Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 24

"Listen to me," I said. I didn't want to let her go. "You go now and ask your father-in-law if you might come with us to Nazareth to celebrate the wedding of Reuben and Avigail. You and this little one, Tobiah, who hasn't seen his grandfather's house, our house. I tell you, your father-in-law will say yes to this. Bundle up your wedding garments, and we'll call for you both at dawn."

She started to object, to say the inevitable, that her father-in-law needed her, and would never permit it, but the words died on her lips. She was overcome with excitement, and giving me one last kiss, she snatched up Little Tobiah and hurried with him out of the house.

The others followed me.

When I stepped outside the door, there was a young man staring at me anxiously. He was vigorous and covered with dust from his work, but with ink stains on his fingers.

"They're talking of you," he said, "up and down the shore. They're saying John the Baptist pointed to you."

"Yours is a Greek name, Philip," I said. "I like your name. I like all I see in you. Come and follow me."

This gave him a violent start. He reached for my hand but waited for me to give him leave to take it.

"Let me call my friend who's here in the city with me."

I stopped for a moment. I saw his friend in my mind's eye. I knew this was Nathanael of Cana, the student of Hananel I'd seen in Hananel's house when I went to talk to him. In a nearby yard, behind whitewashed walls, the young man was packing his parchments and scrolls and clothing for the journey home to Cana. He'd been all this time working near the sea, and now and then peering at the Baptist from afar. His mind was heavy with worries; he thought this trip home a nuisance, yet he couldn't miss the wedding. He had no expectation that Philip was rushing towards him as he wrestled with his wares and his cares.

I went on down the road, marveling at the numbers who were following us, and the children coming to peer up at us, and the adults who struggled to control them, though they whispered to each other and pointed. I heard my name. Over and over again, they spoke my name.

Nathanael of Cana caught up with us right before we came to the busy road, just opposite the toll post, where the bustle of travelers slowed and gathered in a knot.

There was now a large shuffling idle crowd around us. People moved in to glance at me, and say, yes, that is the man they saw at the river, or yes, that is the man who brought the devils out of Mary of Magdala. Others said, no, it was not. Some declared the Baptist was about to be arrested for the crowds he was drawing, and others insisted it was because the Baptist had angered the King.

I stopped and bowed my head. I could hear every word spoken, I could hear all words spoken, I could hear the words just about to break from parted lips. I let this fall into silence, into the sweet wind rising off the distant sparkling sea.

Only the proximate sounds returned - Simon Peter was declaring that I had cured his mother-in-law by the mere touch of her hand.

I turned my face to the moist breeze. It was lovely and light and filled with the airy scent of the water. My parched body was drinking the water from the very air. I was so hungry.

Far behind us, I knew that Philip and Nathanael were in some sort of argument, and once more I let myself hear what others right beside me could not hear. Nathanael was unwilling, and refused to be moved along against his inclinations. "From Nazareth?" he said. "The Messiah. You expect me to believe this? Philip, I live a stone's throw from Nazareth. You're telling me the Messiah is from Nazareth? What good could come from Nazareth! Man, you are saying impossible things."

My cousin John had turned back to join them.

"No, but truly, he is," declared my young cousin. He was so fervent, so filled with awe, as if he still stood bathed in the miracle of the river, bathed in the Spirit that had visited the waters at the moment the sky had opened. "He is the one, I tell you. I saw it when he was baptized. And the Baptist said, the Baptist himself spoke these words . . ."

I stopped listening. I let the wind swallow their dispute. I looked at the distant gleaming horizon in which the pale hills merged with the blue of the Heavens, and the clouds were borne along as if they themselves were the sails of ships.

Nathanael had come up to me, warily, eyeing me as I nodded to him, and as we fell in stride with one another.

"Ah, nothing good can come from Nazareth?" I asked.

He blushed.

I laughed.

"Here is an Israelite in whom there's no Jacob," I said. I meant by that he had no guile. He had said what was on his mind without cleverness. He'd spoken from his heart. I laughed again lightly.

We moved into the sluggish crowds on the road.

"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked.

"Ah, well, I could tell you I know you from the house of Hananel where you lately saw me, the carpenter."

This astonished him. He couldn't believe I was that very man. He could scarcely remember that very man, except that because of that man's visit, he'd written a great many letters for Hananel. Slowly these thoughts connected for him, the frail and common carpenter who'd come that day, and now he stared at me, at my eyes, particularly my eyes.

"But let me tell you more truly how I know you," I said. "I saw you just now under the fig tree, alone, and cross, and murmuring to yourself, stacking your unwieldy books and bundles for tomorrow's journey, so perfectly annoyed that you have to be going home for the wedding of Reuben and Avigail when you felt certain that something better, something more important, was likely to happen to you, here, near the sea."

He was shocked. He was for a moment frightened. John, Andrew, James, and Philip made a little circle around him. Peter stood apart. They all watched him uneasily. I could only laugh again under my breath.

"Do I not know you?" I asked.

"Rabbi, you are the Son of God," Nathanael whispered. "You are the King of Israel."

"Because I saw you in my mind's eye, beneath the tree, fretting about so many bundles to take to the wedding?" I thought for a moment, then trusting my mind and my words, I said, "Amen, amen. You too will see the sky opened as John saw it. Only you will not see a dove when you see it opened. You'll see the angels of the Lord on High coming and going on the Son of Man."

I touched my chest with my hand.

He was awestruck. So were the others, but they were caught in a collective fascination, an ever-increasing wonder.

We had reached the toll post.

There sat the rich toll collector whom I'd seen in the river, the man so well described to me as the one who'd taken my beloved Joseph up and away from the bank, the one who'd taken Joseph's body home to Nazareth for burial.

I came up to him. Those waiting to confer with him stood back. Soon the crowd was too large and too pressing, and filled with more than casual rumblings. Horsemen, donkeys laden with goods, carts filled with baskets and baskets of fish - all these waited and people began to fuss that they had to wait.

My new disciples clustered around me.

The toll collector scribbled in his book, his teeth set, lips slightly tensing with the strokes of his pen. Finally, ripping himself unwillingly from his calculations for the shadow at his elbow that would not leave, he looked up and saw me.

"Matthew," I said. I smiled. "Did you write down in your fine hand the things that my father, Joseph, told you?"

"Rabbi!" he whispered. He stood up. He couldn't find any words in his own mind for the transformation in me, for the whole range of small differences he now perceived. The finely woven robes were the smallest part of it. Fine robes to him were a usual thing.

He didn't notice the others who shrank from him. He didn't notice John and James bar Zebedee glowering at him as if they wanted to stone him, or Nathanael eyeing him coldly. He stared only at me.

"Rabbi," he said again. "Had I your leave, I would write them down, yes, all the stories your father told me and more too, more of what I myself saw when you went into the river."

"Come follow me," I said. "I've been in the desert for many many days. I would dine with you tonight, I and these my friends. Come, make a feast for us. Let us come into your house."

He walked away from the toll post without so much as looking back and took me by the arm and led me into the thick of the little seaside city.

The others wouldn't hurl insults at him, not in his presence. But surely he heard the casual judgments issuing from those behind us, and those who spread out and followed loosely in a small herd.

Without letting go of me, he sent a boy ahead to tell his servants to prepare for us.

"But the wedding, Rabbi," asked Nathanael, plainly distressed. "We must go or we won't be there in time."

"We have the time for this one night," I said. "Don't you worry. Nothing could keep me from the wedding. And I have much to tell you tonight of what happened to me when I was out in the wilderness. You know full well, all of you, or soon will, what happened when I went to be baptized in the Jordan by my cousin John. But the story of my days in the desert is mine to tell you."

Chapter Twenty-Five

THE VIOLET EVENING was shining over the hills as we slipped unnoticed into Nazareth.

I had taken us round to where we wouldn't be seen, because the torches were already going up and one could hear the eager voices. The bridegroom was expected within less than an hour. The children were playing in the streets. Women in their finest white robes were waiting already with lamps. Others were still gathering flowers and making garlands. People were coming in from the groves round and about, their arms filled with branches of myrtle and palm.

We found the house in a welter of excited preparation.

My mother cried out when she set eyes on me, and flew into my arms.

"And you thought he wouldn't be here," said my uncle Cleopas, who bound us both in his embrace.

"Look, here, whom I've brought for you," I said, and gestured to Little Salome who at once went into a flood of tears in her father's arms. Little Tobiah. The nephews and cousins came to cluster about us, the little ones to pick at my new garments and all to welcome those whose names I hastily spoke.

My brothers greeted me, each eyeing me a little uneasily - especially James.

All knew Matthew as the man who'd mourned with them for Joseph. No one questioned his presence, least of all Uncle Alphaeus and Cleopas, or my aunts. And his habitual fine clothes created no stares.

But there was no time for talk.

The bridegroom was coming.

Dust had to be fiercely brushed from our clothes, sandals wiped, hands and faces washed, hair combed and anointed, wedding garments taken out of their wrappings, Little Tobiah to be scrubbed like a vegetable and garbed immediately, and so we lost ourselves in the preparations.

Little Shabi ran in to announce that he had never seen so many torches in Nazareth. Everyone in the entire village had turned out. The clapping had begun. The singing.

And through the walls we could hear the thump of the timbrels, and the high-pitched melodies of the horns.

Not a glimpse of my beloved Avigail.

At last we went out into the courtyard, all we men to be ranged around it. Out of the baskets, the little ones took the exquisitely made garlands of ivy and white-petaled flowers, and placed a garland on every bowed head. Yaqim was with us. Silent Hannah in shining white, her maiden hair gracefully combed beneath her veil, held up the garland for my head, her eyes brimming as she smiled.

I looked at her face as she turned away. I heard the music as she heard it, the insistent beat. I saw the torches as she saw, flaring without a sound.

The twilight was gone.

The light of lamps and candles and torches was dazzling as it flashed and flickered in the lattices and on the rooftops across the way.

I could hear the singing rising with the strum of the harp strings, and the deeper throbbing of the strings of the lutes. The very crackling of the torches mingled with the singing.

Suddenly the horns sounded.

The bridegroom had reached Nazareth. He and the men with him were coming up the hill to joyful salutes and great volleys of clapping.

More torches flared suddenly in the yard around us.

Out of the central doors of the house came the women in their bleached woolen robes, beautifully banded in bright colors, their hair wrapped up in their finest white veils.

Suddenly the great white linen canopy festooned with ribbons was unfolded and hoisted. My brothers Joses, Judas, and Simon and my cousin Silas held the poles.

The street before the courtyard exploded with joyful greetings.

Into the torchlight stepped Reuben, garlanded, and beautifully robed, beaming, his face so filled with gladness that my eyes swam with tears. And beside him, the eager friend of the bridegroom, Jason, who sought now to present him in a ringing voice:

"Reuben bar Daniel bar Hananel of Cana is here!" Jason proclaimed. "For his bride."

James stepped forward, and for the first time, I saw beside him the hulking, grim-faced Shemayah, the garland slightly askew on his head, his wedding garments not quite reaching their proper length due to the great width of his shoulders and the thickness of his immense arms.

But he was there! He was there - and he pushed James forward now towards the excited and explosively happy Reuben who came into the courtyard with open arms.

Silent Hannah rushed to the doorway of the house.

James took the embrace of Reuben.

"Joyous greetings, my brother!" James said loudly so that all the crowd beyond could hear it, and the clapping answered him fiercely. "Joyous greetings as you come into this the house of your brothers and to take your kinswoman as a bride."

James stepped to the side. The torches moved in towards the door of the house as Silent Hannah stepped out and gestured for Avigail to come forward.

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