26th June 1946.
Hippo is not on the shore of the lake, as I thought, when I saw some houses on the shore almost at the south-eastern end. I realise that from the words of the disciples. That group of houses, I would say, is the forefront of Hippo, which is farther back in the hinterland. Like Ostia with regard to Rome, or the Lido with regard to Venice, it represents the outlet on the lake for the inland town which makes use of the lake routes for imports and exports, and also to shorten journeys from this area to the Galilean shores on the other side, and finally, as a place of amusement for the idle citizens of the town and for the supplies of fish procured by the many fishermen of the village.
In the calm evening they land here, near a little natural port formed by the bed of a torrent at present dry, and where the sky-blue water of the lake comes in calmly for a few metres, as it is no longer driven back by the water of the torrent. On the shore there are large and small houses of fishermen, who toil the waters abounding in fish, and of market-gardeners, who cultivate a strip of rich moist ground, which is irrigated by the nearby waters and stretches from the shore inland, more northwards than southwards, ending sharply at the beginning of the high cliff, which rises almost sheer from the lake. It is the same cliff from which the pigs of the miracle of the Gerasenes rushed into the lake.
As it is evening, the inhabitants are on the terraces or in the kitchen gardens having supper. But as the kitchen gardens are surrounded by low hedges and the terraces by low walls, their inhabitants soon see the little flotilla of boats moor in the little harbour and many get up and go to meet those who have arrived, some out of curiosity, some because they know them.
« It's the boat of Simon of Jonah together with that of Zebedee. So it can be no one but the Rabbi Who has come here with His disciples » declares a fisherman.
« Woman, take the child at once and follow me. Perhaps it is Him. He will cure him. The angel of God has brought Him to us » a kitchen gardener orders his wife, whose face is tear-stained.
« As far as I am concerned, I believe. I remember that miracle very well! All those pigs! The pigs which extinguish with water the heat of the demons possessing them... The torture must have been dreadful, if the pigs, which are always so disdainful of cleanliness, threw themselves into the water... » says a man who hastens there in support of the Master.
« Oh! You are right! It must have been real torture. I was there as well, and I remember. The bodies exhaled fumes, so did the waters. The lake became warmer than the water of Hamatha. And the wood and the grass across which they ran were burnt. »
« I went there but I saw no change... » a third man observes.
« No change! Well your eyes are covered with scales! Look! You can see it from here. See over there? Where the dry river-bed is? Look a little farther away and you will see whether... »
« No! That devastation was brought about by the Roman soldiers when they were looking for that rogue in the cold nights of the month of Tebeth. They camped there and lit fires. »
« And did they burn all the wood to light fires? Look how many trees are missing there! »
« A wood! Two or three oak-trees! »
« And is that nothing? »
« No. But you know! As far as they are concerned, our property is of no account. They are the rulers and we the oppressed people. Ah! Until... » the discussion moves from the supernatural to the political field.
« Who will take me to the Rabbi? Have mercy on a blind man! Where is He? Tell me. I looked for Him in Jerusalem, at Nazareth, at Capernaum. Ha had always left before I arrived... Where is He? Oh! Have mercy on me! » moans a man about forty years old groping about with a stick.
Those whose legs or backs are struck abuse him, but no one feels pity for him and everybody knocks against him passing by, without stretching out a hand to guide him. The poor blind man stops, frightened and depressed...
« The Rabbi! The Rabbi! Ahc-Ahc, il il leee! » (I am striving to reproduce... the word of a shrill cry of the women modulating it. But it is a cry, not a word! It resembles more the chirping of some birds than a human word.)
« He will bless our children! »
« His word will startle the fruit which I have in my womb. Rejoice, my creature! The Saviour is speaking to you » says a buxom wife caressing her swollen abdomen under her loose dress.
« Oh! Perhaps He will make mine prolific! It would be joy and peace between Elisha and me. I have been to all the places where they say that a woman becomes fertile. I drank the water of the well near Rachel's tomb and that of the stream in the grotto where His Mother gave birth to Him... I went to Hebron to take for three days the earth of the place where the Baptist was born... I fed on the fruit of Abraham's oak-tree and I wept invoking Abel where he was delivered and killed... I have tried all the holy things, all the miraculous things of Heaven and earth, as well as medicines, and doctors, and vows, and prayers, and offerings... but my womb has not opened to the seed, and Elisha can hardly put up with me and he finds it difficult not to hate me!!! Alas! » moans an already withered woman.
« You are old now, Sella! Resign yourself! » reply those women - with pity mixed with slight contempt and evident triumphant mien - who pass by with their wombs swollen with maternity or with sucklings feeding at their flourishing mammae.
« No! Don't say that! He raised the dead! Will He not be able to give life to my womb? »
« Make room! Make room! Make room for my sick mother » shouts a young man who is holding the shafts of an improvised litter, which is held at the other end by a very depressed girl. On the litter is a woman, still young, but reduced to a yellowish skeleton.
« We will have to inform Him of poor John and show Him where he is. He is the most unhappy of all, because he is a leper and he cannot go looking for the Master... » says an authoritative old man.
« We are first! If He goes towards Hippo, we have no hope. The townspeople will take Him for themselves and we will be neglected as usual. »
« But what is happening there? Why are the women shouting thus over there, on the shore? »
« Because they are silly! »
« No. They are shouts of joy. Let's run... »
The road is thronged with people moving towards the shore and the gravel-bed, where Jesus and His apostles have been blocked by the people who flocked there first.
« A miracle! A miracle! Eliza's son, who was given up by doctors, has been cured! The Rabbi cured him by putting some saliva in his throat. »
The « Ahc-Ahc-il-il-leee » of the women become more trilling and piercing, mingled with the loud hosannas of men.
Jesus is literally overwhelmed notwithstanding His height. The apostles do everything they can to make room for Him. Nothing doing! The women disciples with Mary in the middle of them are separated from the group of the apostles. The little boy is frightened and is crying in the arms of Mary of Alphaeus. And his weeping draws the attention of many people to the group of the women disciples, and there is the usual well-informed man who says: « Oh! there is also the Mother of the Rabbi and the mothers of the disciples!... »
« Which? Which are they? »
« The Mother is the pale fair-haired one wearing a linen dress, and the others are the old ones, the one with the little boy and the one with a basket on her head. »
« And who is the little boy? »
« Her son, eh! Can't you hear him call her mummy? »
« Whose son? The old woman's? Not possible! »
« The young woman's. Can't you see that he wants to go to her? »
« No. The Rabbi has no brothers. I know that for certain. »
Jesus, moving with difficulty, manages to reach the litter on which is lying the sick woman carried by her children and He cures her. Meanwhile some women, who have overheard the conversation, curious as they are, go towards Mary.
But one of them is not curious. She throws herself at Her feet saying: « For the sake of Your maternity, have mercy on me. » She is the barren woman.
Mary bends and asks: « What do you want, sister? »
« To be a mother... A son!... Only one!... I am hated because I am barren. I believe that Your Son can do everything, but I have such a great faith in Him, that I think that as He was born of You, He made You as holy and powerful as He is. Now I beg You... for Your joys of mother I beg You: make me fertile. Touch me with Your hand and I will be happy... »
« Your faith is great, woman. But faith is to be given to Him, Who is entitled to it: to God. Come, therefore, to My Jesus... » and She takes her by the hand asking with graceful insistance to be allowed to pass until She reaches Jesus.
The other women disciples follow Her in the wake which opens in the crowd and the women who had approached Mary do likewise and in the meantime they ask Mary of Alphaeus who is the little boy whom she is holding up above the crowds.
« A little boy who is no longer loved by his mother. He has come to the Rabbi seeking love... »
« A little boy no longer loved by his mother!?! »
« Have you heard, Susanna? »
« Who is the hyena? »
« Alas! And I am suffering agonies because I have none! Give him to me, give him to me, that a son may kiss me at least once!... » and Sella, the barren woman, almost tears the little child from the arms of Mary of Alphaeus and she presses him to her heart, still trying to follow Mary, Who has become separated from her the moment that Sella left Mary's hand to take the child.
« Jesus, listen. There is a woman asking a grace. She is barren... »
« Do not trouble the Master for her, woman. Her womb is dead » says one who is not aware that he is speaking to the Mother of God. Then, embarrassed because of his mistake about which he is warned, he endeavours not to be noticed and to disappear while Jesus replies both to him and to the suppliant woman saying: « I am the Life. Woman, let it be done to you what you have asked » and He lays His hand on Sella's head for a moment.
« Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me! » shouts the blind man mentioned previously. He has slowly arrived near the crowd and from the outskirts of it he cries his invocation.
Jesus, Who had lowered His head to hear Sella's words of supplication, raises His head again and looks in the direction from which the voice of the blind man comes, syncopated like the cry of a shipwrecked person.
« What do you want Me to do for you? » He shouts.
« That I may see. I am in darkness. »
« I am the Light. I want it! »
« Ah! I see! I can see again! Let me pass! That I may kiss the feet of my Lord! »
« Master, You have cured everybody here. But there is a leper in a hut in the wood. He always begs us to take You to him... »
« Let us go! Please! Let Me go. Do not hurt yourselves! I am here for everybody... Please, make room. You are hurting women and children. I am not leaving yet. I will be here tomorrow and I will be in this area for five days. You can follow Me, if you wish so... »
Jesus tries to discipline the crowd, to ensure that the citizens, in order to benefit by His visit, may not harm themselves. But the crowd is like an elastic substance which dilates then presses round Him once again, it is like an avalanche, which by natural law can but become more compact the more it descends, it is like particles of iron attracted by a magnet... Thus progress is slow, encumbered, difficult... They are all perspiring, the apostles are bawling, elbowing their way through the crowd, kicking shins at the same time... All efforts are vain! It takes them a quarter of an hour to cover ten metres.
A woman about forty years old succeeds through sheer perseverance in making her way as far as Jesus and touches His elbow.
« What do you want, woman? »
« That little boy... I heard about him... I am a widow and I have no children... Remember me. I am Sarah of Aphek, the widow of the mat vendor. Remember. My house is near the square of the red fountain. But I own also some vineyards and a wood. I can afford to assist those who are alone... and I would be happy... »
« I will remember that, woman. May your pity be blessed. »
The village, which stretches more parallelly than vertically to the lake, is soon crossed and they find themselves in the peaceful silent country at twilight. However, it does not get dark, as the transition from daylight to moonlight is imperceptible. They go towards the ramifications of the high cliff, which farther south stretches out as far as the lake. On the cliff there are some grottoes, I do not know whether they are natural ones or dug on purpose in the rock; many have been walled up and whitewashed outside and are certainly sepulchres.
« Here we are! Let us stop in order not to be infected. We are close to the leper's hideout and this is the time when he comes to that rock to collect offerings. He was rich, You know? We remember him. And he was also good. But now he is a holy man. The more sorrow struck him, the more holy he became. We do not know how it happened. They say that it was brought about by some pilgrims to whom he gave hospitality. They were going to Jerusalem, so they said. They appeared to be sound, but they were certainly lepers. The fact is that after they left, the wife and the servants first, then the children, finally he, became infected with leprosy. All of them. The first - and it was their hands that became infected - were those who had washed the feet and the clothes of the pilgrims, that is why we say that they must have been the cause of it all. The children: three, died soon. Then the wife, and she died more of grief than of disease... He... When the priest declared them all lepers, he bought this part of the mountain with his money which had now become useless and he had provisions stored there for himself and his family... including servants, together with hoes and picks... and he began to dig the sepulchres... and one by one he buried them all: his little children, then his wife, the servants... He is the only one left all alone, poor, because everything comes to an end, as time passes... and the situation has lasted fifteen years... And yet... never one complaint. He was a learned man: he repeats the Scriptures by heart. He repeats them to the stars, to herbs, to trees, to birds, he repeats them to us who have so much to learn from him, and he comforts our sorrows... he, wonder of wonders! comforts our sorrows. People come from Hippo and Gamala and even from Gherghesa and Aphek to hear him. When he heard of the miracle of the two men possessed... oh! he began to preach faith in You. Lord, if men greeted You with Your name of Messiah, if women greeted You as victor and king, if children know Your name and that You are the Holy One of Israel, that is due to the poor leper » relates on behalf of everybody the old man who was the first to speak of John.
« Will You cure him? » ask many.
« And are you asking Me? I have mercy on sinners, so what will I have for a just man? But is it perhaps he who is coming? Over there, among those bushes... »
« It is certainly him. What wonderful sight You have, Lord! We can hear the rustling noise, but do not see anything... »
The rustling also stops. There is dead silence and expectation...
Jesus is clearly visible, alone, a little ahead of the others, because He has gone forward as far as the rock on which some provisions have been laid; the others disappear in the dim light of some trees, mingling with trunks and bushes of the unbroken ground. Children also are silent, either because they have fallen asleep in their mothers' arms, or because they are frightened of the silence, of the sepulchres, of the bizarre shadows which the moon casts illuminating trees and rocks.
But the leper must see, and see well, from his hiding-place. He must be able to see the tall solemn person of the Lord, handsome and all white in the white moonlight. The tired glances of the leper certainly meet Jesus' bright eyes. What language is spoken by those divine, wide eyes, as bright as stars? What language is uttered by the lips open in a smile of love? Above all, what does the heart of the Christ say? A mystery. One of the many mysteries between God and souls in their spiritual relationship. The leper certainly understands because he shouts: « Here is the Lamb of God! Here is He Who has come to cure all the sorrows of the world! Jesus, blessed Messiah, our King and Saviour, have mercy on me! »
« What do you want? How can you believe in the Unknown One and see in Him the Expected One? What am I for you? The Unknown... »
« No. You are the Son of the living God. How do I know and see? I do not know. Here, within me, a voice has shouted: “Here is the Expected One! He has come to reward your faith.” Unknown? Yes. The face of God is not known to anybody. Thus You are the “Unknown One” in Your appearance. But You are the Known One because of Your Nature and Your Royalty. Jesus, Son of the Father, Word Incarnate and God like the Father. That is who You are, and I greet You and beg You, believing in You. »
« And if I were not able to do anything and your faith were disappointed? »
« I would say that that is the will of the Most High and I would continue to believe and love, always hoping in the Lord. »
Jesus turns to the crowds who are listening in suspense to the conversation and He says: « I solemnly tell you that this man has the faith which shifts mountains. I solemnly tell you that true charity, faith and hope are tested more in sorrow than in joy, because the excess of joy is often the ruin of a spirit not yet perfected. It is easy to believe and be good when life is a placid succession of days all alike, even if not a pleasant one. But he who is able to persist in faith, hope and charity, also when diseases, poverty, death, misfortunes cause him to be left all alone, forlorn, avoided by everybody, and he does nothing but say: “Let that be done, which the Most High deems is useful to me.”, he truly not only deserves help from God, but, I tell you, his seat is ready in the Kingdom of Heaven and he will suffer no delay in expectation, because his justice has cancelled all debts of his past life. Man, I say to you: “Go in peace, as God is with you!” »
He turns round in saying so and stretches His arms out to the leper, with His gesture He almost draws him towards Himself, and when he is close at hand and clearly visible, He orders: « I want it! Be cleansed!... » and with her silvery beams the moon seems to cleanse and wipe away the pustules, the wounds, the nodules and the scabs of the horrible disease.
The body recomposes its features and becomes sound. It is an old dignified man, ascetic in his leanness, who, as soon as he becomes aware of the miracle through the hosannas shouted by the crowd, bends to kiss the ground, as he cannot touch Jesus or any other man before the time prescribed by the Law.
« Stand up. They will bring you clean clothes so that you may present yourself to the priest. But always present yourself to your God in purity of spirit. Goodbye, man. Peace be with you! »
And Jesus joins the crowds and slowly goes back to the village to rest.