Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 18

Of course the men never stopped demanding to know, What was this baptism? And what did it mean? Teachers and scholars joined us, young men on horseback passed us. We came upon groups of the King's soldiers who'd been to the river and had only good things to say of it, and even bands of Roman soldiers headed to the river from Caesarea stopped to share a drink of wine with us, or take a bit of pottage and bread.

The Romans were curious about this strange man drawing crowds to the riverbanks. They spoke to us a little wearily of it; yet they too wanted to see the man in camel skin who stood knee-deep in the Jordan offering a purification. After all, they said, they had their own shrines back home here and there, and their own rites, just as we did. We nodded to this. We were happy to have them sit for a while or take a morsel of food before they hurried on.

Scholars sat in circles in the evening, reciting the Scriptures as to this great matter of purifying oneself in the waters of the Jordan. They spoke of the prophet Elisha and how he had sent Naaman, the Leper, to bathe seven times in the Jordan. "But the prophet did not baptize him," one of the scholars said. "No, not himself, he did not, but told the man to bathe."

"And remember," the Rabbi said quickly one evening, "that the Leper was scornful of the prophet, was he not? Scoffing at him, yes, remember, and angry that the prophet didn't even come out to him but sent him to do this - and what, I ask you, what indeed came to pass?"

Often the subject came up: we were celebrating our recent victory in Caesarea? The Rabbis and Pharisees spoke of this, and so did the soldiers. The Rabbis pointed out, in strong terms, that the place to give thanks to the Lord was not on the riverbank but in the Temple, the Temple which had been so grossly defiled by the approach of Pilate's ensigns. No one disagreed with this.

And when the Roman soldiers inquired, Were we having a joyful time of it because the Governor had stepped back from his position, they weren't particularly quarrelsome or concerned, only wondering, Why are so many people going to see this man, people from north and south and east and west, people even from the Greek cities of the Decapolis?

Indeed, sooner or later, almost everyone had something to say as to the sheer size of the throng headed for the river.

"Are we so tired and hungry for a true prophet after hundreds of years," Jason asked, "that we up and leave our houses and our fields and set out at the mere mention that a man might bring us some new wisdom, some special consolation?"

"Has it really been four hundred years," asked his uncle Jacimus, "since a prophet has spoken or are we simply deaf to the prophets whom the Lord sends? I can't help but wonder."

Inevitably men quarreled over the Temple. They quarreled over whether or not the Temple was too Greek, too huge, too filled with books and teachers and money changers, and crowds of gaping eager Gentiles, always being warned to stay out of the inner courts, always being threatened with death if they did not obey the laws, and as to the priesthood, Joseph Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, well, men had plenty to say on that matter as well.

"One thing is clear as to Caiaphas," my uncle Cleopas interjected whenever he could. "The man's withstood the political currents a long time."

"You say that because he's your kinsman," came a rejoinder.

"No, I say it because it's true," said Cleopas, and quickly he rattled off the names of High Priests come and gone, including those once appointed by the House of Herod and later by the Romans.

This question of the Roman appointment of our High Priests could start a regular battle. But there were enough older men to quiet the hotheads, and even Hananel spoke up once or twice to put down with contempt any talk of purifying the Temple as the Essenes so longed to do. "That," he averred, "is idle talk. It is our Temple!"

All my life I'd heard this sort of argument, these musings. Sometimes I followed the thread. Most of the time my mind drifted. No one expected a word from me one way or the other.

Most of those falling in with us did not know that John bar Zechariah was our near cousin. Those who did were silenced fairly quickly by our simple admissions that we knew very little of him, that decades and miles had separated us completely.

I'd last seen John when I was a boy of seven.

Jason of course could rather vividly describe him, but it always came down to the same interesting yet remote picture: studious, pious, a model among the Essenes - who had then vanished for the even harsher life of the broiling desert.

My mother, who might have more stories of John and his parents than anyone present, said nothing. My mother, in the months before my birth, had gone to lodge with Elizabeth and Zechariah, and it was from those days that the stories came which Jason had repeated to me - my mother's song of happiness, the prophecy of Zechariah at his son's birth. These were all things well known to my mother. But she had no care now, any more than she'd ever had, to join in the conversation of the Pharisees and the Scribes, and the young nephews, and occasional nieces, who knew only bits and pieces of these things, and were hungry for more.

Jason kept his secrets too, though I could see many a night by the fire, he was bursting with the desire to stand up and recite from memory every prayer he'd learnt from John which had come down from John's father and mother and my mother.

I gave him a little smile now and then, and he would wink and shake his head; but he accepted that these were not his tales to tell. And on went the arguments as to who was this John to whom we were all so devoutly committing ourselves.

As we left the high hills of Galilee and went down into the Jordan Valley, we came into the more welcome and warmer air. It was dry at first. Then we were as close to the reedy marshes along the river as we could come, and every hour brought fresh news that John, approaching from the south as he ministered, was even closer to us perhaps than we thought. And we might on any day come directly upon him.

Joseph was not well.

Joseph took to sleeping in the wagon, constantly, and it sent a shiver through James and through me to see it, the manner of this deep unbroken sleep. We all knew this kind of slumber. We all knew this strange rhythmical breathing, the seemingly effortless way it went on over the clatter of the wheels and the inevitable heave of rocks and ruts.

The women marked it, without question, but seemed more patient with it than was my uncle Cleopas or my younger brothers, who would waken Joseph at the slightest excuse.

"Let him rest," said my mother. Aunt Esther ordered them all to do the same.

The look in my mother's eye was sad as it had been the night we'd received the letter. But she was steady in her sadness. Nothing surprised her, or alarmed her. She sat beside Joseph from time to time, between him and her brother, Cleopas. She cradled Joseph against her shoulder. She gave him water when he did stir, but in general she kept the others from rousing him which they did principally to comfort themselves that he could indeed be roused.

One night Joseph woke and did not know where we were. No matter what we said, we couldn't make him understand it, that we were headed to the Jordan to meet with John bar Zechariah and his following there. James even took out the rumpled letter and read it over to him in the waning light.

Finally my mother said, "Do you think we would take you where you don't want to go? We would never do that. You sleep now."

He was immediately comforted, and closed his eyes.

James went off alone so that no one could see him cry. This was his father who was leaving us. Oh, we were all brothers, but this was the father of James by a young wife whom none of us, except Alphaeus and Cleopas, had ever known. As a little boy, James had been at his mother's deathbed along with Joseph. And soon now too Joseph would be gone.

I went to be near to James, and when he wanted, he beckoned for me to come. He was troubled as always, turning this way and that. "I shouldn't have insisted he come."

"But you didn't," I said, "and he wants to come, and tomorrow when the sun rises . . . we will be there."

"But what can it mean, this, that one baptizes another, that one does not go down into the river to bathe on one's own as always, but that another . . . And look, will you, at the soldiers? Word of all this will rouse this fool of a Governor, you know it will."

I knew he needed to have all these cares so that he would not face the one care, that Joseph was dying. So I didn't say anything to him. And soon enough he went off to argue the matter again and again with Jason, Reuben, Hananel, the Rabbi, and the most recent group of the King's soldiers, several of whom accompanied the rich who traveled in brilliantly colored litters - and I stood looking back at the huge company, spilling over the rocky ground, and then up at the darkening sky.

The warm air was sweet with the scent of the river and the green marshes, and I could hear the cry of the birds who always gathered in the vicinity of the river. I liked it, and my heart was tripping, and I too felt that sadness again, as I'd felt it with my mother. It was light yet terrible. It made for a kind of drifting and amazement at the smallest and most trivial things.

Something was changing and forever. The children, summoned now to go to sleep whether they liked it or not, had no sense of this change, only of novelty and adventure, as they might on an excursion to the great sea.

Even my brothers had lapsed into a wary exultation which they defined decisively to one another as they agreed that they would confess, be washed, indeed allow themselves to be baptized if that is what John bar Zechariah insisted upon, and they would return to this or that chore, and this or that problem of life - with renewed strength.

In me there was a wholly different awareness. I did not press for speed, and I did not lag behind. I did not lament the distance one way or the other. I moved slowly towards what was at last going to separate me from all around me. I knew this. I knew it without knowing how or what would actually happen. And the only place I saw this same awareness - and some measure of this same acceptance - was in my mother's soft, habitual gaze.

Chapter Twenty

IT WAS MIDMORNING, under a gray and blustering sky, when we came upon the entire baptismal gathering.

Even our own numbers had not prepared us for the size of it, the great spreading mass of people on both sides of the river, stretching out as far as we could see, and many with broad, richly decorated tents, and feasts laid out on their rugs, while others were the masses of the downtrodden who'd come to stand side by side with the Priests and Scribes, in their ragged garments.

Cripples, beggars, the very old, and even the painted women of the streets made up part of the crowd, along with all those who'd mixed with us in coming.

The King's soldiers were everywhere, and we recognized the apparel of those who served King Herod Antipas here, and those who served his brother, Philip, there, and all around were splendidly clad women, flanked by their servants, or just emerging from their sumptuous litters.

When we finally caught sight of John himself, the crowd was hushed, and the anthems being sung were a distant backdrop. Here men and women removed their outer robes, and went down only in their tunics into the water, and some men removed even these to proceed in their loincloths, as they approached the clear figure of John himself and his many disciples.

Everywhere around us were the secretive whispers of those confessing their sins, begging for forgiveness from the Lord, murmuring just loud enough for a voice to be heard but no real words, as eyes were closed and garments dropped in the reeds, and people wandered on into the marsh and then into the river.

The disciples of John were to the left and the right of him.

And he himself was unmistakable. Tall, with this shaggy black hair streaming over his shoulders and down his back, he received one pilgrim after another, his dark eyes shining brilliantly in the gray morning light, his voice low and carrying over the rumble of voices around him.

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," he declared, each time as though it were the first, and those around him took up the saying, until we soon perceived it was a very chanting, a chanting that mingled in timbre and pitch from time to time with the random and ceaseless confessions.

Jason and the young men stood back, arms folded, watching. But one by one my brothers went down, stripping off their robes, and entered into the water.

I saw James go down under the current and rise up slowly as John, his face unchanged by any conceivable recognition, poured a conch of water over his head.

Joses, Judas, and Simon moved towards the disciples, their sons and nephews moving with them. Menachim had taken Little Isaac by the hand and led him down close beside him as he seemed wary of the spongy earth and the dense reeds, and the river itself though the depth of it didn't rise above the knees of those who stood in it.

A high tent mounted on four ornate poles flapped in the wind loudly as the gray clouds glided over the radiant sun. Out of it came a rich toll collector, a man I knew in passing only from the inevitable journeys to work or visit in Capernaum.

He stood beside me, staring at the great shifting mass of the baptizers and the baptized, and indeed the core of the crowd seemed to swell and stretch out to the right and left as we watched it.

Out of the gathering behind us, thrusting himself between us, came a Pharisee, beautifully garbed and with a long white beard, and beside him two men who were obviously Priests in their finest linen garments.

"By whose authority do you do this!" demanded the white-bearded Pharisee. "Come now, John bar Zechariah. If you are not Elijah, then who are you that you draw men here for the forgiveness of sins? Who are your disciples?"

John stopped and looked up.

The sun behind the gray clouds made John squint as he tried to pick out the man who was challenging him. His eyes passed over me and the toll collector.

Again the Pharisee declared, "By whose authority do you dare to bring these people here."

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