Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 19

"Bring them? I haven't brought them!" John answered. His voice rang out effortlessly over the entire throng. He drew in his breath as one used to speaking above noise or wind.

"I've told you. I am not Elijah. I am not the Christ. I have told you that He who comes after me is before me!" He appeared to gain strength as he spoke.

The disciples went on baptizing the pilgrims.

I saw Avigail, fully robed, descend into the river. I realized the young man who beckoned to her, who lifted his conch and directed her to kneel in the water, was in fact my young cousin John bar Zebedee. There he was, in his wet and clinging robes, his hair long and unkempt, a boy of twenty beside the man who cried out now for all to hear:

"I tell you again, you are a brood of vipers! And you will not be safe declaring yourselves the sons of Abraham. I tell you the Lord can raise up sons of Abraham from these very stones. Even as I stand here, the axe is being laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down, and cast into the fire!"

All throughout the crowd people looked to the Rabbis and the Priests who were moving forward at the sound of John's voice.

Jason called out suddenly,

"But John, whence comes your authority to declare these things to us! This is what all men want to know."

John looked up, but did not appear to recognize Jason any more than he recognized any particular man, and he answered:

"Haven't I told you? I will tell you again. 'I'm the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every ravine shall be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; the crooked will become straight, and the rough roads smooth . . . and all flesh will see the salvation of God!" ' "

It seemed to the farthest reaches the crowd could hear him. People cried out in thanks, and more and more went down into the river. Jason and Reuben went down into the river.

I saw James come up the bank, his long loose hair still very wet, and he reached out for Joseph - and James and my mother took Joseph down together.

The toll collector watched as this aged man made his descent.

John received Joseph himself, though again I saw no recognition in John's eyes of this man and this woman who stood before him. They entered the water as everyone else was doing; and over their heads he poured the water from his conch.

Shouts greeted him again from the crowd.

This time it was Shemayah who burst out suddenly, as though he couldn't contain himself:

"Then what are we to do!"

"Need I tell you?" John answered. He drew back and once again raised his voice with the effortless power of an orator. "The man among you who has two tunics is to share with the man who has none; and those of you who have food are to give it to those who have nothing!"

Suddenly the young toll collector beside me called out, "Teacher, what shall we do!" People turned their heads to see who put this passionate question, so much from his own heart.

"Ah, collect no more than what you have been ordered to collect," John responded. A huge wave of approving murmurs moved through those on the banks. The toll collector nodded his head.

But the King's soldiers were now stepping forward. "And what do you say to us, Teacher!" one shouted. "Tell us, what can we do?"

John looked up at them, squinting once more against the silvery clouded sun. "Don't take money by force, that's what you can do. And never accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

Again came the nods and murmurs of approval.

"I tell you, the One coming after me already has His winnowing fork in His hand to clear His threshing floor, and to gather His wheat into the barn, or to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Many went down who'd not done so before, but a huge commotion shook the crowd suddenly. People were turning, and there were cries of amazement.

Far to the right and above me on the slope there appeared a large group of soldiers, and out of their midst there strode one quite recognizable figure, stunning everyone to silence as he approached the bank over the river. The soldiers beat back the very grass for him, and held up the edges of his long purple cloak.

It was Herod Antipas. Seldom had I ever seen him so close to me as he stood now - a tall man, impressive by anyone's standards, and gentle eyed as he looked down in wonder on the man baptizing in the middle of the river.

"John bar Zechariah," the King cried. An uneven and rapid hush fell over all those who saw him, all who heard his voice.

John looked up. Again he squinted. Then he raised his hand to shade his eyes.

"What is it that I must do?" the King cried out. "Tell me. How must I repent?"

The King's face was narrow and grave, but there was no mockery in him, only an intense focus.

John didn't speak for a moment and then in a huge voice he replied.

"Give up your brother's wife. She is not your wife. You know the law! Are you not a Jew?"

The crowd was shocked. The soldiers drew in close to the King as if anticipating a command, but the King himself was very still, and only watched as John reached out now to take the shoulders of my beloved Joseph, and help him up out of the water.

The toll collector started towards my mother and James, in order to give them assistance. Then he tossed off his rich mantle, and let it fall like any common wool robe, and he stepped before John and went down on his knees as all the others had done before him.

Joseph watched as the toll collector dipped his head and came up, wiping the water away from his face. The droplets clung to his oiled and gleaming hair.

The King stood impassive on the bluff, and then without a word, he turned, and disappeared into the ranks of his soldiers, and the entire flock, with sparkling gold-tipped lances and rounded shields, moved out of sight and was swallowed by the pilgrims coming towards us.

Dozens of men and women headed towards the water.

I saw Joseph staring up at me, his eyes clear, his expression familiar.

I moved down into the river. I passed Joseph and my mother, and the toll collector who stood at Joseph's elbow ready to assist him, on account of his age, even as James was there.

I moved up in front of John bar Zechariah.

My way had always been to look down. The subject of whisper and insult through much of my life, I seldom confronted a man with my gaze, but rather turned away and sought my work as a matter of course. It was a quiet demeanor.

But I didn't do this now. It was no longer my way. That was gone.

He stood frozen, staring at me. I looked at him - at his rugged frame, the hair matted to his chest, the dark camel-skin cloak half covering him. I saw his eyes then fixed on mine.

They were glazed, his eyes, the inevitable defense against a multitude of faces, a multitude of gazes, a multitude of expectations.

But as we faced one another - he only slightly taller than I - his eyes softened. They lost their tight puckering, their deep distance. I heard the breath pass out of him.

There came a sound like the flapping of wings, gentle yet large, as of doves startled in the dovecote, and all struggling Heavenward.

He stared upwards, to the right and left, then back at me.

He hadn't found the source of the sound.

I addressed him now in Hebrew:

"Johanan bar Zechariah," I said.

His eyes grew wide.

"Yeshua bar Joseph," he said.

The toll collector drew in to watch, to hear. I could see the vague shape of my mother and Joseph nearby. I could feel the others turning slowly towards us, moving clumsily towards us.

"It's you!" John whispered. "You . . . baptize me!" He held up the conch, dripping with water.

The disciples to the right and left stopped in the very midst of what they did. Those coming up out of the water remained standing, attentive. Something had changed in the holy man. What had changed?

I felt the throng itself like a great connected and living thing breathing with us.

I held up my hands.

"We're made in His image, you and I," I said. "This is flesh, is it not? Am I not a man? Baptize me as you've done everyone else; do this, in the name of righteousness."

I went down into the water. I felt his hand on my left shoulder. I felt his fingers close on my neck. I saw nothing and felt nothing and heard nothing but the cool flooding water, and then slowly I came up out of it, and stood, shocked by the flood of sunlight.

The clouds above had shifted. The sound of beating wings filled my ears. I stared forward and saw across John's face the shadow of a dove moving upwards - and then I saw the bird itself rising into a great opening of deep blue sky, and I heard a whisper against my ears, a whisper that penetrated the sound of the wings, as though a pair of lips had touched both ears at the same time, and faint as it was, soft and secretive as it was, it seemed the edge of an immense echo.

This is my Son, this is my beloved.

All the riverbank had gone quiet.

Then noise. The old familiar noise. Shouts and cries, and exclamations, those sounds so mingled in my mind and soul with the stoning of Yitra and the mob around Avigail - the noise of triumphant young men, the endless broken crying of pilgrims - I heard them all around me, the excited beat and cry of voices intermingling with one another, answering one another, growing louder and louder as they vied with one another.

I stared upward at the great endless stretch of blue and I saw the dove flying higher and higher. It became a tiny thing, a speck in the shimmer of the drenching sunlight.

I staggered backwards. I almost lost my balance. I stared at Joseph. I saw his gray eyes fixed on me, saw the faint smile on his lips, and saw in the same instant my mother's face, impassive and still faintly sad, lovingly sad, as she stood beside him.

"It is You!" said John bar Zechariah again.

I didn't answer.

The chorus of the crowd rose.

I turned and went up the far bank, tramping through the weeds, moving faster and faster. I stopped and glanced back once. I saw Joseph again, held tenderly in the arms of the toll collector who stared at me wildly. Joseph's face was collected and wistful and over the gulf between us he nodded. I saw my brothers, I saw all of my kindred there, I saw Shemayah, I saw Avigail. I saw the small figure of Silent Hannah.

I saw them all, and I saw them particularly - the smooth innocence of the very old, eyes gleaming beneath the heavy folds of skin; the sudden break from weariness in those in their prime, who stood poised between condemnation and wonder; the frank excitement of the children who begged for their parents to explain to them what had happened - and interwoven with all, the busy, the concerned, the worn, the confused, each and every one touching another.

Never had I beheld them all in this way, each anchored to concern yet wedded to the one to the left and the one to the right, and all tossing as if not in sand but by the sea on rolling waves.

I turned and looked down at John, who'd turned to stare up at me. He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.

I turned away from him. For one second the sunshine sparkling in the stiff branches of a shifting tree held me frozen. If trees and blowing grass could talk, they were talking to me.

And they were talking of silence.

On and on I walked, my mind filled only with the sound of my own feet, moving through reeds and marsh and then to the rocky dry ground, and on and on, my sandals slapping the road, and then the bare earth where there was no road.

I had now to be alone, to go where no one could find me or question me. Not now. I had to seek the solitude that all my life had been denied me.

I had to seek it beyond hamlet or town or camp. I had to seek it where there was nothing but the burnt sand, and the searing wind, and the highest cliffs of the land. I had to seek it as if it was nowhere and as if it contained nothing - when in fact it was the palm of the hand that held me.

Chapter Twenty-One


I'd passed the last little settlement days ago. I'd drunk my last deep draught of water there.

I didn't know where I was now, only that it was cold, and the only true sound was the wind howling as it swept down into the wadi. I clung to the cliff and made my way upwards. The light was dying fast. That's why it was so cold.

And the voices wouldn't stop, all the arguments, all the calculations, all the predications, all the pondering, and on and on, and on.

The wearier I became the louder they became.

In a small cave I lay, out of the bite of the wind, and drew my robe tightly around me. The thirst was gone. The hunger was gone. So that meant it had been many days because they'd hurt for many days and that much was now finished. Light-headed, empty, I craved all things and no one thing. My lips split and the skin flaked from them. My hands were burnt red; my eyes ached whether opened or closed.

But the voices would not stop, and slowly, rolling over on my back, I looked beyond the entrance of the cave at the stars - just as I'd always done, musing at the sheer cloudless clarity of it over the sandy wastes, the thing we call magnificence.

And then the remembering came, driving away the random voices of censure, the remembering . . . of every single solitary thing I'd ever done in this, my earthly existence.

It was not a sequence. It did not have the order of words written on parchment from one side of the column to the other, and then back again and again and again. Yet it was unfolding.

And sparkling in the density were the moments of pain - of loss, of fear, of sudden regret, of grief, of discomforting and tormented amazement.

Pain, like the stars themselves, each moment with its own infinitesimal shape and magnitude. All of those memories drew themselves around me as if composing a great garment that was my life, a garment that wrapped itself around and around and over and under until it encased me like my skin, completely.

Sometime before morning, I understood something. That I could without the slightest effort hold any and all of these moments in my mind; that they coexisted, these varied and tiny and countless agonies. Little agonies.

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