4th July 1945.
« We shall almost certainly find them if we go back on to the Hebron road for a little while. Please go in pairs looking for them on the mountain paths. From here to Solomon's Pools and thence to Bethzur. We will follow you. This is their pasture area » says the Lord to the Twelve and I understand that He is speaking of the shepherds.
The apostles are getting ready to go, each with his favourite companion and only the inseparable couple of John and Andrew do not get together because they both go to the Iscariot saying: « I will come with you » and Judas replies: « Yes, come, Andrew. It is better thus, John. You and I already know the shepherds. So it is better if you go with someone else. »
« Come with me, then, boy » says Peter leaving James of Zebedee, who without protesting goes with Thomas, while the Zealot joins Judas Thaddeus, James of Alphaeus goes with Matthew and the two inseparable Philip and Bartholomew remain together. The boy remains with Jesus and the Maries.
The road is cool and comfortable and runs among completely green mountains covered with forests and meadows. They meet herds going towards pastures in the faint light of dawn.
At the sound of every cattle-bell Jesus stops speaking and looks round, He then asks the shepherds whether Elias, the Bethlehemite shepherd, is in that area. I understand that by now Elias is called «the Bethlehemite». Even if other shepherds are from Bethlehem, he is by right or by mockery «the Bethlehemite». But no one knows where he is. They answer stopping their herds and ceasing to play their rustic flutes.
Almost every young man has one of those primeval cane flutes, which cause Marjiam to be thrown into ecstasies, until a good old man gives him his nephew's saying: « He will make himself another one », and Marjiam goes away happily with the instrument across his back, even if he does not know how to play it, at least for the time being.
« I would like so much to meet them! » exclaims Mary.
« We will certainly find them. In this season they are always near Hebron. »
The boy is interested in those shepherds who saw the Child Jesus and he asks Mary many questions and She explains everything patiently and kindly.
« But why did they punish them? They had done nothing but good! » asks the boy after hearing the story of their misfortunes.
« Because very often man makes mistakes, accusing innocent people of evil deeds that in actual fact were done by someone else. But as they have been good and have forgiven, Jesus loves them so much. We must always be able to forgive. »
« But all the children who were slaughtered, how could they have forgiven Herod? »
« They are little Martyrs, Marjiam, and martyrs are saints. They not only forgive their executioners, but they love them, because they open Heaven to them. »
« But are they in Heaven? »
« No, not just now. But they are in Limbo where they are the joy of Patriarchs and of the just. »
« Why? »
« Because when they arrived with their souls purple with blood, they said: “Here we are, we are the heralds of Christ the Saviour. Rejoice, you who are waiting, because He is already on the earth.” And everybody loves them because they are the bearers of these good tidings. »
« My father told me that also Jesus' Word is good tidings. So when my father goes to Limbo after repeating it on the earth, and I also go there, will we be loved as well? »
« You will not go to Limbo, My dear little one. »
« Why? »
« Because Jesus will have already gone back to Heaven and will have opened it and all good people will go straight to Heaven when they die. »
« I will be good, I promise. And Simon of Jonah? He too, eh? Because I do not want to become an orphan a second time. »
« He will be there as well, you may be sure, but there are no orphans in Heaven. We have God. And God is everything. We are not orphans here either. Because the Father is always with us. »
« But Jesus in that lovely prayer, which You teach me by day and my mother at night, says: “Our Father Who are in Heaven.” We are not in Heaven yet. Therefore, how can we be with Him? »
« Because God is everywhere, son. He watches over the baby that is born and over the old man who is dying. The child who is born this moment, in the most remote part of the world, has God's love and eye with him and will have them until he dies. »
« Even if he is as bad as Doras? »
« Yes. »
« But can God, Who is so good, love Doras who is so bad and makes my old father weep? »
« He looks at him with disdain and sorrow. But if he should repent, He would say to him what the father of the parable said to his repentant son. You should pray that he may repent and...»
« Oh! no, Mother! I will pray that he may die!!! » says the child impetuously. Although his remark is not very... angelical, his impetuosity is so sincere that no one can help laughing.
Mary then resumes the sweet gravity of a Teacher: « No, My dear. You must not do that to a sinner. God would not listen to you and would look sternly at you as well. We must wish our neighbour the greatest welfare, even if our neighbour is very bad. Life is a good thing because it gives man the possibility of gaining merits in the eyes of God. »
« But if one is bad, one gains sins. »
« We pray that he may become good. »
The boy is pensive... but he does not like this sublime lesson and he concludes: « Doras will not become good even if I pray for him. He is too bad. Even if all the baby martyrs of Bethlehem should pray with me, he would not become good. You do not know... You do not know that one day he struck my old father with an iron rod, because he found him sitting during working hours? He was not able to stand because he was not feeling well... and he beat him and left him half dead, and then kicked him on his face... I saw him because I was hiding behind a hedge... I had gone there because no one had brought me any bread for two days and I was hungry... I had to run away so that he might not hear me, because I was crying seeing my father like that, with blood on his beard, lying on the ground, as if he were dead... I was weeping when I went to beg some bread... but that bread is still lying here... and it tastes of the blood and tears of my father and mine, and of all those who are tortured and who cannot love those who torture them. I would like to strike Doras that he may feel what a blow is, and I would like to leave him without any bread, that he may learn what it is to be hungry, and I would make him work in the sun, in mud, under the threats of the overseer, without food, that he may know what he gives the poor... I cannot love him because... because he kills my holy father, and I... if I had not found you, to whom would I have belonged? »
The child, in a fit of pain, shouts and cries, trembling, deranged, striking with his closed fists the air, as he cannot strike the slave-driver. The women are amazed and touched and they endeavour to calm him. But he is really in a fit of grief and does not hear anything. He shouts: « I cannot, I cannot love and forgive him. I hate him, I hate him on behalf of everybody, I hate him, I hate him!...» He is in a pitiful and frightful state. It is the reaction of a creature who has suffered too much.
And Jesus says so: « That is Doras' gravest felony: to drive an innocent child to hate...»
He then takes the child in His arms and speaks to him: « Listen, Marjiam. Do you want to go one day with your mummy, your daddy, your little brother and the old father? »
« Then you must not hate anybody. He who hates does not go to Heaven. You cannot pray for Doras just now? Well, do not pray, but do not hate. Do you know what you must do? You must never look back to think of the past...»
« But my father who suffers is not past...»
« That is true. But look, Marjiam, try and pray like this: “Our Father Who are in Heaven, please see to what is my wish....” You will see that the Father will listen to you in the best possible way. Even if you killed Doras, what would you do? You would lose the love of God, Heaven, the company of your father and mother and you would not relieve of his troubles the old man whom you love. You are too little to be able to do it. But God can. Tell Him. Say to Him: “You know how much I love my old father and how I love all those who are unhappy. Will You please see to this matter, because You can do everything.” What? Do you not want to preach the Gospel? But the Gospel teaches love and forgiveness! How can you say to one: “Do not hate. Forgive” if you cannot love and forgive? Leave things to good God and you will see how well He can arrange matters. Will you do that? »
« Yes, I will, because I love You. »
Jesus kisses the boy and lets him down.
The incident is over as well as their journey. There are three large basins excavated in the rocky mountain, a really grand work, and the surface of the most limpid water sparkles as well as the waterfall that from the first basin falls into the second larger one and then into the third one, which is really a little lake. Pipelines convey the water to distant towns. The whole mountain, from the spring to the basins and from the basins to the ground is most beautiful and fertile, thanks to the humidity of the soil in this area, and flowers more composite than wild ones, together with rare scented herbs, make the green sides of the mountain a most pleasant and brilliant sight. One would think that man has planted garden flowers here together with scented herbs, which, in the heat of the sun, diffuse in the air their aromas of cinnamon, camphor, clove, lavander and other pleasantly pungent, fragrant, strong, sweet smells, in a wonderful blend of the finest earthly perfumes. I would say that it is a harmonious conglomeration of smells because it is really a poem of herbs and flowers in hues and fragrance.
All the apostles are sat in the shade of a tree covered with large white flowers, the name of which I do not know. They are huge pendulous bell-shaped flowers, of white enamel hue, which dangle at the least breath of wind, diffusing their fragrance at each undulation. I do not know the name of this tree. Its flowers remind me of a shrub that grows in Calabria, which the locals call « bottaro », but the trunk is quite different, as this is a tall tree, with a robust trunk, and not a shrub. Jesus calls them and they hasten towards Him.
« We found Joseph almost at once, he was coming back from a market. They will all be at Bethzur this evening. We gathered together, by shouting to one another, and we remained here in the cool shade » explains Peter.
« What a lovely place! It looks like a garden! We were discussing whether it is natural or not, and some insist it is, some that it isn't » says Thomas.
« The land of Judaea has such marvels » states the Iscariot, who is inevitably inclined to grow proud by everything, also by flowers and herbs.
« Yes, but... I think that if Johanna's garden at Tiberias were abandoned and it became wild, also Galilee would have the marvel of wonderful roses among ruins » retorts James of Zebedee.
« You are not wrong. This is the area where Solomon's gardens were, and they were famous, like his palaces, throughout the world of those days. Perhaps it was here that he dreamt of the Song of Songs, and he ascribed to the Holy City all the beautiful flowers that he had grown here » says Jesus.
« So I was right! » exclaims Thaddeus.
« Yes, you were. Do You know, Master? He was quoting Ecclesiastes, joining the idea of the gardens to the idea of the basins and he concluded by saying: “But he realised that everything is vanity and nothing lasts under the sun, except the Word of My Jesus” » says James, the other brother.
« I thank you. But let us thank also Solomon, whether the original flowers are his or not. The basins that nourish herbs and men are certainly his. May he be blessed for them. Now let us go over to that big ruffled rose-bush, which has formed a flowery tunnel from tree to tree. We will stop there. We are almost half way...»
... And they take to the road again about the ninth hour, when every tree casts a long shadow in this area, which is very well cultivated in every part. One gets the impression of walking through a botanic garden because all kinds of trees are represented: forest trees, fruit and ornamental ones. There are people working the land everywhere but they show no interest in the group passing by. On the other hand, it is not the only one. Other groups of Israelites are on their way back from the Passover celebration. The road is quite good although it is cut along the mountains, and the continuously varying landscape relieves travellers of the monotony of the journey. Streams and torrents form liquid silver commas and write words which they then sing in their many intersecting meanderings, which flow through forests or hide under caves from which they come out more beautiful. They seem to be playing with plants and stones like happy children.
Also Marjiam, who is cheerful once again, plays and tries to make music with his instrument to imitate birds. But the sounds he produces are not songs, but dissonant laments, which appear to be most unwelcome to the more difficult members of the group, that is to Bartholomew, because of his age, and to Judas of Kerioth, for many reasons. But no one complains openly and the boy whistles frisking about. Only twice he points at a village nestling in the forests and asks: « Is it mine? » and turns pale. But Simon, who keeps him close to himself, replies: « Your village is very far from here. Come, let us see if we can pick that beautiful flower and take it to Mary » and thus takes his mind off his worries.
The sun is beginning to set when Bethzur appears on its hill and almost at the same time on the secondary road they have taken to go there, they see the flocks of the shepherds and the shepherds who run to meet them. When Elias sees that Mary also is there, he lifts his arms in a gesture of surprise and remains thus, not believing his own eyes.
« Peace to you, Elias. It is I. We promised you, but it was not possible to meet in Jerusalem... Never mind. We are meeting now » says Mary kindly.
« Oh! Mother, Mother!...» Elias does not know what to say. At last he finds words: « Well, I am celebrating Passover now. It is just the same, or better still.»
« Of course, Elias. We sold well. We can kill a little lamb. Oh! Please be the guests of our poor table » beg Levi and Joseph.
« We are tired this evening. Tomorrow. Listen. Do you know a certain Eliza, the wife of Abraham of Samuel? »
« Yes. She lives in her house at Bethzur. But Abraham is dead and his sons died last year. The first one died of a disease in a few hours, and no one knows of what he died. The other died of a slow death and nothing stopped his decline. We gave her the milk of a young goat, because the doctors said it was good for him. He drank a lot of it, as all the shepherds took it to her, because the poor mother had sent people to look for whoever had a young goat giving milk for the first time in the herd. But it was of no avail. When we came back to the plane the young man would not take any food. When we came back to Adar, he had been dead two months. »
« My poor friend! She was so fond of Me in the Temple... and she was somehow related to Me through our ancestors... She was good... She left to marry Abraham, to whom she had been promised since her childhood, two years before Me and I remember when she came to offer her first-born to the Lord. She sent for Me, not only for Me, but later she wanted Me to be alone with her for some time... And now she is alone... Oh! I must make haste to comfort her! You stay here. I will go with Elias and I will enter by Myself. Sorrow demands respect...»
« Not even I, Mother? »
« Of course, always. But the others... Not even you, My little one. It would be painful for you. Come, Jesus! »
« Wait for us on the village square. Look for a shelter for the night. Goodbye » orders Jesus.
And with only Elias for company, Jesus and Mary go as far as a large house, which is completely closed and silent. The shepherd knocks at the door with his stick. A maidservant looks out of a little window asking who it is. Mary moves forward saying: « Mary of Joachim and Her Son, from Nazareth. Tell your mistress. »
« It is useless. She does not want to see anybody. She is weeping her heart out. »
« Try. »
« No. I know how she drives me away if I try to take her mind off her worries. She does not want anyone, she will not see anyone or speak to anyone. She speaks only to the memory of her sons. »
« Go, woman. I order you to go. Say to her: “Little Mary of Nazareth is here, the one who was your daughter in the Temple...” You will see that she will be wanting Me. »
The woman goes away shaking her head. Mary explains to Her Son and to the shepherd: « Eliza was much older than I was. She was waiting in the Temple for her fiancé to come back from Egypt where he had gone on inheritance matters and so she remained there up to unusual age. She is almost ten years older than I am. The teachers used to entrust the little girls to the guidance of adult pupils... and she was My companion-teacher. She was good and... Here is the woman. »
In fact the servant thoroughly amazed rushes to open the door wide: « Come in, come in! » she says. And then in a low voice: « May You be blessed for getting her out of that room. »
Elias takes his leave and Mary enters with Her Son.
« But this man, really... For pity's sake! He is the same age as Levi...»
« Let Him come in. He is My Son and will comfort her better than I can. »
The woman shrugs her shoulders and precedes them through the long hall of a beautiful but sad house. Everything is clean, but everything seems dead...
A tall woman, walking bowed in dark clothes, comes forward in the dim light of the hall.
« Eliza! Dear! I am Mary! » says Mary running towards her and embracing her.
« Mary? You... I thought You were dead, too. I was told... when? I don't know... My head is empty... I was told that You died with many other mothers after the coming of the Magi. But who told me that You were the Mother of the Saviour? »
« The shepherds perhaps...»
« Oh! the shepherds! » The woman bursts into bitter tears. « Don't mention that name. It reminds me of the last hope for Levi's life... And yet... yes... a shepherd spoke to me of the Saviour and I killed my son taking him to the place where they said the Messiah was, near the Jordan. But there was nobody there... and my son arrived back in time to die... Fatigue, cold... I killed him... But I had no intention of being a murderer. I was told that He, the Messiah, cured diseases... and that is why I did it... Now my son accuses me of killing him...»
« No, Eliza. It is you that think so. Listen. I instead think that your son has taken Me by the hand saying: “Come to my dear mother. Take the Saviour to her. I am happier here than I would be on the earth. But she listens only to her weeping, and she cannot hear the words that I whisper to her with my kisses, poor mother, she is like a woman possessed by a demon who wants her to surrender to despair, because he wants us to be divided. If instead she resigns herself and believes that God does everything for a good purpose, we would be united for good, with our father and brother. Jesus can do it.” And I came... with Him... Do you not wish to see Him?...» Mary has spoken holding the poor wretch in Her arms all the time, kissing her grey hair with unparalleled kindness.
« Oh! if it were true! But, why then did Daniel not come to You, to tell You to come sooner?... But who told me some time ago that You were dead? I don't remember... I don't remember... That is another reason why perhaps I waited too long to go to the Messiah. But they said that He, You, everybody had died at Bethlehem...»
« Never mind who said so. Come here, look, My Son is here. Come to Him. Make your children and your Mary happy. Do you know that we suffer seeing you thus? » And She leads her towards Jesus Who is standing in a dark corner and only now comes forward, under a lamp that the maidservant has placed on top of a tall coffer.
The poor mother raises her head... and I now see that she is the Eliza who was also on Calvary with the pious women. Jesus stretches out His hands in a gesture of loving invitation. The poor wretch hesitates a moment, then she entrusts her own hands to His and finally, all of a sudden, she throws herself on to Jesus' chest, moaning: « Tell me, tell me that I am not guilty of Levi's death! Tell me that they are not lost forever! Tell me that I will soon be with them!...»
« Yes, I will. Listen. They are now exulting because you are in My arms. I will soon be going to them, and what shall I tell them? That you are not resigning yourself to the Lord? Shall I tell them that? The women of Israel, the women of David, so strong, so wise, are to be given the lie by you? No. You are suffering, because you suffered all alone. Your grief and you. You and your grief. One cannot endure it thus. Are you no longer bearing in mind the words of hope for those whom death has taken away from us? “I mean to raise you from your graves and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from your graves. When I put My spirit in you, you will live.” The soil of Israel, for the just sleeping in the Lord, is the Kingdom of God. I will open it and give it to those who are waiting. »
« Also to my Daniel? And to my Levi?... He was so horrified at death!... He could not stand the idea of being far from his mother. That is why I wanted to die and be buried beside him...»
« But they were not there with their living parts. Only dead things were there and they could not hear you. They are in the place of expectation...»
« But does it really exist? Oh! Do not be scandalised at me. My memory has turned into tears! My head is full of the noise of the weeping and death-rattle of my sons. That death-rattle! That death-rattle. It has dissolved my brains. I have but that death-rattle in here...»
« And I will put the words of life there for you. I will sow the Life, because I am Life, where there is the din of death. Remember the great Judas Maccabee who wanted a sacrifice offered for the dead, rightly thinking that they are destined to rise again and that it is necessary to hasten their peace by means of suitable sacrifices. If Judas Maccabee had not been certain of their resurrection, would he have prayed and made people pray for the dead? As it is written, he thought that a great reward is set aside for those who die piously, as your sons certainly did... See, you are saying yes? So do not despair. But pray devoutly for your dead ones, that their sins may be expiated before I go to them. Then, without waiting for a moment, they will come to Heaven with Me. Because I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and I lead, and I speak the Truth and I give Life to those who believe in My Truth and follow Me. Tell Me. Did your sons believe in the coming of the Messiah? »
« Of course, my Lord. I taught them to believe that. »
« And did Levi believe that if I wanted I could cure him? »
« Yes, My Lord. We hoped in You... but it was of no avail... and he died disheartened after hoping so much...» The woman resumes weeping again more calmly but more desolately in her calm than when she was agitated.
« Do not say that it was of no avail. He who believes in Me, even if he is dead, will live forever... Night is falling, woman. I will join My apostles. I leave My Mother with you...»
« Oh! Will you please stay as well!... I am afraid that if You go away, my torture will begin again... The storm is just beginning to calm at the sound of Your words...»
« Do not be afraid! You have Mary with you. I will come again tomorrow. I have something to tell the shepherds. Can I tell them to approach your house?...»
« Oh! Yes. They used to come also last year for my son... Behind the house there is an orchard and a rustic yard. They can go there as they used to do then, to keep the flock together...»
« All right. I will come. Be good. Remember that Mary in the Temple was entrusted to You. I entrust Her to you as well tonight. »
« Yes, do not worry. I will look after Her... I will have to see to Her supper, to Her rest... For how long I have never thought of these things! Mary, will You sleep in my room, as Levi did when he was ill? I in my son's bed, You in mine. And I will feel as if I heard his light breathing again... He always held me by the hand...»
« Yes, Eliza. But before we shall speak of many things. »
« No. You are tired. You must sleep. »
« You, too...»
« Oh! I! I have not slept for months... I weep... and weep... I can do nothing else...»
« This evening, instead, we shall pray, and then we shall go to bed and you will sleep... We shall sleep holding each other's hand. You may go, Son, and pray for us...»
« I bless you. Peace to you and to this house! »
And Jesus goes away with the maidservant who is dumbfounded and keeps repeating: « What a miracle, my Lord! What a miracle! After so many months she has spoken, she has reasoned... Oh! what a wonderful thing!... They were saying that she would die insane... And I was sorry, because she is good. »
« Yes, she is good and that is why God will help her. Goodbye, woman. Peace also to you. »
Jesus goes out on to the almost dark street and it all ends.