30th October 1945.
It is evening. Another farewell evening for the little house in Nazareth and its inhabitants. Another supper during which grief makes people silent and unwilling to eat. Jesus, John, Syntyche, Peter, John, Simon and Matthew are sitting at the table. It was not possible for the others to sit there. The table in Nazareth is so small! It was made just for a small family of honest people, who at most can invite to sit at it a pilgrim or an afflicted person to give them refreshment of love rather than of food! Marjiam might have been able to sit at it tonight, as he is a very thin boy and takes up little room... But Marjiam is very serious and silent and is eating in a corner, sitting on a little stool at the feet of Porphirea, whom Mary has sat on the seat of Her loom and who, meek and reserved as she is, is eating the food which they have given her, looking with eyes full of pity at the two about to depart, who endeavour to swallow their food with lowered heads to conceal their faces reddened by weeping. The others, that is, the two sons of Alphaeus, Andrew and James of Zebedee have settled in the kitchen, near a kind of kneading trough. But they can be seen through the open door.
The Blessed Virgin and Mary of Alphaeus come and go serving this one and that one, with motherly care although they are worried and sad. And if the Blessed Virgin caresses with Her smile, so sad this evening, those whom She approaches, Mary of Alphaeus, less reserved and more informal, adds actions and words to her smiles, and more than once she encourages with a caress or a kiss, according to whoever benefits by it, this one or that one to take the food most suitable to their needs and in consideration of the imminent journey. I think that out of loving pity for John, who is exhausted and has become even thinner during the days of expectation, she would give herself as food to him, so anxious she is to convince him he should eat this or that dish, the flavour and beneficial properties of which she praises. But notwithstanding her... enticement, the food remains almost intact on John's plate and Mary of Alphaeus is distressed like a mother who sees her unweaned babe refuse her breast.
« But you cannot leave like that, son!» she exclaims. And in her motherly love she does not consider that John is about her own age and that the name « son» is not appropriate. But she sees in him only a suffering human being and thus does not find any other name to comfort him... « It will do you no good to travel on an empty stomach, on that shaking cart, in the cold dampness of the night. And then! Goodness knows what you will eat during the dreadful long journey!... Eternal mercy! At sea for so many miles! I would be frightened to death. And along Phoenician coasts and later!... even worse! And the owner of the ship will certainly be a Philistine, or a Phoenician or from some other hellish country... and will have no mercy on you... So, while you are still close to a mother who loves you, eat!... a little bit of this exquisite fish. Just to please Simon of Jonah who prepared it at Bethsaida with so much love and taught me how to cook it for you and Jesus, so that it may nourish you. You definitely do not want it?... Well... Oh! You will eat this!»... and she runs into the kitchen and comes back with a tureen full of a steaming pudding. I do not know what it is... It is certainly a kind of flour or corn mashed with milk: « Look, I made this because I remembered that one day you spoke of it as a sweet remembrance of your childhood... It is good and will do you good. Come on, just a little.»
John lets her put some spoonfuls of the soft meal in his plate and tries to swallow it, but tears stream down his face adding their salt to the food, while he lowers his head even more towards his plate.
All the others do ample justice to the dish, which is perhaps exquisite. Their faces have brightened up in seeing it and Marjiam has stood up... but then he felt that he had to ask the Blessed Virgin: « May I eat some? It wants five days to the end of my vow...»
« Yes, son. You may have some» says Mary caressing him.
But the boy is still uncertain and Mary, to appease the scruple of the little disciple, asks Her Son: « Jesus, Marjiam wants to know whether he can eat the pudding of barley meal... because of the honey which makes it a sweet dish, You know...»
« Of course you can, Marjiam. I dispense you this evening from your sacrifice, providing John eats his honey pudding as well. See how keen the boy is to have it? Help him, so that he may have some» and Jesus, Who is near John, takes his hand and holds it while John obediently strives to finish his helping.
Mary of Alphaeus is now happier. And she makes a fresh assault with a lovely dish of steaming pears, baked in the oven. She comes back in from the kitchen garden with her tray and says: « It's raining. It has just begun. What a nuisance!»
« No! On the contrary! There will be no one in the streets. It is always sad to say goodbye when one leaves... It is better to go away sailing before the wind, without running into sandbanks or rocks which make one stop or slow down. And curious people are just like sandbanks and rocks...» says Peter who sees sails and sailing in every action.
« Thank you, Mary. But I do not want anything else» says John in an attempt to refuse fruit.
« Ah! Not these! Mary cooked them. Are you going-to despise the food that She prepared? Look how well She prepared them! With spices in the little cavity... dressed with butter... They are food fit for a king. A julep. She got brown Herself standing near the fire to glaze them like that. And they are good for your throat and your cough... They warm and cure you. Mary, tell him how they helped my Alphaeus when he was ill. But he wanted You to cook them. Of course! Your hands are holy and bestow health!... The food that You prepare is blessed indeed!... My Alphaeus was calmer after eating Your pears... he breathed more freely... My poor husband!...» and Mary takes advantage of her recollection to be able to weep at last and to go out to weep. Perhaps I am evil-minded, but I do not think that Mary would have shed a tear for her « poor Alphaeus» that evening, had she not felt pity for the two who were about to leave... Mary of Alphaeus was so deeply grieved for John and Syntyche and so distressed at the departure of Jesus, James and Judas, that she burst into tears in order not to suffocate.
Mary now replaces her and lays a hand on the shoulder of Syntyche, who is sitting opposite Jesus, between Simon and Matthew. « Come on. Eat up. Are you going to leave and let Me worry also because you have gone away on almost empty stomachs?»
« I have eaten, Mother» says Syntyche looking up and showing her tired face marked by several days' weeping. She then lowers her head towards her shoulder, on which Mary's hand is resting, and rubs her cheek on the little hand to be caressed. With Her other hand Mary caresses her hair and draws towards Herself the head of Syntyche, whose face now rests on Her breast.
« Eat, John. It will really do you good. You must not get cold. Simon of Jonah, you will see that every evening he has some hot milk with honey, or at least some hot water and honey. Remember that.»
« I will see to that, as well, Mother. You may rest assured» says Syntyche.
« I am sure in fact. But you will do that when you are settled in Antioch. Simon of Jonah will see to it, for the time being. And remember, Simon, to give him much olive oil. That is why I gave you the little oil jar. Watch that it does not get broken. And if you see that he has difficulty in breathing, do as I told you, using the other little vase of balm. Take enough of it to rub his chest, shoulders and kidneys. Warm it first so that you can touch it without burning yourself, then rub it on and cover him immediately with the woollen bands I gave you. I prepared the balm for that special purpose. And you, Syntyche, remember its composition, so that you can make more. You will always be able to find lilies, camphor, dittany, resin and cloves with laurel, artemisia and the rest. I hear that Lazarus has gardens of essence plants at Antigonea.»
« And they are wonderful» says the Zealot who has seen them. And he adds: « I do not want to advise anything. But I say that that place should be more healthy for John, both for his spirit and his body, than Antioch. It is sheltered from winds, light air comes from thickets of resin plants on the slopes of a little hill, which protects from sea winds but allows benign sea salts to spread there, it is serene and quiet and yet cheerful because of the large variety of flowers and birds that live there in peace... You will see yourselves what suits you best. Syntyche is so sensible! It is better to rely upon women in certain matters. Is it not?»
« In fact I entrust My John just to Syntyche's good sense and kind heart» says Jesus.
« And so do I» says John of Endor. « I... I... I have no more vigour... and... I will never be of any use...»
« Do not say that, John! When autumn strips trees of their leaves, it does not mean that they are already inert. On the contrary they work with concealed energy to prepare the triumph of the next fructification. It is the same with you. You have been stripped by the cold wind of your pain. But in actual fact in the depths of your soul you are already working for new ministries. Your very grief will be a spur to be active. I am sure of that. And then you, always you, will be the one to help me, a poor woman, who has still so much to learn to become something of Jesus.»
« Oh! What do you expect me to be?! There is nothing I can do... I am a done man!»
« No. It is not right to say that! Only a dying man can say: “I am a finished man.” Nobody else. Do you think that you have nothing else to do? You still have to do what you told me one day: to complete the sacrifice. How can you, but by suffering? It is silly, John, to quote wise authors to you, a school master, but I would remind you of Gorgias of Leontina (or Leontine). He taught that one does not expiate, in this life or in the next one, but through sorrow and suffering. And I would remind you also of our great Socrates: “To disobey who is above us, be it god or a man, is evil and shameful.” Now, if it was right to do so for an unjust judgement, passed by unjust men, what will it be if done by order of the most holy Man and of our God? Obedience is a great thing, simply because it is obedience. So, most great is the obedience to a holy order, which I consider, and you must consider with me, a great mercy. You always say that your life is approaching its end and that you do not yet feel that you have cancelled your debt with Justice. So why do you not consider this deep grief as a means of cancelling your debt, and do so in the short time you still have? A great grief to achieve a great peace! Believe me, it is worth suffering it. The only important thing in life is to have conquered Virtue when we arrive at the hour of our death.»
« You encourage me, Syntyche... Please always do so.»
« I will. I promise you here. But comply with me, as a man and as a Christian.»
The meal is over. Mary collects the pears which have been left and puts them in a vase, which She hands to Andrew, who goes out and comes back in saying: « It is raining harder and harder. I would say that it is better...»
« Yes. It is always an agony to wait. I am going at once to prepare the donkey. And you can come as well, with the chests and everything else. You, too, Porphirea. Quick! You are so patient that even the donkey is subdued and allows you to dress it (he says exactly that) without reacting. Afterwards Andrew will do it, as he is like you. Quick, all of you!» And Peter pushes everybody, with the exception of Mary, Jesus, John of Endor and Syntyche, out of the room and the kitchen.
« Master! Oh! Master, help me! The hour has come... and I feel that my heart is breaking! It has really come! Oh! why, good Jesus, did You not let me die here, after I had received the dreadful news of my sentence and I had striven to accept it?!» And John collapses on Jesus' chest, weeping distressingly.
Mary and Syntyche endeavour to calm him, and Mary, although always so reserved, detaches him from Jesus, embracing and calling him: « My dear son, My darling son»...
Syntyche in the meantime kneels at Jesus' feet saying: « Bless me, consecrate me, that I may be fortified. Lord, Saviour and King, I, here, in the presence of Your Mother, swear and profess that I will follow Your doctrine and serve You until I breathe my last. I swear and profess that I will devote myself to Your doctrine and its followers for Your sake, my Master and Saviour. I swear and profess that there will be no other purpose in my life and that everything that is world and flesh is definitely dead, as far as I am concerned, whilst, with the help of God and of the prayers of Your Mother, I hope to defeat the Demon so that he may not lead me into error and I may not be condemned at the hour of Your Judgement. I swear and profess that allurements and threats will not bend me and I will remember everything, unless God allows otherwise. But I hope in Him and I believe in His bounty, whereby I am sure that He will not leave me at the mercy of obscure powers, stronger than my own. Consecrate Your servant, o Lord, that she may be protected from the snares of every enemy.»
Jesus lays His hands on her head, as also priests do, and prays over her.
Mary leads John beside Syntyche and makes him kneel saying: « Bless this one, too, Son, that he may serve You with holiness and peace.»
And Jesus repeats the gesture on the lowered head of poor John. He then lifts him and makes Syntyche stand up, and putting their hands in the hands of Mary He says: « And let Her be the last one to caress you here» and He goes out quickly, I do not know where.
« Mother, goodbye! I will never forget these days» moans John.
« Neither will I forget you, dear son.»
« I, too, Mother... Goodbye. Let me kiss You once more... Oh! after so many years I had satisfied my desire for maternal kisses!... But no longer now...» Syntyche weeps in the arms of Mary Who kisses her.
John sobs unreservedly. Mary embraces him also, She now has both of them in Her arms, the true Mother of Christians, and with Her most pure lips She touches John's wrinkled face lightly: a chaste, but so loving kiss. And with Her kiss there are tears of the Blessed Virgin on the emaciated cheek...
Peter comes in: « It's ready. Come on...» and he cannot say anything else because he is deeply moved.
Marjiam, who follows his father like a shadow, clings on to Syntyche's neck and kisses her, he then embraces John and kisses him repeatedly... But he is weeping as well.
They go out. Mary is holding Syntyche by the hand, and John has taken Marjiam's.
« Our mantles...» says Syntyche and she makes the gesture of going back to the house.
« They are here. Quick, take them...» Peter feigns coarseness as he does not want to show that he is moved, but with the back of his hand he wipes off his tears standing behind the two who are enveloping themselves in their mantles.
Over there, beyond the hedge, the little swinging lamp of the cart gives a yellowish light in the dark air... The rain rustles among the olive leaves and resounds in the fountain full of water... A dove, awakened by the light of the lamps, which the apostles are shielding under their mantles, holding them low to illuminate the paths full of puddles, is cooing lamentingly...
Jesus is already near the cart over which a blanket has been spread to act as a roof.
« Come on, quick, it's raining hard!» urges Peter. And while James of Zebedee replaces Porphirea at the bridle, Peter, without ceremony, lifts Syntyche off the ground and puts her on the cart, and with greater speed he grasps John of Endor and throws him on. He gets on himself and gives the poor donkey such a strong blow with the whip, that it bounces forward almost running over James. And Peter insists until they are on the main road, a good distance from houses... A last farewell cry reaches the persons who are leaving and who weep unreservedly...
Peter stops the donkey outside Nazareth, waiting for Jesus and the others, who soon join him walking fast in the increasing rain.
They take a road among the vegetable gardens, to go again to the north of the town, without crossing it. But Nazareth is dark and asleep in the ice-cold rain of a winter night... and I think that the noise of the donkey's hooves, hardly audible on the wet beaten ground, cannot be heard even by those who are awake...
The group proceeds in dead silence. Only the sobs of the two can be heard, mingled with the sound of rain on olive leaves.