13th December 1945.
The deep woody valley where Jabesh-Gilead is situated is resounding with a swollen little torrent, which flows foaming towards the nearby Jordan. The dim twilight and dull day increase the gloomy sight of the woods and the village thus looks sad and inhospitable at first sight.
Thomas, who is always good-humoured, notwithstanding that his garments are just as wet as if they had been taken out of a washing tub and he is covered in mud from head to foot, says: « H'm! I would not like this village to revenge itself on us for the unpleasant surprise they received from Israel. Well, let us go and suffer for the Lord.»
The people did not kill them, that is true, but they drove the apostles away from everywhere, calling them thieves and worse names, and Philip and Matthew had to run as fast as they could, to get rid of a big dog, which a shepherd had set on them, when they knocked at the door of his sheep-fold, asking for shelter for the night « at least under the shed of the sheep».
« What shall we do now?»
« We have no bread.»
« And no money. And without money one can find no bread and no lodgings.»
« And we are wet to the skin, frozen and starving.»
« And it is getting dark. We shall be a lovely sight tomorrow morning, after a night in the wood.»
Seven of the Twelve are grumbling openly, three are clearly dissatisfied, even if they do not say so. Simon Zealot is proceeding with his head lowered and the expression of his face is undecipherable. John is greatly embarrassed and with grievous countenance he casts rapid glances at Jesus and the grumblers alternately. Jesus continues to go personally to knock from door to door, as the apostles refuse to do so, or they do so fearfully, and He patiently walks along the little streets, which have become slippery foul quagmires. But He meets with refusal everywhere.
They are at the end of the village, where the valley widens out on the pastures of the Trans-Jordan plain. There are still a few houses... and each one is a disappointment...
« Let us look in the fields. John, can you climb up that elm-tree? From the top of it you will be able to see.»
« Yes, my Lord.»
« The elm-tree is slippery because of the rain. He will not be able to climb it and he will hurt himself. And we will thus have an injured companion as well» grumbles Peter.
And Jesus replies meekly: « I will climb it, then.»
« Certainly not!» they shout in chorus. And the fishermen shout louder than the others, adding: « If it is dangerous for us fishermen, what do You expect to do if You have never climbed up masts or ropes?»
« I was going to do it for your sake, to find shelter for you. I do not mind, it is not the rain that troubles Me...» How much sadness! What a sad appeal for loving understanding there is in His voice!
Some listen and become silent. Bartholomew and Matthew say: « It is now too late to do anything. A decision should have been taken earlier.»
« Of course! And not be guided by whim, by deciding to depart from Pella, when it was already raining. You have been obstinate and imprudent and now we are all paying for it. What can You do now? If our purse had been full, all the houses would have been open to us! But You!... Why do You not work a miracle, at least one miracle for Your apostles, since You work miracles even for undeserving people?» says Judas of Kerioth, gesticulating like a madman; he is so aggressive that the others, although they more or less agree with him, feel it is necessary to remind him to respect the Master.
Jesus is already like the Convict looking meekly at His executioners. And He is silent. This silence, which for some time has become more and more frequent in Jesus, foreshadowing His « great silence» before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod, makes me feel so sorry for Him. It reminds me of the silent pauses in the meaning of a dying man, which are not due to soothing of pain, but are the prelude to death. Jesus' silence seems to be much more eloquent than words, as they express all His grief at men's lack of understanding and love. And because of His meekness which does not react and of the lowered posture of His head, He looks as if He were already put in chains and handed over to the hatred of men.
« Why don't You speak?» they ask Him.
« Because I would utter words which your hearts would not understand just now... Let us go. We will walk not to freeze... And forgive Me...»
He turns round quickly, leading the group, while some of its members pity Him, some accuse Him, some contradict their companions.
John remains slowly behind, deliberately avoiding notice by anyone. He then goes towards a very tall tree, a poplar, I think, or an ash-tree, and after taking off his mantle and tunic, he begins to climb it, half naked as he is, with some difficulty, until the first branches make his ascent easier. He climbs up as swiftly as a cat. At times he slips, but he immediately collects himself and is almost at the top. He scans the horizon in the last light of the day, which is clearer here in the open plain, than in the valley, also because the dark clouds have thinned out. He looks carefully in every direction and at last he makes a gesture of joy. He slides down to the ground very rapidly, puts his clothes on and begins to run. He reaches his companions, overtakes them and is soon beside the Master. Panting because of the effort of climbing and running he says: « There is a hut, Lord... a hut to the east... But we will have to go back... I climbed up a tree... Come...»
« I am going with John this way. If you want to come, do so, otherwise go on as far as the next village on the river. We will meet there» says Jesus seriously and decisively.
Drenched with rain, they all follow Him through the fields.
« But we are going back to Jabesh!»
« I can't see any houses...», « I wonder what the boy has seen!»
« Perhaps a shed.», « Or the hut of a leper.»
« We shall get soaked through. These fields are like sponges» grumble the apostles.
But it is neither a shed nor a leper's hut what appears behind a group of trees. It is a hut, a low large hut like a poor sheep-fold, half of the roof is thatched and the mud walls can hardly support the four pillars made of coarse stone. A pile-work enclosure is around the hovel and inside it there are vegetables dripping water.
John gives a shout. An old man appears. « Who is it?»
« Pilgrims going to Jerusalem. Give us shelter in the name of God!» says Jesus.
« Certainly. It's my duty. But you are unlucky. I have little room and no beds.»
« It does not matter. You will at least have a fire.»
The man bestirs himself at the gate and opens it. « Come in and peace be with you.»
They go through the tiny kitchen garden. They go into the only room which is kitchen and bed room at the same time. A fire is lit in the fireplace. There is order and poverty, and not one utensil more than is necessary.
« See! Only my heart is large and ornate. But if you wish to make the best of it... Have you any bread?»
« No. Just a handful of olives...»
« I have not got enough bread for everybody. But I will prepare something with milk. I have two sheep. They are enough for me. I will go and milk them. Will you give me your mantles? I will hang them up in the fold, at the rear. They will dry a little and tomorrow we will do the rest with the fire.»
The man goes out laden with the damp clothes. They are all standing near the fire enjoying its warmth.
The man comes back with a coarse mat, which he lays on the floor. « Take your sandals off. I will wash the mud off them and hang them up so that they may dry. And I will give you some warm water so that you may wash your feet. The mat is coarse, but it is clean and thick. You will feel it is more comfortable than the cold floor.»
He takes a cauldron full of greenish water, in which some vegetables are boiling, and pours half of it into a basin and half into another vessel. He then adds cold water and says: « There you are. It will refresh you. Wash yourselves. This is a clean cloth.»
In the meantime he busies himself at the fireplace. He makes up the fire, pours the milk into a pot, which he places on the fire. And as soon as it begins to boil he adds some seeds, which look like ground barley or hulled millet. And he stirs the mush.
Jesus, Who is one of the first to wash Himself, approaches him: « May God grant you grace for your charity.»
« I am only giving back what I received from Him. I was a leper. I was a leper from my thirty-seventh to my fifty-first year of age. Then I became cured. But in the village I found that my wife and relatives had died and my house had been plundered. In any case I was the “leper”... So I came here. And I built my home here, by myself and with the help of God. At first I made a hut with bog grass, then a wooden one. Then I built the walls... Something new each year. Last year I built the fold for the sheep. I bought them selling the mats and wooden utensils that I make. I have an apple tree, a pear-tree, a fig-tree and a vine. I grow vegetables in the front of the house and I have a small barley field in the rear. I have four couples of doves and two sheep. I will have lambs before long. And I hope they are ewe-lambs this time. I bless the Lord and I ask for no more. And who are You?»
« A Galilean. Have you a prejudice against them?»
« None, although I am of Judaean extraction. If I had had children, I could have had one like You... I now act as a father to my doves... I have become accustomed to being alone.»
« And at Festivities?»
« I fill the mangers and go. I hire a donkey. I rush there, do what I have to do and come back. I never had as much as a leaf stolen. God is good.»
« Yes, both to those who are good and those who are not so good. But good people are under His wings.»
« Yes, Isaiah also says so... He protected me, He did.»
« But you were a leper» remarks Thomas.
« And I became poor and was left alone. But, this is a grace of God, to become a man again and to have a roof and bread. Job was my model in misfortune. I hope to deserve the blessing of God, as he did, not in wealth, but in grace.»
« You will receive it. You are a just man. What is your name?»
« Matthias.» He takes the pot off the fire and puts it on the table. He adds butter and honey and puts it back on the fire and says: « I have only six pieces of crockery between plates and bowls. You will have to eat in turn.»
« And what about you?»
« The host is the last to be served. First the brothers sent by God. Here you are. It is ready. And this will do you good.» And he pours ladelfuls of steaming mush into four plates and two bowls. There is no shortage of wooden spoons.
Jesus advises the younger to eat.
« No, You must eat, Master» says John.
« No. Judas had better have his fill, so that he may realise that there is always food for the children.»
The Iscariot changes colour but he eats.
« Are You a rabbi?»
« Yes, I am, and these are My disciples.»
« I used to go to the Baptist, when I was at Bethabara. Do You know anything about the Messiah? They say that He exists and that John pointed Him out. When I go to Jerusalem I always hope to see Him. But I have never been successful. I fulfill the rite and I do not stop there. Probably that is why I never see Him. I am isolated here and then... The people in Perea are not good. I spoke to some shepherds who come here to pasture. They knew Him and told me about Him. What wonderful words! I wonder how beautiful they must be when spoken by Him!...»
Jesus does not reveal Himself. It is His turn now to eat and He does so peacefully near the good old man.
« And now? What shall we do for beds? I give you my bed. But it is one only... I will go to the sheep-fold.»
« No, we will go there. Hay is good enough for those who are tired.»
The meal is over and they decide to lie down in order to be able to leave at dawn. But the old man insists and Matthew who has a bad cold, sleeps in his bed.
But it is raining torrents at dawn. How can they leave in such heavy rain? They listen to the old man and stay. In the meantime they brush their clothes and dry them, they grease their sandals and rest. The old man cooks barley again in milk for everybody and he puts some apples under the ashes. That is their meal and they are eating it when they hear a voice from outside.
« Another pilgrim? What shall we do?» says the old man. But he gets up, envelops himself in a coarse woollen water-resistant blanket and goes out. It is warm in the kitchen, but there is no good humour in it. Jesus is silent.
The old man comes back with his eyes wide open. He looks at Jesus and then at the others. He seems to be afraid... he looks uncertain and inquisitive. At last he says: « Is the Messiah among you? Tell me, because the people of Pella are looking for Him to adore Him, because of a great miracle He worked. They have been knocking all night at the doors of all the houses as far as the river, as far as the first village... Now, on their way back, they thought of me. Somebody pointed out my house to them. They are outside, in wagons. A large crowd!»
Jesus stands up. The Twelve say: « Don't go. If You said that it was wise to avoid staying at Pella, there is no sense in showing Yourself now.»
« So! O Blessed! You are Blessed and He Who sent You to me. And received You! You are Rabbi Jesus, Who... Oh!» The man is on his knees, with his forehead on the floor.
« Yes, I am. But let Me go to those who are looking for Me. Then I will come to you, My good man.» He frees His ankles from the hands of the old man and goes out into the flooded kitchen garden.
« Here He is! Hosanna!» They jump out of the wagons. There are men and women, the young blind fellow cured yesterday and his mother, and also the Gerasene woman. They kneel down, without paying any attention to the mud and they implore: « Come back with us to Pella.»
« No, to Jabesh» shout other people, obviously from that place. « We want You! We are sorry that we drove You away!» shout those from Jabesh.
« No, to Pella with us, as Your miracle is still alive there. You have given light to their eyes. Give light to our souls.»
« I cannot. I am going to Jerusalem. You will find Me there.»
« You are angry because we expelled You.»
« You are disgusted because You know that we believed the slander of a sinner.»
Mark's mother covers her face weeping.
« Jaia, please tell Him, Who loved you, to come back.»
« You will find Me in Jerusalem. Go and persevere. Do not be like the winds, which blow in every direction. Goodbye.»
« No. Come. We will abduct You, if You do not come.»
« You shall not raise one hand against Me. That is idolatry, not faith. Faith believes even without seeing. It perseveres even when it is persecuted. It grows greater even without miracles. I am staying with Matthias, who believed without seeing anything and who is a just man.»
« At least accept our gifts: money and bread. We have been told that You gave everything You had to Jaia and his mother. Take a wagon. You can travel in it. You will leave it at Jericho, with Timon, the hotel keeper. Take it. It is raining and will rain. You will be sheltered and will travel quicker. Give us a sign that You do not hate us.»
They are on the other side of the fence, Jesus is on this side: they look at one another and those on the other side are full of excitement. Behind Jesus there is old Matthias, on his knees, with his mouth wide open, and then the apostles, who are all standing.
Jesus stretches out His hand saying: « I will accept your offerings for the poor. But I will not accept the wagon. I am the Poor One among the poor. Please do not insist. Jaia, and you, woman, and you from Gerasa, come here, that I may give you a special blessing.» And when they approach Him, as Matthias has opened the fence, He caresses, blesses and dismisses them. He then blesses all those who have crowded at the gate to give the apostles money and foodstuffs and He dismisses them.
He goes back into the house...
« Why did You not speak to them?»
« The miracle of the two blind people is My sermon.»
« Why did You not accept the wagon?»
« Because it is better to travel on foot.» And He addresses Matthias: « I would have rewarded you with My blessings. I can now add a little money to cover the expenses that you have met...»
« No, Lord Jesus... I don't want it. I did that wholeheartedly. And I am doing it now to serve the Lord. The Lord does not pay. He is not obliged to pay. I am the one who received, not You! Oh! this day! It will come with me, with its recollections, as far as the next life!»
« You are right! You will find your mercy towards pilgrims written in Heaven, as well as your prompt faith... As soon as it clears up a little, I will leave you. Those people might come back. They insist as long as they are roused by miracles, then they become as torpid as they were before, or even hostile. I will proceed. So far I have stopped trying to convert them. I now come and pass by, without stopping. I am going towards My destiny, which urges Me. God and man urge Me and I can no longer stop. Love and hatred spur Me. Let those who love Me, follow Me. But the Master will no longer run after indocile sheep.»
« Do they not love You, divine Master?» asks Matthias.
« They do not understand Me.»
« They are wicked.»
« Lust makes them dull.»
Old Matthias no longer dare be as confidential as he was previously. He seems to be standing in front of an altar. Jesus, on the contrary, since He is no longer the Unknown One, is less reserved and speaks to the old man as if he were a relative.
The hours thus go by until early afternoon. The clouds begin to dissipate, promising the end of the rain. Jesus gives order to depart. And while the old man goes to get the dry mantels, He puts some coins in a box and has some bread and cheese put into a kitchen cupboard.
The old man comes back and Jesus blesses him. He then takes to the road again, turning round now and again to look at the white head leaning over the dark fence.