15th November 1945.
« Is the Master with you?» the old farmer Jonah asks Judas Thaddeus who is entering the kitchen, where the fire is already blazing to warm the milk and the room, which is rather chilly in the early hours of a beautiful end of January morning, I think, or early February.
« He must have gone out to pray. He often goes out at dawn, when He knows He can be alone. He will be here shortly. Why are you asking?»
« I have asked also the others, who have gone out looking for Him, because there is a woman in the next room, with my wife. She comes from a village on the other side of the border, and I don't really know how she found out that the Master is here. But she knows and she wants to speak to Him.»
« All right. She will speak to Him. Perhaps she is the woman He is expecting, with her little sick daughter. Her spirit must have brought her here.»
« No. She is alone. There are no children with her. I know her because our villages are close to each other... and the valley belongs to everybody. In any case I do not think that we should be rude to our neighbours, even if they are Phoenicians, if we wish to serve the Lord. I may be wrong, but...»
« Also the Master always says that we must be merciful to everybody.»
« He is merciful, is He not?»
« He is indeed.»
« Annas told me that He was ill-treated even recently. Always ill-treated!... In Judaea, in Galilee, everywhere. Why is Israel so bad to its Messiah? I am referring to the mighty ones in Israel. Because the people love Him.»
« How are you aware of such things?»
« Oh! I live here, far away. But I am a faithful Israelite. It is sufficient to go to the Temple on holy days of obligation to learn all the good and all the evil! But one hears more of evil things than of good ones because good is humble and does not praise itself. Those who receive it should proclaim it. But only few people are grateful after receiving a grace. Man receives assistance and forgets it... Evil instead blows its trumpets loud and has its words heard even by those who do not want to hear them. You, His disciples, are you not aware of how much they run down and accuse the Messiah in the Temple! In their teaching the scribes speak of nothing else. I think they must have made a collection of lessons on how to accuse the Master as well as a collection of facts that they exhibit as plausible charges against Him. And one's conscience must be righteous, firm and free to be able to resist and judge wisely. Is He aware of such manoeuvres?»
« He is aware of everything. And we are more or less aware as well. But He does not worry. He continues His work and disciples and believers in Him are increasing day by day.»
« God grant they may persevere until the end. But man changes his mind. And weak... Here is the Master coming towards the house with three disciples.»
And the old man goes out, followed by Judas Thaddeus, to pay his respects to Jesus, whose appearance is imposing while He walks towards the house.
« Peace be with you today and always, Jonah.»
« Glory and peace to You, Master, forever.»
« Peace to you, Judas. Have Andrew and John not come back yet?»
« No. I did not hear them go out. I did not hear anybody. I was fast asleep.»
« Come in, Master. Come in, everybody. The air is cool this morning. It must have been very cold in the wood. There is warm milk for everybody over there.»
They are taking their milk and everybody, with the exception of Jesus, dips large slices of bread into it, when Andrew and John arrive with Annas, the shepherd.
« Ah! You are here! We had come back to tell the rest that we had not found You...» exclaims Andrew.
Jesus wishes peace to the three and adds: « Quick. Take your share and let us leave because I want to be at least at the foot of the mountain of Achzib before evening. The Sabbath begins this evening.»
« What about my sheep?»
Jesus smiles and replies: « They will recover after I bless them.»
« But they are on the eastern side of the mountain! You are going westwards to see that woman...»
« Leave it to God, and He will see to everything.»
The meal is over and the apostles go upstairs to get their travelling bags and be ready to leave.
« Master... that woman in the next room... are You not listening to her?»
« I have no time, Jonah. I have a long way to go and in any case I have come for the sheep of Israel. Goodbye, Jonah. May God reward you for your charity. I bless you and all your relatives. Let us go...»
But the old man begins to shout at the top of his voice: « Children! Women! The Master is going away! Come, quick!»
As a brood of chicks scattered in a stack-yard rush towards the broody-hen calling them, so women and men – some already busy, some still half asleep – rush from every side, together with half-naked children who are smiling although they have just woken up... They all gather round Jesus, Who is in the middle of the threshing-floor, and the mothers envelop their children in their wide skirts to protect them from the cool air, or they hold them in their arms until a maid-servant brings their clothes and puts them on them.
Also a woman, who is not of the household, comes forth. A poor weeping shy woman… She stoops and comes forward almost creeping and when she reaches the group where Jesus is, she begins to shout: « Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented very badly by a demon who makes her do shameful things. Have mercy on me because I am suffering so much, as everybody sneers at me because of that, as if my child were guilty of what she does... Have mercy, O Lord, You can do everything. Raise Your voice and Your hand and order the unclean spirit to go out of Palma. She is my only daughter and I am a widow... Oh! don't go away! Mercy!...»
Jesus, in fact, after blessing each member of the household and reproaching the elder ones for telling people of His arrival there – and they justify themselves saying: « We have not said anything, believe us, Lord!» – goes away; He is inexplicably hard towards the poor woman, who is dragging herself along on her knees with her arms stretched out in suppliant attitude, while she says panting: « I saw You yesterday while You were crossing the torrent and I heard them call You: “Master.” I followed You, among the bushes, and I heard what these people were saying. I understood who You are... And I came here this morning before daybreak and I remained here, on the threshold, like a little dog, until Sarah got up and made me go in. Have mercy, my Lord, on a mother and a little girl!»
But Jesus is walking fast and turns a deaf ear to her entreaties.
The people of the household say to her: « Resign yourself! He will not listen to you. He said so Himself: He has come for the children of Israel...»
She is desperate but at the same time full of faith, and she stands up saying: « No. I will pray until He listens to me.» And she follows the Master shouting her entreaties, which draw to the doors of the houses in the village all those who are already awake and who, like the people of Jonah's household, begin to follow her to see what happens.
In the meantime the apostles, seized with astonishment, look at one another and whisper: « Why is He doing that? He has never done it before!...»
And John says: « He cured also those two people at Alexandroscene.»
« But they were proselytes» replies Thaddeus.
« And what about the woman He is going to cure now?»
« She is a proselyte as well» says the shepherd Annas.
« Oh! but how many times has He cured Gentiles or heathens! And what about the Roman girl?...» says Andrew desolately, as he cannot set his mind at rest seeing Jesus' harsh behaviour towards the Cananean woman.
« I will tell you what it is» exclaims James of Zebedee. « The Master is angry. His patience has come to an end before so many attacks of human wickedness. Can't you see how changed He is? He is quite right! From now on He will devote Himself only to those with whom He is familiar. And He is doing the right thing!»
« Good. But in the meantime this woman is following us howling and a train of people are coming behind her. Although He does not want to be noticed, He has found the way to draw even the attention of trees...» grumbles Matthew.
« Let us go and tell Him to send her away... Look at the lovely procession there is behind us! If we arrive at the consular road like this, we will be in trouble! And she will not leave us unless He drives her away...» says Thaddeus who is very annoyed. He even turns round and says to the woman in a commanding voice: « Be quiet and go away!». And James of Alphaeus is solid for his brother.
But she is not impressed by threats or orders and continues to implore.
« Let us go and tell the Master to send her away, since He does not want to hear her. This cannot go on!» says Matthew, while Andrew whispers: « Poor woman!», and John repeats continuously: « I do not understand... I do not understand...» John is dumbfounded at Jesus' behaviour.
They quicken their pace and reach the Master Who is walking as fast as if He were chased. « Master, please dismiss that woman! It's a scandal! She is shouting after us! She is pointing us out to everybody! The road is getting more and more crowded with people... and many are following her. Tell her to go away.»
« You can tell her yourselves. I have already replied to her.»
« She will not listen to us. Please! You must tell her. And very severely.»
Jesus stops and turns round. The woman takes it as a sign of grace, she quickens her step, she raises the already shrill tone of her voice while her face becomes pale with her increased hope.
« Be quiet, woman. And go home. I have already told you. I have come for the sheep of Israel. To cure the ones that are ill and find the ones that are lost. You are not from Israel.»
But the woman is already at His feet and she kisses them, worshipping Him, holding His ankles tight, as if she were a ship-wrecked person who had found a rock of salvation, and she moans: « Lord, help me! You can help me, Lord. Give the order to the demon, since You are holy... Lord, You are the master of everything, of graces and of the world. Everything is subject to You, my Lord. I know. I believe it. Take therefore Your power and use it for my daughter.»
« It is not right to take the bread of the children of the house and throw it to the dogs in the street.»
« I believe in You. And through my faith, from a dog of the street I have become a dog of the house. I told You: I came before daybreak to lie down on the threshold of the house in which You were, and if You had come out there, You would have trampled on me. But You went out from the other side and did not see me. You did not see this poor distressed dog, starving for Your grace, waiting to go in, creeping, where You were, to kiss Your feet, imploring You not to drive it away...»
« It is not right to throw the bread of the children to dogs» repeats Jesus.
« But dogs go into the room where the landlord is eating with his children, and they eat what falls from the table, or the remnants of food, which the family gives them, as they are of no further use. I am not asking You to treat me as a daughter and let me sit at Your table. But give me at least the crumbs...»
Jesus smiles. Oh! What a transfiguration that joyful smile works on His face!...
The people, the apostles, the woman look at Him with admiration... they realise that something is about to happen.
And Jesus says: « Oh! woman! Great is your faith. And you comfort My spirit by it. Go, therefore, and it will be done to you as you wish. As from this moment, the demon has gone out of your daughter. Go in peace. And as from a stray dog you wanted to be a dog of the house, endeavour in the future to be a daughter sitting at the table of the Father. Goodbye.»
« Oh! Lord! My Lord!... I would like to run away and see my beloved Palma... And I would like to stay with You, and follow You! Blessed! Holy!»
« Go, woman. Go in peace.»
And Jesus resumes His way while the Cananean woman, more agile than a young girl, runs away along the road she came, followed by the crowd anxious to see the miracle...
« But, Master, why did You make her implore You so much, before listening to her?» asks James of Zebedee.
« Through your fault and the fault of all of you. That is not a defeat, James. I was not expelled, derided or cursed here... Let that be a relief to your disheartened spirits. I have already had today My most delicious food. And I bless God for it. And now let us go and see this other woman who believes and can wait with firm faith.»
« And what about my sheep, Lord? In a short while I should take a road, which is different from Yours, to go to my grazing ground...»
Jesus smiles but does not reply.
It is beautiful to walk now that the sun warms the air and makes the new leaves of woods and the grass of meadows sparkle like emeralds, changing each flower-cup into a setting for the drops of dew shining on the many-coloured wild flowers. And Jesus proceeds smiling. And the apostles, immediately-relieved, follow Him smiling...
They reach the road-junction. The shepherd Annas, who looks mortified, says: « And I should leave You here... Are You really not coming to cure my sheep? I believe, too; and I am a proselyte... Promise, at least, that You will come after the Sabbath!»
« Oh! Annas! Is it possible that you have not yet understood that your sheep were cured when I raised My hand near Lesemdan? You may go, too, to see the miracle and to bless the Lord.»
I think that Lot's wife, when she was turned into a pillar of salt, was very much like the shepherd, who has remained as he was, a little bent forward, with his face looking up to see Jesus, with one arm half stretched out in mid-air... He looks like a statue. And a label could be placed under it: “The Petitioner.” He then comes round and prostrates himself saying: « You are blessed! Holy! Good!... But I promised You a lot of money, and I have only a few drachmae with me... Come to see me after the Sabbath...»
« I will come. Not for the money, but to bless you once again for your simple faith. Goodbye, Annas. Peace be with you.»
And they part...
« And that was not a defeat either, My friends! Neither have they derided, expelled or cursed Me here... Come on, quick! There is a mother who has been waiting for us for days...»
And their march continues, with a short rest to eat some bread and cheese and drink at a spring...
It is midday when they see the road junction appear.
« That is where the steps of Tyre begin, over there» says Matthew. And he cheers up considering that they have covered most of the road.
Leaning on a Roman mile stone there is a woman. At her feet, on a folding-seat there is a little girl, about seven or eight years old. The woman is looking in all directions. Towards the steps in the rock. Towards the Ptolemais road. Towards the road on which Jesus is walking, and now and again she bends to caress her child, to protect her head from the sun with a piece of cloth, to cover her feet and hands with a shawl...
« There is the woman! I wonder where she slept these past days?» asks Andrew.
« Perhaps in that house near the cross-road. There are no other houses nearby» replies Matthew.
« Or out in the open» says James of Alphaeus.
« No. Not with the child, surely!» replies his brother.
Jesus does not speak. But He smiles. All in a row, with in the centre, three on each side, they take up all the road, at this time of the day, when travellers stop to eat, wherever they happen to be at midday. Jesus, tall, handsome, in the centre of the row, smiles and His face is so radiant that all the light of the sun seems to be concentrated on it while rays of light emanate from it.
The woman looks up... They are now about fifty meters apart. Jesus stares at her, which perhaps draws her attention, diverted for a moment by the child's weeping. She looks at Him and in an involuntary gesture of anxiety, she presses her hands against her heart.
Jesus smiles more broadly. And His bright inexpressible smile must tell the woman a great deal, as she is no longer anxious, but smiling, as if she were already happy, she bends to pick up her child, and holding her in the folding-seat, with stretched out arms, as if she offered her to God, she comes forwards, and when she arrives at Jesus' feet, she kneels down, lifting as much as she can the child in the seat, who looks ecstatically at Jesus' most handsome face.
The woman does not say one word. And what else could she say that is not already deeply expressed in her whole attitude?...
And Jesus says but one word, a little, but powerful gladdening word, like God's « Fiat» at the creation of the world: « Yes.» And He lays his hand on the chest of the little girl.
And the child, with the cry of a woodlark freed from a cage, shouts: « Mummy!» and all of a sudden sits up and slides down on to her feet and embraces her mother, who, exhausted as she is, staggers and is on the point of falling back, in a swoon brought about by tiredness, by anxiety that is calming down, by joy that overwhelms the strength of her heart, already weak by so much suffering.
Jesus is ready to hold her. A much stronger support than the little girl's, who overburdening her mother with her own weight, is certainly not the best means to support her mother on her knees. Jesus makes her sit down and instills strength into her... And He looks at her while silent tears stream down the tired but happy face of the woman. Then words come to her lips: « Thank You, my Lord! Thanks and blessings! My hope has been crowned... I waited for You so long... But I am happy now...»
The woman, after she comes round, kneels down once again, worshipping, holding the little girl in front of her, while Jesus caresses the child. And she explains: « A bone had been rotting in her back for two years, paralysing her and leading her slowly to death with great pain. We had her visited by doctors at Antioch, Tyre, Sidon and even at Caesarea and Paneas, and we spent so much on doctors and medicines that we were compelled to sell the house we had in town and retire to the one in the country, dismissing the servants of the house and keeping only those who worked in the fields, selling the crops that we used to consume ourselves... But nothing helped her! I saw You. I was aware of what You have done elsewhere. I hoped to receive grace myself... And I did! I will now go back home, without any worries, and thoroughly happy... and I will make my husband happy... It was my James who set hope in my heart by telling me what Your power works in Galilee and Judaea. Oh! Had we not been afraid of not finding You, we would have come with the girl. But You are always traveling around!...»
« And traveling I came to you... But where did you stay these past days?»
« In that house... But at night only the child was in there. There is a good woman who looked after her for me. I remained here all the time, because I was afraid that You might pass by at night.»
Jesus lays a hand on her head: « You are a good mother. That is why God loves you. You can see that He has helped you in every way.»
« Oh! Yes! I could perceive it when I was coming here. I came to town hoping to see You, so I had little money with me and I was alone. Then, following the advice of that man, I came here. I sent word home and I came... and I have never lacked anything: neither bread, nor shelter, nor courage.»
« With that weight on your arms all the time? Could you not get a cart?..» asks James of Alphaeus, who is moved to pity.
« No. She would have suffered too much: it would have been enough to kill her. My Johanna came to Grace in the arms of her mother.»
Jesus caresses both of them on their heads: « You may go now and be always faithful to the Lord. May the Lord and My peace be with you.»
Jesus resumes walking on the road to Ptolemais.
« And that is not a defeat either, My friends. And I was not expelled, derided or cursed here either.»
Following the straight road they soon reach the forge near the bridge. The Roman farrier is resting in the sunshine, sitting against the wall of his house. He recognises Jesus and greets Him. Jesus returns the greeting and says: « Will you allow Me to stop here and rest a little, while we eat some bread?»
« Of course, Rabbi. My wife wanted to see You... because I told her what she had not heard of Your speech the last time You were here. Esther is Hebrew. But since I am a Roman, I did not dare to tell You. I would have sent her after You...»
« Call her, then.» And Jesus sits on the bench against the wall, while James of Zebedee hands out bread and cheese...
A woman about forty years old comes out, she looks embarrassed and blushes.
« Peace to you, Esther. Have you been anxious to meet Me? Why?»
« Because of what You said... Rabbis despise us, because we are married to Romans... But I have children and I have taken them all to the Temple and the boys have all been circumcised. I told Titus beforehand, when he wanted to marry me... And he is good... And he leaves me completely free with the children. Everything is Hebrew here, customs, rites!... But rabbis and heads of synagogues curse us. You don't... You have compassionate words for us. Oh! Do You know what that means to us? It is like being embraced by our fathers and mothers, who disowned us and cursed us and are severe with us... It is like going back to the homes we left and not feeling like strangers in them... Titus is kind. On our holy days he closes the farriery, with a heavy loss of money, and takes me and the children to the Temple. Because he says that one cannot live without religion. He says that his religion is now his family and his work, as previously it was his duty as a soldier... But I... my Lord... I wanted to speak to You about one thing... You said that the followers of the true God must take a little of their holy yeast and put it into the good flour to make it rise holily. I have done that with my husband. I have tried, during the twenty years we have been together, to work his soul, which is good, with the yeast of Israel. But he cannot make up his mind... and he is old... I would like to have him with me in the next life... United by faith as we are now by love... I am not asking for riches, welfare, health. What we have is sufficient, praised be the Lord for it! But that is what I would like... Pray for my husband! That he may belong to the true God...»
« He will. You may be sure of that. You are asking for something holy and it will be granted to you. You have understood the duty of a wife to God and to her husband. I wish all wives did! I solemnly tell you that many of them should imitate you. Continue like that and you will have the joy of having your Titus beside you, in prayer and in Heaven. Now show Me your children.»
The woman calls her numerous issue: « Jacob, Judas, Levi, Mary, John, Anne, Eliza, Marcus.» She then goes into the house and comes out again with one who can hardly walk and one of three months, at most: « And this one is Isaac and this little one is Judith» she says ending the introductions.
« Plenty!» says James of Zebedee laughing.
And Judas exclaims: « Six boys! And everyone circumcised! And with pure names! Very good!»
The woman is happy and she praises Jacob, Judas and Levi, who help their father « every day except on Sabbaths, when Titus works by himself shoeing horses with shoes made previously» she says. And she praises Mary and Anne « who help their mother.» But she does not forget to praise also the four little ones « as they are good and not naughty. Titus helps me to bring them up, as he was a disciplined soldier» she says casting a loving glance at the man, who, leaning against the door post, with a hand resting on his side, has listened to everything his wife has said, with a hearty smile on his honest face, and who now becomes elated hearing his merits as a soldier being mentioned.
« Very well. The discipline of the army is not disliked by God, when soldiers do their duty humanely. The essential point is to be always morally honest, in every task, in order to be always virtuous. Your past discipline, which you now instill into your children, must prepare you to enter a higher service: the service of God. We must part now. I will just manage to reach Achzib before sunset. Peace to you, Esther, and to your house. May you all belong to the Lord, before long.»
The mother and children kneel down while Jesus raises His hand blessing them. The man, as if he were once again a soldier of Rome in front of his emperor, stands stiffly at attention and salutes in Roman style.
And they go away... After a few steps Jesus lays a hand on James' shoulder: « And once again, the fourth time today, I would point out to you that that was not a defeat, and We were not expelled, derided, cursed... What do you say about it now?»
« That I am a fool, my Lord» says James of Zebedee impulsively.
« No. You, and all the others, are still and always too human and you have all the alternatives of those who are ruled more by their human nature than by their spirits. When the spirit is sovereign, it is not affected by every breath of wind that cannot always be a scented breeze... It may suffer, but will not change. I always pray that you may reach such sovereignty of spirit. But you must help Me with your efforts... Well! We have come to the end of our journey. During it I have sown what is necessary to prepare the work for you, when you will be evangelizing. We can now begin our Sabbath rest with the consciousness that we have done our duty. And we shall wait for the others... Then we shall set out... again... always... until everything is accomplished...»