Thursday, February 1, 2018

February 2nd


This is the first section of the story of the Gospels that I have slowly been working on. It's about all that I have managed to do so far and will no doubt undergo a lot of change as I keep writing. 

*

The only sound she heard was her own heavy, harsh breathing. She ran through streaks of light and dark, she ran in the watery shadows beneath the trees, the tops turning gold with the dawn, the sky a blue growing light between ragged streaks of black cloud. Above her ran the steep hill, the stone of it hollowed out into narrow homes for the dead.

Higher yet, upon the bare brow of the hill were the dead and dying splayed out upon the blood stained and splintered olive wood, their wretched bodies meant to be left as carrion for crows, no relative to gather their bones with honor, with care, and lay them with their ancestors in ossuaries, nothing for them but agony and ignominy in death under the name of Pax Romana.

The first Caesar, the Emperor of the world, had named and adopted his heir many years before, and now Tiberius was Caesar, the son of the deity, and all the coins of his kingdom were set with his face and title. He ruled the world from Rome, set amid her seven hills, her founders, it was said, suckled by a she wolf.

Amid everything else that he had inherited was one small country whose people served a God whose image could not be captured in stone or wood, and whose name was so holy it could not be spoken, and whose history was replete with stories of bondage and deliverance. Even now, they were waiting and all their stories and all their rituals, feasts and holy days marked for them the history of salvation, and the resolution toward which their God, who was the only Living God, was bringing them.

In this country, on one particular day early in the morning, a woman was running through a garden. She had forgotten everything in her delirium but one thing, that one thing pounding in her chest, filling her with both terror and joy.

She did not see the other women, dark and cloaked in the path ahead of her, until she collided into them. These two were dulled by grief and bewildered wonder. For a moment, all was a confusion of beating hearts and lost balance on the path. Their voices were sharp with surprise, but muted with fearful caution as they caught her.

They spoke in a language shaped by years of captivity in a foreign land, the syllables sometimes soft and sometimes guttural. As they spoke, the holy city on its own hill just across the brook Kidron was beginning to stir and awaken after a prolonged Sabbath, the blood of thousands of slaughtered lambs sacrificed three days before having run down through the city and into the waste valley of Hinnom, where everything unclean was slowly, endlessly burned in smoldering heaps.

With trembling, impatient hands, the runner pulled her hair away from her face, staring and unworldly in the dawn light. She could not speak, but she stared intently into the face of one of the other women. This woman was older and her face bore the ravages of terrible suffering. The scars left by suffering were recent, and while they were carved right through her soul, they could not move the foundation of peace that was laid in her spirit. This peace was shining from her deep set eyes, because for a second time, a messenger of the Living God had announced to her news of great joy, and she was holding this joy like a warm coal within her, the joy beginning to melt the severe trauma of the last three days.

This coal in her now burst into flame and she could not remain silent. She clasped her worn hands together tightly and sang, these words in a language far more ancient than that of captivity, the words written in the Law and read from the scroll, the words spoken by the forefathers loved by the Living God, the sound and shape of the words that had been carved by His own finger into the rock of the mountain, where they had been led by Him out of slavery and drudgery and death, the mountain covered by the fire of the Almighty One, and trembling with the weight of His glory. She herself knew what it was to stand shaking before the holy light of God.

“Oh, how I praise the Lord! How I rejoice in God my Savior!” she sang with fierce joy. ““How powerful is his mighty arm! How he scatters the proud and haughty ones! He has torn princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry hearts and sent the rich away with empty hands.”

The second woman looked from one to the other, eyes wide. “What? What?” she whispered to the younger.

“It’s true, what they said,” she whispered through trembling lips. “He’s alive. I saw Him.”

They stood there, looking at one another in a fear of God too great for words, as the implication of what they had seen and heard began to swell in their hearts. The entire world had been remade. Life and death, heaven and hell, what it meant to be human, what it meant to belong to God- everything had been turned inside out and was remade. They stood in a new world. In that moment, only they knew it.

*

The evening was clear and quiet, the breeze cool. The air was full of the sound of keening insects and the buzzing of thousands of fat yellow bees bumbling from flower to flower. The winter rains had left the landscape covered in green and brilliant yellow, in blowing pink and white wildflowers. From hills farther away came the faint bleating of sheep as they were brought home for the night. The sky above was cerulean blue, rising without end toward the zenith and falling into a golden tinge toward the west where the sun was slowly making its burning way toward the Mediterranean Sea by way of Mount Carmel.

A small group of men were walking in single file up the narrow path to the top of the hill. Against the sky and the towering hillsides, they were not tall figures, bent forward against the steep slope. The setting sun turned their dusty robes ochre and their skin bronze, illuminating profiles and burnishing their dark and curling hair and beards. The eldest was last in line, his leather satchel of tools slung over his shoulder, his head bare to the breeze. His eyes were amber brown, flecked with gold, unsettling in the brilliance and clarity of his thoughts. Though he was at the height of his strength, he was no longer a young man, and years of labor and sun had worn lines around his eyes and mouth, left his hands hardened with callouses.

All day he had been shaping rough logs into ceiling beams down in the growing city of Sepphoris, some four miles north of his village, and much closer to sea level. The work was monotonous and physically demanding. His body ached from the back of his neck to the soles of his feet, but he walked steadily up the hill with the long strides of one who was accustomed to hard labor and long distances.

Just at the brow of the steep hill, he dropped his satchel unceremoniously at his feet and brought the side of his hand to his mouth. A splinter was lodged there, stuck between his thumb and first finger. It had been there since the late afternoon. As he worked at the splinter with his chipped fingernails, one of his brothers turned back and gave him an questioning look.

“Go on,” he said to the younger man. His voice was gentle, the words were spoken swiftly in the rural and colorful dialect of upper Galilee.

“You’ll be late.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t stay out all night; you’ll worry her.”

“I won’t.”

“You’re the eldest. She depends on you,” Jacob insisted, his back held straight, his eyes intent. Some old, unspoken complaint lay at the back of his insistence, but it could not be spoken and he himself was hardly conscious of his own feeling.

Exasperation, fed by his physical exhaustion, flared up in Yeshua, but he let it burn away, leaving behind a kind of well-worn but comfortable patience. He looked up and into the younger man’s eyes with a glint of humor.

“Thank you for reminding me. I won’t be late.”

Jacob paused, but already Yeshua’s thoughts were far away from him. In his experience, you either had his whole attention directed at one like the point of a sword, or none of it at all, and sitting beside him then was like sitting beside a sun warmed stone wall. Sighing, Jacob turned and went on his way home.

Left alone, Yeshua crouched down on the side of the track and worked at the splinter until he had gotten it out. When he looked up, the whole valley below him was dipped into shadow, the hill tops streaked with light. Soon the lights of Capernaum, far to the northeast and Sepphoris to the north west would be glittering out in the gathering dark, able to be seen even at such distances.

He stood up with a slow, exhausted movement and turned toward home. Built into the hillside opposite him and near the top, was the small village of Nazareth. At the bottom of the valley, in the fertile soil, was set grain fields and small vegetable plots. Rising upward toward the mountain slope were terraces of grape vines and above them, the rows of olive trees, the leaves still holding the light and appearing to move even in the still air. Near the olive trees, rising two stories up, stood the stone dovecote. Groups of the birds lifted from the rocky ledges, circling through the air.

Yeshua tipped his head back and looked above the mountains to the eastern sky. The moon had risen, and was shining there, pale and white, almost full but thin as an old coin. His spirit went winging up beyond in effortless love until his bright eyes closed, hiding in his heart the elation that he knew. “Abba,” he whispered, the sound hardly disturbing the bees that worked busily around him in the growing twilight, but heard like a shout in the unseen vaults of heaven.

Echoes of some hidden glory seemed always to be heard within the depths of his spirit, a chorus just out of distinct hearing, but the melody heard to him haunting and unearthly. Certain passages of the Torah set off a thundering in his soul, like the shout of a thousand voices or the pounding hooves of an army cresting just over the hill.

He remembered hearing the words of the Servant Songs said one Sabbath as he sat amid his brothers, the progression of prophesy causing chills of apprehension, certainty and sorrow to wash over him in waves until the waters closed over his head and he was alone in the silence that surrounded the words. Even then, a bright circle of light remained wavering above him, showing him the way back to the surface.

This year, at thirty years old, he would be of age to enter the counsel of the village. Unofficially, they had been seeking his wisdom for over a decade, and sometimes lately, even people outside of the village had come looking for his counsel. He knew he stood on the edge of some great change, and that there was not much more time left of this life he had known.

As he stood on the hilltop, he remembered his first conscious memory, set amid a blurred landscape of tall river reeds, strong sun and the smell of mud. The memory was of his mother’s face in the night as he rested in perfect peace in her arms as she sang to him, her voice a murmur of Hebrew. The clay lamp was lit and casting a glow of amber around them, but it was not what he saw that he remembered so much, though he thought his mother’s face beautiful. It was what he knew. He knew that beyond the amber glow , beyond the dark Egyptian night, there was a place of uncreated, unchanging light that enthroned the very source of his being, the source and yet the same as himself, where he had come from and where he was going to return, and where he would always be rooted, because he and his Father were one. The joy of this was settled as bedrock and endless like the sky, and yet he was breathing the humid night air, his little ribcage moving up and down, listening to the resonant sound of his mother’s voice, feeling the weight of gravity hold them to the packed earth of the room.

Remembering this, he smiled and drew a long breath. There would be warm stew thick with spring vegetables and lentils for dinner and he was hungry. Picking up his tools and throwing his tallit over his thick, disheveled hair, Yeshua went singing down the hill into the shadows of evening, chanting a psalm in his quiet voice.

I waited patiently for Adonai.
He bent down to me and heard my cry.

He brought me up out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire.
Then He set my feet on a rock.
He made my steps firm.

He put a new song in my mouth—
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and trust in Adonai.

Blessed is the one
who put his confidence in Adonai,
who has not turned to the arrogant,
nor to those who fall into falsehood.

Many things You have done, Adonai my God
—Your plans for us are wonderful—
there is none to be compared to You!
If I were to speak and tell of them,
they would be too many to count!

Sacrifice and offering You did not desire
—my ears You have opened—
burnt offering and sin offering You did not require.

Then I said: “Here I am, I have come—
in the scroll of a book it is written about me.

I delight to do Your will, O my God.
Yes, Your Torah is within my being.”

I proclaim good news of righteousness in the great assembly.
Behold, I am not shutting my lips—
Adonai, You know!

I did not hide Your righteousness within my heart.
Rather I declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation.
I did not conceal Your lovingkindness
and Your truth from the great assembly.

Adonai, do not withhold Your compassions from me.
Let Your mercy and Your truth always protect me.
(Psalm 40:1-12, TLV)

The barley was growing in the valley, the first grain to ripen in the year, and the path Yeshua took wound between the fields of silver and green grasses, most of the sheaves gathered. The first of this harvest had been recently offered in the holy city at the feast of Pentecost. The smell of the grapes blossoming filled the air with a sweet, ethereal scent. They would be harvested and crushed much later, after the height of summer. A wine press was built on the hill almost at a level with the city, the great shallow vats dug out of the stone itself, with channels dug to drain the wine from the crushed grapes into holding tanks. Near the open space where the villagers tossed the grain at harvest time was a simple, rectangular stone building. It was set above the other houses and was not for living in, it was for reading and studying the Law.

The people of Nazareth were devout, rural and poor. Almost none of the houses boasted a second story prophet’s room, but most had a cistern built into the courtyard to catch rainwater as it poured off the low walled roofs and through channels, caught and kept for ritual bathing. The cluster of stone houses, each built around a central courtyard, stood close together for protection. The streets were a haphazard and narrow tangle through them, much of them steep stairs built into the hillside. At this time of the year, after the beating of the winter rain, many houses were under repair, the roofs being repacked and resealed.

When Yeshua arrived at his home, he could hear voices from the open courtyard door. His brothers had gone in before him and were now grouped together with their families, deep in conversation. His mother turned her head and saw him. She said nothing aloud, but her expression caused Yeshua’s attention to focus sharply. Sensing the change, his brothers and sisters in law all turned to him in one motion, looking for a moment like a small group of wild deer arrested by a sound in the wilderness. The mixture of fear, respect and even pity on their faces was not an unusual way for Him to be greeted in his own family.

"What?" Yeshua inquired mildly, lifting his eyebrows.

“Your cousin John has come out of the wilderness,” Mary replied, her voice matter of fact.

Yeshua’s motion was stilled, his thoughts flying far away. Then they returned and he looked at his mother.

“He says the Kingdom of God is at hand,” she said.

His eyes filled with a sudden compassion for her. For one moment, her eyes spoke to him eloquently of all she could not say, of the most personal and sacred mysteries decades old and living before her in flesh and blood, and of the words spoken to her amid the smoke and blood of the temple by the strangers who had taken the tiny babe right out of her arms, because he did not belong to her, he belonged to circles so wide and ageless that he had no beginning and no end.

The stillness was broken suddenly by the swift motion of a young boy who could not contain his jubilant expectation any further. All his young life he had heard of the promise of the Kingdom of God. He could not understand the strange hesitance on the part of the adults in considering this. He went running across the courtyard to his uncle, frightening the chickens and startling the donkey that had been fastened inside for the night.

“Uncle! Uncle!” he cried, his face glowing with a breathless joy. “Is the Kingdom of God here? Is it here?”

A slow smile broke over Yeshua’s face. He crouched down before the small boy and leaned forward, his work worn, bearded face holding an innocence and light that was even more pure than the child’s, and sharing the same illumined joy.

“Yes!” he answered.