4th September 1945.
Jesus is curing some sick people; Manaen only is present. They are in the house in Capernaum, in the shady kitchen garden, early in the morning. Manaen is no longer wearing his precious belt or the thin plate on his forehead. His tunic is held tight by a woollen cord and his headgear by a thin strip of cloth. Jesus is bareheaded, as He always is, when at home.
After curing and comforting the sick people, Jesus goes upstairs with Manaen and they both sit on the window-sill of the window facing the mountain, because the sun is shining on the other side of the house and it is very warm, although it is no longer the height of summer.
« Vintage will be starting soon » says Manaen.
« Yes. Then it will be the feast of the Tabernacles... and it will soon be winter. When are you thinking of going away? »
« H'm... I would never leave... But I am thinking of the Baptist. Herod is weak. If one knows how to influence him to do good, if he does not become good, he remains at least... not blood-thirsty. But only few people advise him wisely. And that woman!... That woman!... But I would like to stay here until Your apostles come back. Not that I rely much on myself... but I still have some weight... although the favour I enjoyed previously has diminished much since they have realized that I now follow the way of Good. But it does not matter. I would like to have enough courage to be able to abandon everything and follow You completely, like the disciples whom You are expecting. But shall I ever succeed? We who are not of the common people find it more difficult to follow You. Why? »
« Because the tentacles of your poor wealth hold you back. »
« However, I know some people who are not exactly rich, but are learned or about to be so, and they do not come either. »
« They also have the tentacles of poor riches holding them back. One is not rich only in money. There is the wealth of knowledge. Few can confess with Solomon: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity”, which confession is resumed and enlarged not so much materially but deeply in Qoheleth. Do you remember it? Human science is vanity because to increase human knowledge only “is anguish and affliction of the spirit and he who multiplies science multiplies such anguish.” I solemnly tell you that it is so. And I also tell you that it would not be so if human science were supported and bridled by supernatural wisdom and the holy love of God. Pleasure is vanity, because it does not last, but quickly fades away after burning, leaving ashes and emptiness. Wealth stored up by means of various industries is vanity for the man who dies, as he leaves it to other people and cannot repel death by means of it. Woman is vanity, when she is considered a female and desired as such. So we conclude that the only thing which is not vanity is the holy fear of God and obedience to His commandments, that is the wisdom of man, who is not only flesh, but has a second nature: the spiritual one. Who can reason thus and is willing, is able to break off from every tentacle of poor wealth and move freely towards the Sun. »
« I want to remember those words. How much You have given me during the past days! I can now go back to that ugly Court which seems bright only to fools, and seems powerful and free, whereas it is misery, prison and darkness, and I will be able to go back with a treasure that will enable me to live better waiting for the best. But will I ever reach that best, which is to be entirely Yours? »
« Yes, you will. »
« When? Next year? Later? Or when old age will make me wise? »
« You will reach it in a few hours by becoming spiritually mature and perfect in willing. »
Manaen looks at Him thoughtfully, inquisitively... But he does not ask any other question.
There is silence. Then Jesus says: « Have you ever approached Lazarus of Bethany? »
« No, Master. I can say no. If we met on few occasions I cannot say it was out of friendship. You know... I was with Herod and Herod was against him... So...»
« Lazarus would now see you in God, beyond such things. You must endeavour to approach him, as a fellow-disciple. »
« I will do it, if You wish so...»
Excited voices are heard in the garden. They are anxiously asking: « The Master! The Master! Is He here? »
The harmonious voice of the landlady replies: « He is upstairs. Who are you? Sick people? »
« No. Disciples of John and we want Jesus of Nazareth. »
Jesus looks out of the window saying: « Peace be with you... Oh! It is you. Come in! »
They are the three shepherds John, Matthias and Simeon. « Oh! Master! » they say looking up and showing their sorrowful faces. Not even the sight of Jesus cheers them up.
Jesus leaves the room and goes out to meet them on the terrace. Manaen follows Him. They meet where the staircase leads on to the sunny terrace.
The three men kneel down kissing the floor. Then John says on behalf of them all: « Receive us now, Lord, because we are Your inheritance » and tears stream down the faces of the disciple and his companions.
Jesus and Manaen utter one only cry: « John!? »
« He has been killed...»
The word drops like a loud dull noise, which drowns every other noise in the world. And yet it was uttered in a low voice. But it petrifies both him who speaks and those who listen. And the earth, upon hearing it and being horrified, seems to interrupt every noise, such is the period of deep silence and complete immobility in animals, in leafy branches, in the air. Doves stop cooing, blackbirds interrupt their musical songs, the choir of sparrows is struck dumb, and a chirping cicada suddenly becomes silent, as if its contrivance had broken down unexpectedly, while the wind, which was caressing the leaves of vines and trees, making them rustle like silk and causing poles to squeak, drops completely.
Jesus becomes as pale as ivory while His eyes dilate glazing over. He opens His arms saying, and His voice is deep in the effort to make it steady: « Peace to the martyr of justice and to My Precursor. » He folds His arms, collects His thoughts in prayer, communicating with the Spirit of God and of the Baptist.
Manaen does not dare to make a gesture. Contrary to Jesus, he blushes vehemently and has an impulsion of anger. Then he becomes stiff and his excitement is revealed by the mechanical movement of his right hand rumpling the cord of his tunic, and of the left one which unintentionally searches for his dagger... and Manaen shakes his head pitying his weak mind that does not remember that he had renounced weapons in order to be « the disciple of the Meek Master, near the Meek Messiah. »
Jesus opens His mouth and eyes again. His countenance, His eyes, His voice have resumed the divine majesty habitual to Him. Only a deep melancholy tempered with peace hovers about Him. « Come and tell Me. As from today you will be Mine. » And He takes them into the room, closing the door and half-drawing the curtains, to have a subdued light and an atmosphere of concentration around the sorrow and the beauty of the Baptist's death, and to form a partition between such perfection of life and the corrupt world. « Speak » He tells them.
Manaen is still petrified. He is near the group but does not utter one word.
« It was the evening of the feast... The event was unforeseeable... Only two hours before Herod had consulted with John and had dismissed him very kindly... And shortly before the... murder, the martyrdom, the crime, the glorification, Herod had sent a servant with icy fruit and rare wines for the prisoner. John had distributed everything to us... he never changed his austerity... We were the only ones to be there, thanks to Manaen, we were in the palace as kitchen servants and stable-grooms. And that was a grace because we could always see our John... John and I were in the kitchen, while Simeon supervised in the stables ensuring that the grooms looked after the mounts of guests properly... The palace was full of important people, military commanders and gentlemen from Galilee. Herodias had locked herself in her rooms after a violent quarrel in the morning with Herod...»
Manaen interferes: « But when did the hyena come? »
« Two days previously. Unexpectedly... saying to the monarch that she could not live away from him and be absent on the day of his feast. Viper and sorceress as she had always been, she had made a laughing-stock of him... But that morning, although he was already full of wine and lust, Herod refused to give the woman what she asked for with loud cries... But nobody thought it was John's life!... She remained disdainfully in her rooms. She sent back the royal dishes that Herod sent to her on precious trays. She kept only a precious one full of fruit, exchanging the gift with an amphora of drugged wine for Herod... Drugged... Ah! Her vicious intoxicated nature was sufficient to drug him for the crime! From the servants waiting at the table we learned that after the dance of the mimers, nay half way through it, Salome had rushed dancing into the banquet hall. And the mimers, in the presence of the royal girl, had withdrawn against the walls. We were told that her dance was perfect. Lewd and perfect. Worthy of the guests... Herod.... Oh! perhaps a new desire of incest was fermenting in his heart!... Herod, at the end of the dance, said enthusiastically to Salome: “You have danced very well! I swear that you deserve a prize. I swear that I will give it to you. I swear that I will give anything you may ask me for. I swear it in the presence of everybody. And the word of a king is loyal also without swearing. Ask what you want.” And Salome, simulating perplexity, innocence and modesty, enveloping herself in her veils with bashful gesture after so much impudicity, said: “Allow me, great king, to ponder for a moment. I will withdraw and I will come back later because your grace has moved me.”.. and she left going to her mother. Selma told me that she went in laughing, saying: “Mother, you have won! Give me the tray.” And Herodias with a cry of triumph ordered the slave to give the girl the tray that she had kept previously, saying: “Go, and come back with the hated head and I will clothe you with pearls and gold.” And Selma was struck with horror and obeyed... Salome re-entered the hall dancing and went to prostrate herself at the king's feet saying: “Here. On this tray that you sent to my mother as a token that you love her and you love me, I want the head of John. And I will dance again, if it pleases you so much. I will dance the dance of victory. Because I have won! I have beaten you, king! I have defeated life and I am happy!” That is what she said, and her words were repeated to us by a friendly cup-bearer. And Herod was embarrassed, being caught by two desires: to abide by his promise, to be just. But he could not be just, because he is unjust. He nodded to the headsman who was standing behind the royal seat, and he took from Salome's raised hands the tray and from the banquet hall went down to the lower rooms. John and I saw him cross the yard... and shortly afterwards we heard Simeon's cry: “Murderers!” and then we saw the headsman pass again with the head on the tray... John, Your Precursor, was dead...»
« Simeon, can you tell Me how he died? » asks Jesus after some time.
« Yes, he was praying... He had previously said to me: “The two messengers will be back before long, and those who do not believe, will believe. But remember, should I be no longer alive when they come back, I, on the point of dying, say to you: 'Jesus of Nazareth is the true Messiah' so that you may repeat it to the others.” He was always thinking of You... The headsman entered. I uttered a cry. John looked up and saw him. He stood up and said: “You can take only my life. But the lasting truth is that it is not legal to do wrong.” And he was about to say something to me when the headsman swung his heavy sword, while John was standing and the head fell from the bust in a stream of blood that reddened the goatskin while his thin face blanched, but his open eyes were still alive and accusing. The head rolled at my feet... I fell at the same time as his body, as I fainted with grief... After... After Herodias had disfigured it, the head was thrown to the dogs. But we picked it up at once and we tied it in a precious veil together with the trunk and during the night we recomposed the body and carried it out of Machaerus. We embalmed it at daybreak in a nearby acacia-thicket with the help of other disciples... But it was taken from us again to be slashed... Because she cannot destroy it and cannot forgive him... And her slaves, fearing death, were more ferocious than jackals in taking the head from us. If you had been there, Manaen!...»
« Had I been there... But that head is her malediction... Nothing is taken from the glory of the Precursor, even if the body is mutilated. Is that right, Master? »
« That is true. Even if the dogs had destroyed it, his glory would not change. »
« Neither has his word changed, Master. His eyes, although disfigured, under a large wound, still say: “You are not allowed.” But we have lost him! » says Matthias.
« And we are now Your disciples, because that is what he said, and he told us that You already know. »
« Yes you have been Mine for months. How did you come? »
« On foot; by stages. It was a long painful journey, in the heat of sands and of the sun, made even more painful by grief. We have been walking for almost twenty days...»
« You will rest now. »
Manaen asks: « Was Herod not surprised at my absence? »
« Yes, at first he was annoyed, then he became furious. But when his rage calmed down, he said: “One judge less.” That is what our friend, the cup-bearer, told us. »
Jesus says: « One judge less! He has God as a judge and that is enough. Let us go to where we sleep. You are tired and covered with dust. You will find the garments and sandals of your companions. Take them, refresh yourselves. What belongs to one, belongs to everybody. Matthias, since you are tall, you can take one of My tunics. We will provide later. My apostles will be coming before night, because this is the Sabbath eve. Isaac will be coming next week with the disciples, and later Benjamin and Daniel will come; Elias, Joseph and Levi will be here after the Tabernacles. It is time for others to join the Twelve. Go and rest now. »
Manaen takes them in and then comes back. Jesus remains with Manaen. He sits down pensively, and is clearly sad, with His head reclined on a hand, His elbow resting on His knee as a support. Manaen is sitting near the table and does not move. He is sullen. His face is a storm.
After a long time, Jesus raises His head, looks at him and asks: « And what are you going to do now? »
« I do not know yet... There is no purpose in staying any longer at Machaerus. But I would like to remain at the court to find out... to protect You according to what I learn. »
« You had better follow Me without any delay. But I will not force you. You will come, when the old Manaen has been destroyed bit by bit. »
« I would also like to take that head away from that woman. She is not worthy to have it...»
Jesus has a pale hint of a smile and says frankly: « And you are not yet dead to human wealth. But you are dear to Me just the same. I know that I shall not lose you even if I have to wait. I know how to wait...»
« Master, I would like to give You my generosity to comfort You... Because You are suffering. I can see it. »
« It is true. I am suffering. Very much! »
« Only because of John? I do not think so. You know that he is in peace. »
« I know that he is in peace and I perceive him close to Me. »
« Well, then? »
« Then!... Manaen, what does dawn precede? »
« The day, Master. Why do You ask me? »
« Because the death of John precedes the day when I will be the Redeemer. And the human part in Me trembles at the idea... Manaen, I am going up the mountain. You stay here to receive whoever should come and to assist those who have already come. Stay until I come back. Then... you will do whatever you wish. Goodbye. »
And Jesus leaves the room. He goes slowly down the steps, crosses the kitchen garden and at the back of it He takes a little path along ruffled gardens, olive-groves, orchards of apple and fig-trees and vineyards and He climbs the slope of a little hill where He disappears from my sight.