19th November 1945.
Although the sun is shining in the clear sky, it is bitter cold in the Kishon valley, swept by an icy wind blowing across the northern hills and destroying the tender plants, which shiver and crumple up, nipped as they are, destined to die with their new verdant foliage.
« Is this cold going to last long?» asks Matthew enveloping himself in his heavy mantle, through which only a tiny part of his face can be seen, that is his nose and eyes.
Bartholomew replies in a voice stifled by his large mantle that covers his mouth: « Perhaps until the end of this lunation.»
« In that case, we are in for it! But never mind! Fortunately we shall be staying in hospitable houses in Nazareth... And in the meantime it will be over.»
« Yes, Matthew. As far as I am concerned, it is already over, now that I see that Jesus is not so depressed. Don't you think that He is more cheerful?» asks Andrew.
« He is. But I... well, it seems impossible to me that He got so run down just because of what we know. Has there really been nothing else, as far as you know?» asks Philip.
« No. Nothing. On the contrary I can tell you that at the Syro-Phoenician border the believers there made Him very happy and He worked those miracles about which we told you» replies James of Alphaeus assuring him.
« He has been very much with Simon of Jonah these last days. And Simon has changed a lot... Of course, you have all changed. I don't know... You seem to be... more austere, I would say» says Philip.
« That is only your impression!... In actual fact we are what we were. Certainly, it was not pleasant to see the Master so depressed for so many reasons, and hear how fierce they are against Him... But we will defend Him. Oh! They will not do Him any harm if we are with Him. Last night, after I heard what Hermas was saying, and he is serious and reliable, I said to Him: “You must no longer remain alone. You now have disciples who, as You can see, are active and are doing well, and are continuously increasing. So we will stay with You. I do not mean that You will have to do everything. It is time for You to cheer up, my dear brother. You will stay with us, among us, like Moses on the mountain, and we will fight for You, and will be ready, if necessary, to defend You also physically. What happened to John the Baptist must not happen to You.” Because, after all, if the disciples of the Baptist had not been reduced to two or three faint-hearted ones, he would not have been caught. And we are twelve and I want to persuade some of the most faithful and vigorous disciples to join us or, at least, to be near us. For instance, those who were with John at Machaerus. They are brave and faithful men: John, Matthias and also Joseph. Do you know that he is a promising young man?» says Thaddeus.
« Yes. Isaac is an angel, but his strength is entirely spiritual. Joseph is strong also physically. He is almost our age.»
« And he learns quickly. Did you hear what Hermas said? “If he had studied he would be a rabbi besides being a just man.” And Hermas knows what he is talking about.»
« I, however... would keep close to us also Stephen and Hermas, and John, the priest. Because of their knowledge of the Law and of the Temple. Do you know what their presence means for scribes and Pharisees? A check, a restraint... And for people in doubt it means: “Also the best people in Israel are with the Rabbi as His pupils and servants!”» says James of Alphaeus.
« You are right. Let us tell the Master. You heard what He said yesterday: “You must obey, but it is also your duty to open your minds to Me and say what you think is right, so that you may learn how to instruct people in future. And, if I see that what you say is just, I will accept your ideas”» says the Zealot.
« Perhaps He does that to show that He loves us, seeing that we are all more or less convinced that we are the cause of His suffering» remarks Bartholomew.
« Or He is really tired of having to see to everything and of being the only one who takes decisions and responsibility. Perhaps He also realises that His perfect holiness is... I would say almost an imperfection, considering what is in front of Him: the world that is not holy. We are not perfect saints. Just not as bad rascals as other people... and therefore more able to reply to those who are just like us» says Simon Zealot.
« And to know them, you should say!» adds Matthew.
« Oh! as far as that is concerned, I am sure that He knows them, too. Nay, He knows them better than we do, because He can read the hearts of people. I am as certain as I am sure that I am alive» says James of Zebedee.
« Well, then, why at times does He behave as He does, exposing Himself to trouble and danger?» asks Andrew desolately.
« Who knows? I cannot tell you» says Thaddeus shrugging his shoulders. And the others agree with him.
John is silent. His brother teases him: « Since you always know everything about Jesus - at times you seem to be very close to each other - has He ever told you why He behaves like that?»
« Yes. I asked Him also recently. He always replied: “Because I must. I must act as if the whole world were of ignorant but good people. I teach everybody the same doctrine and thus the children of Truth will be separated from those of Falsehood.” He also said to me: “See, John? This is like a first judgement, not a universal or collective one, but a single judgement. According to their action of faith, charity and justice, lambs will be separated from kids. And that will last also afterwards, when I shall no longer be here, but there will be My Church, forever and ever, until the end of the world. The first judgement of the mass of human people will take place in the world, where men act freely, in front of Good and Evil, Truth and Falsehood. As the first judgement took place in the Earthly Paradise, in front of the tree of Good and Evil, infringed by those who disobeyed God. Then at the death of each individual, the judgement already written in the book of human actions by a faultless Mind will be ratified. The Great, the Terrible Judgement will be the last one, when the mass of men will be judged again. From Adam to the last man. They will be judged for what they freely wanted for themselves on the earth. Now, if I should select by Myself those who deserve the Word of God, Miracle, Love and those who do not - and I could do it by divine right and ability those who are excluded, even if they were demons, on the day of their individual judgement, would shout loud: 'Your Word is the culprit because He did not want to teach us'. But they will not be able to say that... or rather, they will say so, lying once more. And they will therefore be judged.”»
« So to refuse His doctrine is to be a reprobate?» asks Matthew.
« I don't know about that, whether all those who do not believe will be reprobates. If you remember, while speaking to Syntyche He gave us to understand that those who act honestly in life are not reprobates, even if they believe in other religions. But we can ask Him. Israel, which is aware of the Messiah and now believes in Him partly and badly, or rejects Him, will certainly be severely judged.»
« The Master speaks a lot to you, and you know many things which we don't» remarks his brother James.
« It's your fault and the fault of all of you. I ask Him questions with simplicity. At times I ask Him questions that must make His John appear a big fool to Him. But I do not mind. All I want is to know what He thinks and keep it within me to make it mine. You ought to do the same. But you are always afraid! Of what? Of being ignorant? Of being superficial? Of being blockheads? You should be afraid only of not being yet prepared when He goes away. He always says so... and I always repeat it to myself to be prepared for the separation... But I feel that it will be very sorrowful...»
« Don't make me think of it!» exclaims Andrew. And the others echo his words sighing.
« But when will it happen? He always says: “Soon”. But that could be within a month or within years. He is so young and time flies so fast... What is the matter, brother? You have turned very pale...» Thaddeus asks James.
« Nothing! I was thinking...» replies immediately James of Alphaeus with his head lowered.
And Thaddeus bends to see his face... « You have tears in your eyes! What is the matter?...»
« Not more than you have... I was thinking of when we will be alone.»
« Oh! What is the matter with Simon of Jonah who is running ahead shouting like a merganser on a stormy day?» asks James of Zebedee, pointing to Peter who has left Jesus alone and has run away shouting words that the wind prevents his companions from hearing.
They quicken their pace and see that Peter has taken a little path coming from Sephoris, which is now close at hand (so the apostles say, asking one another whether Jesus has ordered him to go to Sephoris by that short cut). But, looking carefully they see that Thomas and Judas are the only two travellers coming from the town towards the main road.
« Look at that! Here? Just here? Oh! What are they doing here? If they were to go anywhere, from Nazareth they were to go to Cana and then to Tiberias...» many remark.
« Perhaps they were coming here looking for disciples. That was their mission» says wise Zealot, who feels suspicion being roused in the hearts of many like an awakened snake.
« Let us quicken our pace. Jesus is alone and He seems to be waiting for us...» advises Matthew. They go and reach Jesus at the same time as Peter, Judas and Thomas.
Jesus is very pale, so much so that John asks Him: « Are You not feeling well?» Jesus smiles and makes a gesture of denial while He greets the two who have come back after such a long absence.
He embraces Thomas first; he is as prosperous and cheerful as usual, but he becomes serious when he sees the Master so changed and he politely asks: « Have You been ill?»
« No, Tom. I have not. And have you always been well and happy?»
« Yes, I have, Lord. I have always been well and always happy. I missed You, had You been there my heart would have been utterly happy. My father and mother are grateful to You for sending me home for a little while. My father was not very well, so I worked for him. I went to my twin sister's and saw my little nephew and I had him named as you suggested. Then Judas came and he made me go round like a little dove in love, up and down, wherever there were disciples. He had already gone round very much on his own. But he will tell You now, as he worked for ten and deserves to be listened to by You.»
Jesus lets him go and it is now Judas' turn, who has been waiting patiently and now comes forward in a frank, easy, triumphant attitude. Jesus pierces him with His sapphire eyes. But He kisses him and is kissed by him, exactly as He did with Thomas. And the words that follow are full of love: « Was your mother happy to see you, Judas? Is the holy woman well?»
« Yes, Master, and she blesses You for sending her Judas to her. She wanted to send You some gifts. But how could I bring them, since I had to go here and there, across mountains and valleys. You need not worry, Master. All the groups of disciples whom I visited are working in a holy manner. The news is spreading out more and more. I wanted to make a personal check on the consequences with the most powerful scribes and Pharisees. I was acquainted with many and I met more now, for Your sake. I approached Sadducees and Herodians... Oh! I can assure You that my dignity was utterly crushed!... But it was for Your sake! I am prepared to do that and more. I received disdainful answers and anathemas. But I was also able to give rise to appreciative understanding in people biased against You. I do not want to be praised by You. It is enough for me that I did my duty and I thank the Eternal Father for helping me all the time. In some cases I had to make use of miracles. And I was sorry, because they deserved thunderbolts, not blessings. But You say that we must love and be patient... I behaved thus to the honour and glory of God and for Your joy. I hope that many obstacles have been removed for good, also because I guaranteed upon my honour that those two, who cast such a gloomy shadow over us, are no longer with You. Later I had a scruple about stating what I did not know for certain. So I decided to check in order to do what might be necessary, as I did not want them to find out that I had lied, which would have made those to be converted suspect me forever. Imagine! I approached also Annas and Caiaphas!... Oh! They wanted to annihilate me with their reproaches... But I was so humble and persuasive, that they ended up by saying to me: “Well, if the situation is really like that... We were told it was different. The rectors of the Sanhedrin, who were in a position to know about it, told us the opposite and...»
« You are not going to say that Joseph and Nicodemus are liars» interrupts the Zealot, who has controlled himself so far, but can no longer do so, and is livid with his effort.
« Who said so? On the contrary, Joseph saw me when I was coming out of Annas' house and he said to me: “Why are you so upset?” I told him everything, and how, following his advice and Nicodemus', You, Master, had sent away the galley-slave and the Greek woman. Because You have sent them away, have You not?» says Judas staring at Jesus with his jet eyes, which shine to the point of being phosphorescent. He seems to be wishing to pierce Jesus with his eyes in order to read what He has done.
Jesus, Who is still in front of him and very close, says calmly: « Please go on, I am very interested in what you are saying. It is an accurate report and can be very useful.»
« Ah! so I was saying that Annas and Caiaphas have changed their minds. That means a lot to us, does it not? And then!... Oh! I will make you laugh now! Do you know that I was caught in the middle by rabbis who examined me, like a minor who becomes of age? And what an examination! Well. I convinced them and they let me go. Then I became suspicious and I was afraid I had said something that was not true. So I decided to take Thomas and go once again where the disciples were, or where one could presume that John and the Greek woman were sheltered. I went to Lazarus, to Manaen, to Chuza's palace, to Eliza in Bethzur, to Johanna's garden in Bether, to Gethsemane, to Solomon's little house beyond the Jordan, to the Clear Water, to Nicodemus, to Joseph...»
« But had you not seen him?»
« Yes. And he had assured me that he had not seen those two any more. But You know... I wanted to be sure... In short: I inspected every place where I expected him to be... And do not think that I suffered not finding him. You would do me wrong. Every time - and Thomas can confirm this - every time I came out of a place without finding him and without any trace of him, I would say: “Praised be the Lord!”, and I said: “O Eternal Father, grant that I may never find him!” I did! It was the desire of my soul... Esdraelon was the last place... Ah! By the way! Ishmael ben Fabi, who is in his country house at Megiddo, wishes to have You as his guest... But if I were You, I would not go...»
« Why not? I will certainly go. I am anxious to see him, too. Nay, we will go there at once. Instead of going to Sephoris, we will go to Esdraelon, then to Megiddo the day after tomorrow, which is the Sabbath eve, and from there to Ishmael's house.»
« No, Lord! Why? Do You think that he is fond of You?»
« But if you have approached him and changed him in My favour, why do you not want Me to go?»
« I did not approach him... He was in the fields and he recognised me. But I - is that true, Thomas? - I wanted to run away when I saw him. But I could not, because he called me by my name. I can but advise You to never go to any Pharisee, or scribe or the like. It will do You no good. Let us be among ourselves, all alone, with the people, and nothing else. Including Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph... It will be a sacrifice... But it is better to make it, to avoid jealousies, hatred... and laying ourselves open to censure... When at table You speak... and they work underhand at Your words. But let us go back to John... I was now going to Sicaminon, although Isaac, whom I met at the border of Samaria, swore to me that he had not seen him since October.»
« And Isaac swore the truth. But what you are advising, concerning contacts with scribes and Pharisees, clashes with what you said before. You defended Me... That is what you did, is it not? You said: “I have demolished many prejudices against You.” You said so, did you not?»
« Yes, Master, I did.»
« Well, then, why can I not complete My defence Myself? So we will go to Ishmael. And you will now go back and warn him. Andrew, Simon Zealot and Bartholomew will come with you. We shall go to the peasants and rest with them. As far as Sicaminon is concerned, we have just come from there. And we were eleven. We confirm to you that John is not there. Neither is he at Capernaum or Bethsaida, at Tiberias, Magdala, Nazareth, Korazim, Bethlehem in Galilee, and so forth for all the other places you perhaps wished to call at... to make sure that John is not among disciples or in friendly houses.»
Jesus speaks calmly, in a natural tone... And yet there must be something in Him that upsets Judas, who changes colour for a moment. Jesus embraces him as if He wanted to kiss him... And while His cheek is against Judas', He whispers to him in a low voice: « You wretch! What have you done with your soul?»
« Master... I...»
« Go away! You stink of hell more than Satan himself! Be quiet!... And repent, if you can.»
Judas... I would have run away at full speed. Not he. He impudently says in a loud voice: « Thank You, Master. But I beg You, before I go, may I speak to You privately for a moment?»
All the others move a good distance away. « Why, Lord, did You say those words to me? You grieved me...»
« Because it is the truth. Who deals with Satan, smells like Satan.»
« Ah! is it because of necromancy? Oh! You frightened me! That was a joke! Nothing but the joke of a curious child. And it helped me to approach some Sadducees and to lose all desire to meet them again. So You can see that You can absolve me without any worry. They are things of no importance when one has Your power. You were right. Come on, Master! My fault is a very light one!... Great is Your wisdom. But who told You?»
Jesus looks at him severely but does not reply.
« But have You really seen the sin in my heart?» asks Judas somewhat frightened.
« And it disgusted Me. Go away! And say no more.» And He turns His back to him and goes back to the disciples, whom He orders to change route, after saying goodbye to Bartholomew, Simon and Andrew, who join Judas and go away quickly, while those who have remained walk away slowly, unaware of the truth, which is known to Jesus only.
They are so unaware that they praise Judas for his activity and sagacity. And honest Peter sincerely accuses himself of his heart's rash judgement on his fellow-disciple...
Jesus smiles... a mild, rather tired smile, as if He were abstracted and could just hear the chattering of His companions, who know of events only what their human nature allows them to know.