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.”
[To read the Introduction and Chapter 1: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ To read Chapter 2: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/a-boys-tale-chapter-2/ To read Chapter 3: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/a-boys-tale-chapter-3/ To read Chapter 4: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/a-boys-tale-chapter-4/ ]
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.
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson all rights reserved