestine. And, I should know. I’ve tasted them all!” She laughed at her own impertinence. “You may live your entire life, John Mark, and never sip a finer vintage, so let it linger on your tongue and do your best to appreciate it.”
I had only been given watered wine before my elevation to manhood, and in the few months since, only three or four opportunities had come my way to taste the real thing, including only two nights before at Legolas’s inn. It was certainly true that Aunt Tabaitha’s wine was more agreeable than his. It gave me a heady sensation going up the back of my nose that almost tickled, and I closed my eyes to capture it as best I could, but this was made more difficult once she resumed her report.
“I think to tell it right, I have to tell this story from the beginning and I’ll try not to leave anything out. Your brothers know you well, Mary, dear, and knew you’d be spinning worry webs and imagining all sorts of mischief, so they asked me to tell you everything.”
Mama smiled and started to speak, but Aunt Tabaitha just held her hand up in a way that said ‘don’t even start,’ and continued, “It was, oh, two months ago, or so, in late December, when I first heard talk of this fellow, John, preaching and baptizing people over by the river, and ever since then it seems like almost everyone through here has had something to say. They say he has a great, booming voice that carries right across the water and well up into the hills, and hundreds of people – even thousands on the Sabbath – have been going to hear him.
“Andrew said it is impossible not to be moved by the fellow. He not only dresses like Elijah, but sounds like him too, apparently, warning of grave days ahead if we don’t bring some order to what he calls ‘our corrupt and messy house.’ And, he’s not afraid of anyone, apparently. Simon told me he even criticized Antipas’s new marriage; called it ‘an abomination’ right out in the open!”
“Well, he’d better be careful, there,” Papa said, “or he won’t be preaching about anything for long.”
“The truth is,” she continued, “from everything I’ve heard, it’s hard not to agree with him since what he says makes sense, and he must be doing something right. Your brothers can hardly believe the crowds – more than they can handle, really, and growing all the time.”
“Aunt Tabaitha,” I was burning to join in and really wanted to know, “What about the baptizing? Why does he need to baptize Jews? I thought that was for converting gentiles, so what’s the point?”
“Well, John Mark,” her smile welcomed my question, “as I understand it, he does it for two reasons: first, because no one is perfect – everyone ‘falls short’ in one way or another, and it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of that from time to time – but there is also another meaning, I think. He doesn’t just preach to individuals. Like all the true prophets before him, the ones we hear read aloud in the synagog, he seems to be preaching to the nation – to the whole family of Abraham and Isaac; to Israel – and if Israel is us, then it is good to remember our part in the long line of history and, by bathing, rededicate ourselves to…”
“Aunt Tabby!” Mama was getting impatient, “So tell us! Who is it? Who is this supposed Messiah?”
Aunt Tabaitha had a mischievous grin as she pushed her cup toward Papa for more wine. “Do you remember Joshua, that impressive young friend of Zebedee’s boys?” she asked. “I’m sure you know him. These days I hear he works in Zebedee’s boatshop, but he and his brothers bought Old Jonah’s bridal repair business in Nazareth, oh, ten years ago, now. You know. They renamed it Sons of Joseph. Only a short walk up the road from your brother-in-law’s place. I’m sure you know who I mean. Your brothers call him Jesus.”
We all knew who she meant. He was impressively tall, a strong but gentle man who was actually considered a sort of wonder in those parts. When he was barely fourteen and only just confirmed in the faith, his father, a contractor doing work in nearby Sepphoris, had been killed by a collapsing scaffold, leaving behind a family of eight children and a wife who was, even then, heavy with child. The tragedy suddenly and without warning had made Joshua ben Joseph, as the eldest son, head of his still growing family.
Left without a means of support, he had enlisted the help of his brothers, James and Joseph, and reopened the carpentry shop at the back of their house where he had worked with his father as a child. There they began to make a living for their family, supplemented by the weaving and sewing skills of their sisters who, though still young, were quite accomplished.
In due time, his youngest sister, Ruth, only two years older than I, was born. Joshua was the only “father” she ever knew, but she adored him and I know she never found him wanting. Over the years she had become friends with my Nazarene cousins, and we had played together many times as children – but I get ahead of my story.
As the family carpentry business prospered, Jesus and his brothers had expanded their opportunities by purchasing the repair shop, which was familiar to our family because, leatherwork being fundamental to camel driving, my Uncle Jonathan’s caravansary frequently required its services.
In short, within ten years, under their elder brother’s adroit leadership, the family returned to true prosperity, and Joshua, himself, whose dramatic tale was known throughout Galilee, had become something of a local favorite son. But he proved to be unpredictable, and as soon as his brother James was mature enough to take over, surprised everyone by placing the entire family enterprise into his hands, thereby freeing himself to pursue new avenues of experience.
For some time, he worked as a boat builder with Zebedee in Capernaum before leaving the area to spend a few years seeing the world, including an extended period when he traveled to most of the Roman Empire while working as a translator for an Indian tradesman – and tutor for his young son – as they followed right around the Mediterranean basin in pursuit of business.
Joshua had only just returned from this journey and rejoined his brothers in the repair shop, when fate intervened and he was off again. A long-distance caravan conductor had become ill while passing through town, and Joshua, who was, by then, an accomplished linguist and experienced animal handler, volunteered to take his place. That journey had taken him north to the Caspian Sea, and at least another year passed before the camels brought him home again.
I knew all this because Ruth took great delight in her big brother’s doings, and was always excited to relate his most recent adventures. She had expected he might be off again with another caravan soon enough, but he surprised everyone by leaving the bustle of the crossroads behind and returning to Capernaum, where he had remained right up until the time of these doings, fishing with his friends and building more boats for Zebedee.
The old fish merchant must have wondered why Joshua would take such a backward step, but was surely delighted to have him return to the shop, since he was both a master builder and skilled designer of fishing boats. He had, years before, modified the keels of Zebedee’s craft to make them more stable in the water, and by the time he returned to the lakeshore following his travels, every builder in the area had adopted his design.
Though it is true that there were long stretches when he was absent, I had seen him at work in Capernaum many times when visiting my grandparents, and thanks to Ruth’s devotion, had already come to admire him. Yes, as we sat at Aunt Tabaitha’s table, drank her father’s wine, and listened to her story, we all knew who she was talking about.
“Well,” she continued, “It was early in January, about two months ago, and your brothers were out on the lake fishing with Joshua and the Zebedee boys when the subject of the baptizer came up. It was only a few days after he had set up camp in Pella, and you know how quickly news moves around the lake. They all look up to Joshua like an older brother, so when he suggested that they should go and see this John for themselves, the four of them – the Zebedee boys and your brothers – went down the next day.”
“Didn’t Jesus go with them?” Mama asked.
“Well, no, not at that time,” Aunt Tabaitha said, “But just be patient, dear, and let me finish the story, then you can ask all the questions you like.”
“Sorry,” Mama said.
“Now, as I was saying, the four of them went to Pella, and, like I told you, Andrew said it was life-changing. His exact words were that he ‘was drawn to the man like water to the sea.’ He had no choice, he said but to commit himself to John’s service, and so he did. All four of them did. They joined his band of disciples that very day.”
“But, then…” Mama started, but Aunt Tabaitha wouldn’t have it.
“Ah-ah, Mary dear, no more interrupting. There’s more to tell. Just you listen.
“Now, every Friday since then, after unloading the morning’s catch, they have gone back to spend the Sabbath helping John and his other disciples. Andrew said there are about sixty of them so far, but still not enough to handle the crowds. Then they return to Capernaum in time to fish again on Monday.”
She paused for a moment and joined me as I held my cup out toward my father for more wine. He filled her cup, but only gave me a thimbleful along with a look that said my drinking was done for the night. I treasured what he gave me, sip by sip, and kept it sitting on my tongue for as long as I could.
“Now,” she continued, “they had been following this routine for a few weeks, until about a month ago, when something completely unexpected happened that came out of the blue, something totally bizarre.”
“What do you mean?” Mama asked.
“I’ll tell you everything, Mary dear,” Aunt Tabaitha stood, “But first I need to take a moment. Why don’t you put these things away, and I’ll be back in a bit. All this wine, you know…”
Mama cleared the table while Papa topped up the remaining two cups before replacing the jar in the cold pit outside the service area. By the time he came back to the table, Aunt Tabaitha had also returned.
“Aunt Tabby,” Mama said as Papa sat, “You’ve kept us in suspense long enough.”
“You are quite right, Mary, but it is just so delicious and I’m having a marvelous time, so let me continue. Now, where was I? Oh, of course. Joshua.
“Now, as they told it to us, on their third weekly trip to Pella they intended to spend two days instead of one to help with the crowds, but so many people gathered that they decided to add a third day, and it was on that Monday when it happened.
“It was bright and sunny, warm for January, and John was standing in the river, not very far from the shore, baptizing a long line of believers who were waiting in the chilly water. Your brothers were on the riverbank dispensing drying cloths to those who had already been baptized as they came back on dry land, but were stopped short when John did something unexpected. He suddenly let out a great shout of joy and threw an eager embrace around the man who had just reached the head of the line. Then, after asking the others in line to remain where they were, he took the man and his two companions to a place apart where they could talk among themselves.
“As they moved, Andrew realized he knew who they were. It was Joshua and his brothers, James and Jude. They had slipped unnoticed into the line in the river to await their turn without even stopping to say hello.
“With no new dripping bathers to help, your brothers watched as John first baptized James and Jude and then took Joshua in his hands, lowered him into the water and raised him back up. And it was right at that moment when something quite unexpected happened, though at the time the only thing your brothers could see was the odd sight of the four men, suddenly and in unison, jerking their heads skyward as if they had all heard something directly above their heads.
“Andrew said the color drained from all of them save Joshua, and then John did something he had never done before. He turned to all those still waiting for him and said he simply could not go on, apologized profusely for any disappointment, and asked them to please return the next day. Following that, the four of them waded back to the shore and right past your brothers as if in a trance, without saying so much as a word.”
“So?” Mama said, and even Papa was fidgeting.
“Well,” Aunt Tabaitha continued undeterred, “sometime later, the baptizer, James and Jude – but not Joshua, himself – returned to the camp and when Andrew asked them to explain their strange behavior, the baptizer, who up until then had not realized your brothers and the Zebedee boys even knew Joshua, laid out an astonishing – even preposterous – story that involves not only John and Joshua, but their two mothers, as well.”
“Their mothers?” Mama asked, “as in Mary, Joseph’s widow?”
“Well, yes, Mary, their mothers. It turns out that John and Joshua are actually related. John’s mother, Elisabeth, who lives in Hebron, and Joshua’s mother Mary are cousins, but more to the point, all three – the baptizer, and Joshua’s brothers – related in absolute seriousness that each of their mothers had been visited by the angel Gabriel – Elisabeth while pregnant with John, and Mary while carrying Joshua – who revealed to them that they would deliver sons who were destined to reshape the world.”
“Oh, come on, Aunt Tabby” Mama said. “The angel Gabriel?”
“Don’t carp at the messenger dear. I’m just telling you what they told me,” Aunt Tabaitha said. “Now, in the case of Elisabeth, the angel told her to name her son John, and said that he was expected to prepare the way for the coming Deliverer. He also told her he would be visiting her cousin Mary, whose child would be named Joshua and grow up to be that selfsame Messiah.”
“That’s just absurd,” Mama said, a whole host of emotions showing on her face. “Him? I mean, he is a good man and all that, accomplished, smart and beautiful – I admit he turned my head once upon a time (this, surely, was the wine talking) – “but the Messiah is a man named Jesus who builds boats for Zebedee? Ridiculous. He’s from Nazareth, for pity’s sake!”
“Don’t let Martha hear you say that,” Aunt Tabaitha laughed, “and, Nazarene or not, John told your brothers that he had been expecting to see Joshua appear at his camp from the beginning of his public preaching and, if anything, was surprised it had taken so long.”
“I don’t know…” Mama said.
“And then there is the other thing,” Aunt Tabby added.
“What other thing?” Papa asked.
“Well, Elijah, Andrew told me that John, James and Jude all three confirmed that the reason they had turned their heads skyward while in the river with Joshua was because they had heard the voice of God, Himself, speaking right over their heads!”
“What?” Mama said. “and what did God have to say?”
“Well, I wasn’t there sweet Mary, so you can believe it or not, as you will, but they said they all heard it the same: ‘This is my beloved son,’ He said, ‘in whom I am well pleased.’”
With that, Aunt Tabaitha downed the last of her wine in one big drink, grinned broadly, and set the cup down as she said, “So, children, there you have it. The whole story from the donkey’s mouth, or, at least, as Donkey told it to me.” This last was a joke of sorts, since Uncle Andrew’s familiar name was “Donkey,” owing to his generally stubborn nature.
Then Papa asked the question I was thinking, myself. “So where is he, Aunt Tab? If all this happened more than a month ago, and if Joshua ben Joseph is really the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, why haven’t we heard about this already? Where the heck has he been? Isn’t the Messiah supposed to ‘come in glory?’ If he is the real thing, shouldn’t the Romans be marching home with their tails tucked between their legs by now?”
“Well, Elijah, you’ve hit precisely upon the question of the hour,” Aunt Tabaitha said. “It seems he has disappeared. He has completely vanished from sight. He went up into the hills that very night without a word to anyone, and hasn’t been seen since. His brothers waited in the camp for a day before returning to Capernaum without him, and Simon told me Zebedee’s boys have been searching the hills for him this entire month, but have found no sign of him.”
“How strange this is. How truly baffling,” Mama said. “This is surely the most outlandish story I’ve ever heard, and it is all happening to us, to our family, to people we know! Do you really think it could possibly be true? Do Andrew and Simon really believe it? I mean, they know Jesus really well.”
“Well,” Aunt Tabaitha said, “the baptizer did tell your brothers that, until that moment in the river, he had never really known what to make of his mother’s stories, other than that they had held enormous sway over his own life and his determination to preach. But, as soon as he heard that voice over their heads, he knew it all must have been true from the beginning – that the angel Gabriel had not been a dream, but real; that his mother had not been daft, but chosen. And if that were true, then it must also be the case that his cousin Joshua was not just impressive, as everyone always agreed, but actually divine – even the true Messiah.
“John Mark, dear, can you get me some water. All this talk has made me bone dry.” I rose and filled her empty cup.
“I still say it takes a great leap of faith, don’t you think?” Papa asked.
“Andrew said those very words, himself,” Aunt Tabaitha answered. “He also said that if James and Jude, both of whom are uncomplicated, straightforward men, had not also heard the voice and told the same story, including the part about Gabriel’s visit to their own mother, Mary, he wasn’t sure if he would believe it even now. He said it was obvious that something important had happened to the men in the river, but it was difficult to put the change into words.”
“Meanwhile,” Mama asked, “what did Simon have to say about all this?”
“Oh, you know Simon.” Aunt Tabaitha said. “Whatever Andrew says is good enough for him, although I did hear him ask a good question. He wanted to know of Andrew, given that they have already pledged themselves to the service of John, how they might switch over to Joshua who, after all, they have known and worked with most of their lives. ‘Jesus is like my brother,’ Simon said, ‘but it wouldn’t be right to just up and abandon John without so much as a ‘by your leave’ after he’s come to depend upon us.’”
“Well,” Papa observed, “That problem may have already sorted itself out if, as you say, Joshua has disappeared. Maybe he was scared off by that voice over his head. Who knows? They should just relax. If God is truly in it, He will show them the way.”
“That is, almost word for word, what I told them, myself,” Aunt Tabaitha said.
“John Mark,” Mama turned to me, “Don’t you think it’s about time you went to bed?” I didn’t argue, since I was nearly falling asleep at the table.
I was out the instant my head hit the mat, but it was a fitful night. I dreamt I was standing in a pouring rainstorm, wet through and through, then found myself helping Noah load the animals on the ark. The water was rising and the lightning striking with thunder upon thunder roaring overhead and we were racing against the flood, but no matter how hard we tried to move them, the animals wouldn’t budge. They were all too afraid of being eaten by the lions that we had boarded first.
As a child, I had always been seated with the women when attending the Jezreel synagogue, but this time, for the first time, I was proud to sit with Papa and the men. Even so, I found it hard to concentrate on what the rabbi was saying since my head was still spinning from the revelations of the night before. What had my uncles gotten themselves into? Could it really be possible? Could the Messiah – the Messiah! – be a man I had seen coming and going my whole life? I tried to remember the first time I ever saw him, but it was beyond me.
The rabbi’s reading was a passage from one of the Songs of David: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
The prophecy rang in my head. Could John be the one “planted by the rivers?” I remembered the words of Legolas from only a few nights before, “By the fruit it bears shall you know the tree.”
I pictured Joshua at Zebedee’s boatshop and tried to think through what I knew of him. Had there been any indication? Though he had never failed to look up and smile when I entered the work space, he always seemed so intent on what he was doing that I had never actually spoken to him. I knew of his inventions, and my uncles had often talked of his skill with an augur, but I realized I didn’t really know all that much beyond what I had heard from Ruth.
The services ended and we were soon walking back to the big, quiet house. Mama helped Aunt Tabaitha set out a good lunch from the food prepared in anticipation of our visit by the sojourning servants, and we ate our fill of bread, Engedi cheese and Zebedee’s smoked fish.
Before, we had only visited Jezreel in the summertime, when it was my habit to spend the days playing in the vineyards with any cousins who might be about, or perhaps helping the workers in the winery, which fascinated me. But, in mid-winter, there were no cousins to play with, the vines were barren and the winery shuttered, so, once the meal was over, I made my way to my favorite room in all the world: Aunt Tabaitha’s scriptorium.
Just off the entrance to the house, it was a large corner space that had been the seat of my great-grandfather’s business and everything about it smelled of importance. In a flight of visual trickery, the outside-facing walls had been painted over with actual views of the rolling hills and meandering rows of vines you would have seen in summertime if there were open archways instead of walls – only the vines in the frescoes were heavy with clusters of impossibly large grapes. Four actual windows were placed near the roof, two each to the south and west to maximize the light well into the evening hours. In good weather, they were left open and kept the room remarkably warm and bright, but, should the wind shift, heavy, leather-lined shutters of cedar-wood effectively sealed the room from the elements.
But the true wonder of the room lined the interior walls, where, row upon row, Old Seth’s collection of writings, gathered over his lifetime, took pride of place. I often thought how sad it was that he had gone blind in his waning years, when he might have had the time to enjoy his collection. Among the scrolls lining the shelves were scriptures in both Hebrew and Greek – hardly ever found in a private home – and after spending some time reacquainting myself with all the writings at my disposal – everything from years of winery accounts to dramas for the stage from as far away as Athens and Rome – I took advantage of the opportunity to work on my languages. I played a game with myself by reading passages in Hebrew, then translating them into Greek as I thought they should be before comparing my version to the inscribed text. Aunt Tabaitha joined me for a time and seemed genuinely impressed with my abilities, but I saw much room for improvement. I was glad Papa had decided to nap.
The remainder of the afternoon seemed to pass in mere moments, but I kept at it until darkness fell and Mama called me to the evening meal. The talk on that second night was almost all about the wedding to come, and, soon enough, we were all ready for a good sleep: well-fed, well-rested and fully recovered from the first days of our journey. Though Mama still harbored concerns about my uncles – none of which had been assuaged in the slightest by the previous night’s conversation – we were ready to cover more ground. The hike to Nazareth would, thankfully, be shorter than our previous two walking days, but we would once again be heading uphill.
The next morning, for the second day in a row, Papa and I rose with the sun to attend to the animals – Aunt Tabaitha’s as well as our own – since Yoni, the stable man, had gone to Pella with the others. We were more than happy to do it. It was a rare opportunity to give her something she really needed, and I know it brought the two of us closer together as we cleaned stalls and explored the boundaries of our new relationship, now man-to-man rather than father-to-child.
Mama took over the kitchen and served up a hearty breakfast and, after promising to deliver a full report on our return, we said our goodbyes to Aunt Tabaitha and turned north once again.
The foothills of Mount Tabor were not so challenging as the rough terrain we had already conquered, but our donkeys had been spoiled by two easy days and had a lot to say about climbing again. Much to our relief, they never actually balked. The Sunday morning traffic was surprisingly heavy, but it eased as the day wore on and we were making such good time we decided to forego lunch and press on the short distance to Nazareth. We arrived at Aunt Martha’s door just as the family was clearing away their own midday meal.
Aunt Martha, Mama’s sister, had not been overly gifted in face and form. She was a short, stocky woman with a huge heart and a tiny, high-pitched voice that chirped, more like a songbird than a human. She had never been comely and the years of child rearing had taken their toll, but the constant sparkle in her eyes – added to the warmth and love she radiated for everyone – was so overwhelming that it outshone any unhappy superficiality.
She had moved to Nazareth from Capernaum when she married Uncle Jonathan, whose caravansary commanded a good location right by the crossroads and was already well established. As time passed and the family grew, he had built the large, if not luxurious, house that now rose up before us, a house that seemed always to be filled with the echoes of laughing children and the aroma of baking bread.
Aunt Martha had been blessed with two sets of twins. The younger pair, David and Little Jon, were identical boys three years my junior who sported the brightest, reddest hair I have ever seen – even to this day – and were so rambunctious and self-absorbed that I found them hard to be around. On the other hand, the girl twins, who were only a year younger than I, could not have been more different, either from their brothers or each other. They suffered that affliction so common to twins, rhyming names, but that was their only similarity.
With enormous brown eyes, a lithesome form and light brown, almost golden hair, Anna was very pretty but painfully shy, while Manna, who was constantly brimming over with clever ideas and enthusiasm for anything adventurous, was a miniature version of her mother with stubby limbs, deep-set black eyes, and a wide, square face topped by a thicket of tight black curls.
Their little sister, Rachel, still in her crib when we had last visited, would be turning five soon and I looked forward to discovering which of her sisters she would most resemble.
We stood quietly at the door, amused by the sight of the bustling family clearing the table, and it was Manna, not surprisingly, who looked up first. She let out a little squeal and, in an instant, we were surrounded by excited family as everyone tried to embrace us at once.
After their enthusiastic greeting ebbed and our donkeys were unburdened, Uncle Jonathan told David and Little Jon to take them to the caravansary, where they would be stabled until we returned from the wedding. We would use one of Uncle Jonathan’s animals for the trip to Cana. Ours still had the long walk home ahead of them, and we were happy to give them a rest.
It was for Aunt Martha that much of the shopping had been done before we left Jerusalem. This was not unusual since Papa and Uncle Jonathan had a long-standing business arrangement that served both of them well. Uncle Jonathan would scour the newly arriving caravans for the best quality writing and calligraphy supplies, new inks, special vellums and such, while Papa, for his part, would procure whatever the Nazareth family might need from Jerusalem. These exchanges were usually accomplished by consigning the goods to passing caravans, but it was our custom, when traveling as a family, to deliver them in person and save the transport fees.
Much that we had brought on this occasion was related to the week-long wedding festivities, including new clothes in the latest styles for Aunt Martha. But it was not all about the wedding. We had also packed a large bundle of my clothes – quickly outgrown and hardly worn – for the boys, who were just growing into them.
Once Papa had sorted it all out, Mama took Aunt Martha to the back room to delight in all of her new treasures. She had taken great pains to find things that would flatter her sister, and for the next hour, or so, little squeals and giggles echoed through the house as they made their way from hair ornaments to footwear to wraps.
Left to fend for themselves, Papa and Uncle Jonathan were soon deeply engaged in a business discussion and it was no place for me, so I went looking for the girls. I loved them dearly and had missed them greatly in the two years since we had last been together. It was also not lost on me that Nazareth was the very home of Joshua ben Joseph, and I was eager to learn what, if anything, they knew about the recent events involving our uncles and the dramatic new turn in their lives. I found them playing games by the water basin in the courtyard.
As it turned out, thanks to her “best friend” Sela, Manna was even more well-informed than Aunt Tabaitha had been. Sela was the same age as the girls and not only lived right next door to the ben Joseph family home, she was even related by marriage. That house – and the management of the leather repair shop – had only recently been given over by Joshua’s eldest brother James to the next in line, Joseph ben Joseph, whose wife, Priscilla, was also Sela’s aunt. By that time, both James and Jude (the fifth eldest brother) had turned to fishing for Zebedee at Capernaum, so Joshua had moved Mary, his mother, and sister Ruth into a house there – purchased with his caravan earnings – where they would have the protection of at least two of his brothers nearby.
Joshua was the first of nine children born to Mary and Joseph, eight of whom lived to adulthood. James had come next, then eldest daughter Miriam, followed by Joseph (Sela’s uncle), Simon, Martha, Jude, Amos (who had died when only two) and Ruth. Of course, I only knew Ruth at the time of these events, but that was more than enough to have become well-versed in her family lore, or, at least, to have thought I was.
“Did you hear about Joshua ben Joseph?” I asked Manna, as soon as I joined them in the courtyard.
“You mean Jesus? Of course, silly!” she said through giggles, “Don’t you know I know everything that happens around these parts?”
“So tell me!” I said. “Tell me everything.”
She then told the same story we had heard over the Sabbath meal at Aunt Tabaitha’s, right up to, and including, the disappearance of Joshua into the hills.
“So what happened to him,” I asked. “What does Sela say?”
“She’s in the dark, too, they all are,” she replied. “But she did say that story about the angel is true. She said she has always known about it; that Mary had told the story many times around the table, but nobody ever mentioned it outside the family, because, well, it sounds so crazy that nobody really believed her. At least, not until the baptizer let the mouse out of the trap. She also said that every time Jesus went off on one of his adventures, his mother would get all expectant and excited, but, then just get despondent when nothing came of it. Now, with him gone missing, they really don’t know what to think.”
“So where could he be?” I asked. “Surely something bad has happened to him. Why would he disappear like that? Especially now, when he must know he’s stirred up a whirlwind?”
“I guess time will tell,” Manna said, sounding older than her years, “but I do think they’re all getting a little worried. He’s been gone over a month already; simply vanished. Maybe you’re right. He could have been eaten by a lion by now, or fallen down a hole, or joined another caravan. But you, John, will know more very soon, and I expect a full report! You know they’re invited to the wedding.”
“Who’s invited?” I asked.
“All of them: Jesus, Mary, Ruth, James, Jude… Mama said they’re all invited.”
“Really?” My head was suddenly running rampant with possibilities. “Then I guess the mystery will be solved tomorrow,” I said, though I wondered if it really would.
“Aunt Avra and Uncle Reuben, will be there too,” she said. “Everyone is going but us!”
Our Aunt Avra, Mama’s youngest sibling, had married Uncle Jonathan’s business partner only three years before. Uncle Reuben ran a portside location for the family business in Ptolemaus, where the road from Damascus and points east finally reached the sea, about a day’s walk beyond Nazareth.
“I wish we were going,” Manna said. “It’s not fair that you can go, but we can’t.”
“I wish you could, too,” I lamented, and meant it. As the first of our generation to reach adulthood, I was also the only one going to Cana. I was excited and happy to be invited, of course, but since I knew my elders would be occupied with each other, I was fully expecting a week of being left to my own company in a strange town.
“At least Uncle Andrew will be there,” I said. If Aunt Tabaitha was my favorite aunt, Uncle Andrew was my favorite uncle. And, like she, he always had time for me.
“Did I hear my name?” the unmistakable voice came booming from just beyond the gate. “Who is that talking about me?”
“Andrew!” Mama came running from the back room as he entered the courtyard. “Are you all right? Thanks be to the angels! Is Simon with you? You wouldn’t believe all the stories I’ve been hearing!”
[For convenience, first six chapters are now combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ ]
“And, Dear Sister Mary, most of them true, I’ll warrant,” he said as he gave her a long, enveloping embrace, “But no time to talk about that now. I’m sorry, but, yes, Simon is here, too, and we’re with a whole group over at Joseph and Priscilla’s who are expecting me back. I just stopped by to see if Jonathan has an extra donkey we can use tomorrow for the trip to Cana.”
“Well, now, I’m sure we can help you out with that,” Uncle Jonathan said as he joined us. “I need to head over to the shop to check on the boys, anyway, so why don’t we go together and see what we can do. John Mark, don’t you want to come with us?”
I was happy to have something to do, and even more pleased that it included Uncle Andrew. I was already thinking of questions.
Mama gave her brother another hug and a wary eye as we prepared to leave, but he tried to reassure her, saying they would have more time to talk at the wedding and there really was nothing for her to worry about. “Everything is just wonderful,” he actually said, “You will see.”
She was pleased, at least, to hear from his own mouth that we would see them in Cana. She had wondered just that morning if we really would: “If they have taken as much time away from their fishing as Aunt Tabby says, can they really take another whole week for a wedding?”
Soon my uncles and I were turning onto the road leading to town, and I took my chance. “Uncle Andrew, is it true, what they say?”
“And what do they say, my quickly sprouting nephew?”
“Well, Aunt Tabaitha told us about your visit, and what you told her about John the baptizer and how you and Uncle Simon thought he was a true prophet and wanted to work as his disciples,” I said.
“So far, all true, young John,” he said. “And what else did our elegant Auntie tell you?”
“She told us this weird story about how the baptizer is really a cousin of your friend Joshua, who also works for Zebedee, and that when John baptized him in the river, a voice spoke over his head and said Joshua was his son, and, so, now some people are saying he must be the Messiah,” I tried to get it all out without sounding completely silly.
“Well, John,” Uncle Andrew said, “I wasn’t there in the river with them. I was only watching from the bank, but I can tell you that whatever happened out there really shook them up pretty well, but in a good way, you might say. It was as if they were possessed when they came back on shore, but not by demons. Possessed by angels, maybe. They walked right past Simon, me and both of the Zebedee boys as if we weren’t even there. The three of them, all but Jesus, did open up to us later when they returned to camp, but Jesus seemed the most affected of all. It must have really stunned him. He said nothing after it happened, not a single word to anyone. Just kept walking from the river, to the bank, and on up the slope until he disappeared into the undergrowth.”
“But, what happened to him?” I continued undaunted, “Aunt Tabaitha said that was weeks ago and he hasn’t been seen since.”
“That was true, John, but no more,” he replied, “He finally reappeared yesterday afternoon. Came right back down to John’s camp by the river and, well, he’s here in Nazareth right now. A whole group of us are staying with him tonight at his brother’s house.”
“What!?” Uncle Jonathan and I said in unison
“We are all going together to the wedding,” Uncle Andrew said, “but let me bring you up to date. Everything you said is true, young John, but much has happened since we visited with Aunt Tabby. There is much more to tell you.”
Once again I realized just what a difference it made to be accepted as an adult. The last time I had been with Uncle Andrew, I was a child in his eyes, and though he was never less than kind and always had time for me, he had treated me as a child. Now, he spoke to me as if we were equals. It felt well-deserved, somehow, and I found myself growing into my new height.
“It was early yesterday when he finally came down from the hills east of the river,” Uncle Andrew continued. “He had been sheltering in a cave up there the whole time, but somehow James and Johnny had just missed him.”
“What was he doing?” I asked.
“He told me he was praying. Or, more specifically, that he was ‘spending time with his Heavenly Father.’”
My excitement was rising. “Do you think he really is the Messiah?”
“Well, we had a good, long talk, my nephew, about many things,” he replied.
“Oh, please, Uncle,” I said, “I want to know. Tell me everything!”
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll happily tell you what I can, though things are moving so fast that I’m not even sure what I know, at least not yet. So much seems to be mere happenstance!
“You see, yesterday, just as Jesus was returning, heading into the crowd surrounding John’s encampment, there was an incident. A boy – one not quite as old as you – had climbed a tree to get a better view of everything, but fell out and broke his arm.
“Now, as the fates would have it, he fell very near to Jesus just as he passed by, and, of course, he stopped to attend to him. I saw all this only because I had taken a few moments apart to attend to nature and was just heading back when I heard the boy yelp, and glimpsed his fall a short distance away from where I was. I immediately moved his way as best I could, but the crowds were thick, and by the time I got to them, Jesus had already reset the bone and bound it to the boy’s chest with a drying cloth that had been left lying about.
“I offered to help, but when I realized there was not much else that could be done for the boy, all our frustrations of the last month just rushed out and I nearly shouted at him, ‘Jesus, where on earth have you been? We’ve been beside ourselves!’ Of course, he just smiled at me and said, ‘You need not have worried, my dear friend. I was about my Father’s business,’ as if that was that. Then He said there was much more for us to discuss and asked me to walk along as he returned the boy to his parents in Pella.
“So, John, as you can see, I’ve been with him a lot, actually, in the last few hours. We had more than enough time to talk about the voice in the river, about the angel Gabriel and, more importantly, many other questions about the Eternal Being and faith and the days to come. And, I have to tell you that his answers stirred my soul. Stirred it so deeply, in fact, that, by the time we were back at John’s camp, I was quite a different person. It’s all still very new, so I don’t really know how to put it, but I feel like I’ve been completely reborn, like a locust that has shed his hard, brittle self and left it on the tree trunk of things forgotten. I’m a new man with a new energy, a new purpose and a new expectation entirely based upon the fact that Jesus has, himself, become new, even something more than a man, in ways beyond my ability to convey.
“I wish I knew how to describe it, John, but even if I could, you would still have to feel the power of his personality to really understand what I’m saying. By the time we were back in camp, I knew that the rest of my life must be, will be, somehow tied to his. At first, I resisted when John insisted that Jesus, and not he, was the anointed one – heck, how do you accept that the Messiah could really be someone you’ve been fishing with for years? – but it only took that short walk to Pella to settle it. Yes, he is still my old friend Jesus, but now he has become something much more than that; still a man, yes, but a man transformed by a grace and, I don’t know, tangible spirituality that embraces and uplifts, that saturates all who come near him. He is quite beyond any other man I have ever encountered in ways that I don’t really know how to explain, John, but you will see him soon. You will be able to judge for yourself.”
“I’ve seen him before,” I said, “many times, in Zebedee’s shop.”
“And I, too, have known him for most of my life,” Uncle Andrew said, “but he’s different now. Stronger, bigger, oh, I despair for words! This is all so absurd and strange and wonderful at the same time. It’s like a dream. I know better than to be so pliant, and I don’t think I’m gullible, John, at least not as bad as your Uncle Simon, but these things are really happening and my soul is being transformed – was transformed – during that walk on the road to Pella.”
“Did you tell him that?” I asked.
“Well, of course. How could I not? Just before we rejoined the others, I told him that I had always been impressed by his skills as a boat-builder and fisherman, had greatly admired the way he had risen to the occasion when his father died, and had always looked up to him as a remarkably gifted, good man. But, I went on to tell him that I had begun to realize through the glow of our conversation that afternoon just how much godliness – how much spiritual substance – resides within him and shines through his every gesture. Indeed, I told him, only a true child of destiny could be as compelling as he, and my dilemma, now that my eyes had been opened, was whether to continue my work with John, or shift my allegiance to him.”
“What did he say to that,” Uncle Jonathan chimed in.
“He looked into my eyes without hesitation and simply said, ‘Follow me,’” Uncle Andrew replied. “And he didn’t have to ask twice. Only a man sent by the Divine Father, Himself, could be so rare, and I told him I would happily sit at his feet to partake of his wisdom for as long as he wished me there.
“With that, we embraced and he assured me that the work we had to do was both right and important. Then he congratulated me on being ‘the first of his chosen apostles.’”
“And, Uncle, this is really the same Joshua that we all know; that builds boats and catches fish and goes on caravan adventures?” I asked, still somewhat incredulous – maybe even a little more so now that the depth of Uncle Andrew’s conviction was so fully on view.
“Yes, John, it is Joshua ben Joseph, the same name, the same son of the same father, but, no, John, he is by no means the same man. He is something more than ever before. I really can’t explain it. There really are no words.”
“So where was Simon all this time, while you were off to Pella?” Uncle Jonathan asked.
“Oh, I don’t think he even missed me,” Uncle Andrew said. “The Sabbath is always our busiest day, and yesterday was no different. Simon was so busy working with the newly immersed that he didn’t even know about the boy and his broken arm. In fact, I was the only one who even knew that Jesus had returned. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and it wasn’t until after we got back to camp that we were all reunited, and I was able tell Simon about everything.”
“What did he say?” Uncle Jonathan asked. “Martha said he is very intense about this John fellow. He must have been upset if you just decided to change your allegiance like that without talking to him first.”
“Well, to be honest, I was worried about that, myself,” Uncle Andrew replied, “but I needn’t have been. I went straight to him when we got back to camp and told him everything, but I was astonished. He was not put out at all. He said that ever since Jesus had come back to work for Zebedee, he had sensed there was something different about him, something divine in his eyes that was hard to express. ‘I think he comes from God,’ he told me, and that was that.
“Of course, we’ve both been very active for John these last few weeks – he’s become like a brother to us – so that was a real concern, as well. Simon asked if we wouldn’t be breaking our promise to John, so we finally decided to go to the baptizer and ask him outright what we should do.”
“I imagine he wasn’t so pleased,” I said.
“Well, to be honest, John Mark, it was hard for all three of us. His eyes grew watery when we told him, but then he said the most extraordinary thing. He said, ‘My brothers, this is but the beginning of something grand and wonderful. It will not be long before we are all his disciples. Go to him, by all means, and give him fully your hearts, your minds and your souls. I can think of no better gift to send my cousin than two such worthy and able men as you.’
“And, so, with those far-too-flattering words, the road we were taking took a turn to the west, toward a wedding, and, quite unexpectedly, here we are in Nazareth.”
“Who else is with you?” I asked.
“Well, Simon, of course,” he replied, “plus the Zebedee boys and two more new disciples who joined our group just this morning. It has been a busy day, young John, and things are moving very quickly. Counting Jesus, there are seven of us already. Fortunately, Priscilla is being a very good sport about our sudden arrival on her doorstep.”
“Already six disciples?” Uncle Jonathan asked. “That was fast!”
“There is divinity in it, Jonathan,” Uncle Andrew said. “For a thing to be so right, to fall together so quickly, it must be divine. There is joy profound in my soul that I cannot hope to explain, nor deign to resist.”
“So,” I ventured, “Manna thought the Zebedee boys were still up in the hills searching for Jesus. They must have been glad to see him back.”
“Well, ‘glad’ is not exactly the word for it. They really made fools of themselves last night, but all is now forgiven.” Uncle Andrew replied.
“And, unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones looking foolish. After receiving John’s gracious permission to realign ourselves, we went to tell Jesus that it was all settled, but Simon, of course, just couldn’t contain himself. He was fairly bursting and just went on and on to Jesus about how pleased he was, how wonderful he felt, and how exciting the future was going to be. In fact, it was such a display that I was beginning to get a little embarrassed, but Jesus just sat quietly and listened attentively until Simon finally had to come up for air, then he turned to him and said the perfect thing. ‘Simon,’ he said, ‘your enthusiasm is commendable but it is dangerous to the work we have to do. You really must learn to be more sober in your speech. I think we shall call you Peter.’”
“Ha!” Uncle Jonathan let out a single, hearty syllable.
We all got the joke – Peter means ‘Rock’ and rocks are three things: silent, strong and still. Uncle Simon was very strong, but also very passionate about life and I had never, ever seen him either silent or still for more than a moment. Joshua had known and worked with him for years, so the irony was certainly intended, but the name he bestowed on my uncle that day was also wise and prophetic. We become as we are known, I have found through decades of observation, and Uncle Simon-Peter grew, in time, to reflect his new name in many ways.
“I laughed, too,” Uncle Andrew said, “but not Jesus. He smiled but he was also perfectly serious, so we’ve all been calling him ‘Peter’ ever since.”
“And, you were saying, about the Zebedee boys?” Uncle Jonathan prompted.
“Well, when Jesus and I delivered the boy with the broken arm to his parents, they wanted to repay his kindness and insisted that he return to spend the night with them. So, after your Uncle Simon, uh, Peter, and I had spoken with him, he asked us to be ready to travel early this morning, and then departed the camp in time to get to Pella before dark. I’m sure he expected a comfortable night’s rest, but it was not to be.
“Almost immediately after he left the camp, James and Johnny came rushing into it, all in a frenzy, having heard that Jesus had returned. As Aunt Tabby told you, they have spent the last month and more, day after day, searching the hills, so when they heard he had returned to camp, they wasted no time in heading back to the river.”
“Well,” Uncle Jonathan said, “Jesus has lived with Zebedee, on and off, for years, so this must be very strange – beyond strange – for all of them.”
“Strange, perhaps,” Uncle Andrew responded, “but when they finally settled down and we had the chance to tell them everything that had happened in their absence, they completely agreed with our decision to follow Jesus, although it was impossible for them to hide their disappointment when we said something about being his first two apostles. Then they became even more upset when we told them that – after he had asked us to be packed and ready to leave this morning – Jesus had left the camp to spend the night in Pella. After forty long days of searching for him, it was all just too much and, in spite of our protestations, they decided they could not wait even another hour and headed off east to find him.”
“In the middle of the night?” Uncle Jonathan asked.
“Yes,” Uncle Andrew replied, “well, at least, it was after dark by then, and, of course, Joshua was sound asleep when they reached the house of those poor people in Pella, but they woke him up anyway and, of all things, lashed out at him for not naming them to be the first of his disciples!”
“Oh, no,” Uncle Jonathan said. “That couldn’t have gone over very well.”
“The truth is,” Uncle Andrew said, “they were mad at themselves for not being around when he came back, and not a little put out with him for being gone for forty days without so much as a word.
“But like I said, he’s good. He told them that their concerns were but shadows in their minds and that what they sought, they already had in their hearts; that they were already his apostles and had long been pillars of the Father’s kingdom, they just hadn’t realized it before. Then he suggested they rejoin us by the river and be ready to leave at sunrise.
“Of course, they were much too excited to sleep when they returned and we talked long into the night about what it all may mean. None of us really knows, of course, so it was a lot of conjecture and slapping at figments, but we are all ready to do our part, whatever that means.”
“And the other two?” I prompted.
“Ah, yes, my impatient nephew,” he said with a look to remind me that he was, after all, still my elder. “As planned, Jesus rejoined us at dawn, and it was just as we were leaving the camp, even before we crossed the river, that we ran into Philip, our Capernaum neighbor and a fellow fisherman, walking toward us on the road. He and his friend, Nathaniel, having heard the talk about John, had walked all night to hear him for themselves and see why people were making such a fuss.
“Well, as soon as he saw who we were, Philip left his friend to wait under a tree and rushed to meet us. We all said our hellos and then Simon, Peter, pulled Philip aside. He told him about our decision to devote ourselves to Jesus’s mission, and encouraged him to join us.
“This was all very sudden, of course. I mean, Philip and his friend had walked more than a day to hear John and see if they were inclined to be baptized, and suddenly there we were, asking him to turn around and go back the other way, and all this even before he or his friend had so much as laid eyes on John, much less heard him.
“He resisted at first, mostly, I think, because he didn’t want to look foolish in his friend’s eyes, but whatever was motivating him to say ‘no,’ it didn’t take long before Johnny Zebedee and I joined Si-, my brother, in trying to persuade him. Finally, someone suggested that Philip ask Jesus outright what he should do – after all, they are neighbors, too and have long known each other – and so he did.
“Well! Jesus looked him right in the eyes and simply said those same two words: ‘Follow me.’ It was the shortest sell in history. Philip later told me he just knew in his heart it was the right thing to do, and he must have, because right there and then he declared his allegiance. Then, just as Simon and the Zebedees had done, he, too, went a little over the top. Filled with joy and the passion of the moment, he suddenly turned and ran back down the hill to his friend, his arms waving wildly the whole way like a chicken trying to fly, shouting over and over, ‘I have found the Deliverer! I have found the Deliverer!’ He may have been a little punchy from staying up all night, but it was an unfiltered, spontaneous outpouring of pure human delight.”
“So much for not looking foolish,” Uncle Jonathan said.
“Well, at the very least, it got Nathaniel’s attention,” Uncle Andrew said. “We waited a short distance away while they talked, and though we couldn’t hear much, we did hear Nathaniel say, ‘Really, Phil? Can anything good come from Nazareth?’”
We all chuckled.
“Finally, Philip convinced him that he should talk with Jesus, too, and they approached him. You could see that Nathaniel was openly skeptical, but Jesus’s words completely wiped the doubt from his face. ‘Behold a genuine Israelite,’ he said, ‘in whom there is no deceit. Follow me.’
“You should have seen him! It was definitely not what he expected, and he stood stock still for a really long time. Finally, he smiled, turned to Philip and said, ‘You are right. He may be from Nazareth, but he is a master of men. I will also follow, if I am worthy.’ And so, young John, now you know the whole group: your Uncle Simon-Peter, James and Johnny Zebedee, our neighbor Philip from Capernaum and his friend, Nathaniel ben Bartholomew – who we now know, quite conveniently, lives in Cana with his parents – and me.”
“I know all but one of you!” I said, getting more excited with every step.
“Indeed, you do, John Mark.” He responded, “We are all fishermen of Capernaum, save Nathaniel, and lifelong friends.”
“And, so, what brings you to Nazareth?” Uncle Jonathan asked.
“Well, for one thing, your donkeys,” he laughed, “ But also, as it turns out, all seven of us were invited to Johab’s wedding, and since Jesus said he had reasons for stopping by his old family house on the way, we’re staying with Joseph and Priscilla just tonight, and then tomorrow will stay at Nathaniel’s house in Cana.”
“Can we come see you? Can we see Joshua?” I didn’t feel like I knew him well enough to call him Jesus, even if everyone else did.
“Once we get to Cana, of course you can, young John. I’m sure you will,” he replied.
“But that won’t be for two more days! What are you doing tonight?” I made bold to ask.
“I’m sorry John,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be right to burden his family any more than we already have. And since Jesus has decided to accompany his mother and Ruth from Capernaum to the wedding, he is leaving at first light tomorrow to fetch them, and won’t be rejoining us until late Tuesday evening. Don’t fret, nephew, you will get to speak with him soon enough.”
“I notice you called yourself a ‘disciple’ of John,” Uncle Jonathan said, “but an ‘apostle’ of Jesus. Why the difference?”
“It is the word of Jesus’s own choosing, not ours,” Uncle Andrew said, “and he has used it consistently. I haven’t asked him about it, but I think I understand it. He is not just looking for followers – disciples – but for true apostles, ‘messengers,’ if you will, who can work with him to help get the word out, can be an extension of his own voice. It will take more than one man to establish his Father’s new kingdom, and that is just what we are going to help him do.”
We reached our destination and turned into the broad, dusty staging area where much of the caravansary business was done. Nazareth, near the crossing of three major caravan routes, has for centuries been a meeting place of traders where cultures converge, filling the market with the rich smells of faraway places and a Babel of unknown tongues. All this exotic commerce is not easily accomplished, however, and quite a number of bustling camel stables such as my uncle’s line the edges of town.
Uncle Jonathan’s place, with the greatest number of loading stations in Nazareth, could feed, house and service as many as 200 camels at a time, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough to meet the demand. As we approached, he pointed to an adjacent property he had recently added to corral any overflow animals until room in the front opened up. It was a robust place, always noisy, smelly, dirty and crowded, and I loved it.
Once we arrived, Uncle Andrew quickly had his donkey and, after a hearty goodbye, was on his way back to Joseph and Priscilla’s. I badly wanted to go with him, but knew better than to bring it up again. How lucky he was, I thought, to be so close to the center of the action, to the Deliverer, if Deliverer he really was. I was sure I would be able to tell once I saw him again.
But, with that option out of the question, I tried to make myself useful around the caravansary, if for no other reason than to present a contrast to my useless cousins who were making mischief and running all about the place. I asked Uncle Jonathan for an assignment and he suggested I clean out the tack room at the back of the stables, so I dove in eagerly. I don’t think it had been done in months and there were waist-high piles of harnesses, saddles and all manner of leather goods that had just been tossed into every corner. Some of it was salvageable – just in need of a visit to the Sons of Joseph’s – but much of it was only good for burning. It was left up to me to sort it all out, and I was pleased that Uncle Jonathan trusted me enough to take on such a job without supervision.
My solitary assignment also gave me time to ponder the cascade of bizarre revelations we had encountered in the last few days. I was just one little boy of almost no consequence whatever, and yet, if the tales I was hearing held any truth at all, these were developments of worldwide – even Heavenly – import.
It was not lost on me just how inextricably linked to my own family these things were, or what an extraordinary opportunity was laid before me if the things I had learned were even partially true. I began to consider, as I swept up the straw and dusted the shelves, just how my own life’s story might be affected by Joshua the Capernaum boat-builder, and to cast about in my mind for ways to make it so.
The cleaning duty also mercifully relieved me of any chores related to the wedding. Uncle Jonathan, Aunt Martha, Mama, Papa and I planned to be in Cana for a week, and there were still final preparations to be completed before we left. We all required special clothing, and even I had been outfitted with a fine new tunic and the most beautiful cloak I had ever owned. Mama took seriously her reputation as the daughter who had made good, married well and moved to the big city, and she was not about to disappoint all of her old hometown friends if she had anything to say about it.
There were also many gifts to be made ready, not only for the bride and groom, but also for our hosts in Cana – a cousin of Uncle Jonathan’s named Malchus and his wife Johanna. In their late fifties, their children were long gone and they had more than enough room to house us. A prosperous trader in animal hides, Cousin Malchus was not only one of Uncle Jonathan’s best customers, he was also one of his primary suppliers. Aunt Martha had stressed to Mama just how important it was that our presentations be well received, and Mama had spent considerable time finding the perfect gifts. Among them was a beautifully woven and embroidered shawl from her own hand for Johanna, and a brightly-colored game set of Egyptian alabaster for her husband (that I tried to get Papa to leave at home, but it was a very brief conversation).
Putting the tack room in order turned out to be a larger job than either Uncle Jonathan or I had anticipated. I was only able to finish about half of it before the dark made it impossible to continue, but with another day to spend in Nazareth, I planned to come back the next morning and complete the task.
By the time I was ready to leave for Aunt Martha’s, only the night steward remained to care for the animals and keep a keen eye on the property, but it was far from empty. The caravan drivers, who slept with their camels, were clustered around cook fires dotting the staging area, singing songs and telling tales of their women. Their happy camaraderie lifted my spirits as I walked past, and the savory aromas from their stew pots told me just how hungry I was.
The twins and Uncle Jonathan had returned home much earlier, so I walked back alone and arrived just as the evening meal was being set out for the adults. Manna, Anna and the boys were already fed and sent to bed to give the rest of us more room at the table, piled high with Aunt Martha’s magic. She was a true artist in the kitchen, which I held accountable for her family’s spreading girth. All but Anna were sporting a little more around the middle than I remembered, and the boys were downright pudgy.
As we sat around the table, my elders spent most of the meal talking about old friends I’d never met and memories I didn’t have, so I ate in silence and thought about the day. It was hard to believe how much had happened since we had departed Aunt Tabaitha’s vineyards only that morning. It was already a far more marvelous adventure than I could possibly have imagined, and we hadn’t even made it to the wedding. I could only wonder what might be next.
I may have been at the table with the adults, but my sleeping quarters were in the crowded room where my cousins slept when it was too cold to use the roof. I found all three of the girls fast asleep and the boys still talking when I bedded down, but it didn’t matter. I was completely out in seconds.
The next morning I arose to a house of bedlam with far too many people rushing about, so as soon as I had swallowed a few bites of bread and some dried fruit, I started for the caravansary to finish what I had begun. Uncle Jonathan, who had arrived ahead of me, was surveying the tack room when I arrived and complimented me on the work I had already completed. He told me I could have a job with him anytime, if I wanted it. It was the first job offer I had ever received and it felt good even if I already knew that cleaning up after camels would not be my future if I had anything to say about it. It had only taken one afternoon for my romantic notions of the place to be undone.
Nevertheless, I still had a job to do for Uncle Jonathan, and, bolstered by his offer, I wanted to do it as well as I could. Consequently, it was already mid-afternoon by the time I finally finished. Mercifully, Aunt Martha had a plate of her tasty food waiting for me when I returned to the house, and I happily scarfed it all down in mere moments, refilled my plate, and happily scarfed it down again, all the while considering the revelations of the caravansary.
Gossip, they say, flies on ravens’ wings, but I had discovered it also grows in camel dung, and I had heard a surprising amount of talk all day about the big news, which was taken with varying degrees of seriousness and came in two versions, depending upon whether you were a local or a visitor. It was either “Have you heard the news? The Messiah is a Nazarene!” or, “How could anyone think a savior could come from this benighted place?”
By then, most of those who lived nearby had already been to the river to hear John, and the arrival of four of his most visible lieutenants in the company of such a well-known local as Joshua ben Joseph had not gone unnoticed. By mid-morning, the Galilean rumor tree was in full flower. “Could it really be true?” was the prevailing sentiment shouted back and forth over the humps of the camels as I listened from my corner.
I’ve never really known why Nazareth suffered such a questionable reputation in those years, but it was considered the ultimate irony for anything worthwhile to hail from Nazareth. For as long as anyone could remember – and with no real basis in logic – it was considered the birthplace of backwoods bumpkins, and seemed unavoidably destined to suffer a never-ending stream of condescending jibes.
“How many Nazarenes does it take to milk a goat?” is one I heard when very young and have never, somehow, been able to forget. “Five, of course” came the response, “one to hold the teats and four to move the goat up and down. It takes nine for a cow.”
My hunger finally satisfied by Aunt Martha’s largesse, but my throat parched, I walked out to the courtyard for some water, but what greeted me was much more thrilling. There, aglow in the sunlight but just sitting on the ledge by the well as if she were anyone, was my dear, dear Sela. I have already told you she was best friends with Manna, but what I have failed, until now, to mention is that she was beautiful to me – the most beautiful – and I was hopelessly in love with her. It may have been an innocent’s love, but it was love, nevertheless. She could lift my spirits in a way, and to heights, that no one else, before or since, has ever been able to do. It had been more than two long years since I had last seen her, and from Mama’s first mention of a trip to Cana, I had anticipated this moment.
I was also excited to see her for another reason. I was certain she would be able to tell me more about what was going on at her Aunt Priscilla’s house.
Sela’s eyes smiled into mine as soon as they met. We embraced warmly and it seemed to me that she was as happy to see me as I was to see her. Looking back, it is clear that our mutual love was entirely impossible and naïve in the extreme, but we didn’t know that at the time, and wouldn’t have cared. Ours was clear, unadulterated, swimmable joy.
She insisted I tell her all that had happened to me in the last two years, so I filled her in as quickly as I could. I knew I should then show her the same courtesy, but I couldn’t help myself and, as soon as the opportunity arose, launched right into my questions about the Jesus group.
Fortunately, she didn’t even seem to notice, and was as happy to talk about the strange doings in her neighborhood as I was. I think she shared my fascination with the idea of Joshua as the Messiah. Unfortunately, she didn’t have all that much to tell. The seven men had left early that morning, going in two directions. Jesus, alone, to the northeast around Mount Tabor to fetch his mother and sister from Capernaum, while the apostles traveled north to Cana. In spite of her Aunt Priscilla’s warm hospitality and willing spirit, Sela said the house was truly too small for so large a group, especially when more suitable accommodations awaited them at Nathaniel’s family home in Cana, so they had already headed in that direction.
Nathaniel, the only one of the six Apostles not then fishing for a living in Capernaum, was the youngest of seven siblings and, like Aunt Tabaitha, had found himself the last child remaining to care for elderly parents in a large and empty house. Up till then, his role was more one of assurance than assistance. His father, Bartholomew, was still an active, successful merchant and Nathaniel fully expected to someday follow him in the family business.
“The most interesting thing I have to tell you,” Sela’s look told me that she had saved the best till last, “is what happened last night.”
“Oh, Sela,” Anna, finally broke her silence, “do tell.” I hadn’t even realized she and Manna were there until she spoke.
“Well, Anna, it was the strangest thing.” Sela said. “After supper we were sitting around the hearth and talking about Jesus and John the baptizer and wondering about all the same questions that everyone else seems to be asking today, when Papa noticed the glow of a fire out back and went to check. We all followed him, of course, and there across the way was Jesus, himself, burning a big pile of wood scraps in a pit behind his house.
“At first I thought maybe he was crying. I thought I saw the glint of a tear on his cheek, and there was something about the look on his face, as if he had lost something dear, but maybe it was just the smoke in his eyes. As we stood there watching, the wind brought it straight toward us and it smelled of pine and cedar. My throat began to sting, so I went back into the house, but Papa said Jesus just stood there, by himself, quietly watching until the fire had burned up every last cinder. Then he scattered the embers with a stick and went back inside without a word to anyone.”
“What about his disciples – his apostles – weren’t they with him,” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “It was just so peculiar. He was alone, completely alone. The house was full of his companions, but we never saw anyone else. And, even stranger, he must have known we were watching, but he didn’t even acknowledge we were there. Never looked up at all, just looked into that fire and watched it burn.
“So, what do you think that was all about?” I asked.
“Well, of course, I had to know, so this morning as soon as chores were done I went to visit Aunt Priscilla. All the men were gone by then, so she could talk, and she told me the whole bizarre story.”
“Everything about this whole Megillah is bizarre,” I said.
“John Mark, I know that house really well,” she continued without losing a beat. “I’ve been going in and out of it since before I could walk. Of course, in the early days it was full to the rafters with Mary and all her children, but then five of them married all in a row, leaving her there alone with Ruth, so two years ago they moved to Capernaum to live with James, and Aunt Priscilla and Uncle Joseph moved in.”
I was looking impatient.
“I’m only telling you all this,” she responded, “so you will believe me when I say that the most outstanding feature of that house – the thing everyone remembers – has always been the beautiful collection of inscribed sayings adorning the walls.”
“Sayings?” I asked.
“You know,” she said, “sayings. Some of them scriptures, others mottoes, words to live by, whatever you want to call them; dozens of them inscribed on wooden plaques in that house, in every room. Some brightly painted and others artfully burned into the wood with a hot awl. Some even with carved flowers or patterns decorating the edges, and all written in a fine, fancy hand. Jesus made them, has been making them ever since he was a child, according to Mama. And ever since I started to learn how, reading them has been one of my favorite things to do when I’m over there.”
“I didn’t know you could read,” I said, surprised. “When did you learn to read?” None of the Jerusalem girls were taught how to read.
“Uncle Joseph has been teaching me,” she said. “He told me that when they were growing up, Jesus insisted that they all, girls and boys, learn how, and they had all taught each other. He has a double set of Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew that once belonged to his father, and we’ve been reading together every week, but, now, stop interrupting or I’ll never get to the good part.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m just excited that you can read because now we can write to each other.”
“I’m not that good yet,” she said, “but Uncle Joseph says I will be.”
“But, I’m sorry, Sela, you were saying,” I prompted, “about the sayings?”
“Well, if that volume of scriptures is the most valuable possession in that house, and I’m pretty sure it is, those beautiful works of Jesus on the walls were undoubtedly the most beloved – by everyone. It gave the place so much personality, made it special. Those inscribed plaques were the soul of that house, but not anymore.”
“That’s what he was burning?” I cut to the heart of the matter. It was hard not to see where she was going.
“Yes!” she said. “Aunt Prissy told me that last night after the meal was finished Jesus excused himself and, without so much as a word about what he was doing, went around to all the rooms, even the carpentry shop, and removed every last one of those plaques until his arms were nearly overflowing, then took them all out back of the house and burned them. Can you believe that?
“Uncle Joseph saw what he was doing and begged him not to, but he wouldn’t pay him any mind and only said it was something he had to do; that he was truly sorry, but he had no choice. It was the ‘will of his Father in Heaven’ or something like that. Isn’t that just the strangest thing? I just don’t see the point!”
“Well, what did they say, these wall plaques?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing very surprising,” she said. “Certainly nothing controversial. One of them was the Ten Commandments. Others said simple things like ‘Be ye patient,’ or ‘Take courage from conviction.’ Also, I remember one that said ‘Never fear those whose fear of you is greater,’ which I thought was good advice, and then there was one in the shop that said ‘be ye circumspect,’ but I have no idea what that means.”
“Me, neither,” I said. “I don’t understand what any of it means.”
“There was no reason for him to do it that anyone can think of.” Sela said. “He even burned the most special one, the one he made for his mother after his father died. I’m really glad she wasn’t there to see it. It was the largest and most beautiful, with the entire Shepherd’s Psalm surrounded by scenes of the countryside. It has always hung in the main room by the fire. What a shame. I really don’t understand.”
“He must have had a good reason,” I said, as if I knew. I was as baffled as Sela by his strange behavior, but I was already forming an allegiance to the idea of Joshua ben Joseph being “divine” as Uncle Simon had said, and I wanted to believe it. “Someday, perhaps, we will understand why he did it,” I said.
“I doubt it,” she said. “I doubt that very much.”
“John! Son! I need you.” It was my mother calling. I had escaped wedding duty as long as I could, so I looked into Sela’s eyes one more time, thanked her for her visit, promised to see her again very soon, and went to see what Mama could possibly want that was so important.
You would think, after our considerable time and effort, that all would have gone smoothly on our last full day of preparation, but that wouldn’t have factored in Aunt Martha. Somewhat prone to overcompensating for her non-existent shortcomings, she had assigned herself the task of preparing an enormous amount of food to take with us, and continued baking all afternoon, right up until dark. It was for this that, fully three times, I was sent into town for ingredients that she was sure she had on hand, until she didn’t.
[For convenience, first eight chapters have been combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1 ]
Finally, all was done that could be done and, as we sat for the Monday evening meal, we were pleased with our day’s work. There would only be a few last-minute tasks to check off before we five – plus one mercilessly overloaded donkey – could set out for Cana the next morning.
The trip would be a walk of three hours, and we wanted to arrive well before dark. This was ostensibly to give our hosts ample time to get us settled in before supper, but I had overheard Mama and Aunt Martha, and knew that it was really to make sure the sun would still be well up in the sky when Malchus and Johanna were presented their gifts.
While I was helping Papa load the animal, he remarked off-handedly that we might meet other wedding guests along the road and should keep a look out. Uncle Jonathan added that he fully expected to see old friends, and wouldn’t be surprised to find them walking beside us as we journeyed north.
And though, as it turned out, none of them were known to us, we did begin seeing candidates almost as soon as we had left Nazareth behind. For one thing, there were far more women in route to Cana that day than would ordinarily have been the case, a sure sign of personal, rather than commercial, traffic. And, there were other indications, as well. Compared to the traders and craftsmen who one expected to see on the road, casual travelers were much less meticulous in their dress, and if they had a pack animal, it was almost always a lightly-loaded donkey, lest any lurking highwaymen be tempted. Even though our own ass carried valuable cargo that day, you would not have suspected it by looking at our unimposing group.
With so many people to choose from, we made a game of sorts as we went along, speculating on which of our fellow travelers we would also see the next day at the feast. Right from the start, we discerned far more than we might have expected, and the closer we came to Cana, the more potential guests there seemed to be.
“Well, all of these people can’t be going to the wedding,” Mama said at one point. “I know for a fact that Nathan only invited two-hundred-and-fifty. There must be something else going on in Cana this week, or perhaps in Sepphoris, or beyond.”
“Well that, dear sister, really can’t be,” Aunt Martha said flatly, “or I would know about it.”
“She really would, you know,” Uncle Jonathan added.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Cana we were actually laughing at the absurdity of it all. There were so many people entering the little town that it seemed like we had fallen into some preposterous dream, a perception that grew even stronger once we discovered where they were all so intent upon going.
In spite of Mama’s observation that they couldn’t be, it turned out that all these people – without the least hint of an invitation – really were on their way to the wedding. But, they were not drawn there for the ceremony, or the feast, or even the bride and groom. Most of them, in fact, didn’t even know who was getting married. The only reason they were on their way to Cana was because the story of John and Jesus and the voice in the river had spread across the countryside like locusts on a desert wind until all Galilee had heard it, and everyone wanted to see this “Son of God” for themselves.
And, we knew all of this not because we asked a soul. We didn’t have to. The nearer we came to the gate, the closer we grew to our fellow travelers – close enough to overhear them – and almost everything said on the road that day was talk of Jesus or John or angels or, the favorite, “Could he really be from Nazareth?”
It would seem that Jesus’s complete disappearance into the hills for so long a time had added enough suspense to the tale – spread by fishermen to every town along the lakeshore – that by the time he did reappear, the whole Province was on tip-toe. Consequently, once word got out that he and his followers would be guests at the Cana celebration, there was no stopping the curious, the needy, or those famished for freedom from Roman rule, from moving resolutely toward that place.
So here they came in their hundreds. Somehow they had all gotten it into their heads that this wedding was going to be much more than just a wedding, that the new age, even the New Israel, would be “brought forth in glory,” as we heard one of them say. They were all actually entertaining the idea that our “new Deliverer” – that is to say, the man whom we still considered our boat-building neighbor, not some metaphysical wonderworker – would take advantage of the large gathering to “throw off the Imperial yoke” in some great stroke of power right before their eyes – if they could but get there. They were all determined, even desperate, to see Joshua, and if that meant showing up at a wedding uninvited, the shame of it would be a small price to pay.
Now, this was somewhat disconcerting for our little group. On the one hand, as invited guests, we inevitably looked askance as we gleaned their destination, but on the other, there was something noble in the strength of their convictions. These were strangers doing something that, ordinarily, they wouldn’t dream of doing: go to a wedding uninvited. Indeed, I would almost wager that none of them had ever done such a thing in their entire lives. But on that day, propriety had become the captive of yearning, a yearning so strong it bordered on anguish. These were the Children of Israel still wandering in the desert, so badly burned by the blowing sands of Empire, and so hungry for hope, that even an outlandish rumor had been enough to overtake their usual good sense of propriety.
And, there were as many opinions as there were travelers. Expectations of the Messiah they sought were anything but constant and ranged from a new prophet in the mold of the olden ones, to Heaven’s own General, complete with chariots of fire at his command. And, as I listened, I realized my own expectations were much more modest. For one thing, I already knew him to be a normal human being who had, once upon a time, turned the eye of my mother, not the miraculous deity they envisioned, and for another, it simply didn’t make sense to me. Would any truly divine messenger impose upon a wedding feast to launch a revolution? I doubted it.
All-in-all, it was one of the most memorable, and I can now say, educational, days of my youth, as I witnessed on that road a spontaneous, serendipitous display of behavior having very little to do with reality or common sense. For my still-developing soul, it was a vivid lesson in both the astonishing range of human behavior and the fragility of reason, a lesson that has never grown stale.
Ultimately, in spite of the press, we passed through the Cana gates and reached Malchus and Johanna’s beautiful garden home only a little later than planned. We were never more pleased to have arrived at a destination. “Can you believe all these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?” were Johanna’s first words at the gate. It was clear that she had not yet heard.
“We will tell you all about it,” Aunt Martha said, “as soon as we refresh ourselves.” We relieved the donkey of its burden and brought the pack with us into the welcoming courtyard where Malchus was waiting to greet us.
After all the fuss Aunt Martha had made, I was expecting some imposing – even imperious– lord of the manor, but the man who greeted us with a wide smile and open arms was none of that. To begin with, he was short, even shorter than I was, but strong like an ox with veins that stood out against the muscles of his forearms. His dark leathery skin contrasted with his thick crop of close-cut, snow-white hair, but – another surprise – he had adopted the Roman custom and wore no beard at all!
With a glimmer in his eyes and a chuckle in his voice he fairly bounced toward us when we entered. He first tried to take the donkey pack, and looked as if he easily could, but Uncle Jonathan wouldn’t hear of it so instead he came to each of us, in turn, with a welcoming embrace and a look so deep that I felt for an instant like our souls had touched. He was as wise and warm as he was wrinkled and I was immediately drawn to him. He was, I thought, exactly the me that I would someday want to be.
And, Johanna was as enchanting as her husband was impressive. She was the same height as he, and had the same sparkle, only her white hair, tied with a blue ribbon at the nape of her neck, hung in waves all the way down to her waist. The home of Malchus was also unique in at least three other ways. For one thing, though he was one of the wealthiest men in Cana, they had decided to forego keeping household servants and make do for themselves.
“All the children are gone,” Johanna said, “and it just is not that much work. It feels like it did when we were young, just the two of us, working together, making a life. And with him making a mess in the courtyard from dawn to dusk, throwing mud and thorny things about in every direction, servants would just be in the way.”
That was the second thing: their breathtaking courtyard garden. Malchus told us that since his childhood he had been fascinated by the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens and now that the children no longer needed the roof for sleeping, he had the space, time and money to grow one for himself.
From outside the house, all you could see were the almond-colored earthen walls braced by sturdy timbers, but pass through the heavy wooden gate and you moved from the land of sand and baking sun into a magic garden made cool with the foliage of a thousand plants; a place so resplendent with color and perfumed with flowers that it almost seemed to sing. It was as unexpected as it was sublime, and a vision the likes of which I had certainly never seen before that moment, and have rarely seen since. Plantings covered every smidgen of available space, beginning at the entryway and climbing every wall. Banks of irrigated terraces led your eyes right up to the top of the house, and even there the visual feast continued with an actual grove of flowering trees – trees! – looking down like proud parents upon the breathtaking display below. It was a luxuriant, lustrous contrast to the monochromatic world all around it.
Malchus had made it all possible by outfitting the roof with rows of outsized tree boxes constructed of cedar and lined with pitch, and arranged the whole assemblage to show off an international collection gathered from far-off lands that included banks of exotic shrubs and a mind-boggling assortment of flowering rarities.
We were fortunate to arrive at the peak of the early season. The bright yellow double flowers of prickly calycotome were just beginning to fade, Rockrose bushes draped in deep fuchsia blossoms rounded out corners and cascaded over walls, while, rising up behind all the rest, the muted purple buds of the cercis trees were just beginning to pop.
Malchus had placed meandering paths through beds of anemones arranged in wavy rows, broken here and there with red and yellow ranunculae jumping out from behind artfully placed river rocks. There were clumps of silver salvia, swaths of red poppies, an entire area of dormant roses and even, in one back corner, a small pond where tree-ferns and blue irises clung to the muddy edge and lotuses promised to bloom in June.
Of course, none of this was new to Aunt Martha, and, discretion not being her greatest asset, I was impressed that she had managed to keep it all a secret. Her silence was rewarded by our astonishment as she clearly relished watching our jaws drop. I knew it was beautiful, but I was even more impressed when Mama said she had certainly never seen anything to equal it, and Papa made Malchus’s day by commenting that it reminded him of some of the Pharonic gardens along the Nile.
As an importer of every sort of animal fur and skin, Malchus had sent his agents to roam the world on buying trips with two standing instructions: to contract for only the best pelts possible, and to return with as many unusual plant specimens as they could find. He had planted much of his garden with seeds grown as far away as Sicily and Iberia, but preferred to transplant living specimens whenever possible. One dwarf tree from the far western province of Lusitania had been kept alive for six months before it finally reached Cana. Many of the imported plants died, he told us, but many lived, and some of the specimens I found that week in his garden I have never seen again.
Once our enthusiasm was clear, he was eager to show off his watering system. He had brought in a contractor to build it, but it was designed by him to be easily managed. A set of enormous cisterns had been sunk underground so that even during dry periods there would be sufficient water to keep everything alive. From there, it could be brought to the roof using a clever system of ropes, pulleys and buckets, and, early each morning, Malchus would climb to the roof to give the garden its daily drink.
Once it was raised to the level of the roof, the water was directed into a series of baked-clay channels running throughout the gardens. These were designed to deliver just the right flow all the way back down to the ground level, where any overflow was collected in the little pitch-lined pond where the irises grew. The pond also served to trap sediment, which was then used to enrich the soil throughout the garden, and any excess water was channeled back into the cisterns. Malthus’s accomplishment was impressive as a feat of engineering, but it was transporting as a living work of art. Any king, I thought, would cherish such a garden.
We were so taken by surprise and enamored with the beauty before us, that it took some time before Mama remembered to bring out the gifts we had brought, but she recovered herself before we went inside. She had insisted they be the final items Papa packed so they could easily be retrieved, and, as planned, they were well received in the rosy glow of late afternoon. Aunt Martha’s skill at the loom, multiplied by Mama’s skill with a needle, made for some enviable table linens, and Malchus seemed to be as thrilled with the game set as we had hoped he would be. Now that I had met him, I was glad Papa hadn’t let me keep it.
Finally, almost an hour after we had arrived, we made it inside, where the third, and perhaps most remarkable, thing about the house of Malchus became apparent. For four generations, his family had dealt in animal skins, and the lavish use of leathers and furs throughout their home reminded us of that history at every turn. Much of the furniture was covered in hides, some with fur, some without, and the sleeping platforms were piled high with plush pelts that promised to deliver the most luxurious sleep I had ever enjoyed.
Johanna seemed as proud of her furnishings as Malchus was of his garden, and she took great delight in educating us all about the great range of animal life represented in her home. I listened well and learned a lot, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get as excited about dead skins as I had been about the living flowers outside, which sang to me as if every bloom had a voice, and all were joined in marvelous harmonies.
Aunt Martha’s food was next to appear out of the pack, and by the time dark had overtaken us, we were presented with a table overladen with dishes from both Cana and Nazareth. I was getting used to being the least among equals, and ate in relative silence as Aunt Martha spent most of the meal making good on her promise, telling our hosts in great detail the story of John and Joshua ben Joseph, the Voice in the River, and just why all these strange people had suddenly crowded into their little town.
Other than Malchus’s visits to his workshops, Johanna’s daily marketing, and weekly trips to the synagogue, the two of them hardly ever left the beauty of their home and paid little attention to current events. “At my age,” Malchus said, “it seems to me I know everything I need to know. If there’s another war, someone will tell me.” I smiled inside, remembering Legolas’s words of only a few nights before, “I don’t think anybody knows everything yet.”
“So all these people think they are going to Naomi and Johab’s wedding?” Johanna asked. “Do Nathan and Hadassah know?”
“Surely they know by now,” Mama said. “In any event, I’m supposed to go early in the morning to help Naomi get ready, so I’ll make sure they are warned.” Though only second cousins, Mama and Naomi had spent several childhood summers together at Aunt Tabaitha’s, and were dear friends. As soon as Mama had told her we were coming, Naomi had asked her to serve as one of her attendants.
“You know,” Johanna said, “it’s not really a very large place, our sweet Cana, and it is going to be rather hard, with all these people in the streets, to move about. Thank goodness the bride and groom live near each other, or the procession would be impossible.”
“So true,” Mama said. “Of course, if they weren’t neighbors, they might never have met in the first place. Surely, we will have enough room to pass through from Abner’s to Nathan’s. I can’t imagine the street will be that crowded. I mean, that would be just absurd.”
“I wouldn’t be concerned, lovely lady,” Malchus said. “There are more than enough true Canans around to keep you safe, and Abner and Nathan have many friends. You may be assured your path will be clear.”
“Well, the procession is set to start at noon,” Mama said.
“And so it shall,” Malchus decreed, “without hindrance or hitch. Tomorrow, right after breakfast, I will check with Nathan and, if needed, I’ll happily organize the men, myself.”
“I should plan to leave then, too,” Mama added. It will take all morning just to get Naomi ready, not to mention the rest of us!”
“Well, you don’t have far to go, you know,” Johanna said, “We’re very close. Their street is just one over from ours and we share the alleyway in between. In fact, our back gates are right across from each other. It’s a bit of a mess back there – you have to step over the drainage channel – but you’ll find Nathan’s gate directly opposite ours and Abner’s is only two houses down, toward the synagogue.”
“How perfect,” Mama said, “I knew we had come to the right place! I was already getting concerned about moving through that crowd tomorrow morning, and, well, that’s just wonderful news.”
I was also pleased to hear this, but for my own selfish reasons, since it would make it much easier for me to escape the festivities if they got too tiresome.
The meal concluded with a wine imported from Cappadocia and Malchus filled each of our cups to the top. Compared to that served by Legolas, the vintage was far superior, but it was as nothing compared to the cup I had been given by Aunt Tabaitha. I realized I was developing a sense of the comparative merits of different wines. Legolas’s was potable but sharp and bitter, Malchus’s Grecian wine was much more pleasant – flavorful and fruity – but Old Seth’s was, so far, at least, in a category of one.
“What a day,” Papa said as he stifled a yawn and stretched his arms. We were all anticipating an early start and I especially wanted to be up and about to help Malchus with his morning watering. He had already given permission, and I looked forward to following the water as it flowed down its labyrinthine course of terra cotta channels from the roof trees right on down to the soggy irises by the back gate. But, I would have to be up with the sun to do it.
Enticed by the pile of fur allotted me for the purpose, I had already laid out my bedroll in the small back bedroom assigned to me, and I didn’t resist in the least when Mama suggested I join it. I had never had such a bed before, and when I first pulled the cover up to my neck I just lay there on my back, closed my eyes and imagined I was on a cloud. The cloud was floating through the night sky and carrying me to all the exotic places Malchus had mentioned: Malta, Rome, Alexandria, Dalmatia. I’m not sure when my imagined adventure turned into a dream, but I was just steering my cloud into Babylon to rain on the hanging gardens below when Mama shook me awake. It was still so dark she seemed like a shadow.
“I’m letting your father sleep,” she whispered, “but Malchus is already dressed and heading into the courtyard, so if you want to watch him water, you’d better get up.”
By the time she finished the sentence, my head had cleared, and I was up and dressed in two stings of a scorpion. I said a quick good morning to our hostess and Aunt Martha, who were preparing breakfast, then hurriedly climbed to the roof where Malchus was already working his pulleys.
It was a beautiful day for a wedding, surely the harbinger of a happy feast. More like June than February, the sun was bright and warm, and the blue of the sky was deepened by just enough billowy clouds marching past to make it seem as if we were moving.
Malchus’s happy greeting put me instantly at ease, and made me glad to have answered Mama’s wake-up call. He offered to let me try my hand at drawing the water up to the roof, and I eagerly grasped the ropes. His clever rigging made the task so easy, and I was enjoying myself so much, that it seemed like no time at all before he was telling me to stop, that it was enough. We secured the buckets and as we followed the flow down from the roof, through his maze of irrigation channels, and, ultimately, to the courtyard pool, he delighted in introducing me to his prized rarities as if each were a favored child. He fondled the delicate blooms to show me their symmetries, and his deep reverence for nature’s genius was both clear and contagious. In that one short lesson, Old Malthus forever transformed my own fascination with the boundless variety of our Creator’s generous splendor, so often encountered when we least expect it, and always a surprise.
By the time we returned to the table, Aunt Martha’s bountiful breakfast was waiting and, suddenly aware that I was famished, I wasted no time eating my fill.
Mama was already gathering up the considerable collection of wedding paraphernalia she had brought for just this moment, and soon took her leave. Though some guests would likely arrive early in the day, the wedding proper wasn’t set to begin until noon, when the bride and her entourage would proceed from her house – the house of Abner – to that of Trader Nathan, where the groom, Johab, would be waiting to receive her. With crowds already gathering, we were grateful that those back gates would allow us to avoid the crush along the processional route, and planned to delay our arrival until just before Naomi and her attendants, including Mama, would be making their appearance.
With Mama gone, Aunt Martha and Johanna were soon deep into their own conversation, while Papa, Uncle Jonathan and Malchus turned their attention to discussing business affairs. This left me, as usual, to my own devices, but that was exactly as I had hoped the morning would develop since I was impatient to get out and see things for myself.
Earlier, even from the roof garden, Malchus and I had heard the rumble of many voices in the distance. He said he’d lived there his whole life but had never heard such a sound. It reminded me a lot of Jerusalem at Passover, when the local population grows tenfold, but this was Cana, of all places, and the juxtaposition was startling. I was itching to investigate, and Papa hardly looked up when I asked his permission, so I quickly headed out the front gate to follow the noise.
Mercifully, though the properties were near enough when going the back way, their main entrances were really quite far apart since the parallel streets they faced were only connected by a crossing lane several minutes away. I say mercifully because, once I finally reached the crossroad and turned to my left, the full extent of the gathering up ahead became clear. I was astounded. There were far more people than I had expected; far more than had been there the day before. They seemed to be entirely concentrated in the one street where Nathan lived, and when I reached it, I discovered a great and varied collection of the curious that ranged as far as I could see in either direction: left, toward the wedding, or right, still arriving through the city gates.
I slipped into the crowd as inconspicuously as possible, only to find that it was even more densely packed than I had anticipated, and the gentle but insistent flow of the uninvited guests was soon moving me inexorably forward.
“What do you think he will do?” I heard a woman behind me ask.
“They say he is going to announce himself,” someone off to the right responded.
“At last! the Throne of David shall be torn from its usurpers!” said another.
“Our Deliverer is at hand! Woe befall our enemies!” pronounced a large man with a sturdy voice that brooked no disagreement. “He will rid us of the Roman blasphemers forever!”
“Hurrah!” several male voices intoned in unison.
“Shhhh!” whispered the tiny woman next to the large man. “Be hushed, Levi!”
It turned out that my comparison to Jerusalem at Passover had been inadequate, and the closer we came to the house of Nathan, the more uncomfortable the crush became, so I began working backwards and sideways until I had eased myself out of the flow. My curiosity had turned to concern and, as I headed back, I found myself praying that no harm would come to any of them. They were pilgrims on a quest, after all, not intending to impose or hinder, but driven forward – impelled, really – by sincere, even desperate, hope, however improbable their expectations might be. They were seekers after something, anything, that would set their world aright, and their yearning was palpable.
By the time I returned to the house, everyone was busy getting dressed, so I donned the fancy new wedding clothes Mama had laid out for me, and, without much success, did my best to smooth my unruly hair before giving in and allowing Aunt Martha to do it. As we looked each other over and traded compliments, Johanna lamented the warm day, of all things, since it prevented her wearing her newest wrap trimmed in lion’s-mane, but the rest of us were more than grateful. Though the wedding feast would be served indoors, the courtyard was to be the heart of the day’s activity. If it had been cold or, worse yet, rainy, the entire affair would have been much diminished.
Finally, all dressed, slicked-down and adjusted, we gathered by the little pond and were just turning to go when Mama came thrusting through the back gate. “You won’t believe it!” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”
“What?” we all asked in unison, though, having seen the crowds for myself, I had a good idea about what was coming.
“Well, I have to tell you, this is a double-edged sword, this whole Deliverer thing,” she said. “To begin with, there are just far too many people! Nathan seems thrilled enough to have Jesus as a wedding guest, but I’m afraid it is going to cost him a fortune, and that is not the worst of it. I feel just terrible for Naomi.”
“Why?” Papa asked.
“Because, husband, she’s supposed to be the bride in this wedding. This is her day, but Joshua ben Joseph is the only person anybody seems to care about. To hear the talk, you wouldn’t even know it was a wedding. Everyone is clamoring to get near him, and when Abner went over to see if everything was ready for the procession, he couldn’t believe it. He reckoned there were nearly a thousand people in and around Nathan’s courtyard. People can hardly move.”
“He’s already there?” I asked excitedly, keen to see him, myself.
“He arrived late this morning with most of his family and all six of his new disciples, apostles, whatever they are,” she said. “At least they are all invited guests. As far as I can tell, most of these people don’t even know so much as a single soul in Cana. It’s a shame, really. I just hope it doesn’t ruin Naomi’s big day.”
“Now, Mary, I wouldn’t be too worried.” Malchus said. “Nathan is a good man and he would do anything for those children. I’m sure he can see which way the wind is blowing, and I expect he’s already bringing in more food and wine. It’s a blessing it happened to him and not some others hereabout. At least, he can afford it.”
“The procession is about to start,” Mama said. “I have to get back, but I wanted to make sure you were all taken care of. John Mark, you look downright handsome. You are going to make some lucky girl very happy, yourself, one of these days.”
With that, she turned on her heels and was back through the gate. We all exited just behind her, but she hurried to the right and went down the way to Abner’s house, while we moved straight across to where our secret door was waiting.
Given the report we had just received, I was getting more excited with every step. I had been trying to picture the Joshua I remembered from the boatshop. It had been two years since I had seen him, and ever since we had heard Aunt Tabaitha’s tale, I had been chastising myself for not having gotten to know him better when my grandparents were still alive. After all, talking to just about anybody was one of my specialties, but he had always seemed so preoccupied. At least, now I knew why he had looked so serious. Deliverers, by definition, I decided, have a lot on their minds.
A few steps and we had crossed the divide. Running between long parallel walls on either side, the empty space, perhaps forty paces across, functioned as a drain-way in rainy weather but was dry that day. The slope down to the center and back up the other side was barely discernible and the ditch was easily crossed. As we passed, Malchus pointed out the clay pipe he had installed to carry run-off into his underground cisterns. “Every little bit helps,” he said, “and in a good downpour, it fills them right up to the top every time.”
Malchus held the gate open and the adults all entered first while I took a long slow breath to calm myself, but it was a completely anticlimactic arrival. Though we had entered an enormous outdoor room with fountains playing, palm trees swaying, and a marble floor laid in a fancy geometric pattern – indeed, one of the grandest private courtyards I had ever seen – it was practically empty.
We soon learned the reason for this from one of Nathan’s stewards. Just before we had arrived, Joshua was given the honor of leading the procession and had gone up the street to Abner’s house to take his place, at which point, many of those who had already arrived turned back around and followed him right out again like so many ducklings.
Malchus pointed out Nathan and Johab, standing not far away. The groom’s head of thick, curly black hair was bound by a wreath of myrtle, and his eyes were fixed on the open doors in the center of the high front wall across from where we stood. He looked overwhelmed, to be honest; as nervous as a fieldmouse in a falconcote.
They were waiting with the rabbi beneath a small palm grove that shaded the back corner of the garden, in position to welcome the bride and her attendants when they arrived. But, with no procession in sight – or even, yet, within hearing – Malchus took advantage of our opportunity to say a quick hello. As I was the only one among us whom he did not know, Papa introduced me to Nathan and then, grinning, said to him, “I see you have become the most popular man in Galilee!”
“I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but it has to be good for business, right?” Nathan’s response was unexpectedly cheerful. “I don’t know if, as you say, I’m the most popular man in Galilee, but I think I am already better known today than yesterday. It is all to the good, you know, and, in any case,” he put his hand on his son’s shoulder, “I can’t disappoint these young ones. Naomi and Johab are going to have a happy wedding if I have anything to say about it and, by all that’s holy, this is one time I do have a say!” He laughed heartily at his own determination, and immediately dispelled any remaining concerns we may have had.
With a nod toward the roiling crowd outside, Malchus asked his friend if there was anything we could do to help, but Nathan was impressively calm. He said he was thrilled to host such an illustrious guest as the “new wonder,” as he called him. “I mean, can you imagine if what they say is true? Can you imagine if the Messiah, himself, were to bless this house, this wedding? What is there to fear? This is a day of rejoicing and we shall rejoice mightily!”
He assured Malchus that more provisions were already on the way and he was confident he would be able to handle the surfeit of people.
As we talked, the noises coming from the front gate began to multiply, and when I looked around I saw that the number of people in the courtyard had more than doubled since our arrival. We moved off to the side, back near where we had entered, and watched with not a little awe as more and more guests pressed in. I was pleased to notice that those who came into the courtyard had at least made some effort to clean up and dress for the occasion, though many who remained outside the gates still wore the dust they had gathered the day before.
The courtyard was such a lovely space that only a few concessions had been required to set it right for the wedding. In the corner opposite the entry and against the side wall, a small canvas roof had been erected over a temporary altar to serve as a symbolic “shelter of Abraham” where the vows would be exchanged. Beyond that, upon a low ledge running the length of the side wall, stood six enormous stone jars, each one large enough for a child to hide inside. Prepared ahead of time, these had been filled with water, and their contents blessed, in readiness for the purification ceremony that would conclude the rites.
Within minutes, the once nearly-empty courtyard was so completely filled with people that there was only just enough room for the procession to make its way from the gates to the altar where Nathan and Johab were waiting. Coming in through the back had put us in an ideal spot to watch and, as Hadassah joined her husband and anxious son under the palms, the talking died down and all eyes turned toward the entryway to watch for the bride – or for Joshua, depending upon who you were and why you were there.
Mama’s fears about getting from one house to the other proved to be unfounded as, under the direction of Nathan’s efficient stewards, the guests had left a narrow passage for Naomi and her attendants that proceeded all the way from her front gate, up the street to Nathan’s house, and, finally, on a diagonal across the vast courtyard to the place where Johab was waiting for his life to change.
Almost as soon as the way was completely cleared, the first of the little children enlisted to pave the bridal path with palm fronds came through the opening and into view. The sight of so many people watching almost stopped them in their tracks, but sympathetic urgings kept them moving forward through the parted sea of humanity until they had laid a welcoming carpet of greenery from the gates right up to Johab and the rabbi. “Thank you, children,” the rabbi said, and they giggled as they ran to hide their faces in the folds of their mothers’ clothes.
Even as we wished them forward with our smiles and eyes, we had heard the first strains of music – finger cymbals, hand drums and shepherds’ flutes – telling us the procession was nearing. As it grew louder, the residual talk around us fell away until not a word was spoken, and every eager eye in the place was glued to those open gates.
The brightness dimmed as one of the slow-marching clouds put us in its shadow, but before it could dampen the mood, the vibrantly attired and gaily dancing musicians, whirling and tingling and playing their tunes, were passing through the opening. Unlike the children, they moved with purpose but – enjoying their moment before such an unexpectedly grand audience –they took their time reaching their standing positions by the water jars. Once in place, one flute continued playing a joyful song to symbolically “lure the bride inside,” and, for the third time, an expectant hush overtook the courtyard as all our eyes returned to the front.
And, it was in that remarkable, memorable instant – so overflowing with anticipation – that the Father, Himself, drew heaven’s drapes and the sun broke bright upon the stunning sight of a dark, tall man wearing starkest white, a crisp linen tunic and woolen cloak that almost blinded in the sudden light. It was so perfectly dramatic that gasps of wonder could be heard all around me, and even I was stirred to the very bottom of my soul; permanently stirred.
My eyes adjusted as he came inside and if I hadn’t already been aware of him, I don’t think I would have known him. His transformation was total. The private, somewhat sullen, prince of a man I remembered was now a king. His smile was broad and his face was interested and open. His wavy hair reached just to his shoulders and his jet black beard was trimmed close. Long brows extended down on either side of his large, liquid eyes, lined with thick black lashes and set deep into his angular, perfectly symmetrical face. He had always been handsome, and now he was something infinitely more: beautiful; transcendently human in a way that I am still at a loss to describe. If I had ever seen this man in the boatshop, I would have rushed to his side long before. The attraction was immediate and irresistible. The impression was goodness and truth and strength and something indescribably greater. He was all men and every man and, yet, only himself. No finite language nor artistry of any human hand can ever hope to truly paint the depth and intensity of this improbable person, but there he stood. We breathed the same air. That, alone, was a miracle.
Everything that had seemed insensible for the last several days – the unquestioning confidence of Uncle Andrew, the tale of the voice in the river, the story of Gabriel’s visits – suddenly made perfect sense; suddenly seemed so right. My previous thoughts, based upon the stories we had heard, were that John, the baptizer, who had built such a following so quickly, was surely a prophet, and that Joshua was most likely just an upstart pretender who saw an opportunity to share some of his cousin’s glory. But, in that instant, such notions were forever washed out of my head.
As he moved through the people toward the groom and his parents, he spoke to some, nodded to others, and seemed to appreciate the attention he was getting, but I thought he also seemed appropriately self-conscious about taking too much of the focus away from the bride who entered just behind him. As soon as he reached the place where Johab and his parents were waiting, he moved quickly off to the side where his family was standing near the wall. It was only then that I recognized Ruth. She was there with her mother and brothers, James and Jude, but the rest of his family was not in view.
And if, like us, your reason for being there was more matrimonial than Messianic, the entrancing vision that floated into the room behind Jesus did not disappoint, either. Naomi’s many-layered wedding robes had been died in the brightest possible reds, yellows and blues and made a vivid display as she walked over the freshly laid foliage in the brilliant sun. The only exception to this colorful vision was her quietly beautiful head covering. Sewn of the very finest, nearly translucent, white linen, it had been carefully folded over so that both halves fell in gentle waves down her back and was held in place by a circlet of delicate blossoms chosen to match the colors of her brilliant skirts.
“I gave her the flowers,” Malchus whispered in my ear.
As she came nearer, I could see that the sheer fabric had been stitched all around with artfully placed red roses, and I gasped with delight when I realized it was the very same piece Mama had been embroidering on the afternoon in Jerusalem when she first mentioned the wedding. It was meticulously done and clearly a labor of love, but she had never said a single word about it. I hadn’t even seen her pack it for the trip.
That moment of recognition put a big grin on my face, and I turned to look at Mama, walking closely behind the bride, only to discover that she was already watching me to see if I would notice her artful gift. I threw her a wink of appreciation and we smiled a great, embracing, mutual smile.
Naomi finally reached her position next to the groom and, in the warm sun, her blushing cheeks were nearly as red as those embroidered roses. She, too, was smiling from ear to ear.
Her four attendants, including Mama, trailed Naomi into the courtyard and slowly made it to their assigned spots, followed by Naomi’s parents, Abner and Rebecca, who dutifully took their places near the rabbi. The last to come through the gates were six impressively sturdy men who had been enlisted at the last minute to serve as a sort of rear guard and ensure the wedding celebrants would not be overrun by the hordes of extra guests on their short journey from one house to the other.
I immediately recognized my two uncles among them, then James and Johnnie Zebedee, and realized that they were actually the six new Apostles of Joshua, already called into service. Looking sheeplishly out of place and perhaps a bit embarrassed by all the attention, as soon as they were through the gates they swiftly moved to join their new leader and his family. All except, that is, for my two uncles, who stopped short, embraced us silently so as not to interrupt the proceedings, and stood with us for the ceremony.
© 2015, George Thomas Wilson, NYC