14th December 1945.
The plain on the eastern bank of the Jordan is like a lagoon because of the continuous rain, particularly where Jesus and the apostles are just now. They have just crossed a torrent that flows down from a narrow gorge in the nearby hills, which seem to form a Cyclopean dam, from north to south, along the Jordan, interrupted now and again by narrow valleys in which torrents inevitably flow. It looks as if God had placed here a range of hills, shaped like a huge scallop-edge, as a contour to the large Jordan valley. I would say that it is a rather monotonous scallop-edging, as its projections, aspects and distances are so much alike. The apostolic group is between the last two torrents, which have overflown their banks and are thus wider, particularly the southern ore, as it conveys an imposing mass of water from the mountains and it roars turbulently towards the Jordan. One can hear also the roar of the river, particularly where its natural bends, which I would say are like continuous narrowings, or the confluence of affluents, cause obstructions to the water. Well, Jesus is in this truncated triangle, formed by three watercourses in flood, and it is not an easy task to lift one's feet out of that quagmire.
The apostolic humour is duller than the weather. And that say everything. Each one wishes to express his own opinion. And everything they say implies reproach, although expressed as advice. It is the moment of sentences like: « I told you», or « If You had done what I suggested» etc. which annoy so much anybody who has made a mistake and is already depressed at having made it.
Some say: « It was better to cross the river in the Pella area and then proceed on the other side, which is not so bad», or « We ought to have taken the wagon! We wanted to be clever, and then...», and some remark: « If we had stayed up on the mountains, there would not have been all this mud!»
John says: « You are prophets of past events. Who foresaw all this rain?»
« This is its time. It should have been foreseen» remarks Bartholomew.
« In past years it was not like this before Passover. I came to you and the Kidron was certainly not in spate and last year we had a spell of drought. You are complaining, and you have forgotten how much we suffered from thirst in the Philistine plain!» says the Zealot.
« Eh! Of course! The two wise men have spoken and they contradict us!» says Judas of Kerioth ironically.
« You ought to be quiet. You are good only at criticising. But at the right moment, when one should speak to a Pharisee or the like, you are always silent, as if your tongue had been tied» Thaddeus says to him angrily.
« Yes. He is right. Why did you not answer one word to those three snakes in the last village? You were aware that we had been to Giscala and Meiron, that we behaved respectfully and that it was the Master Himself Who wanted to go there, as He respects the great dead rabbis. But you did not say anything! You know how He expects us to respect the Law and priests. But you did not say one word! But you are speaking now, because there is the opportunity of speaking ironically of the best ones among us and you are criticising what the Master does» insists Andrew, who is usually patient, but today is very irritable.
« Will you be quiet! Judas is wrong, he who is the friend of many, too many Samaritans...»
« Me? Who are they? Mention their names, if you can.»
« Yes, my dear! All the Pharisees, Sadducees and powerful people of whose friendship you brag so much and who certainly know you. They never greet me. But they greet you!»
« You are jealous! But I am one of the Temple, you are not.»
« Thanks be to God, I am a fisherman. Yes, and I am proud of it.»
« So stupid a fisherman that you could not even foresee this weather.»
« No! I said: “If the new moon of Nisan is wet, rain in torrents one may expect”» replies Peter.
« Ah! I caught you! And what do you say, Judas of Alphaeus? And you, Andrew? Peter also, our Head, criticises the Master!»
« I am not criticising anybody. I quoted a proverb.»
« Which is criticism and reproach for anyone who can understand it.»
« Yes... but I don't think that will help to dry the ground. We are now here and we will have to stay here. Let us spare our breath to get our feet out of this quagmire» says Thomas.
And what about Jesus? Jesus is silent. He is a little ahead of everybody, wallowing in mud, or looking for emerging turves. But even they splash water up to half of one's shin, as soon as one treads on them, as if they were bladders and not turves. He is silent and lets them speak, discontented as they are, behaving just like men, nothing more than men, whom the least inconvenience makes irritable and unfair.
The most southern of the rivers is now close at hand, and when Jesus sees a man on muleback pass along the flooded bank, He asks him: « Where is the bridge?»
« Farther up. I am crossing there as well. The other one, the one farther down the valley, the Roman bridge, is already under water.»
They all grumble again... in chorus. But they hasten to follow the man who is speaking to Jesus.
« But You had better follow the mountain path» he says. And he concludes: « Come back to the plain when you find the third river after the Yaloc. You will then be near the ford. But make haste. Don't stop. Because the river is swelling hourly. What a terrible season! Frost first, then rain. And so heavy! It's a punishment of God. But it is just! When we do not stone the blasphemers of the Law, God punishes us. And we have many of them! You are a Galilean, are You not? So You will know the One from Nazareth, Whom good people are now leaving because He is the cause of all troubles. His words attract thunderbolts! Such punishments! You should hear what those, who were with Him, say about Him. The Pharisees are right in persecuting Him. He must be a great robber. And he must frighten people as if he were Beelzebub. I wanted to go and hear Him, because previously they spoke so highly of Him. But... it was the men of his gang who spoke so. People without scruples like Him. Good people are now abandoning Him. And quite rightly. I am not going to see Him any more. And if by chance I should come across Him, I will pelt Him with stones, as it is our duty to do with blasphemers.»
« Stone Me, then. I am Jesus of Nazareth. I am not running away, neither will I curse you. I have come to redeem the world by shedding My Blood. Here I am. You may sacrifice Me, but become a just man.»
Jesus says so opening His arms a little towards the ground, He speaks slowly, meekly and sadly. But if He had cursed the man, He would not have impressed him more; in fact he draws reins so abruptly that the mule swerves and nearly falls from the embankment into the river in spate. Jesus seizes the bit and holds the animal, just in time to save man and mule.
The man does nothing but repeat: « You! You!...» and seeing the gesture that has saved him, he shouts: « But I told You that I would stone You... Do You not understand?»
« And I tell you that I forgive you and that I will suffer for you as well, to redeem you. That is the Saviour.»
The man looks at Him again, he spurs his mule and runs away... He flies away... Jesus lowers His head...
The apostles feel that it is necessary to forget mud, rain and all the other miseries, in order to comfort Him. They gather round Him and say: « Do not grieve! We are in no need of bandits. And that is what he is. Because only a wicked person can believe such slander and be afraid of You.»
« But» they also say « how unwise of You, Master! And if he hurt You? Why say that You are Jesus of Nazareth?»
« Because it is the truth... Let us go towards the mountains as he suggested. We will lose a day, but you will get out of the quagmire.»
« And You, too» they remark.
« Oh! It does not concern Me. It is the quagmire of dead souls that worries Me» and tears stream down His face.
« Do not weep, Master. We grumble, but we love You. If we should meet Your slanderers, we will take vengeance upon them.»
« You shall forgive, as I do. But let Me weep. I am the Man, after all! And it grieves Me to be betrayed, disowned, abandoned!»
« Look at us, consider us. We are few but good. None of us will betray or abandon You. Believe us, Master.»
« Certain things should not even be mentioned! The thought that we may betray You, is an insult to our souls!» exclaims the Iscariot.
But Jesus is distressed. Silent slow tears stream down the pale cheeks of His tired emaciated face.
They approach the mountains. « Shall we go up there or shall we go along the foot? There are villages half way up the hills. Look. On both sides of the river» they point out to Him.
« It is getting dark. Let us try and reach a village, any village at all.» Judas Thaddeus, whose eye sight is very good, scans the sides of the mountains. He approaches Jesus and says: « In case of need there are fissures in the mountains. Can You see them there? We can take shelter in them. It will be better than being in mud.»
« We will light a fire» says Andrew to console everybody.
« What? With damp wood?» asks Judas of Kerioth ironically.
No one replies to him. Peter whispers: « I bless the Eternal Father that neither the women nor Marjiam are with us.»
They cross the bridge, a very old one, at the foot of the valley and they go along its southern side, on a mule-track, to a village. It is getting dark very quickly, so much so that they decide to take shelter in a large cave to avoid a heavy shower. The grotto is probably used as a shelter place by shepherds, because there is straw, dirt and a rough fireplace.
« It is of no use as a bed. But to light a fire...» says Thomas pointing at the dirty twigs spread on the ground together with dry ferns and branches of juniper and similar plants. He draws them with a stick close to the fireplace, and once he has made a heap of them, he sets them alight.
Smoke and foul smell rise from the fire together with the smell of resins and juniper. Yet the warmth of the fire is pleasant and they all form a semicircle round it, eating bread and cheese in the flickering light of the flames.
« We could have tried to reach the village» says Matthew, who is hoarse and is suffering from a cold.
« What? To go through the same trouble as three nights ago? No one will drive us away here. We will sit on those logs over there and keep the fire going as long as we can. We can now see that there is plenty wood in here! Look! And straw! It is a sheep-fold, which they use in summer or when they migrate. And what is this? Where does this take to? Take a branch aflame, Andrew, as I want to see» says Peter, who is moving about curiously. Andrew obeys. They slip through a narrow fissure in a wall of the grotto.
« Make sure there are no unpleasant beasts in there!» shout the others.
« Or lepers» says Thaddeus.
After a moment Peter's voice can be heard: « Come, come in here. It's much better here. It is clean and dry and there are some wooden benches and firewood. It's a palace for us! Bring some of the burning branches, so that we may light a fire at once.»
It must be a shelter for shepherds. And this is the grotto where some sleep while the others, who are on guard, watch the sheep. It is an excavation in the mountain, much smaller than the other one, and probably made by man, or at least enlarged and reinforced by means of poles supporting the vault. A very old rustic chimney is bent in the shape of a hook towards the outer cave, to draw the Smoke that otherwise would have no outlet. Rough benches and straw are placed against the walls, in which there are some hooks to hang up lamps, clothes or bags.
« Lovely! Let us make a big fire! We shall be warm and our mantles will dry. Give me your belts: we will join them together and hang our mantles on them» says Peter, while he sorts out benches and straw. And he concludes:« And now we will sleep and keep the fire burning in turns, so that we shall have light and shall be warm. What a grace of God!»
Judas grumbles between his teeth. Peter turns round angrily. « This is a royal palace, as compared to the grotto in Bethlehem, where the Lord was born. If He was born there, we can spend a night here.»
« And it is also more beautiful than the grottoes at Arbela. There was nothing beautiful there, except our hearts, which were kinder then» says John and he gets lost in his mystical remembrance.
« And it is also much better than the one where the Master stayed to prepare Himself for the office of a preacher» says the Zealot gravely, looking at the Iscariot as if he wanted to tell him to stop it.
Jesus is the last to speak: « And it is by far warmer and more comfortable than the one in which I did penance for you, Judas of Simon, in this month of Tebeth.»
« Penance for me? Why? There was no need of it!»
« Really, you and I ought to spend our lives in penance to free you from what overburdens you. And still... it would not be enough.»
The sentence, pronounced calmly but decidedly, drops like a thunderbolt on the dumbfounded group... Judas lowers his head and withdraws to a corner. He dare not react.
« I will remain awake and look after the fire. You can sleep» orders Jesus after some time.
And shortly afterwards, the heavy breathing of the tired Twelve, lying on the benches among the straw, mingles with the crackling of the fire. And when the straw falls off anyone, leaving his body uncovered, Jesus gets up and covers him again, with the loving care of a mother. And He weeps while contemplating the hermetic faces of some of His sleeping apostles, some in fact are placid, some worried. He looks at the Iscariot, who seems to be grinning also in his sleep, with a grim countenance and clenched fists... He looks at John sleeping with one hand under his cheek, while his rosy face is veiled by his fair hair, and he looks as serene as a child in a cradle. He looks at the honest face of Peter, at the severe face of Nathanael, at the pock-marked face of the Zealot and at the aristocratic one of His cousin Judas. And He contemplates for a long time James of Alphaeus who is so much like a very young Joseph of Nazareth. He smiles upon hearing the monologues of Thomas and Andrew, who appear to be speaking of the Master. He carefully covers Matthew who is breathing with difficulty, and He gets more straw with which He covers his feet, after warming it near the fire. He smiles hearing James proclaim: « Believe in the Master and you will have Life»... and continue to speak to people in his dream. And He bends to pick up a bag in which Philip keeps dear souvenirs, and lays it gently under his head. And in the intervals He meditates and prays...
The Zealot is the first to awake. He sees Jesus near the fire in the pleasantly warm grotto. And from the pile of wood of which there is hardly anything left, he understands that many hours have gone by. He gets up from his straw-bed and approaches the Master on tip-toe. « Master, are You not going to sleep? I will watch.»
« It is dawn, Simon. I was out there a little while ago and I saw that the sky is beginning to grow light.»
« Why did You not call us? You are tired, too!»
« Oh! Simon! I needed to think... and to pray so much» and He leans His head on the apostle's chest.
The Zealot, standing close to the Master, Who is sat, caresses Him and sighs. He asks: « To think of what, Master? There is no need for You to think, as You know everything.»
« I need not think of what I have to say, but I must think of what I have to do. I am disarmed against the shrewd world, because I do not possess the wickedness of the world or the cunning of Satan. And the world defeats Me... And I am so tired...»
« And sorrowful. And we help in increasing Your grief, dear Master, Whom we do not deserve. Forgive me and my companions ask you on behalf of everybody.»
« I love you so much... I suffer so much... Why do you not understand Me so often?»
Their whispering awakes John, who is closest to them. He opens his blue eyes, looks around in amazement, he then remembers and gets up at once, and he comes behind the two who are talking. He hears Jesus' words: « Your love and your understanding would be quite enough to make all hatred and misunderstanding become a mere trifle, which I could easily bear... Instead you do not understand... And that is My first torment. And a very heavy one! But it is not your fault... You are men... You will regret not having understood Me, when you can no longer make amends... And as you will then expiate your present superficiality, meanness and dullness, I forgive you and I say before time: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing or the grief they are causing Me.”»
John slides forwards on to his knees, he embraces the knees of his grieved Jesus and is on the point of bursting into tears when he whispers: « Oh! My Master!»
The Zealot, on whose chest Jesus' head is still resting, bends to kiss His hair saying: « And yet we love You so much! But we would expect in You the ability to defend Yourself and us and to triumph. It disheartens us to see that You are a man, subject to men, to the inclemency of the weather, to misery, to wickedness, to the needs of life... We are foolish. But it is so. As far as we are concerned You are the King, the Triumpher, God. We fail to understand Your sublime self-abnegation to all that for our sake. Because You only are capable of loving. We are not...»
« Yes, Master. Simon is right. We cannot love as God loves: as You do. And we mistake for weakness what is infinite goodness and infinite love and we take advantage of it... Increase our love, increase Your love, and as You are its source, let it overflow, as rivers are now overflowing, soak us in it, sate us with it, like the meadows along the valley. No wisdom, no worth or austerity is required to be perfect as You want us. Love is sufficient... Lord, and I confess, also on behalf of everybody, that we do not know how to love.»
« You, the two who understand more, are accusing yourselves. You are humility. But humility is love. Only a screen prevents the others from being like you. And I will demolish it. Because I am King, Victor and God forever. But now I am the Man. My forehead is already weighed under the torture of My crown. It has always been a torturing crown to be the Man... Thank you, My friends. You have comforted Me. Because this is the advantage of being men: to have a loving mother and loyal friends. Let us call your companions. It is no longer raining. Our mantles are dry and our bodies well rested. You may eat and then let us go.»
He raises His voice slowly until the words « let us go» become a definite order. They all get up and regret having slept all the time while Jesus was watching. They tidy themselves, they have something to eat, take their mantles, put out the fire, and go out on the damp path and begin to descend down to the mule-track that follows the hillside and is not a quagmire because of its steepness. The light is still dim because the sky is overcast and there is no sunshine. But it is sufficient to see.
Andrew and the two sons of Alphaeus are ahead of them all. At a certain moment they stop, they look and run back. « There is a woman. She seems to be dead! She bars the way.»
« Oh! What a nuisance! It's a bad start. What shall we do now? We will have to purify ourselves!» It is the first grumbling of the day.
« Let us go and see whether she is dead» says Thomas to Judas Iscariot.
« I'm certainly not going» replies the Iscariot.
« I will come with you, Tom» says the Zealot and he goes ahead. They approach her, then bend and Thomas runs back shouting.
« She was probably murdered» says James of Zebedee.
« Or she died with cold» replies Philip.
But Thomas joins them and shouts: « She has on the torn garment of lepers...» and he is so frightened that he seems to have seen the devil.
« But is she dead?» they ask him. « Who knows? I ran away.»
The Zealot stands up and comes at once towards Jesus. He says: « Master, a leper sister. I do not know whether she is dead. I do not think so. Her heart seems to be beating.»
« Did you touch her?!» shout many of them, moving away.
« Yes, I did. I am not afraid of leprosy since I have been with Jesus. And I feel sorry for her because I know what it is to be a leper. Perhaps the poor woman has been struck, because her head is bleeding. Perhaps she came down here looking for food. It is dreadful, you know, to die of starvation and to have to defy men to get some bread.»
« Is she run down?»
« No, and I do not know why she is among lepers. She has neither scabs, nor sores nor gangrene. Perhaps she has not been here very long. Come, Master, please. Have mercy on a leper sister as you had on me!»
« Let us go. Give Me some bread, cheese and the little wine that is still left.»
« You are not going to let her drink where we drink!» shouts the Iscariot struck with terror.
« Be not afraid. She will drink from My hand. Come, Simon.»
They go... but curiosity spurs the others to follow them. Without being annoyed at the water on the foliage and that drops on their heads from the shaken branches, and without minding the soaking moss, they climb up the hillside to see without being near the woman. And they see Jesus bend, take her by her armpits and make her sit against a rock. Her head hangs, as if she were dead.
« Simon, hold her head back so that I may pour a little wine into her mouth.»
The Zealot obeys without fear and Jesus, holding the gourd high up lets a few drops of wine fall between her half-open deathly pale lips. And He says: « The poor woman is frozen! And she is soaked.»
« If she were not a leper, we could take her where we were» says Andrew who is deeply moved.
« That would be the last straw!» exclaims Judas.
« But if she is not a leper! There is no sign of leprosy on her.»
« She has the garment. That's enough.»
The wine in the meantime has its effect. The woman sighs wearily. Jesus pours some into her mouth ensuring that she swallows it. The woman opens her dimmed frightened eyes. She sees the men.
She tries to stand up and run away shouting: « I am infected!» But her strength does not support her. She covers her face with her hands moaning: « Don't stone me! I came down because I am hungry... No one has thrown anything to me for three days...»
« There is bread and cheese here. Eat it. Do not be afraid. Drink a little wine out of My hand» says Jesus pouring some wine into the hollow of His hand and giving it to her.
« But are You not afraid?» says the poor wretch who is dumbfounded.
« I am not afraid» replies Jesus. And He smiles standing up, but He remains near the woman who eats the bread and cheese avidly. She looks like a starving animal. She pants in her anxiety to nourish herself.
Then, after she appeases the gnawing hunger of her empty stomach, she looks around... She counts in a loud voice: « One... two... three... thirteen... So? Oh! Who is the Nazarene? You are, are You not? You are the only one who can pity a poor leper...» The woman goes on her knees with difficulty owing to her weakness.
« Yes, I am. What do you want? To be cured?»
« Also that... But I must tell You something first... I knew about You. Some passersby told me some time ago... A long time ago? No. It was in autumn. But for a leper... every day is a year... I would have liked to see You. But how could I come to Judaea, to Galilee? They call me “the leper woman”. But I have only one sore on my breast and I got it from my husband, who married me when I was a virgin and healthy, but he was not healthy. But he is a mighty one... and can do anything, even saying that I had betrayed him as I was ill when I married him. He thus repudiated me to take another woman with whom he had fallen in love. He denounced me as a leper and as I wanted to exculpate myself, I was pelted with stones. Was that fair, Lord? Yesterday evening a man passed through Bethjabbok saying that You were coming and that he was coming to drive You away. I was there... I came down as far as the houses because I was hungry. I would have rummaged among dunghills to find something to eat... I, who was once “the lady”, would have tried to snatch some sour chicken-feed from poultry...»
She weeps... Then she resumes: « My anxiety to find You, to say to You on Your behalf: “Go away!”, and on my behalf: “Have mercy on me!”, made me forget that, contrary to our law, dogs, pigs and poultry are allowed to live near houses in Israel, but a leper cannot come down to ask for some bread, not even if a woman is a leper only by name. And I came down, asking where You were. As I was in the shade they did not see me at once and they said to me: “He is coming along the embankment of the river.” Then they saw me and they gave me stones instead of bread. I ran away in the night to come and meet You and to escape the rogues. I was hungry, cold and afraid. I fell where You found me. Just here. I thought I was going to die. Instead I found You. Lord, I am not a leper. But this scab here on my breast prevents me from going back among the living. I do not ask to become once again Rose of Jericho as in the days of my father, but at least to be allowed to live among men and to follow You. Those who spoke to me in October told me that You have women disciples and that You were with them... But first save Your own life. Do not die, You are so good!»
« I will not die until My hour comes. Go over there, to that rock. There is a safe grotto. Have a rest and then go to the priest.»
« Why, Lord?» asks the woman trembling with anxiety.
Jesus smiles: « Become once again the Rose of Jericho that blooms in the desert and is always alive, even when it appears to be dead. Your faith has cured you.»
The woman half-opens her dress over her breast, she looks and shouts: « There is nothing now! Oh! Lord, my God!» and she prostrates herself on the ground.
« Give her bread and some food. And you, Matthew, give her a pair of your sandals. I will give her a mantle. She will then be able to go to a priest, after she has refreshed herself. Give her also the offering for the purification, Judas. We will wait for her at Gethsemane to give her to Eliza, who asked Me to let her have a daughter.»
« No, Lord, I do not want to rest. I will go at once, immediately.»
« Go down to the river, then. Wash yourself and put on the mantle...»
« Lord, I will give my leper sister one. Let me do it and I will take her to Eliza. I will be cured a second time as I will see myself in her and so happily» says the Zealot.
« Do as you wish. Give her what she needs. Woman, listen to Me carefully. You will go and be purified, then you will go to Bethany and you will look for Lazarus, and you will ask him to give you hospitality until I arrive. Go in peace.»
« Lord! When will I be able to kiss Your feet?»
« Soon. Go. But you must be aware that only sin disgusts Me. And forgive your husband, because through him you found Me.»
« That is true. I forgive him. I am going... Oh! Lord! Do not stop here where they hate You. Remember that I walked all night, although I was exhausted, to come and tell You and that if I had met other people, instead of meeting You, I might have been stoned like a snake.»
« I will remember. Go, woman. Burn your clothes. Go with her, Simon. We will follow you and will join you at the bridge.»
« Now we must all purify ourselves. We are all unclean.»
« It was not leprosy, Judas of Simon. I can assure you.»
« Well, I will purify myself. I do not want uncleanness on me.»
« What a snow-white lily!» exclaims Peter. « If the Lord does not feel unclean, how can you feel so?»
« And because of a woman who the Lord said was not a leper? But what was the matter with her, Master? Did You see her scab?»
« Yes. A fruit of male lewdness. But it was not leprosy. And if the man had been honest, he would not have rejected her, because he was more affected by disease than she was. But lewd people take advantage of everything to satisfy their lust. Judas, if You wish, you may go. We will meet at Gethsemane. And purify yourself! But the first purification is sincerity. You are a hypocrite. Remember that. But you may go.»
« No, I will stay. If you say so, I believe You. So I am not unclean and I will stay with You. You mean that I am lustful and that I was taking advantage of the situation to... I am now proving that You are my love.»
They go quickly down the hill.
« You will put here the vision of the “Miracle of the Jordan in flood”, which you had on September 17th, 1944.»