9th January 1945.
It is an early bright summer morning. The sky seems painted with strokes of a pink brush by little thin clouds looking like strips of frayed gauze, dropped on a smooth turquoise carpet. The air is full of the songs of birds, exhilarated by the bright light… Sparrows, blackbirds, redbreasts whistle, chirp, brawl over a stem, a worm, a twig which they want to take to their nests, or eat, or use as a roost. Swallows dart from the sky down to the little stream to wet their snow white breasts, the tops of which are rust colored, and after receiving the freshness of the water and catching a little fly still asleep on a little stem, they dart straight up into the sky as fast as the flash of a burnished blade, chattering joyfully.
Two blue-headed wagtails, dressed in pale ash-grey silk, are walking gracefully, like two little dames, along the bank of the stream, holding well up their long tails adorned with little velvet black spots, they look at themselves in the water, and, satisfied with their beautiful looks, they resume walking, while a blackbird, a real little rogue of the wood, scoffs at them, whistling at them with his long yellow beak. In the thick foliage of a wild apple-tree growing all alone near the ruins, a nightingale is calling her mate insistently, and she becomes silent only when she sees him coming with a long caterpillar wriggling in the grip of his thin beak. Two city pigeons, which have probably escaped from a dove-cot and have chosen a free dwelling place in the crevices of a ruined tower, give vent to their love effusion by cooing in such a way that the male seems to be endeavoring to seduce the modest female.
Jesus, with arms crossed, looks at all the happy little creatures and smiles.
« Are You already ready, Master? » asks Simon, from behind Him.
« Yes, I am. Are the others still sleeping? »
« Yes, they are. »
« They are young… I washed Myself in that stream… The water is so cold that it clears the mind… »
« I'll go and wash now. »
While Simon, wearing only a short tunic, is washing himself and then puts on his clothes, Judas and John come out. « Hail, Master, are we late? »
« No. It is only daybreak. But now be quick and let us go. »
The two get washed and put on their tunics and mantles.
Jesus, before setting off, picks some little flowers which have grown between the crevices of two stones, and puts them into a small wooden box, in which there are already other items, which I cannot see very well. He explains: « I will take them to My Mother. She will love them… Let us go. »
« Where, Master? »
« To Bethlehem. »
« Again? I do not think the situation is a favorable one for us… »
« It does not matter. Let us go. I want to show you where the Magi came and where I was. »
« In that case, listen. Excuse me, will You, Master? But let me do the talking. Let us do one thing. In Bethlehem and at the hotel, let me speak and ask questions. You Galileans are not awfully liked in Judaea, and much less here than anywhere else. Nay, let us do this: your clothes show that You and John are Galileans. It's too easy. And then… your hair! Why do you persist in wearing it so long? Simon and I will change mantles with you. Simon, give yours to John, I'll give mine to the Master. That's it! See? You already look a little more like Judaeans. Now take this. » And he takes off the cloth covering his head: a yellow, brown, red, green striped length of material, like his mantle, held in position by a yellow cord, he places it on Jesus' head, adjusting it along His cheeks to hide His fair hair. John puts on the very dark green one of Simon. « Oh! That's better now. I have a practical sense. »
« Yes, Judas, you have a practical sense. That is true. Watch, however, that it does not exceed the other sense. »
« Which one, Master? »
« The spiritual sense. »
« No! No! But in certain cases it pays to be more a politician than an ambassador. And listen… be good a little longer… it is for Your own good… Do not contradict me if I should say something… something… which is not true. »
« What do you mean? Why tell lies? I am the Truth and I want no lies in Me or around Me. »
« Oh! I will only tell half lies. I will say that we are all coming back from remote places, from Egypt for instance, and that we are seeking news of dear friends. I will say that we are Judaeans coming back from exile. After all, there is some truth in everything, and I will be speaking, and… one lie more, one lie less… »
« But Judas! Why deceive? »
« Never mind, Master! The world lives on deceit. And at times deceit is a necessity. Well: to make You happy, I will only say that we are coming from far and that we are Judaeans. Which is true for three out of four of us. And you, John, please do not speak at all. You would give yourself away. »
« I will be quiet. »
« Then… if everything works out all right… we shall say the rest. But I do not believe it… I am shrewd, I grasp things at once. »
« I see that, Judas. But I would prefer you to be simple. »
« It does not help much. In Your group, I will be the one in charge of difficult missions. Let me carry on. » Jesus is reluctant. But He gives in.
They set out. They walk round the ruins, then along a windowless massive wall on the other side of which one can hear braying, mooing, neighing, bleating and the queer cry of camels or dromedaries. The wall forms an angle. They go round it. They are now in the square of Bethlehem. The fountain is in the centre of the square, the shape of which is still slantwise, although there is a difference on the side opposite the hotel. Over there, where there was the little house, which I still remember being all silvery in the rays of the Star, there is now a large opening, strewn with ruins. Only the little staircase is still up, with its little landing. Jesus looks and sighs.
The square is full of people around vendors of foodstuffs, utensils, clothes etc. All the goods are on mats or in baskets on the ground, and most of the merchants are also crouched in the centre of their… shops, with the exception of those standing up, shouting and gesticulating with stingy buyers.
« It's market day » says Simon. The main gate of the hotel is wide open and a line of donkeys laden with goods is coming out. Judas is the first to enter. He looks round. Full of haughtiness, he seizes a dirty hostler in short sleeves, that is with a sleeveless short tunic, reaching down to his knees. « Hostler! » he shouts. « The landlord! Quick! Be quick. I am not used to be kept waiting for people. »
The boy runs away, dragging a broom behind him.
« But Judas! What manners! »
« Be quiet, Master. Leave me alone. It is important that they consider us rich people coming from town. »
The landlord rushes in, and he bends down repeatedly in front of Judas, who is impressive in Jesus' dark red mantle worn on top of his sumptuous yellow tunic full of fringes.
« We have come from far, man. We are Judaeans of the Asiatic communities. This gentleman, born in Bethlehem and persecuted, is now looking for some dear friends. We are with Him. We have come from Jerusalem, where we worshipped the Most High in His House. Can You give us some information? »
« My lord… your servant… will do everything for you. Give me your orders. »
« We want some information on many… and particularly on Anne, the woman whose house was opposite your hotel. »
« Oh! poor woman! You will find her only in Abraham's bosom. And her children with her. »
« Is she dead? How? »
« Don't you know of Herod's massacre? The whole world talked about it and even Caesar called him “a pig who feeds on blood”. Oh! What have I said? Don't report me! Are you really a Judaean? »
« Here is the sign of my tribe. So? Speak up. »
« Anne was killed by Herod's soldiers, with all her children, except one daughter. »
« But why? She was so good? »
« Did you know her? »
« Yes, very well. » Judas lies brazen-facedly.
« She was killed because she gave hospitality to those who said they were the father and mother of the Messiah… Come here, into this room… Walls have ears and it is dangerous to talk about certain things. »
They go into a low dark room. They sit down on a low couch.
« Now… I had a wonderful nose. I am not a hotel keeper for nothing. I was born here, the son of sons of hotel keepers. Wiles are in my blood. And I did not take them. I could have found a hole for them. But… poor, unknown Galileans as they were… Oh! no! Hezekiah will not fall into the trap! And I felt… I felt they were different… that woman… Her eyes… something… no, no… She must have had a demon inside Her and She spoke to him. And She brought him… not to me… but to town. Anne was more innocent than a little lamb, and she gave them hospitality a few days later, when She already had the Child. They said He was the Messiah… Oh! the money I made during those days! The census was nothing like it! Many people came here who had nothing to do with the census. They came even from the seaside, even from Egypt to see… and it lasted for months! What a profit I made! The last to come were three kings, three powerful people, three magicians… I would not know! What a train! An endless one! They took all the stables and they paid in gold for so much hay that could have lasted a month, and they went away the following day, leaving it all here. And what gifts they gave to the hostlers and the women!
And to me! Oh! I can only speak well of the Messiah, whether He was a true or false one. He made me earn bags of money. And I had no disasters. None of My family died, because I had just got married. So… but the others! »
« We would like to see the places of the slaughter. »
« The places? But every house was a place of slaughter. There were people killed for miles round Bethlehem. Come with me. »
They go up a staircase into a large terraced roof. From it, one can see a lot of countryside and the whole of Bethlehem spread on the hills like an open fan.
« Can you see the ruined spots? Over there also the houses were burnt down because the fathers defended their children with their weapons. Can you see over there that kind of a well covered with ivy? Those are the remains of the synagogue. It was burnt down with the arch synagogue who stated that it was the Messiah. It was burnt down by the survivors, who were wild because of the slaughter of their children. We had trouble for that after… And over there, and there, there… see those sepulchers? The victims are buried there.. They look like little sheep spread all over the green, as far as the eye can see. All the innocents and their fathers and mothers… See that vat? Its water was red after the killers washed weapons and hands in it. And the brook at the back here, did you see it? It was pink because of the blood which had flowed into it from the sewers. And there, over there, in front of us. That is what is left of Anne's house. »
Jesus is crying.
« Did You know her well? »
Judas replies: « She was like a sister for His Mother. Is that right, my friend? »
Jesus replies simply: « Yes. »
« I understand » remarks the hotel keeper who becomes pensive.
Jesus bends forward to speak to Judas in a low voice.
« My friend would like to go on those ruins » says Judas.
« Let Him go! They belong to everybody! »
They go downstairs, say goodbye and go out. The host is disappointed. Perhaps he was hoping to earn something.
They cross the square. And they climb the little staircase still left.
« From here » says Jesus, « My Mother made Me wave My hand to the Three Wise Men and we left from here to go to Egypt. » People look at the four men on the ruins. One asks: « Are they relatives of Anne? »
« They are friends. »
A woman shouts: « Don’t do any harm to the poor dead woman, don't you do it, as her other friends did when she was alive, and then they ran away. »
Jesus is standing on the landing against the little wall enclosing it. He is therefore about two meters higher up than the square, with nothing behind Him. The outline of His figure is clearly cut against the sun shining behind Him: it forms a halo around His golden hair, and makes His snow white linen tunic look even whiter as it is the only garment on Him, since His mantle has slipped off His shoulders and is now lying at His feet like a multicolored pedestal. Further back, there is the green unkempt background of what was Anne's kitchen garden and field, now laid waste and strewn with debris. Jesus stretches out His arms. When Judas sees that gesture he says: « Don't speak! It isn't wise! »
But Jesus’ powerful voice fills the square: « Men of Judah! Men of Bethlehem, listen! Women of the land sacred to Rachel, listen! Listen to One Who descends from David, and has suffered because of persecutions and has become worthy of speaking, and is speaking to you to give you light and comfort. Listen. »
The people stop shouting, quarrelling and buying and they gather together.
« He is a rabbi! »
« He certainly comes from Jerusalem. »
« Who is He? »
« What a handsome man! »
« And what a voice! »
« And His manners! »
« Of course, He is of David's House! »
« He is one of ours, then! »
« Let's listen to Him! »
The whole crowd is now gathered near the little staircase which looks like a pulpit.
« In Genesis it is said: “I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman: She will crush your head and you will strike at Her heel.” It is also said: “I will multiply your pains in childbearing… and the soil shall yield you brambles and thistles.” That was the sentence against man, woman and the serpent. I have come from far to revere Rachel's tomb, and in the evening breeze, in the dew of the night, in the plaintive morning song of the nightingale, I heard ancient Rachel's sobs being repeated, and they were repeated by the mouths of many mothers of Bethlehem, within their tombs or within their hearts. And I heard Jacob's sorrow roar in the pain of the widowed husbands, deprived of their wives whom sorrow had killed… I cry with you… But listen, brethren of My land. Bethlehem, the blessed land, the least of the towns in Judah, but the greatest in the eyes of God and of mankind, roused Satan's hatred because it was the cradle of the Savior, as Micah says, destined to be the tabernacle on which the Glory of God, the Fire of God, His Incarnate Love was to rest.
“I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman; She will crush your head and you will strike at Her heel.” Which enmity is there greater than the one that aims at a mother's children, the very heart of a woman? And which heel is there stronger than the Savior's Mother's? The revenge of Satan defeated was therefore a natural one: he did not strike at the heel, but at the hearts of mothers, because of the Mother.
Oh! Pains were multiplied when the children were lost after giving birth to them! Oh! great was the trouble of being a childless father after sowing and toiling for the offspring! And yet, Bethlehem, rejoice! Your pure blood, the blood of the innocents has prepared a blazing purple way for the Messiah… »
The crowd, which has become more and more turbulent after Jesus mentioned the Savior and His Mother, is now showing clear signs of agitation.
« Be quiet, Master » says Judas. « And let us go. »
But Jesus does not listen to him. He goes on: « … for the Messiah that the Grace of the God-Father saved from tyrants to preserve Him for His people and its salvation and… »
The shrill voice of a woman shouts: « Five, five I gave birth to, and not one is now in my house. Poor me! » And she yells hysterically. It is the beginning of the uproar.
Another woman, rolls over in the dust, she tears her dress, and shows a breast maimed of its nipple, shouting: « Here, here on this mamma they slaughtered my first-born son! The sword cut off his face and my nipple at the same time. Oh! my Ellis! »
« And what about me! What about me? There is my royal palace. Three tombs in one, watched over by the father: my husband and children together. There, there! If there is a Savior, let Him give me back my children, my husband, let Him save me from despair, from Beelzebub He must save me. »
They all shout: « Our children, our husbands, our fathers! Let Him give them back, if He exists! »
Jesus waves His arms imposing silence. « Brethren of My land: I would like to give you back your children, in their flesh. But I tell you: be good, be resigned, forgive, hope, rejoice in hope and exult in one certainty: you will soon have your children, angels in Heaven, because the Messiah is about to open the gates of Heaven, and if you are just, death will be a new Life and a new Love… »
« Ah! Are You the Messiah? In the name of God, tell us. »
Jesus lowers Him arms, in so sweet and kind a gesture as if He were embracing them all, and He says:
« Yes, I am. »
« Go away! Go away! It's Your fault, then! »
A stone is thrown amid hisses and jeers.
Judas reacts at once in a most praiseworthy way… Oh! if he had always behaved thus! He jumps in front of Jesus, standing on the low wall of the landing, with his mantle wide open and undaunted he protects Jesus from the stones. His face bleeds and he shouts to John and Simon: « Take Jesus away. Behind those trees. I'll follow. Go, in the name of Heaven! » And he shouts to the crowd: « Mad dogs! I am of the Temple and I will report you to the Temple and to Rome. »
The crowd is scared for a moment. Then the shower of stones is resumed at once, but fortunately, they are not experts. And Judas, fearless, gets it, and replies with offensive language to the curses of the crowd. Nay: he catches a stone thrown at him, and he throws it back on the head of an old man who is shouting like a magpie plucked alive! And as they attempt to climb up his pedestal, he quickly picks up an old branch from the ground, (he has now come off the little wall) and he swings it round on backs, heads and hands mercilessly. Some soldiers rush to the spot and with their lances they make their way through the crowd: « Who are You? Why this brawl? »
« I am a Judaean and I have been attacked by these plebeians. A rabbi, well known to the priests, was with me. He was speaking to these dogs. But they became wild and attacked us. »
« Who are You? »
« Judas of Kerioth, I was a man of the Temple, now I am a disciple of rabbi Jesus of Galilee. I am a friend of Simon the Pharisee, of Johanan the Sadducee, and of Joseph of Arimathaea, the Counsellor of the Sanhedrin, and finally, of Eleazar ben Anna, the Proconsul's great friend, and you can check. »
« I will. Where are you going? »
« I am going to Kerioth with my friend, then to Jerusalem. »
« Go. We will protect your back. »
Judas hands some coins to the soldier. It must be illegal… but quite usual, because the soldier takes them swiftly and cautiously, he salutes and smiles. Judas jumps down from his platform, he goes through the uncultivated field, skipping now and again, and he reaches his companions.
« Are you seriously hurt? »
« No, it's nothing, Master! In any case, it's for You… But I gave them a licking as well. I must be covered with blood… »
« Yes, on your cheek. There is a rivulet here. »
John moistens a small piece of cloth and wipes Judas' cheek.
« I am sorry, Judas… But see… to tell them that we are Judaeans, according to your good practical sense… »
« They are beasts. I believe You are now convinced, Master. And I hope you will not insist… »
« Oh! no! Not because I am afraid. But because it is useless, just now. When they do not want us, we must not curse them, but withdraw praying for the poor, foolish people, who die of starvation and cannot see the Bread. Let us go along this out-of-the-way path, towards the shepherds, if we can find them. I think we will be able to get on to the Hebron road… »
« To have more stones thrown at us? »
« No. To say to them: “I am here.” »
« What?… They will certainly beat us. They have been suffering for thirty years because of You. »
« We will see. » They enter a cool, shady, thick little wood, and I lose sight of them.