8th January 1945.
A stony, dusty, flat road, dried up by the summer sun. It runs alongside huge olive-trees, all laden with small newly formed olives. The ground, where it has not been trodden, is strewn with a layer of minute little olive flowers, which have fallen off after pollination.
Jesus, with the three disciples, proceeds in single file along the edge of the road, where the grass is still green, protected by the shade of the olive-trees and consequently there is less dust.
The road turns at a right angle, after which it climbs easily towards a large valley shaped like a horseshoe, on which numerous houses are strewn forming a small town. At the right angle turn of the road, there is a square building surmounted by a little low dome. It is all closed up, as if it were abandoned.
« That is Rachel's sepulchre » says Simon.
« In that case, we have almost arrived. Are we going into town at once? »
« No, Judas, I want to show you a place first… Then we will go into town, and since there is still clear daylight and it will be an evening of moonlight, we will be able to speak to the people. If they will listen to us. »
« Do You think they will not listen to You? »
They have reached the sepulchre, an ancient but well preserved monument, well whitewashed.
Jesus stops to drink at a rustic well nearby. A woman who has come to draw water offers Him some. Jesus asks her: « Are you from Bethlehem? »
« I am. But now at harvest time, I live in the country here with my husband, to look after the vegetable gardens and the orchards. Are You a Galilean? »
« I was born in Bethlehem, but I live at Nazareth in Galilee. »
« Are You persecuted, too? »
« The family is. But why do you say: “You too”? Are there many people persecuted among the Bethlehemites? »
« Don't You know? What age are You? »
« Thirty. »
« Then You were born exactly when… oh! what a calamity! But why was He born here? »
« Who? »
« The One they said was the Saviour. Cursed be the fools who, drunk as they were, thought the clouds were angels and the bleating and braying were voices from Heaven, and in the haze of drunkenness they mistook three miserable people for the holiest people on the earth. Cursed be they! And cursed be those who believe them. »
« But, with all your cursing, you are not telling Me what happened. Why are you cursing? »
« Because… Listen: where are You going? »
« To Bethlehem with My friends. I have business there. I must visit some old friends and take them the greetings of My Mother. But I would like to know many things before, because we have been away, we of the family, for many years. We left the town when I was only a few months old. »
« Before the catastrophe, then. Listen, if You do not loathe the house of a peasant, come and share our bread and salt with us. You and Your companions. We will talk during supper and I will put you all up for the night. My house is small. But above the stable there is a lot of hay, all piled up. The night is clear and warm. If You want, You can sleep there. »
« May the Lord of Israel reward your hospitality. I will be happy to come to your house. »
« A pilgrim brings blessings with him. Let us go. But I shall have to pour six jars of water on the vegetables which have just come up. »
« And I will help you. »
« No, You are a gentleman, Your behaviour says so. »
« I am a worker, woman. This one is a fisherman. Those two Judaeans are well off and employed. I am not. » And He picks up a jar which was lying flat on its big belly near the very low wall of the well, He ties it to the rope, and lowers it into the well. John helps Him. Also the others wish to be as helpful and they ask the woman: « Where are the vegetables? Tell us and we will take the jars there. »
« May God bless you! My back is broken with fatigue. Come… »
And while Jesus is pulling up His jar, the three disciples disappear along a little path… and come back with two empty ones, which they fill up and then go away. And they do not do that three, but ten times. And Judas laughing says: « She is shouting herself hoarse, blessing us. We have given so much water to her salad, that the soil will be damp for at least two days, and the woman will not have to break her back. » When he comes back for the last time, he says: « Master, I am afraid we have been unlucky. »
« Why, Judas? »
« Because she has it in for the Messiah. I said to her: “Don't curse. Don't you know that the Messiah is the greatest grace for the people of God? Yahweh promised Him to Jacob, and after him to all the Prophets and the just people in Israel. And you hate Him?” She replied: “Not Him. But the one whom some drunken shepherds and three cursed diviners from the East called 'Messiah' ”. And since that is You… »
« It does not matter. I know I am placed as a trial and contradiction for many. Did you tell her who I am? »
« No, I am not a fool. I wanted to save Your back and ours. »
« You did well. Not because of our backs. But because I wish to show Myself when I think the time is right. Let us go. »
Judas leads Him as far as the vegetable garden.
The woman empties the last three jars and she then takes Him towards a rustic building in the middle of the orchard. « Go in » she says. « My husband is already in the house. »
They look into a low smoky kitchen. « Peace be to this house » greets Jesus.
« Whoever You are, may You and Your friends be blessed. Come in » replies the man. And he takes out to them a basin of water that they may refresh and clean themselves. Then they all go in and sit round a rough table.
« Thank you for helping my wife. She told me. I had never dealt with Galileans before and I was told that they are rough and quarrelsome. But you have been kind and good. Although already tired… you worked so hard. Are you coming from far? »
« From Jerusalem. These two are Judaeans. The other one and I are from Galilee. But, believe Me, man: you will find good and bad everywhere. »
« That's true. I, the first time I have met Galileans, I have found them to be good. Woman: bring the food. I have but bread, vegetables, olives and cheese. I am a peasant. »
« I am not a gentleman Myself. I am a carpenter. »
« What? You? With Your manners? »
The woman intervenes: « Our guest is from Bethlehem, I told you, and if His relations are persecuted, they were probably rich and learned, like Joshua of Ur, Matthew of Isaac, Levi of Abraham, poor people!… »
« You have not been questioned. Forgive her. Women are more talkative than sparrows in the evening. »
« Were they Bethlehemite families? »
« What? You do not know who they are, and You come from Bethlehem? »
« We ran away when I was a few months old… »
The woman who must be really loquacious, resumes speaking: « He went away before the massacre. »
« Eh! I see that. Otherwise He would not be in this world. Have You never been back? »
« No, never. »
« What a calamity! You will not find many of those Sarah said You want to meet and visit. Many were killed, many ran away, many… who knows!… missing, and it has never been known whether they died in the desert or were killed in jail as a punishment for their rebellion. But was it a rebellion? And who would have remained inactive allowing so many innocents to be slaughtered? No, it is unfair that Levi and Elias should still be alive when so many innocents are dead! »
« Who are those two, and what did they do? »
« Well… at least You will have heard of the slaughter. The slaughter by Herod… Over a thousand babies slaughtered in town, almost another thousand in the country (1). And they were all, or almost all, males, because in their fury, in the darkness, in the scuffle, the killers tore away from their cradles, from their mother's beds, from the houses they assailed, also some baby girls, and they pierced them like sucking baby gazelles shot down by archers. Well: why all that? Because a group of shepherds, who had obviously drank a huge quantity of cider to stand the intense night cold, in a frenzy of excitement, stated they had seen angels, heard songs, received instructions… and they said to us of Bethlehem: “Come. Adore. The Messiah is born.” Just imagine: the Messiah in a cave! In all sincerity, I must admit that we were all drunk, even I, then an adolescent, also my wife, then only a few years old… because we all believed them, and in a poor Galilean woman we saw the Virgin Mother mentioned by the Prophets. But She was with Her husband, a rough Galilean! If She was the wife, how could She be the “Virgin”? To cut a long story short: we believed. Gifts, worshipping… houses opened to give them hospitality!…
(1) The real number of babies killed is thirty-two, of which eighteen in the actual town of Bethlehem and fourteen in the nearby country. Also six baby girls were slaughtered as the hired cut-throats could not tell them from baby boys because they were dressed alike, and also because of the darkness and their hurry to kill. The peasant, as is often the case, exaggerates. The above detailed information is given by Maria Valtorta on a separate sheet added to the original manuscript.
Oh! They played their roles very well! Poor Anne! She lost her property and her life, and also the children of her oldest daughter, the only one left because she was married to a merchant in Jerusalem, lost all their property because their house was burned down and the whole holding was laid waste by Herod's order. Now it is an uncultivated field where herds feed. »
« And was it entirely the shepherds' fault? »
« No, it was the fault also of three wizards who came from Satan's kingdom. Perhaps they were accomplices of the three… And we foolishly felt proud of so much honour! And the poor archsynagogue! We killed him because he swore that the prophecies confirmed the truth of the shepherds' and wizards' words… »
« It was therefore the fault of the shepherds and of the wizards? »
« No, Galilean. It was also our fault. The fault of our credulity. The Messiah had been expected for such a long time! Centuries of expectation. And there had been many disappointments recently because of false Messiahs. One of them was a Galilean, like You, another one was named Theudas. Liars! They… Messiahs! They were nothing but greedy adventurers hunting for a stroke of luck! We should have learned the lesson. Instead… »
« Well, then, why do you curse all the shepherds and magicians? If you consider yourselves fools, too, then you ought to be cursed as well. But the precept of love forbids cursing. One curse attracts another curse. Are you sure you are right? Could it not be true that the shepherds and the magicians spoke the truth, revealed to them by God? Why do you persist in believing they were liars? »
« Because the years of the prophecy were not complete. We thought about it afterwards… after our eyes had been opened by the blood that reddened basins and rivulets. »
« And could the Most High not have advanced the coming of the Saviour, out of an excess of love for His people? On what did the wizards found their statement? You told Me they came from the East… »
« On their calculations concerning a new star. »
« Is it not written: “A star from Jacob takes the leadership, a sceptre arises from Israel”? Is Jacob not the great Patriarch and did he not stop in the land of Bethlehem as dear to him as his eyes, because his beloved Rachel died there? And did the mouth of a Prophet not say: “A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a scion thrusts from his roots”? Jesse, David's father, was born here. Is the shoot on the stock, cut at its roots by tyrannical usurpations, is it not the “Virgin” Who will give birth to Her Son, conceived not by deed of man, otherwise She would not be a virgin, but by divine will, whereby He will be the “Immanuel” because: Son of God, He will be God and bring God among the people of God, as His name proclaims? And will He not be announced, as the prophecy says, to the people walking in darkness, that is to the heathens, “by a great light”? And the star the magicians saw, could it not be the star of Jacob, the great light of the two prophecies of Balaam and Isaiah? And the very massacre ordered by Herod, does it not come within the prophecies? “A voice is heard in Ramah… It is Rachel weeping for her children.” It was written that tears should ooze from Rachel's bones in her sepulchre at Ephrathah when, through the Saviour, the reward would come to the holy people. Tears which were to turn into celestial laughter, just as the rainbow is formed by the last drops of the storm, but it says: “Here, the sky is clear.” »
« You are a learned man. Are You a rabbi? »
« Yes, I am. »
« And I perceived it. There is light and truth in Your words. But… Oh! too many wounds are still bleeding in this land of Bethlehem because of the true or false Messiah… I would never advise Him to come here. The land would reject Him as it rejects a stepson who caused the death of the true children. In any case… if it was Him… He died with the other slaughtered children. »
« Where do Levi and Elias live now? »
« Do You know them? » The man becomes suspicious.
« I do not know them. Their faces are unknown to Me. But they are unhappy, and I always have mercy on the unhappy. I want to go and see them. »
« Well, You will be the first one after about thirty years. They are still shepherds and they work for a rich Herodian from Jerusalem, who has taken possession of a lot of the property belonging to the people killed… There is always someone making a profit! You will find them with their herds on the high grounds towards Hebron. But this is my advice: don't let anyone from Bethlehem see You speaking to them. You would suffer from it. We bear them because… because of the Herodian. Otherwise… »
« Oh! Hatred! Why hate? »
« Because it is just. They have done us harm. »
« They thought they were doing good. »
« But they did harm. Let them be harmed. We should have killed them as they had so many people killed through their stupidity. But we had become stupid ourselves and later… there was the Herodian. »
« So, even if he had not been there, after the first desire for revenge, which was still excusable, would you have killed them? »
« We would kill them even now, if we were not afraid of their master. »
« Man, I tell you, do not hate. Do not wish evil things. Do not be anxious to do evil things. There is no fault here. But even if there was, forgive. Forgive in the name of God. Tell the other people of Bethlehem as well. When your hearts are free from hatred, the Messiah will come; you will know Him then, because He is alive. He already existed when the massacre took place. I am telling you. It was Satan's fault, not the fault of the shepherds and of the magicians that the massacre took place. The Messiah was born here for you, He came to bring the Light to the land of His fathers. The Son of a Virgin Mother of the line of David, in the ruins of the house of David, He granted a stream of Graces to the world, and a new life to mankind… »
« Go away! Get out of here! You are a follower of that false Messiah, Who could but be false, because He brought misfortune to us here in Bethlehem. You are defending Him, so… »
« Be silent, man. I am a Judaean and I have influential friends. I could make you feel sorry for your insult » bursts out Judas, getting hold of the peasant's garments, and shaking him in a fit of violent anger.
« No, No, out of here! I don't want trouble with the people of Bethlehem or with Rome or Herod. Go away, you cursed ones, if you don't want me to leave my mark on you… Out! »
« Let us go, Judas. Do not react. Let us leave him in his hatred. God will not enter where there is bitter hatred. Let us go. »
« Yes, we will go. But you will pay for it. »
« No, Judas, do not say that. They are blind… We shall meet so many on My way. »
They go out following Simon and John, who are already outside, speaking to the woman, round the comer of the stable.
« Forgive my husband, Lord. I did not think I was going to cause so much trouble… Here, take these. You will eat them tomorrow morning. They are newly laid. I have nothing else… Forgive us. Where will You sleep? » (She gives Him some eggs).
« Do not worry. I know where to go. Go and peace be with you for your kindness. Goodbye. »
They walk a short distance, without speaking, then Judas bursts out: « But You… Why not make him worship You? Why did You not crush that filthy swearer down in the mud? Down on the ground! Crushed because he showed no respect for You, the Messiah… Oh! That is what I would have done! Samaritans should be reduced to ashes by means of a miracle! It is the only thing that will shake them. »
« Oh! How many times will I hear that said! But if I should reduce to ashes for every sin against Me!… No, Judas. I have come to create, not to destroy. »
« Yes! And in the meantime they are destroying You. »
Jesus does not reply.
Simon asks: « Where are we going now, Master? »
« Come with Me, I know a place. »
« But if You have never been here after You left, how can You know? » asks Judas, still angry.
« I know. It is not a beautiful place. But I have been there before. It is not in Bethlehem… it is a little outside… Let us turn this way. »
Jesus is in front, followed by Simon, then Judas and John is last… In the silence, broken only by the rustling of their sandals on the small grains of gravel of the path, someone sobbing can be heard.
« Who is crying? » asks Jesus turning round.
And Judas: « It's John. He has been frightened. »
« No, I was not frightened. I had already laid my hand on the knife under my belt… Then I remembered the words You keep repeating: “Do not kill, forgive.” »
« Why are you crying, then? » asks Judas.
« Because I suffer seeing that the world does not love Jesus. They do not know Him, and they do not want to know Him. Oh! It is such a pain! As if someone tore my heart with burning thorns. As if I had seen someone treading on my mother or spitting upon my father's face… Even worse… As if I had seen Roman horses eating in the Holy Ark and resting in the Holy of Holies. »
« Do not cry, My dear John. Say for this present time and for endless times in future: “He was the Light and He came to enlighten darkness – but darkness did not know Him. He came to the world that had been made for Him, but the world did not know Him. He came to His own town, to His domain, but His own people did not accept Him.” Oh! Do not cry like that! »
« That does not happen in Galilee! » says John sighing.
« Well, not even in Judaea » says Judas. « Jerusalem is the capital and three days ago it sang hosannas to You, Messiah! You cannot judge from this place of coarse peasants, shepherds and market gardeners. Also the Galileans, mind you, are not all good. After all, where did Judas, the false Messiah, come from? They said… »
« That is enough, Judas. There is no use in getting angry. I am calm. Be calm, too. Judas, come here. I want to speak to you. » Judas goes near Him. « Take this purse. You will do the shopping for tomorrow. »
« And for the time being, where are we going to lodge? »
Jesus smiles, but does not reply. It is dark. Everything is white in the moonlight. The nightingales sing amongst the olives. A brook is a silvery resounding ribbon. One can smell the scent of hay of the mown fields: a warm, I would say, carnal smell. Bellows and bleats can be heard. And stars, stars and stars… stars strewn on the heavenly curtain, a canopy of living gems, spread over the hills of Bethlehem.
« But here!… There is nothing but ruins here! Where are You taking us? The town is over there. »
« I know. Come. Follow the rivulet, behind Me. A few more steps and then… then I will offer you the abode of the King of Israel. »
Judas shrugs his shoulders and becomes quiet.
A few more steps, then a heap of ruined houses: the remains of houses… A cave between the clefts of a big wall.
Jesus asks: « Have You any tinder? Light it. »
Simon lights a small lamp which he has taken out of his knapsack and he gives it to Jesus.
« Come in » says the Master lifting the lamp. « Come in. This is the nativity room of the King of Israel. »
« You must be joking, Master! This is a filthy den. Ah! I am not going to stay here! I loathe it: it is damp, cold, stinking, full of scorpions and perhaps also snakes… »
« And yet… My friends, here the night of the twenty-fifth of Chislev, Feast of the Lights, Jesus Christ, was born of the Virgin, the Immanuel, the Word of God made flesh, for the love of man: I Who am speaking to you. Also then, as now, the world was deaf to the voices of Heaven speaking to the hearts of men… and it rejected the Mother… and here… No, Judas, do not avert your eyes in disgust from those fluttering noctules, from those green lizards, from those cobwebs, do not lift with disgust your beautiful embroidered mantle, lest it may trail on the ground covered with animal excrement. Those noctules are the daughters' daughters of the ones that were the first toys to be tossed before the eyes of the Child, for Whom the angels sang the “Gloria” heard by the shepherds, intoxicated only by an ecstatic joy, a true joy. The emerald green of those lizards was the first color to strike My eyes, the first, after My Mother's white face and dress. Those cobwebs were the canopy of My royal cradle. This ground… oh! you may tread on it without disdain… It is littered with excrement… but it is sanctified by Her foot, the foot of the Holy, the Most Holy, Pure, Immaculate Mother of God, Who gave birth, because She was to give birth, because God, not man, told Her and covered Her with His shadow. She, the Faultless One, trod on it. You can tread on it, too. And may the purity diffused by Her, by the will of God, rise from the soles of your feet to your heart… »
Simon is on his knees. John goes straight to the manger and cries, leaning his head against it. Judas is terrified… he is overcome by emotion, and no longer worried about his beautiful mantle, he kneels on the ground, takes the edge of Jesus' tunic and kisses it and beats his breast saying: « Oh! My good Master, have mercy on the blindness of Your servant! My pride vanishes… I see You as You are. Not the king I was thinking of. But the Eternal Prince, the Father of future centuries, the King of peace. Have mercy, my Lord and my God, have mercy on me! »
« Yes, you have all My mercy! Now we will sleep where the Infant and the Virgin slept, over there where John has taken the place of the adoring Mother, here where Simon looks like My putative father. Or, if you prefer so, I will speak to you of that night… »
« Oh! yes, Master, tell us of Your birth. »
« That it may be a bright pearl shining in our hearts. And we may tell the whole world. »
« And we may venerate Your Virgin Mother, not only as Your Mother, but also as… as the Virgin! »
Judas was the first to speak, then Simon and then John, whose face smiles and cries, near the manger.
« Come and sit on the hay. Listen… » and Jesus tells them of the night of His birth. « … as the Mother was near Her time to have Her Child, a decree was issued by the imperial delegate Publius Sulpicius Quirinus on instructions from Caesar Augustus, when Sentius Saturninus was governor of Palestine. The decree stated that a census had to be taken of all the people of the empire. Those who were not slaves were to go to their places of origin and register in the official rolls of the empire. Joseph, the spouse of the Mother, was of the line of David and the Mother was also of David's line. In compliance with the decree, they left Nazareth and came to Bethlehem, the cradle of the royal family. The weather was severe… » Jesus continues the story and it all ends thus.