14th July 1945.
The fresh dawn breath wakes the sleeping apostles. They rise from their sand beds, where they slept close to a dune strewn with small tufts of dry grass, and they climb to the top. A large sandy coast appears before them, whereas a little farther away and a little closer to them there are beautiful well cultivated fields. The white stones of a dry torrent are conspicuous against the golden sand and their whiteness – the whiteness of dry bones – stretches as far as the sea, the surface of which glitters in the distance, rippled by the morning tide and a light mistral. They walk on the edge of the dune as far as the dry torrent, which they cross, and they resume walking across the dunes, which crumble under their feet and are so undulated that they seem a solid continuation of the sea.
They reach the shore-line, where they can walk faster, and while John is hypnotised by the boundless ocean beginning to shine in the rising sun, and he seems to be drinking in its beauty as his eyes become bluer and bluer, Peter who is more practical, takes his sandals off, pulls up his tunic and paddles in the shallow water looking for little crabs or shells to suck. A beautiful sea town is about two miles away, stretched along the coast above a semilunar rocky barrier beyond which sands have been carried by storms and blown by winds. And the rocks of the barrier, now that the water recedes at low tide, appear here as well, compelling thus the apostles to walk on the dry sand in order not to cut their bare feet on the sharp rocks.
« Where is the entrance to the town, my Lord? I can only see a very solid wall from here. It is not possible to enter by sea. The town is in the inner-most spot of the gulf » says Philip.
« Come. I know where the entrance is. »
« Have You already been here? »
« Once when I was a child, but I would not remember. But I know where to go. »
« How strange! I have noticed that many a time... You never take the wrong road. Sometimes we make You go wrong. One would think that You have already been to the places we go to » remarks James of Zebedee.
Jesus smiles but does not reply. He walks confidently as far as a little rural suburb where market gardeners grow vegetables for the town. The fields and market gardens are tidy and well looked after and men and women are working in them, pouring water in the furrows, after drawing it laboriously from wells by hand, or in the old squeaky method by means of buckets pulled up by a poor blindfolded donkey walking round the well. But they do not say anything. Jesus greets them. « Peace be with you. » But if they are not hostile, they are certainly indifferent.
« My Lord, we are running the risk of dying of hunger here. They do not understand Your greetings. I will try now » says Thomas. And he opens conversation with the first market gardener he sees: « Are your vegetables expensive? »
« Not more than other market gardeners'. Dear or not dear, according to how thick a purse is. »
« Well said. But, as you can see, I am not dying of starvation. I am fat and rosy also without your vegetables. Which means that my purse is well stocked. Listen: we are thirteen and we have money to spend. What can you sell us? »
« Eggs, vegetables, early almonds, apples flabby by age, olives... Whatever you want. »
« Give me some eggs, apples and bread for everybody. »
« I have no bread. You will find it in town. »
« I am hungry now, not in an hour's time. I don't believe that you have no bread. »
« I have not got any. The women are making it. See that old man over there? He always has plenty, because as he is closer to the road, pilgrims often ask him for it. Go to Ananiah and ask him. I will bring you the eggs now. But, mind you, they cost a coin a pair. »
« What a thief you are! Do your hens perhaps lay golden eggs? »
« No. But it is not pleasant to be in the middle of the stench of poultry, and one does not do it for nothing. In any case, you are Jews, are you not? So pay! »
« You can keep your eggs. And that's you paid! » and Thomas turns his back to him.
« Ehi! man! Come here. I will give you them for less. Three to a coin. »
« Not even four. You can eat them yourself and may they choke you. »
« Come here. Listen. How much are you prepared to give me? » The market gardener chases Thomas.
« Nothing. I don't want them any more. I wanted to have a snack before going to town. But it is better so. I will not lose my voice or my appetite before singing the king's stories and I will have a good meal at the hotel. »
« I will give you them for a didrachma a pair. »
« Ugh! You are worse than a horse-fly. Give me your eggs. And make sure they are new laid ones. Otherwise I will bring them back and I will make your snout yellower than it already is. » And Thomas comes away with at least two dozen eggs in the fold of his mantle. « See? From now on I will do the shopping in this land of thieves. I know how to deal with them. They are lousy with money when they come to purchase our goods for their women and our bracelets are never heavy enough and they haggle over prices for days. I will avenge myself. Now let us go and see that other nasty piece of work. Come, Peter. Here, John, take the eggs. »
They go to the old man whose market garden is near the main road, which from the north leads to the town running near the houses of the suburb. It is a fine well paved road, certainly Roman work. The eastern town gate is now quite near and beyond it one can see that the road proceeds straight and becomes really artistic, with a shady porch on each side, supported by marble columns, in the cool shade of which people walk leaving the middle of the road to donkeys, camels, dogs and horses.
« Hail! Will you sell us some bread? » asks Thomas.
The old man either does not hear or does not want to hear. In actual fact the squeaking of the water-wheel is such that it can cause confusion.
Peter loses his temper and shouts: « Stop your Samson! At least it will be able to catch its breath and not die under my eyes. And listen to us! »
The man stops the donkey and casts a side glance at his interlocuter, but Peter disarms him saying: « Eh! Is it not right to give the name of Samson to a donkey? If you are a Philistine, you should like it because it is an insult to Samson. If instead you come from Israel, you should like it because it reminds you of a defeat of the Philistines. So you can see... »
« I am a Philistine and am proud of it. »
« You are right. And I will be proud of you if you give us some bread. »
« But are you not a Judaean? »
« I am a Christian. »
« What place is that? »
« It is not a place. It is a person. I belong to that person. »
« Are you His slave? »
« I am more free than any other man because who belongs to that person does not depend on anybody, except God. »
« Are you speaking the truth? Not even on Caesar? »
« Phew! What is Caesar as compared to Him Whom I follow, and to Whom I belong, and in Whose name I ask you to give me some bread? »
« But where is that powerful man? »
« That man over there, the One looking here and smiling. He is the Christ, the Messiah. Have you never heard of Him? »
« Yes, the king of Israel. Will He defeat Rome? »
« Rome? The whole world, also Hell. »
« And you are His generals? Dressed like that? Perhaps to evade the persecutions of the wicked Jews. »
« Well... it is, and it isn't. But give me some bread and while eating I will explain the situation to you. »
« Bread? But I will give you also water, and wine, and seats in the shade, for you and for your companion and for your Messiah. Call Him. »
And Peter rushes towards Jesus. « Come, come. He will give us what we want... that old Philistine. But I think he will assail You with questions... I told him Who You are... I more or less told him... But he is favourably disposed. »
They all go to the market garden where the man has already arranged benches round a coarse table under a thick vine pergola.
« Peace to you, Ananiah. May your ground be fertile because of your charity and may it bear you rich fruit. »
« Thank You. Peace to You. Sit down. Anibe! Nubi! Bring bread, wine and water at once » the old man orders two women who are certainly African, because one is absolutely black with thick lips and frizzly hair and the other is very dark but more of a European type. And the old man explains: « They are the daughters of my wife's slaves. She is dead and the slaves who came with her are also dead. But the daughters are here. They come from the High and Low Nile. My wife came from there. It's forbidden, eh? But I don't care. I am not an Israelite and the women of inferior race are meek. »
« Are you not from Israel? »
« I am by force, because Israel oppresses us like a yoke. But... You are an Israelite and You will feel insulted at what I say?... »
« No. I am not offended. I would only like you to listen to the voice of God. »
« It does not speak to us. »
« That is what you say. I am speaking to you, and that is His voice. »
« But You are the King of Israel. »
The women who are arriving with bread, water and wine when they hear « king » being mentioned, stop dumbfounded looking at the smiling dignified young man, whom their master calls « king », and they are about to withdraw, almost creeping out of respect.
« Thank you, women. Peace to you, too. » Then, addressing the old man: « They are young... You may go on with your work. »
« No. The soil is wet and can wait. Speak to us a little. Anibe, unharness the donkey and take it to the stable. And you, Nubi, pour the last buckets of water and then... Are you stopping here, Lord? »
« Do not go to any further trouble. I only want to take some food and then I will go to Ashkelon. »
« It is no trouble. Go to town, but come back here in the evening. We will share our bread and salt. You two, hurry up. You see to the bread, you call Jetheo, tell him to kill a kid and prepare it for this evening. Go. » And the two women go away without speaking.
« So You are a king. But Your army? Herod is cruel in every possible way. He rebuilt Ashkelon. But for his own glory. And now!... But You know the disgraceful things of Israel better than I do. What will You do? »
« I have but the weapon that comes from God. »
« David's sword? »
« The sword of My word. »
« Oh! You have some hopes! It will become blunt against bronze hearts. »
« Do you think so? I am not aiming at a kingdom in this world. I am aiming at the Kingdom of Heaven on behalf of all of you. »
« Us all? Me, as well, a Philistine? And my slaves? »
« For everybody. You and them. And for the most uncivilised man in the centre of African forests. »
« Do You want to establish such a wide kingdom? Why do You call it of Heaven? You could call it: Kingdom of the Earth. »
« No, do not misunderstand me. My Kingdom is the Kingdom of the True God. God is in Heaven. So it is the Kingdom of Heaven. Every man is a soul clad with a body and a soul can live but in Heaven. I want to cure your souls, remove their errors and hatred and lead them to God through goodness and love. »
« I like that very much. I do not go to Jerusalem, but I know that no one in Israel has spoken like that for ages. So You do not hate us? »
« I do not hate anyone. »
The old man is pensive... then he asks: « And have the two slaves got a soul the same as you people of Israel? »
« Of course they have. They are not captured wild beasts. They are unhappy creatures. They deserve love. Do you love them? »
« I do not ill-treat them. I want them to obey, but I never use a lash and I feed them well. They say that an ill-fed animal will not work. But also an ill-fed man is bad business. And they were born in the house. I saw them when they were babies. They are the only ones who will be left, because I am very old, You know? Almost eighty. They and Jetheo are what is left of my old household. I am fond of them as I am of my property. They will close my eyes... »
« And then? »
« And then... Who knows! I don't know. They will go and work as maidservants and the house will fall to pieces. I am sorry. I made it wealthy by my work. This ground will be covered with sand again and become sterile... This vineyard... My wife and I planted it. And that rosery... It's Egyptian, Lord. I smell the perfume of my wife in it... It seems my son... the only son who is buried under it and is now dust... Sorrows... It is better to die young and not see all that and death which is approaching... »
« Your son is not dead, neither is your wife, their souls survive. Their flesh is dead. Death must not frighten you. Death is life for those who hope in the Lord and live righteously. Think about it... I am going to town. I will come back this evening and I will ask you to allow Me to sleep under that porch with My disciples. »
« No, my Lord. I have many empty rooms. I offer them to You. »
Judas puts some coins on the table.
« No. I don't want them. They are of this country that is hateful to you. But perhaps they are better than those who rule over us. Goodbye, my Lord. »
« Peace to you, Ananiah. »
The two slaves together with Jetheo, a brawny elderly peasant, have come to see Him leave. « Peace to you as well. Be good. Goodbye » and Jesus touches lightly Nubi's frizzy hair and the shiny straight hair of Anibe, He smiles at the man and departs.
Shortly afterwards they enter Ashkelon along the road of the double porch, which goes straight to the centre of the town. The town is an imitation of Rome, with fountains and basins, squares in the style of the Forum, towers along the wall and Herod's name everywhere, which he obviously had placed to praise himself since the population of Ashkelon do not applaud him. The town is busy and becomes more so as the time passes and one approaches its centre, which is spacious and airy, with the sea as a bright background like a turquoise enclosed in the pink coral tongues of the houses spread in the deep arc of the coast. Rather than a gulf it is indeed a true arc, a section of a circle made very pale pink by the sunshine.
« Let us divide into four groups. I will go, nay I will let you go. Then I will make My choice. Go. After the ninth hour we will meet at the gate where we came in. Be wise and patient. » And Jesus looks at them going away and remains alone with Judas Iscariot who has stated that he will give nothing to the people here because they are worse than heathens. But when Judas hears that Jesus wishes to wander about in silence, he changes his mind and says: « Do You mind being alone? I would go with Matthew, James and Andrew as they are the least capable ones... »
« You may go. Goodbye. »
And Jesus all alone, wanders far and wide in the town, a seeming nonentity amongst busy people who pay no attention to Him. Only two or three children look at Him curiously and a woman provokingly dressed comes resolutely towards Him smiling alluringly. But Jesus looks at her so severely that she becomes purple, lowers her eyes and goes away. At the corner she turns round again, and as a man who watched the scene jeers at her bitingly, laughing at her defeat, she envelops herself in her mantle and runs away.
The children, instead, walk round Jesus, looking at Him and smiling in response to His smiles. One more daring than the others asks: « Who are You? »
« Jesus » He replies caressing him.
« What are You doing? »
« I am waiting for some friends. »
« From Ashkelon? »
« No, from My country and from Judaea. »
« Are You rich? I am. My father has a beautiful house and he makes carpets in it. Come and see. It is not far. »
And Jesus goes with the boy and they enter a long archway, which is a kind of covered road. At the other end they catch a glimpse of the sea, which is very bright in the sunshine and looks even more lively in the dim light of the archway.
They meet a haggard little girl who is weeping. « That is Dinah. She is poor, You know? My mother gives her food. Her mother cannot work any more. Her father died, at sea. In a storm while going from Gaza to the harbour of the Great River to take goods there and to collect some. And as the goods belonged to my father and Dinah's father was one of our sailors, my mother now sees to them. But there are so many of them who have been left fatherless thus... What do You say? It must be dreadful to be orphans and poor. Here is my house. Don't tell my mother that I was in the street. I should have been at school. But I was expelled because I was making my companions laugh with this... » and he pulls out from his clothes a puppet carved in wood, set in a thin piece of wood, which is really very comical, with its slipper chin and its very queer nose.
Jesus' lips tremble as if He were on the point of smiling, but He controls Himself and says: « That is not your school teacher, is it? Or a relative? It is not right. »
« No. It's the head of the synagogue of the Jews. He is old and ugly and we always make fun of him. »
« That is not right either. He is certainly much older than you are and... »
« Oh! He is very old, he is almost humpbacked and blind, but he is so ugly looking!... It's no fault of mine, if he is so ugly! »
« No. But you are wrong in making fun of an old man. You will be ugly too, when you are old, because you will be bent with age; you will be bald, almost blind, you will need a stick to walk, your face will be like that one. So? Will you be happy if an ill-mannered boy makes fun of you? And why should you worry your master and disturb your companions? It is not right. If your father knew, he would punish you and your mother would be upset. I will not tell them anything. But you will give Me two things immediately: your promise that you will no longer commit such offences and that puppet. Who made it? »
« I did, Lord... » says the humiliated boy, who is now conscious of the gravity of his... misdeeds... And he goes on: « I like to carve wood very much! Sometimes I carve the flowers or the animals which are on the carpets. You know?... dragons, Sphynxes and other animals... »
« You may do that. There are so many beautiful things on the earth! So are you going to promise and will you give me that puppet? Otherwise we are no longer friends. I will keep it as a souvenir and I will pray for you. What is your name? »
« Alexander. And what will You give me? »
Jesus is embarrassed. He always has so little! But He remembers that He has a beautiful buckle on the collar of one of his tunics. He looks for it in His bag, finds it, takes it off and gives it to the boy. « And now let us go. But, mind you, even if I go away, I will know everything just the same. And if I know that you are a bad boy, I will come back here and tell your mother everything. » The agreement is made.
They enter the house. Beyond the hall there is a large yard on three sides of which there are large rooms with the looms.
The maidservant who opened the door is amazed seeing the boy with a stranger and informs the landlady, a tall kind looking woman who comes immediately asking: « But has my son not been well? »
« No, woman. He brought Me here to see your looms. I am a stranger. »
« Do You wish to make some purchases? »
« No. I have no money. But I have friends who love beautiful things and have money. »
The woman looks curiously at the man who so candidly admits that he is poor and she says: « I thought You were a rich man. Your manners and aspect are those of a lord. »
« Instead I am only a Galilean rabbi: Jesus, the Nazarene. »
« We are in business and we are unprejudiced. Come and see. »
And she takes Him to see her looms where young women are working under her guidance. The rugs are really valuable both with regard to design and shade: they are deep, soft and look like flower beds in bloom or kaleidoscopes of gems. On others there are allegorical figures, such as hyppogryphs, mermaids, dragons or heraldic gryphons like ours, intermingled with flowers.
Jesus admires them. « You are very clever. I am glad I have seen all this. And I am glad that you are a good woman. »
« How do you know? »
« It is written on your face and the boy told Me about Dinah. May God reward you for it. Even if you do not believe it, you are very close to the Truth, because there is charity in you. »
« Which truth? »
« The Most High Lord. He who loves his neighbour and practises charity both towards his family and his subjects, and extends it to unhappy people, has already Religion in himself. That is Dinah, is it not? »
« Yes. Her mother is dying. Later, I will take her, but not for the looms. She is too young and too delicate. Dinah, come to this gentleman. »
The little girl, with the sad look of unhappy children, approaches Jesus shyly.
Jesus caresses her and says: « Will you take Me to your mother? You would like her to be cured, would you not? Well, then, take Me to her. Goodbye, woman. And goodbye, Alexander. And be good. »
He goes out holding the girl's hand. « Are you alone? » He asks her.
« I have three little brothers. The last one never knew his father. »
« Do not weep. Can you believe that God can cure your mother? You know, do you not, that there is only one God Who loves the men that He created and especially good children? And that He can do everything? »
« Yes, I know, Lord. My brother Tolme used to go to school and at school he was mixed with Jewish boys. That is why we know many things. I know that God exists and His name is Jehovah and that He punished us because the Philistines were bad to Him. The Jewish children always reproach us for that. But I was not there then, neither was my mother or my father. So why... » tears choke her words.
« Do not weep. God loves you, too, and He brought Me here, for you and for your mother. Do you know that the Israelites are expecting the Messiah Who is to come to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? The Kingdom of Jesus, the Redeemer and Saviour of the world? »
« I know, my Lord. And they threaten us saying: “Then there will be trouble for you.” »
« And do you know what the Messiah will do? »
« He will make Israel a great country and will treat us very badly. »
« No. He will redeem the world, He will remove sin, He will teach people not to sin, He will love the poor, the sick, the afflicted, He will go to them, and He will teach the rich, the healthy, the happy to love them and He will tell everybody to be good to reach the blissful eternal life in Heaven. That is what He will do. And He will not oppress anybody. »
« And how will people know Him? »
« Because He will love everybody and will cure the sick people that believe in Him, He will redeem sinners and teach love. »
« Oh! I wish He came before my mother dies! How I would believe in Him! How I would pray Him! I would go and look for Him until I found Him and I would say to Him: “I am a poor girl without father and my mother is dying, I hope in You” and I am sure that, although I am a Philistine, He would hear me. » Her voice throbs with simple deep faith.
Jesus smiles looking at the poor girl walking beside Him. She cannot see His bright smile as she is looking ahead, towards the house which is now close at hand...
They arrive at a poor little house, at the end of a blind alley. « It's here, my Lord. Come in... » A small miserable room, a straw mattress with a worn out body on top of it, three little ones between three and ten years of age, sitting near the mattress. Misery and starvation are portrayed everywhere.
« Peace to you, woman. Do not get excited. Do not trouble yourself. I found your daughter and I know that you are not well. I have come. Would you like to be cured? »
In a small voice the woman replies: « Oh! My Lord!... It's the end for me!... » and she weeps.
« Your daughter believes that the Messiah could cure you. And what about you? »
« Oh! I believe that, too. But where is the Messiah? »
« It is I, Who am speaking to you. » And Jesus, Who was bending over the mattress whispering His word to the poor woman, stands up and shouts: « I want it. Be cured. »
The children are almost afraid of His majesty, and the three amazed faces remain around their mother's pallet. Dinah presses her hands against her little breast. A light of hope, of beatitude shines on her face. She is so touched, that she is almost panting. Her mouth is open to utter a word which her heart is already whispering and when she sees that her mother, so far wan and exhausted, sits up, as if she were supported by a strength infused into her, and then stands up, with her eyes staring all the time at the Saviour, Dinah utters a cry of joy: « Mummy! ». The word filling her heart has been spoken!... And then another one: « Jesus! » And embracing her mother she compels her to kneel down saying: « Adore Him, adore Him! It is He, the prophesied Saviour of Whom Tolme's teacher spoke. »
« Worship the True God, be good, remember Me. Goodbye. » And He goes out quickly while the two happy women are still prostrated on the floor...