25th February 1946.
They are climbing up a very steep hill towards a town, which looks like an eagle's nest on an Alpine crest. They are proceeding with great difficulty, going eastwards and leaving behind a continuous chain of mountains, which are part of the Judaean range and which, like the buttress of a huge wall, extend towards the southern end of the Dead Sea. The crest on which the town is built, is very high, solitary and steep, such as eagles are fond of for their regal lovemaking, as they disdain witnesses and community.
« What a road, my Lord!» moans Peter. « It is even worse than the road to Jiphthahel» confirms Matthew.
« But it is not raining here, it is not damp and the road is not slippery. And that is not so bad» remarks Judas Thaddeus.
« Yes. That is a consolation But it is the only one. Don't worry! Your enemies will not capture you! If an earthquake does not demolish you, no deed of man will ever destroy you» says Peter addressing the town-fortress, enclosed in the narrow circle of its defences, with its houses crowded one against the other, like the seeds of pomegranates in their tough rind.
« Do you think so, Peter?» asks Jesus.
« Do I think so? I see it. Which is better!»
Jesus shakes His head but does not reply.
« Perhaps it would have been better if we had come along the sea. If Simon were here... he is familiar with this area» says Bartholomew sighing, as he is exhausted.
« When we are in town and you see the other road, you will thank Me for choosing this one. A man can climb up here, although with some difficulty. A goat can hardly climb up the other one» replies Jesus.
« How do You know? Did anybody tell You, or... ?»
« I know. In any case Ananias' daughter-in-law lives here. I want to speak to her, as first thing.»
« Master... will there be no danger up there?... Because we cannot get out in a hurry here, and if they should chase us we will never see our homes again. Look at those fearful precipices! And the sharp rocks!...» says Thomas.
« Be not afraid. We shall not find another Engedi. Only few towns are like Engedi in Israel. But no harm will befall us.»
« It's because... Do You know that it is one of Herod's strongholds?...»
« So? Be not afraid, Tom! Until it is the hour, nothing serious will happen.»
They proceed and they arrive at the not very attractive walls, when the sun is already high. But the height moderates the heat.
They go into the town through the arch of a narrow gloomy gate. The bastion walls are huge, with frequent towers and narrow crenels.
« What a trap for game!» says Matthew.
« I am thinking of the poor wretches who had to carry all the materials up here, those blocks, these iron plates...» says James of Alphaeus.
« The holy love for their fatherland and independence made the weights light for the men of Jonathan Maccabee. Wicked selfishness and the fear of the people's wrath imposed a heavy yoke, not on subjects, but on people worse than slaves, by the will of Herod the Great. It was baptised in blood and tears, it will perish in blood and tears, when the hour of divine punishment comes.»
« Master, but what have the inhabitants got to do with it?»
« Nothing. And everything. Because when subjects vie with their leaders in faults or in merits, they receive the same prize or punishment as their leaders. But here is the house, the third one in the second street, with the well in front of it. Let us go...»
Jesus knocks at the door of a high narrow house. A boy opens the door.
« Are you a relative of Ananias'?»
« I am called after him, because he is the father of my father.»
« Call your mother. Tell her that I have come from the town where Ananias lives and where is the tomb of her dead husband.»
The boy goes away and comes back. « She said that she does not care to have any news of the old man. That You can go.»
Jesus' countenance becomes very severe. « I will not go away unless I speak to her. Child, go and tell her that Jesus of Nazareth, in Whom her husband believed, is here and wishes to speak to her. Tell her not to be afraid. The old man is not here...»
The boy goes away again. The wait is long. People have stopped to watch and some of them ask the apostles questions. But the atmosphere is unpleasant or indifferent or ironical... The apostles try to be kind, but it is obvious that they are frightened. And they become more so when the notables of the town arrive with some soldiers. Both the former and the latter look like... real jail-birds and neither inspire confidence.
Jesus, engrossed in thought, waits patiently, leaning against the doorpost, with folded arms.
The woman comes at last. She is tall and swarthy, her eyes are hard and her profile sharp. She is neither ugly nor old, but her countenance makes her look old and ugly. « What do You want? Hurry up, because I am busy» she says haughtily.
« I do not want anything. You may be sure. I am only bringing you Ananias' forgiveness, his love and prayers...»
« I will not have him again with me! It's no good begging of me. I don't want old mournful people. It's all over with him. In any case I am getting married again and I cannot impose a coarse peasant like him on the house of a rich man. I have suffered enough through my mistake in marrying his son! But I was a silly girl then and I was only looking at the handsomeness of the man. Woe is me! Woe is me! Cursed be whatever brought him my way! Let even his memory be anathema...» she shouts looking really wild.
« That is enough! Respect the living and the dead whom you did not deserve to have; your heart, woman, is harder than a stone. Woe to you! Yes. Woe to you! Because there is no love for your neighbour in your heart, and consequently Satan is in you. But watch, woman. Watch, lest the tears of the old man and those of your husband, whom you certainly oppressed through your lack of love, should become fire raining on what is dear to you. You have children, woman!...»
« Children! I wish I did not have them! Also the last tie would be broken! But I do not want to hear anything. I do not want to hear You. Go away! I am in my house, in my brother's house. I don't know You. I don't want to remember the old man. I don't...» she shouts like a magpie plucked alive. She is a real harpy.
« Be careful» says Jesus.
« Are You threatening me?»
« I am calling you back to God, to His Law, as I feel sorry for your soul. How can you bring your children up, if you have such feelings? Are you not afraid of the judgement of God?»
« Oh! That's enough. Saul, go and call my brother and tell him to come here with Jonathan. I will show You! I...»
« Oh! no. It is not necessary. God will not compel your soul. Goodbye.» And Jesus goes away elbowing His way through the crowd. The road is narrow, between high houses. The defence centre of the fortress town is in the eastern side, where everything falls sheer for hundreds of metres and where a narrow winding path, strikingly steep, climbs up to the top of the peak, from the plain and from the sea-shore. Jesus goes just there, where there is an emplacement for engines of war, and He begins to speak, repeating once again His invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven, of which He describes the main features.
And He is about to elucidate them, when some notables come forward, forcing their way through the crowd and shouting to one another. As soon as they are before Jesus, they enjoin: « Go away! We are quite enough here to educate the children of Israel», but they say so rather confusedly, as they all speak at the same time and seem to agree only to drive away Jesus.
« Go away! Our women need not be reproached by You, a Galilean!»
« Go away, offender! How dare You offend the woman of a Herodian, in one of the favourite towns of the great Herod? Usurper, since Your birth, of his sovereign rights! Away from here!»
Jesus looks at them, at the last ones in particular, and He says one word only: « Hypocrites!»
« Go away! Away!»
There is a real uproar of discordant voices, each accusing or defending his own caste. It is impossible to understand anything.
In the small square women shout and faint, children cry, soldiers try to make their way coming out from the fortress, and in doing so they hurt the people crushed in the square, who react cursing Herod and his soldiers, the Messiah and His followers. A real hubbub! The apostles, pressing round Jesus, are the only ones who defend Him more or less bravely and they also shout biting insults, and being sailors they are not in any way short of suitable vocabulary!
Jesus calls them saying: « Let us get out of here. We will go round the back of the town and will go away...»
« And for good, mind You!» shouts Peter, whose face is purple with anger.
« Yes, for good...»
They file off one after the other, and notwithstanding the pressure put on Him by the apostles, Jesus is the last. The guards, although they jeer at the « mocked prophet», as they say, playing all sorts of tricks on Him, have enough common sense to make haste and close the gate and lean against it, with their weapons turned towards the square.
Jesus takes a very narrow path along the walls, a tiny path about two palms wide, below which there is the void and death. The apostles follow Him avoiding looking down at the frightening abyss. They are now near the gate through which they entered the town. Jesus proceeds downhill, without stopping. The gate is closed also on this side of the town...
When they are at some distance from the town Jesus stops and lays His hand on the shoulder of Peter, who says wiping his perspiration: « We had a narrow escape! Cursed town! And cursed woman! Oh! poor Ananias! That woman is worse than my mother-in-law! What a viper!»
« Yes. She has the cold heart of a snake... Simon of Jonah, well, what do you think? Notwithstanding all its defences, do you think that this town is safe?»
« No, Lord! It does not have God in it. I say that it will be doomed with Sodom and Gomorrah.»
« You are right, Simon of Jonah! It is attracting upon itself the thunderbolts of divine wrath, not so much because it expelled Me, but because all the commandments of the Decalogue are infringed in it. Let us go now. A cave will receive us in its cool shade, during the hot hours. And at sunset we will go towards Kerioth, as far as moonlight will allow us...»
« My Master!» moans John bursting suddenly into tears.
« What is the matter with you?» they all ask him.
John does not reply. He is weeping covering his face with his hands, with his head lowered... He looks like the distressed John of Good Friday...
« Do not weep! Come here... There are still pleasant hours ahead of us» says Jesus drawing him to Himself. But what comforts the heart, increases also tears.
« Oh! Master! My Master! What shall I do? What shall I do?»
« For what, brother?», « For what, dear friend?» ask James and the others.
John has difficulty in speaking, then raising his face and throwing his arms round Jesus' neck, thus compelling Him to bend over his distressed face, he shouts and replies to Jesus instead of those who had asked him the question: « Seeing You dying!»
« God will help you, His beloved child! You will not be without His help. Do not weep any more. Let us go!...» and Jesus walks away holding by the hand the apostle blinded by tears...