9th August 1945.
It is evening when they reach Bethlehem in Galilee. It is obvious that it is the destiny of towns with this name to lie on undulating hills, covered with green, woods, meadows where flocks graze, descending to the folds at night. The sky is still red after a glorious sunset, which is just over, and the air is full of pastoral music of bells and trembling bleatings, which are joined by the merry shouting of children and by the voices of mothers calling them.
« Judas of Simon, go with Simon and find lodgings for us and for the women. There is an inn in the centre of the village and we shall meet you there. »
While Judas and Simon obey, Jesus turns to His Mother and says: « This time it will not be like the other Bethlehem. You will find where to rest, Mother. Few people move about at this time of the year and there is no edict. »
« In this season it would be pleasant to sleep also on meadows or amongst these shepherds and the little lambs » and Mary smiles at Her Son and at some little shepherds who are staring at Her curiously.
She smiles in such a way that one of them touches another with his elbow and whispers to him: « It must be Her » and he comes forward, sure of himself, saying: « Hail, Mary, full of grace. Is the Lord with You? »
Mary replies with an even sweeter smile: « There is the Lord » and She points to Jesus, Who has turned round to speak to His cousins, asking them to give alms to the poor who are approaching them with plaintive requests. And She touches Her Son lightly saying to Him: « Son, these little shepherds are looking for You and they have recognised Me. I do not know how...»
« Isaac must have been here and left the perfume of revelation. Young man, come here. » The little shepherd, a little swarthy fellow, about twelve-fourteen years old, strong though lean, with very dark bright eyes, and an ebony shock of hair, clad in sheep skin – and he seems to me a young copy of the Precursor – approaches Jesus smiling happily, as if he were enchanted.
« Peace to you, boy. How did you recognise Mary? »
« Because only the Mother of the Saviour could have such a smile and countenance. I was told: “The countenance of an angel, eyes like stars and a smile sweeter than the kiss of a mother, as sweet as Her name, which is Mary, so holy as to be able to bend over the new-born God.” That is what I saw in Her and I greeted Her because I was looking for You. We were looking for You, Lord, and... I did not dare greet You first. »
« Who spoke to you of Us? »
« Isaac, from the other Bethlehem, and he promised to take us to You in autumn. »
« Was Isaac here? »
« He is still in this area with many disciples. And he spoke to us shepherds. And we believed in his word, Lord: allow us to adore You as our companions did on that blessed night » and while he kneels down on the dust of the road, he utters a cry to the other shepherds who have stopped their flocks at the gate of the town (gate so to say, because it is not a walled town), where also Jesus had stopped, waiting for the women to enter the town together.
The little shepherd shouts: « Father, brothers and friends, we have found the Lord. Come and worship Him. »
And the shepherds come crowding with their flocks round Jesus and they beg Him not to go elsewhere but to accept their poor house, which is not far, as a dwelling place for Himself and His friends. « It is a wide fold » they explain « because God protects us and there are rooms and porches full of fragrant hay. The rooms are for Mother and Her sisters, because they are women. But there is one also for You. The others can sleep with us in the porches, on the hay. »
« I shall stay with you, too. And I shall rest more pleasantly than if I slept in a king's room. But let us go and tell Judas and Simon first. »
« I will go, Master » says Peter and he goes away with James of Zebedee.
They stop on the side of the road awaiting the return of the four apostles.
The shepherds look at Jesus as if He were already God in His glory. The younger ones are really delighted and they seem to be wishing to impress in their minds every detail of Jesus and Mary, who has bent to caress some lambs, which are rubbing their heads against Her knees and bleating.
« There was one, in the house of My relative Elizabeth, which used to lick My plaits every time it saw Me. I called it “friend”, because it was My friend, just like a child, and it came to Me every time it could. This one reminds Me of it with its eyes of two different shades. Do not kill it! Also the other was allowed to live because of its love for Me. »
« It's a ewe-lamb Woman, and we were going to sell it, because of the different shades of its eyes and I think it can see very little with one of them. But we will keep it if You wish so. »
« Oh! yes! I would not like any little lamb to be killed... They are so innocent and with their child-like voices they seem to be calling their mothers. I would think I was killing a baby if I had to kill one of these. »
« But Woman, if all the lambs were to live, there would be no room for us on the earth » says the oldest shepherd.
« I know. But I am thinking of their pain, and of the pain of their mothers. They weep so much when their little ones are taken away from them. They look like real mothers, like us. I cannot bear to see anybody suffer, but it tears My heart to see a mother tortured. It is a different grief from any other, because the shock for the loss of a son tears not only our hearts and brains, but our very wombs. We mothers are always united to our sons. And it rends us completely, when they are taken away from us. » Mary no longer smiles, but tears shine in Her blue eyes and She looks at Jesus, Who is listening to Her and looks at Her, while She lays a hand on His arm, as if She were afraid He might be torn away from Her side.
A small escort of armed men arrives from a dusty road: six men together with some people who are shouting. The shepherds look and whisper something to one another. They then look at Mary and Jesus.
The oldest one says: « So it was a good job that You did not go into Bethlehem this evening. »
« Why? »
« Because those people, who passed by going to town, have gone to tear a son from his mother. »
« Oh! But why? »
« To kill him. »
« Oh! no! What has he done? »
Jesus also asks the same question and the apostles have gathered to hear.
« Rich Joel was found dead on the mountain road: he had been killed. He was coming back from Sicaminon with a lot of money. But he was not killed by highwaymen, because the money was still there. The servant, who was accompanying him, said that his master had told him to run ahead and inform relatives of their return, and on the way he saw the young man, whom they are now going to kill, going toward the place where the man was murdered. And two men of the town now swear that they saw the young man attack Joel. Joel's relatives now, demand his death. And if he is a murderer...»
« Do you not think he is? »
« I don't think it is possible. The young man is a little older than a boy, he is good, and is always with his mother, as he is her only son and she is a widow and a holy living person. He is well off. He does not bother with women. He is neither quarrelsome nor foolish. So why did he kill? »
« Perhaps he has some enemies. »
« Who? Joel, the dead man, or Abel, the one who is accused? »
« The latter. »
« Ah! I would not know... But... No, I would not know. »
« Be frank, man. »
« Lord, it is something I am thinking of, and Isaac told us that we must not think ill of our neighbour. »
« But one must have courage to speak to save an innocent person. »
« If I speak, whether I am right or wrong, I shall have to flee from here, because Aser and Jacob are powerful. »
« Speak without fear. You will not have to flee. »
« Lord, Abel's mother is young, beautiful and wise. Aser is not wise, neither is Jacob. The former likes the widow and the latter... everybody in town knows that the latter sleeps in Joel's bed. I think that...»
« I see. Let us go, My friends. You women stay here with the shepherds. I shall be back soon. »
« No, Son. I am coming with You. »
Jesus is already walking fast towards the centre of the town. The shepherds are uncertain as to what to do, but they leave the flocks to the younger ones, who stay with all the women, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin and Mary of Alphaeus, who follow Jesus and they go to meet the apostolic group.
At the third road crossing the main street in Bethlehem they meet the Iscariot, Simon, Peter and James, who are coming towards them gesticulating and shouting.
« What a terrible thing, Master! And how painful! » exclaims Peter who is deeply upset.
« A son torn off his mother to be killed, and she is defending him like a hyena. But she is a woman against armed men » adds Simon Zealot.
« Many parts of her body are already bleeding » says the Iscariot.
« They broke her door down because she had barricaded it » concludes James of Zebedee.
« I am going to her. »
« Oh! yes! You are the only one who can console her. »
They turn right, then left, towards the town centre. It is now possible to see the excited tumultuous crowd pressing near Abel's house, and the heart-rending, inhuman, wild and at the same time pitiful shouting of a woman can be heard.
Jesus quickens His pace and arrives at a very small square, a widened curve of the street, rather than a square, where the uproar is at its greatest.
The woman is still contending for her son with the guards, holding on with one hand, which is like an iron claw, to the ruin of the knocked down door, and to her son's belt with the other one and she savagely bites anyone who tries to loosen her grip, notwithstanding they deal her many blows and pull her hair so cruelly as to throw her head back. When she does not bite she shouts: « Leave him! Murderers! He's innocent! The night Joel was killed he was in bed beside me! Murderers! Slanderers! Foul Perjurers! »
And the young man, whom the armed men are holding by the shoulders and dragging by the arms, turns round terror-stricken and shouts: « Mother, mother! Why must I die if I have not done anything? »
He is a handsome tall slender young man, with dark mild eyes, and dark wavy hair. His torn garment shows the young agile body of an adolescent.
Jesus with the help of those who accompany Him, pushes His way through the crowd, as compact as a rock, and reaches His pitiful group just at the moment when the exhausted woman is torn away from the door and dragged along the stony road, like a sack, tied to the body of her son. But that lasts for only a few yards. A more violent jerk tears the mother's hand off the young man's belt and the woman falls prone on the ground beating the road with her face, which bleeds profusely. But she gets up on her knees, stretching out her arms, while her son, who is being dragged away swiftly, as far as the crowds allow, as they open out with difficulty, frees his left arm and waves it, twisting round and shouting: « Mother! Goodbye! Remember, at least you, that I am innocent! » The woman looks at him with staring eyes, she then faints and drops to the ground.
Jesus stops before the group of captors. « Stop for one moment. I order you! » His countenance allows no objection.
« Who are You? » aggressively asks a citizen in the group. « We do not know You. Move aside and let us go so that he may be killed before night. »
« I am a Rabbi. The greatest. In the name of Jehovah stop, or He will strike you by lightning ». In the meantime He seems to be striking by lightning. « Who are the witnesses against this man? »
« I, him and him » replies the man who had spoken before.
« Your testimony is not valid because it is false. »
« How can You say that? We are ready to swear it. »
« Your oath is a sin. »
« We are sinning? Are we? »
« You are. As you nurse your lust and your hatred, as you are greedy for wealth, as you are murderers, so you are also perjurers. You have sold yourselves to Filth. You are capable of any filthy deed. »
« Watch how You speak! I am Aser...»
« And I am Jesus. »
« You do not belong to here, You are neither a priest nor a judge. You are nothing. You are a foreigner. »
« Yes, I am the Foreigner because the earth is not My Kingdom. But I am Judge and Priest. Not only of this small portion of Israel, but of the whole of Israel and of the whole world. »
« Let's go, let's go! We are dealing with a mad man » says the other witness and he gives Jesus a vigorous push to draw Him aside.
« You shall not take another step » thunders Jesus, Whose majestic countenance subdues and paralyses, as it can give life and joy when He wishes. « You shall not take another step. You do not believe what I am saying? Well, look. There is no dust of the Temple here, or water from it, neither are there words written with ink to make the water bitter, which is judgement on jealousy and adultery (1). But I am here. And I will give judgement. » Jesus' voice is so piercing that it sounds like a blare.
(1) For details of old Jewish rite, see Numbers 5, 11-31.
People throng to see. Only the Blessed Virgin and Mary of Alphaeus have stayed to help the mother who has fainted.
« And this is My judgement. Give me a pinch of dust from the road and a drop of water in a jug. And while they are being brought to Me, you who are accusing, and you who are accused, reply to Me. Are you innocent, son? Say so frankly to Him Who is your Saviour. »
« I am, Lord. »
« Aser, can you swear that you have spoken but the truth? »
« I swear it. I have no reason to lie. I swear it by the altar. May fire descend from Heaven and burn me if I am not telling the truth. »
« Jacob, can you swear that you are sincere in accusing and that there is no secret motive urging you to lie? »
« I swear by Jehovah. Only the love for my slain friend induces me to speak. I have no personal grudge against him. »
« And you, servant, can you swear that you have told the truth? »
« I will swear it a thousand times, if necessary! My master, my poor master! » and he covers his head with his mantle.
« Good. Here is the water and here is the dust. And this is the word. “Holy Father and Most High God, pass judgement on truth through Me, so that life and honour may be given to the innocent man and to the anguished mother, and suitable punishment to those who are not innocent. But because of the grace, which I enjoy in Your eyes, let neither fire nor death, but a long expiation come to them who have committed sin.” »
He says these words stretching His hand over the pitcher, as priests do at the altar, during Mass at offertory. He then dips His right hand into the pitcher and with His wet hand He sprays the four men under judgement and makes each drink a drop of water: first the young fellow and then the others. He then folds His arms across His chest and looks at them.
Also the crowds look, but after a few moments they utter a cry and throw themselves down, with their faces on the ground. The four men then, who are lined up, look at one another and shout in their turn: the young man out of amazement, the others out of horror because they see their faces covered with sudden leprosy, whereas the young fellow is immune from it.
The servant throws himself at the feet of Jesus, Who steps aside, like everybody else, including the soldiers, and taking young Abel by the hand draws him away as well, so that he may not become contaminated near the three lepers. And the servant shouts: « No! No! Forgive me! I am a leper! They paid me to delay my master until evening, so that they could kill him on the desert road. They made me unshoe his mule on purpose. They instructed me how to lie saying that I had come ahead. Instead I was with them killing him. And I will also tell You why they did it. Because Joel had found out that Jacob was in love with his young wife and because Aser wanted the mother of this young man and she refused him. So they made an agreement to get rid of Joel and Abel at the same time and then have a nice time with the women. I have told You everything. Cleanse me of my leprosy! Abel, you are good, pray for me! »
« Abel, go to your mother, so that when she comes round, she may see your face and thus come back to life happily. And you... I should say to you: “Let it be done to you what you have done.” And it would be human justice. But I am entrusting you to a superhuman expiation. The leprosy, which you abhor, saves you from being seized and killed as you deserve. People of Bethlehem, step aside, open out, as the water of the sea did, and let these men go to their long imprisonment. A dreadful imprisonment! More dreadful than sudden death. Divine pity has granted them the possibility to make amends, if they wish so. Go! »
The crowds throng against the walls of houses leaving the centre of the road free, and the three men, covered with leprosy as if they had been affected by the disease for years, go towards the mountain, walking one behind the other. In the silence of approaching twilight, when all birds and animals become quiet, only their moaning can be heard.
« Purify the street with plenty water, after lighting fires on it. And you, soldiers, go and report that justice has been done according to the most perfect Mosaic Law. » And Jesus is about to go where His Mother and Mary of Clopas are still assisting the woman who is coming to herself slowly, while her son is caressing and kissing her cold hands.
But the people of Bethlehem with almost terrified respect beg Him: « Speak to us, Lord. You are really powerful. You are certainly the One mentioned by the man who came here announcing the Messiah. »
« I will speak to you tonight, near the fold of the shepherds. I am now going to comfort Abel's mother. »
And He goes to the woman, who is sitting on the lap of Mary of Alphaeus and is recovering her senses. She looks at the loving face of Our Lady Who smiles at her, but she is not fully aware of the situation until her eyes rest on the dark haired head of her son bent over her trembling hands, and she asks: « Am I dead, too? Is this Limbo? »
« No, woman. This is the Earth. This is your son saved from death. And this is Jesus, My Son, the Saviour. »
The first reaction of the woman is simply human. She collects all her strength and leans forward to take the bent head of her son in her hands, she sees that he is safe and sound, she kisses him frantically, weeping, laughing, repeating all possible pet names to express her joy.
« Yes, mother, yes. But now look, not at me, at Him, at Him Who saved me. Bless the Lord. » The woman, still too weak to stand up or get up on her knees, stretches out her trembling bleeding hands and takes Jesus' hand kissing and wetting it with tears. Jesus lays His left hand on her head saying to her: « Be happy. In peace. And be always good. And you, too, Abel. »
« No, my Lord. My son's life and mine are Yours, because You have saved them. Let him go with Your disciples, as he has been wishing to, since they were here. I offer him to You with so much joy and I beg You to allow me to follow him, to serve him and the servants of God. »
« And what about your house? »
« Oh! Lord! Can one risen from death have the same affections one had before dying? Myrtha has come back from death and out of hell through You. In this town I may go as far as hating those who tortured me through my child. And You preach love. I know. So let poor Myrtha love the Only One Who deserves love, and let her love His mission and His servants. Just now I am still exhausted and I would not be able to follow You. But allow me, my Lord, to do so as soon as I am fit. I will follow You and be with my Abel...»
« You will follow your son and Me. Be happy and in peace now. With My peace. Goodbye. » And while the woman goes into her house supported by her son and other kind people, Jesus leaves the town with the shepherds, the apostles, His Mother and Mary of Alphaeus, and goes towards the fold, which is situated at the end of a road, in the fields.
...A bonfire lights up the meeting. Many people sitting in semicircles are waiting for Jesus to come and speak to them. In the meantime they are talking of the events of the day. Abel is there as well and many congratulate him stating that everybody believed in his innocence.
The young man cannot help replying: « But you were still prepared to kill me! Even you, who had greeted me at the doorstep of my house, just at the time Joel was killed ». And he adds: « But I forgive you in Jesus' name. »
Jesus is now coming from the fold towards them: tall, clad in white, surrounded by the apostles, followed by the shepherds and women.
« Peace to you all.
If My coming here has served to establish the Kingdom of God among you, blessed be the Lord. If My coming here has served to make innocence shine, blessed be the Lord. If My coming here in time to prevent a crime serves also the purpose of giving three culprits the possibility of redeeming themselves, blessed be the Lord. Of all the many things on which this day induces us to meditate, and on which we shall be meditating while night falls to envelop in its darkness the joy of two hearts and the remorse of three others – and in its darkness it hides, as in a chaste veil, the joyful tears of the former and the bitter ones of the latter, which, however God sees – there is one thing which points out that there is nothing useless in what God gave as His Law.
The Law given by God, nominally, is strictly observed in Israel. But in actual fact it is not. The Law is analysed, dissected, hashed, to the extent of causing it to die through the torture of petty quibbles. It is there. But as a mummified body has no life, no breathing and no blood circulation, notwithstanding it looks like a body that is motionless because fast asleep, so the Law has no life, no breathing, no blood in far too many hearts. One can sit on a mummy as on a stool. One can lay things on a mummy, such as clothes, even filth, if one wishes, and the mummy will not rebel, because it has no life. Likewise too many people make a stool of the Law, a place where to lay things or discharge their filth, sure that it will not rebel in their consciences, which are dead. I could compare a large portion of Israel to the petrified forests that one can see strewn in the Nile valley and in the Egyptian desert. They were woods, woods of living trees, nourished with sap, rustling in the sunshine, with beautiful leaves, flowers and fruit. They made of the spot where they came up a small earthly paradise, dear to men and to animals, who forgot the desolate aridity of the desert, the parching thirst which sand causes to man, penetrating his throat with its burning dust. They forgot the merciless sun that calcifies corpses in a short time, removing their flesh and turning it into dust, leaving clean skeletons stretched on the sand, so clean that they look as if they had been diligently polished by a workman. They forgot everything in the green rustling shade, rich in water and fruit, which refreshened and comforted them and gave them energy for new journeys. Then, for some unknown reason, like cursed things, they withered like trees that, after dying, still serve to light fires for man, or bonfires to illuminate the night, to keep away wild animals, or disperse the dampness of the night for pilgrims far from their houses. But those did not serve as firewood. They became like stones. The silica of the soil seemed to have climbed from the roots up to the trunk, the branches and leaves, through witchcraft. The winds then broke the thinner branches, which had become like alabaster, which is hard and soft at the same time. But the stronger branches are still there, on the powerful trunks, to deceive tired caravans. In fact in the dazzling reflection of the sun or the spectral moonlight, caravans can see the shadows of the straight trunks stand out on tablelands or at the bottom of valleys, which receive water only at the time of the fertile floods, and they rush towards the phantom forests, both because they are anxious to find shelter, refreshment, water and fresh fruit, and because their tired eyes are dazzled by the sun shining on the shadeless sand. True phantoms! Illusive likeness of living bodies. Real presence of dead things.
I saw them. Although I was little older than a baby, I remember them as one of the saddest things on the Earth. That is how they appeared to Me, until I touched, experienced, and weighed the entirely sad things of the Earth, because they are completely dead things. Immaterial things, that is dead virtues and dead souls. The former are dead in souls, the latter are dead because they killed themselves.
There is the Law in Israel. But it is there like the petrified trees in the desert that have become silica, death, deceit. They are things destined to wear away without being of any use. Nay, they are harmful, because they cause mirages that allure people diverting them from true oases and thus cause them to die of thirst, hunger and desolation. They are death, attracting others to death, as we read in certain tales of pagan myths.
You have had an instance today of what a Law is when it is reduced to stone in a soul that has also become stone. It is all kinds of sins and the cause of misfortune. May this serve you to learn how to live and to let the Law live within you, in its integrity, which I enlighten with the light of mercy. It is the dead of night. The stars are looking down at us and God is looking down at us as well. Look up to the starry sky and elevate your souls to God. And without criticising the unhappy men already punished by God, and without any pride of being free from such sins, promise to God and to yourselves that you will not fall into the aridity of the cursed trees in the Egyptian deserts and valleys.
Peace be with you. »
He blesses them and then withdraws into the large fold enclosure, surrounded by rustic porches under which the shepherds have spread much hay as beds for the servants of the Lord.