Friday, June 1, 2018

June 1st

These are two sections of the story I've been very slowly working on.


John had come out of the wilderness at Bethany beyond the Jordan burned brown from the sun and wrapped in the hide of a camel, emerging like a lion out of the thickets of the Jordan river, where tamarask and palm trees, tall reeds and grasses grew up in a verdant, dusty tangle from the crumbling, white clay banks. Across the flooded river lay the buried remains of the walled city of Jericho, for it was here that Joshua first led the faithful generation of Israelites into the Promised Land after the bones of the generation before them had been scattered by forty years wandering in the deserts. The waters still washed over the pile of stones Joshua had left in the riverbed, when the Ark of the Covenant had been carried over on dry ground, causing the waters to pile up as far back as Adam, when the Lord God rolled away from them the reproach of Egypt.

As spring turned to summer, and the roiling waters of the Jordan began to settle, John baptized there, and all of Jerusalem and Judea come out to him. Roman foot soldiers, those who demanded the Roman tax of their own countrymen and ordinary citizens came to be thrust under the fresh water where the Wadi Kharrar ran down from springs in the desert to meet the Jordan.

John’s father had been struck dumb in the temple where he had gone to offer incense before the presence of the Living God in the hidden room of the holy of holies. On the Day of Atonement, it fell to him to sprinkle the blood before the Mercy Seat. Sheltered under the wings of the golden cherubim there was nothing any longer; the ark with the sprouting almond branch, and the manna and the tablets of stone had all been taken when the first temple had fallen many centuries before. All the nation had gone into captivity, the temple destroyed, the holy things lost.

Still, Zechariah stood in the compact cube plated with gold, not lit by any outer light, behind a woven curtain four inches thick and sixty feet in height, his wrinkled hand holding the incense lamp shaking a little at the weight of his sacred office. Never before had he stood so close to the Living God and never again would he.

Behind him the curtain, behind that the holy place with the golden lamp of seven branches and the showbread and the altar of incense, behind that a great golden arched door to the priest’s courtyard where the burnt offerings were laid upon the alter. There lay the carcass of the bullock, the blood shed for the sake of sins. The Azazel waited with the scarlet cloth tied to the horn, the scapegoat to be sent into the waste places, never to be seen again with its hideous, unseen cargo of sins.

Beyond this again lay a whole multitude of fasting people, the chosen people of God, many of them pilgrims from foreign countries where their ancestors had been sent out by force, when their country had been broken and conquered by pagan armies. Many could never come back. Still, the city was full to overflowing with whoever from the dispersion could gather together again and press as close into the temple courts as possible, to have their sins of the year atoned.

When Zechariah returned and stood in the Court of Women, he found a restless crowd which had been kept waiting a long time, wondering. He could not explain. He was tongue tied and by signs attempted to tell them of the presence of the messenger that had met him there at the mercy seat.

He had refused to believe the testimony of the messenger, sent to him from God. There in the glint of gold from every direction, screened by the thick, rising waves of holy incense, he had heard the words of promise spoken in a voice not made by a human throat. He, a son of Abraham, did not see how it was possible for a man of his advanced age, his wife past the time of childbearing, to father a son. He wanted something to prove it was true.

And that sign was his lack of a voice until the time the child was born, squalling and trembling, a loose heap of helpless limbs and a piercing cry that cut his father to the heart as he took the bundle of his son awkwardly in his arms, unaccustomed to the exercise. For eight days still he did not speak, the vigorous voice of his son taking up the whole of the house instead.

Elizabeth knew the name of their son, just as she had known the mother of their Lord when she had come to them, sore from the journey and not yet showing the glory of God that had been given, herself now the ark of the covenant where the Word and the Bread and the budding promise of Heaven were hidden until the time of his birth.

Yeshua went up to the roof, his feet soundless. He passed up from the rooms below, where the air was warm and close with the snoring and muttering of sleepers packed in on the dirt floor, to the uncovered roof where the winter chill swept unhindered. There was the sound of this wind, occasionally the sound of an animal stirring below, and there was the sound of his breathing, his warm breath leaving clouds in the air.

Wrapping his cloak around him, Yeshua sat down. He was weary but he could not sleep. Leaning forward, he pressed the heels of his hands against his sore eyes. Now everything was gathering speed and weight, flinging him toward the heart of his terrifying baptism. He felt it pressing hard in on him all the time now.

Closing his eyes, Yeshua began to recite the words of a psalm from memory, rocking gently forward and back with his hands on his knees, his voice a mere whisper in the night.

“Save me, oh, God,” he breathed, “because the waters have come unto the soul. I have sunk into a deep abyss and there was no place to stand in it; I entered the depth of waters and a whirlpool sank me. I am weary by my crying and my throat is dry. My eyes are bereaved as I wait for my God.”

As he spoke, grief not for himself, but for Lazareth, rose up in him. Though he had known the outcome from the beginning, it had not made it any easier to bear, thinking each time of his friend’s face, the hope in it that must surely be fading away as each day passed in the room with the acrid smell of sickness and medicines.

Lazareth, his beloved friend, who had welcomed him and trusted him. He had so few friends, friends willing to face excommunication, to bear his reproach and the burden of the crowds and it was they who were to be put to the test, seasoned with fire and made into a sign of his own death and resurrection.

Earlier in the day he had wept in the face of Mary’s broken heart and the confused and accusing whispers of the crowd, but he was a private person and did not like to show the depth of his emotion before an audience. All afternoon and evening long, he had been holding himself in constraint, turning his attention outward with gentleness, adjusting himself to the needs of those around him. Inwardly, he could hide himself in his Father's love always, and sooner or later, the time would come when he could go out into some quiet place and abandon himself to that sustaining presence. He could set loose now the stress of waiting at a distance for days after receiving word of his friend's illness, the physical exhaustion of the distance traveled and the emotional highs and lows at the end of journey that had taken their toll.

The knowledge of his impending death and the suffering, and loss of faith that his disciples would experience pressed in again on him, how he would be left alone, abandoned, how they would be left like leaves on a stormy sea, scattered to the wind. How many times had he told them, and they were not listening. They couldn’t hear it.

He lifted up his hands toward the sky, luminous with stars in the dark. “Abba! Abba!” he cried, softly. “My enemies who are without a cause are more than the hairs of my head and they are harder than my bones; I have returned that which I did not defraud to my lying enemies.”

He saw again the faces of Mary and Martha as their brother stepped from the tomb into the strong sunlight, shaky at the knees, blinded by the wrappings of death and bewildered, but obedient to that great cry that had called him forth into life. He had been unable to resist the voice of One he loved, even then.

The look on Maryam and Martha’s faces had been one of terror. They had instinctively drawn back from this sight. Like children, they had pressed in close to Yeshua. How dear they were to him, their dark hair shining in the sun like dark, polished wood, their eyes wide with disbelief.

“Unbind him and let him go!” Yeshua had urged them, bending his head to theirs, his love running like an underground current through his voice. Stumbling, they had run toward their brother, their terror turned to tears of joy.

“Those who hope in you will not be ashamed of me, oh, Lord Jehovah, God of hosts, and those who seek you, oh God of Israel, shall not be ashamed of me!” Yeshua whispered,, remembering that moment and the tumult and cries of joy that had followed it.

His smile faded as he thought of his mother and her hopes. She was small now, worn away on the outside by hard work, inwardly filling with light like a pearl. She always looked at him with love, and she would not look away, he knew, no matter what it cost. The pain and horror of what she would see and feel for him caused Yeshua to cringe, his shoulders bowing inward with grief.

“For your sake I have borne reproach and shame has covered my face. I have been a stranger to my brothers and a foreigner to the children of my mother,” Yeshua whispered. He passed his hand over his forehead, feeling the weight of his exhaustion. “Because the zeal of your house has consumed me and the reproach of those who reproach you has fallen upon me. My soul is humbled by fasting and I have been a reproach to them. I have made my clothes sackcloth and I have been a proverb to them.”

“Why don’t you leave here and go up to Judea so that your disciples can see the works you do?” his brother had demanded carelessly. “No one does these things you do in secret if they want to be known. If you must do these things, then show yourself to the world."

They had thought him insane. They had come to retrieve their poor elder brother, gone out of his head and wandering around the countryside with delusions of grandeur and a few impressionable, uneducated young men who should be at their trade, in their father’s houses.

In Yeshua’s home town, his own neighbors, friends, those that had approved of him, whose favor he had won before, had tried to kill him in a murderous rage. That had not been his hour and he had passed through them, his heart pounding with adrenalin. That had been a terrifying sensation in itself. He had had to steady himself against this driving instinct for flight or fight as though against the rip tide. How the body weighed him down sometimes.
He put one lean hand into the palm of the other, feeling the weight of living muscle and the callouses, the swift response of his trained, willing fingers. This body weighed him down, but it was also an inexpressively precious gift, a seed waiting to be sown. He clenched his hands into fists and opened them again. This harvest he was looking toward was worth everything. He hungered and thirsted for it all the time now.

This mystery could not be explained in words to his disciples. He would have to show it to them through symbols. Those symbols had already been provided for him centuries before and each year his own people had performed the rite of the meal of the slaughtered lamb, the bitter herbs and the broken bread, the red wine.
The hillside city of Jerusalem pressed up against the night sky. It was a dark rising horizon, a few lights even at this hour burning high up on the hill, looking like eyes winking red and faint.

A multitude of thoughts flooded his head. The disciples were not ready. They understood almost nothing. It had only been three years, a bare beginning. If only he had a few more years to be with them. Just a few more years and a larger band of highly trained... And he would be revered... He could do anything... He saw himself striding through the streets, arrayed in dignity and honor, power in his hand, honey on his tongue, nothing to stop him...

Yeshua swept these thoughts away as he had once swept clean the work bench of shavings and dust with one swift movement of his bare arm before laying the new wood on it.

“Those who sit in the gate have schemed against me,” Yeshua whispered, all his attention focused inward, toward his Father's face, “and those who drink liquor have plotted against me. And I have prayed before you, Lord Jehovah, in an acceptable time; oh God, in the abundance of your grace answer me, and in the abundance of your salvation."

“Save me from the mud, that I will not drown, and I shall be saved from my haters and from the deep waters. So that a whirlpool of waters will not sink me neither the mire swallow me, nor a well shut its mouth upon me. Answer me, Lord Jehovah, because your grace is good, and in the multitude of your mercies return to me.”

In the quietness after this, he knew a different kind of sorrow. He did not want to die and it was not easy to let go of his life. Memory after memory returned to him, the goodness of it, and he poured this feeling out as gratitude, letting each one go as they came.

He remained there most of the night, pouring his heart out to Abba and knowing himself cradled close in the arms of His Father. Close to dawn, Yeshua lifted his head. He stretched his arms out side to side, on his face a calm and quiet joy. “See, poor ones, and rejoice, and your hearts will live,” he continued, in a whisper. “Because Lord Jehovah hears the poor and does not despise his prisoners. Heaven and Earth will glorify him, and the seas and everything that swarms in them. Because God saves Zion and builds the cities of Yehuda, for his Servants will dwell in it. And the lovers of his Name will dwell in it.”

Yeshua stood up slowly, his legs and back stiff from sitting so long, but his spirit refreshed. He knew he could sleep now, and there was still time. The eastern sky was not yet light. As soon as he lay his head down, he knew sleep would envelope him in peace. He would have no worries for the morrow, whatever it held, for he knew his Father would give him everything he needed to accomplish His good will.