12th February 1946.
Although the road runs through a green country, with leafy trees along its sides, it is as hot as an oven in the midday sun. Heat and the aroma of bread being baked in an oven come from the fields, where the crops are maturing rapidly. The light is dazzling. Each ear of corn looks like a tiny gilded lamp among the golden glumes and the pointed awns, and the sunshine sparkling on the straw of the cornstalks is as troublesome to the eye as the dazzling road. In vain the pilgrims seek relief in the leaves. If they look up at them, they expose their eyes even more to the glare of the oppressive sunshine, and they must lower them at once, to shun such violence, and close them, leaving a narrow gap between their dusty reddened irritated eyelashes. Perspiration trickling down their dusty cheeks leaves shiny streaks on them. They drag their tired feet raising more dust, which increases their torture.
Jesus comforts His tired apostles. Although He is perspiring as well, He has covered His head with His mantle, to protect it from the sun, and advises the others to do likewise. They obey without speaking. They are too exhausted to waste their breath on one of their usual complaints. They are proceeding like drunk men...
« Cheer up. There is a house over there in the fields...» says Jesus.
« If it is like the others... there will be nothing but the distress of walking so much through fiery fields to no purpose» grumbles Peter within his mantle. The others confirm uttering a depressed « h'm!».
« I will go. You stay here in this little shade.»
« No. We will come with You. They will have at least a well, as there is no shortage of water here... and we will have a drink to quench the fire within us.»
« It will do you harm to drink while you are so hot.»
« We shall die... but it will be better than what we have now...»
Jesus does not reply. He sighs and He goes ahead of them along a path through fields of corn.
The fields do not stretch as far as the house, but they end at the border of a wonderful shady orchard, which forms a rich refreshing ring round the house, as both light and heat are mitigated in it. And the apostles thrust themselves into it, with an « ah!» of relief. But Jesus goes on, heedless of their entreaties to stop for a little while.
The cooing of doves, the creaking of pulleys and the calm voices of women are heard from the house and spread in the dead silence of the country.
Jesus arrives at a little esplanade, which surrounds the house like a wide clean pavement, over which a pergola of grapes spreads its entangled leafy branches and a protecting shade. There are two wells, one on the left and one on the right hand side of the house, shaded by the vine. There are some flowerbeds against the walls of the house. Light dark-striped curtains are fluttering at the open doors. Voices of women and noise of dishes come from a room. Jesus goes towards it and as He passes by, a dozen doves, which were pecking cereals spread on the ground, take flight with loud flapping of wings. The noise draws the attention of those in the room and it is contemporaneous with the drawing of the curtain, which Jesus moves to the right with His hand, while a servants pulls it to the left and remains astonished before the Unknown visitor.
« Peace to this house! May I, as a pilgrim, have some refreshment?» asks Jesus standing on the threshold of the room, a large kitchen in which servants are washing the dishes used for the midday meal.
« The landlady will not reject You. I will go and tell her.»
« There are twelve more people with Me, and if I should get refreshment only for Myself, I would prefer to have none.»
« We will tell the mistress and she certainly...»
« Master and Lord! You here? In my house? What grace is this?» interrupts a voice, and a woman, Nike, rushes forward and kneels to kiss Jesus' feet.
The maidservants are left like statues. The one who was washing the dishes is standing with a towel in her right hand and a dripping dish in her left one, reddened by the boiling water. Another one, who was polishing knives, crouching in a corner, gets up on her knees to see better, and the knives fall on the floor with a crash. A third one, intent on removing ashes from the cookers, raises her face covered with ashes and remains thus, emerging open mouthed from the level of the fireplace.
« I am here. Many houses rejected us. We are tired and thirsty.»
« Oh! Come! Not here. Let us go into the rooms facing north, which are cool and shady. And you, prepare water so that they can wash, and bring some aromatic drinks. And you, girl, go and awake the steward and ask him to let you have some snacks, while waiting for the meal...»
« No, Nike! I am not a worldly guest. I am your persecuted Master. I ask for shelter and love, rather than for food. I ask for pity, more for My friends than for Myself...»
« Yes, Lord. But when did You have Your last meal?»
« They... I do not know. I, yesterday at dawn, with them.»
« So You can see... I will not commit excesses. But as a sister or a mother I will give everybody what is necessary, and as a servant and disciple, I will give You honour and assistance. Where are the brothers?»
« In the orchard. But I think that they are coming. I can hear their voices.»
Nike runs out, she sees them and calls them and then she leads them with Jesus into a cool entrance-hall, where there already are basins and towels, so that they can wash their faces, hands and feet and get rid of dust and perspiration.
« I beg you, take off your dusty clothes and give them to the servants at once. You will feel much better with clean clothes and cool sandals on. Then come into that hall. I will wait for you there.»
And Nike goes out closing the door...
... « Ah! It is lovely in this shade and so refreshing!» says Peter with a sigh entering the room where Nike is waiting for them kindly and respectfully.
« My joy in giving you relief is certainly greater than your relief, o apostle of my Lord.»
« H'm! Apostle... Of course... But, listen, Nike, let us do without ceremony. You: without attaching importance to the fact that you are rich and wise; I, without attaching importance to the fact that I am an apostle. So... like good brothers and sisters, who need each other's help for their souls and their bodies. The thought that I am an “apostle” frightens me too much.»
« What are you afraid of?» asks the amazed woman smiling.
« Of being... too big... with regard to the clay I am, and that I may collapse because of the weight... I am afraid of... becoming arrogant with pride... I am afraid that... the others, I mean the disciples and good souls, knowing that I am the apostle, may keep away from me and hold their tongues even if I make mistakes... And I do not want that because among the disciples, also among those who believe in a simple way, there are many who are better than I am, some with regard to this, some with regard to that, and I want to do as... as that bee over there, which has come in, and of the baskets of fruit that you ordered to be brought in for us, it sucked a little here and a little there, and now, to complete the task, is sucking those flowers and then it will go out and suck clover and cornflowers, camomiles and bindweeds. It takes a little of everything. And I must do likewise...»
« But you suck the most beautiful flower! The Master.»
« Yes, Nike. But from Him I learn to become a son of God. Men will teach me to become a man.»
« You are.»
« No, woman. I am little less than an animal. And really I do not know how the Master puts up with me...»
« I put up with you because you know what you are, and I can work on you as easily as one can knead dough. But if you were stubborn and offered resistance, and above all if you were proud, I would drive you away as if you were a demon» says Jesus.
Some maidservants come in with cups of cold milk, and porous amphoras, which keep liquids very cool.
« Take some refreshment» says Nike. « Then you will be able to rest until evening. There are rooms and beds in the house. And if I did not have them, I would give you mine, to let you rest. Master, I will now withdraw to attend to household matters. You all know where to find me and the maidservants.»
« Go and do not worry about us.»
Nike goes out. The apostles do ample justice to the snack offered to them. And while eating with a good appetite, they speak and make comments.
« Lovely fruit!»
« And a good disciple.»
« Beautiful house. Not magnificent, not poor.»
« And it is controlled by a woman who is both kind and firm. There is order, neatness, respect, and tenderness at the same time.»
« There are beautiful fields round it! A fortune!»
« Yes. And a furnace!...» says Peter, who has not forgotten what he suffered. The others laugh.
« But it is very pleasant here. Did You know that Nike lived here?» asks Thomas.
« Not any more than you did. I knew that she had recently bought some property near Jericho. But that was all. The dear angel of pilgrims led us here.»
« Actually, he led You. We did not want to come.»
« I was ready to throw myself on the ground and let the sun burn me, rather than take another step» says Matthew.
« It is not possible to travel during the day. The sun is very strong this year. It seems to be going mad as well.»
« Yes, we will travel during the first hours in the morning and in the evening. But we shall soon be up on the mountains. It is milder there.»
« To my house?» asks the Iscariot.
« Yes, Judas. And to Juttah and to Hebron.»
« Not to Ashkelon, eh?»
« No, Peter. We will go where we have never been. We shall still have to suffer from sunshine and heat. A little sacrifice for My sake and for the sake of souls. Rest now. I am going into the orchard to pray.»
« But are You never tired? Would it not be better if You had a rest as well?» asks Judas of Alphaeus.
« Perhaps the Master wishes to stop here...» remarks the Zealot.
« No. We will leave at dawn to wade across the river in the cool hours.»
« Where are we going beyond the Jordan?»
« The crowds are going home after Passover. Too many looked in vain for Me in Jerusalem. I will preach and cure at the ford. Then we will go and tidy up Solomon's house. It will be invaluable to us...»
« But are we not going back to Galilee?»
« We will go there, too. But we will remain in these southern parts for a long time, and a shelter will be most useful to us. Sleep. I am going.»
Supper must be over. It is night. Dew drops fall from cornices and resound on the vine leaves. There is an unbelievable number of stars in the sky and eyes get lost contemplating them. Chirps of crickets and night birds. The silence of the country.
The apostles have already withdrawn. But Nike is up and she is listening to the Master. He is sat stiffly on a stone seat against the house. The woman is standing before Him, in an attitude of respectful attention.
Jesus must be concluding a speech already started. He says: « Yes. The remark is correct. But I was sure that the penitent, or rather the “reviving man” would not be left without the help of the Lord. While we were having supper and you were serving and asking questions, I was thinking that you are the help. You said: “I can only follow You for short periods of time, because I have to watch over the house and the new domestic staff.” And you regretted that and you said that if you had known you were going to find Me so soon, you would not have bought the property, which is now binding you. You can see that it has served to give hospitality to the evangelizers. So it is good. And it may be useful again... while waiting to serve your Lord perfectly. I now ask a service of you, for the sake of that soul, who is reviving and is full of good will, but is very weak. Excessive penance might distress him, and Satan might take advantage of such distress.»
« What must I do, my Lord?»
« Go to him. Go to him every month, as if it were a rite. It is a rite of brotherly love. You will go to the Cherith and climbing up the path among the bushes you will call: “Elijah! Elijah!”. He will look out in amazement and you will greet him thus: “Peace to you, brother, in the name of Jesus the Nazarene.” You will take him as many pieces of bread baked twice, as the days of a month. Nothing else in summer. From the Feast of the Tabernacles onwards, you will take him also four jars of oil each month, together with the bread. And at the Tabernacles take him a garment made of goatskin, a heavy one, water resistant, and a blanket. Nothing else.»
« And no word?»
« Only those strictly useful. He will ask after Me. Tell him what you know. He will confide his hesitations, his hopes and low spirits to you. You will tell him what your faith and piety inspire you. The sacrifice, in any case, will not last long... Not even twelve months... Will you be merciful to Me and to the penitent?»
« Yes, my Lord... But why are You so sad?»
« And why are you weeping?»
« Because in Your words I hear a foreboding of death... Will I be losing You so soon, Lord?» Nike weeps behind her veil.
« Do not weep! There will be so much peace for Me, afterwards... No more hatred. No more ambushes. No more all this... horror of sin against Me and around Me... No more atrocious contacts... Oh! Do not weep, Nike! Your Saviour will be in peace. He will be victorious...»
« But before... I always read the prophets with my husband And we shuddered with horror at the words of David and Isaiah. But will it really be like that for You?»
« That and more...»
« Oh!... Who will comfort You? Who will let You die still hopeful?»
« The love of My disciples and particularly of My women disciples.»
« Also mine, then. Because at no cost I will be far from my Saviour. Only... oh! Lord! Exact any kind of penance from me, any sacrifice, but give me manly courage for that hour. When you will be like “a dry potsherd”, “with Your tongue stuck to Your jaw” out of thirst, when You will look “like a leper who covers his face”, grant that I may recognise You as the King of kings and I may assist You, as a devoted servant. Do not conceal Your tortured face from me, o my God! But as You now allow me to delight in Your brightness, o Morning Star, let me look at You then and may Your face be impressed in my heart, because, oh! also my heart, like Yours, will melt like wax on that day, through grief... » Nike is now on her knees, almost prostrated and now and again she raises her weeping face to look at her Lord, Whose body is white in the white moonlight against the dark wall.
« You will have all that. And I shall have your pity. And it will come with Me to the scaffold and from there it will rise to Heaven. Your crown forever. Angels and men will utter the most beautiful praise of you: “In the hour of calamity, of sin, of doubt, she was faithful, she did not sin and she assisted her Lord.” Stand up, woman. And may you be blessed as from now and forever.»
He lays His hands on her head while she is getting up, and they then go into the silent house, for their night's rest.