11th December 1946.
Jesus is behind the Temple, near the Gate of the Sheep, outside the town. Around Him there are the apostles and the shepherd disciples, with the exception of Levi, and they are dismayed and very angry. I do not see any of the other disciples who were previously at the Temple with Him.
They are discussing among themselves. I should say that they are discussing among themselves and with Jesus, and in particular with Judas of Kerioth. They are reproaching the latter for the fury of the Judaeans, and they do so with rather biting irony. Judas lets them speak repeating: « I spoke to Pharisees, scribes and priests, and not one of them was among the crowd. » They reproach Jesus for not breaking off the discussion after making it subside the first time. And Jesus replies: « I had to complete My manifestation. »
And they are also at variance on where they should go, as the Sabbath is close at hand and the oncoming days are feast days. Simon Peter suggests Joseph of Arimathea, Bethany being out of the question as they do not want to disturb the people there, particularly because Jesus has stated that they must not go to Bethany any more.
Thomas replies: « Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus is there. They have gone away, for the feast. I greeted them yesterday when we were waiting for Judas and they told me. »
« Let us go to Nike, then » suggests Matthew.
« She is at Jericho for the feast » replies Philip.
« To Joseph of Sephoris » says James of Alphaeus.
« H'm! Joseph... We would not be giving him a present! He has had trouble and... Well, I may as well tell you! He venerates the Master, but he wants to be at peace. He seems to be a boat caught between two opposed currents... and to keep afloat... he takes into account all the ballast, including little Martial... so much so that he could not believe that Joseph of Arimathea would take him » says Peter.
« Ah! is that why he was with him yesterday?! » exclaims Andrew.
« Of course! So it is better to let him calm down in a little safe harbour... Eh! we are not very brave! Everybody is frightened of the Sanhedrin! » says Peter.
« Please speak for yourself. I am not afraid of anybody » says the Iscariot.
« Neither am I... I would defy all the legions to defend the Master. But we are in a different position... The others... Eh! They have their business, their homes, wives, daughters... They bear that in mind. »
« Well, we have them, too » remarks Bartholomew.
« But we are apostles, and... »
« And you are like the others. Do not criticise anybody, because the trial has not yet come » says Jesus.
« It has not come? And what would You expect more than what we have suffered? And yet You saw how I defended You today! We have all defended You, and I more than anybody else! I elbowed our way through the crowd pushing with such strength that it was enough to launch a boat!... An idea! Let's go to Nob. The old man will be happy! »
« Yes. To Nob » they all say approving.
« John is not there. You would be walking all the road for nothing. You can go to Nob, but not to John's. »
« We can! And can You not? »
« I do not want to go, Simon of Jonas. I already have somewhere to go these evenings of the Feast of the Dedication. But once I have gone away, you can remain peacefully anywhere. So I say to you: go wherever you wish. I bless you. I remind you to be united physically and spiritually, subject to Peter, who is your head, not as a master, but as an elder brother. As soon as Levi comes back with My bag, we shall part. »
« No, my Lord! Never let it be said that I let you go alone! » exclaims Peter.
« Let it always be said, if I want it, Simon of Jonas. But be not afraid. I shall not be in town. No one, but an angel or a demon, will find out my refuge. »
« And that is good. Because too many demons hate You. I am telling You that You will not go by Yourself! »
« There are also angels, Simon. And I will go. »
«But where? To which house, if You refused the best ones by Your own will or because of circumstances?! You are not going to stay in a cave on the mountains in this season? »
« And if I were? It would be less icy than the hearts of men who do not love Me » Jesus says almost to Himself, lowering His head to conceal tears shining in His eyes.
« Here is Levi. He is coming in haste » says Andrew who is looking from the roadside.
« Then let us exchange greetings of peace and part. If you want to go to Nob you will be just in time before sunset. »
Levi arrives panting: « They are looking for You everywhere, Master... Those who love You told me... They have been to many houses, particularly to those of poor people... »
« Have they seen you? » asks James of Zebedee.
« Certainly. They even stopped me. But as I was already aware, I said: “I am going to Gibeon” and I came out by the Damascus Gate and I ran behind the walls... I did not lie, Lord, because I and these people are going to Gibeon after the Sabbath. We shall spend the night in the country of the town of David... These are days of memories for us... » and he looks at Jesus with an angelical smile on his virile bearded face, a smile that revives in his features the boy of the remote night.
« All right. You may go. And you, too. I am going as well. Each his own way. You will precede Me in Solomon's village, where I shall be in a few days' time. And before leaving you, I will repeat to you the words which I spoke before sending you by twos around the towns: “Go, preach, announce that the Kingdom of Heaven is very near at hand. Cure sick people, cleanse lepers, raise the dead of the spirit and of the body, ordering the resurrection of the spirit in My Name, the pursuit of Me Who am life, or the resurrection from death. And do not pride yourselves on what you do. Avoid disputes with one another and with those who do not love us. Do not exact anything for what you do. Prefer to go among the lost sheep of Israel than among Gentiles and Samaritans, not out of disgust, but because you are not yet able to convert them. Give what you have without worrying about the morrow. Do what you have seen Me do, and with the same spirit as Mine. Now, I give you the power to do what I do and what I want you to do, so that God may be glorified.” » He breathes on them, He kisses them one by one and dismisses them.
They all depart reluctantly and turn round several times. He waves His hand to them, until they have all gone, and then He goes down to the river-bed of the Kidron, among bushes, and sits on a rock near the babbling water. He drinks of the water, which is clear and certainly ice-cold. He washes His face, hands and feet. He puts His clothes on and sits down again. He is pensive... And He does not notice what is happening around Him, that John, the apostle, who was already far away with his companions, has come back all alone and is imitating Him hiding in a thick bush...
Jesus remains there for some time, then He gets up, He puts His bag across His back, and following the Kidron, among bushes, he arrives at the well of En-Rogel, He then turns south-west until He takes the Bethlehem road. And John, about a hundred steps behind Him, follows Him, all enveloped in his mantle not to be recognised.
And He goes on and on, along the roads stripped by winter. Jesus, striding, devours the road. John follows Him with difficulty, also because he has to be careful not to be seen. Twice Jesus stops and turns round. The first time when passing near the little hill where Judas went to speak to Caiaphas, the second time near a well, where He sits down and nibbles at a piece of bread and then drinks from the amphora of a man. He then resumes walking while the sun descends... and it is twilight. He arrives at Rachel's tomb when the last red sunbeams at sunset fade into violet. The sky to the west looks like a pergola of wistaria in bloom, whereas to the east it is already the pure cobalt-blue of a cold eastern winter sky and the first stars are already appearing on the farthest end of the firmament.
Jesus quickens His pace in order to arrive before it is dark. But when He is on a high spot from which He can see all the town of Bethlehem, He stops, looks and sighs... He then goes down quickly. He does not enter the town. He goes round the last houses. He goes straight to the ruins of the house or tower of David, where He was born. He crosses the stream flowing near the grotto, He goes on to the little open space covered with dry leaves... He scans the ruins. There is no one. He goes in... John stops a little farther on, he is cautious not to be heard or seen. He searches, he looks. He finds another dilapidated stable groping rather than by sight. He goes in as well and strikes a light in a corner. In it there is some straw, some dirty litter, a few dry branches and some hay in the manger.
John is content. He talks to himself: « At least... I shall hear... and... We either die together or I will save Him. » He then sighs and says: « And He was born here! And He comes here to weep tears of grief... And... Ah! Eternal God! Save Your Christ! My heart is trembling, o Most High God, because He always wants to be alone before great deeds... And what great deed can He accomplish, but manifest Himself as the King Messiah? Oh! all His words are here within me... I am a silly boy and I understand very little. We all understand very little, o Eternal Father! But I am afraid. I really am afraid! Because He speaks of death. Of a painful death, of betrayal and of horrible things... I am afraid, my God! Fortify my heart, o Eternal Lord. Fortify my heart of a poor boy, as You certainly fortify the heart of Your Son for future events... Oh! I can feel it! That is why He came here. To be close to You more than ever and fortify Himself in Your love. I want to imitate Him, o Most Holy Father! Love me and let me love You to have the strength to suffer everything without cowardice, to console Your Son. »
John prays for a long time, standing with his arms raised, in the trembling light of a fire he has lit in the rustic fireplace. He prays until he sees the fire about to go out. He then climbs into the large manger and crouches in the hay. He is a shadow in the shadow, enveloped as he is in a dark mantle and as the cave is enveloped in darkness, until the first moonlight penetrates from the east through an opening in the roof, announcing that it is the dead of night. But John, who is tired, falls asleep. His breathing and the light babbling of the stream are the only noises to be heard in the December night.
High above, groups of angels seem to be flying all over the sky, where clouds as light as veils are illuminated by the moonlight... But there is no singing of angels. At intervals, night birds call one another plaintively, and at times they end up with the witch laughter typical of owls, and from afar, a lamentation like a howl is heard. Perhaps a dog closed in a fold and yelping at the moon or a wolf scenting prey in the wind, striking its sides with its tail, and howling with eagerness without daring to approach the well watched pens? I do not know.
Then voices and steps are heard and a reddish quivering light appears among the ruins. And then, one after the other, the shepherd disciples come: Matthias, John, Levi, Joseph, Daniel, Benjamin, Elias, Simeon. Matthias is holding a lighted branch to see the way. But the one who runs ahead is Levi and he is the first to look into Jesus' grotto. And he soon turns round and beckons to the others to stop and be silent and he looks again... and then, with his right arm stretched backwards, he beckons to the others to come and he moves aside to make room for them, holding his finger on his lip to tell them to be silent, as one after the other they look in and then withdraw as deeply moved as Levi.
« What shall we do? » asks Elias in a whisper.
« Let us stay here and contemplate Him » says Joseph.
« No, it is not right to violate the spiritual secrets of souls. Let us withdraw over there » says Matthias.
« You are right. Let us go into the next stable. We shall still be here and close to Him » says Levi.
« Let us go » they say. But before going away they look hastily once again into the grotto of the Nativity and then withdraw, deeply affected, trying not to make any noise.
But when they are at the entrance of the adjoining stable, they hear John snore. « There is someone here » says Matthias stopping.
« What does it matter? Let us go in as well. As a beggar, for it must be a beggar, took shelter in here, we can take shelter as well » replies Benjamin.
They go in holding up the branch ablaze. John, all curled up in his improvised uncomfortable bed, his face half veiled by his hair and mantle, continues to sleep. They approach him slowly with the intention of sitting on the straw spread near the manger. In doing so Daniel looks more carefully at the man asleep and recognises him. He says: « It's the apostle of the Lord, John of Zebedee. They have taken shelter here to pray... and sleep has overcome the apostle... Let us withdraw. He might feel mortified knowing that he has been found asleep instead of praying... »
They go out again and reluctantly enter the other grotto beyond this one.
Simeon complains about it saying: « Why not stay at the entrance of His grotto, and see Him now and again? For years we have got wet with heavy dew under an open sky to watch over our lambs! And can we not do the same for the Lamb of God? We are entitled to do it, because we worshipped Him in His first sleep! »
« You are right as a man and as a worshipper of the Man-God. But what did you see, when you looked in there? A man, perhaps? No. Without knowing it, we have crossed the impassable threshold after removing the treble veil laid to protect the mystery and we have seen what not even the High Priest sees, when he enters the Holy of Holies. We have seen the ineffable love of God for God. It is not right to spy on it again. The power of God might punish our bold eyes that have seen the ecstasy of the Son of God. Oh! let us be happy with what we have had! We had come here to spend the night in prayer before going away on our mission. We came to pray and to remember the night of long ago... We have instead contemplated the love of God! Oh! The Eternal Father has really loved us very much, by giving us the joy of contemplating the Child and suffering for Him, and the joy of announcing Him to the world as disciples of the Child God and of the Man-God! He has now granted us this mystery as well... Let us bless the Most High and do not let us wish for anything else! » says Matthias, who I think is the most authoritative in wisdom and justice among the shepherds.
« You are right. God has loved us very much. We must not pretend more. Samuel, Joseph and Matthias had but the joy of worshipping the Child and suffering for Him. Jonas died without being able to follow Him. Isaac is not here either to see what we have seen. And if there is one who deserves it, it is Isaac, who is wearing himself out to announce Him » says John.
« That is true! Very true! How happy Isaac would have been to see all this! But we shall tell him » says Daniel.
« Yes. Let us remember everything in our hearts to tell him » says Elias.
« And the other disciples and believers! » exclaims Benjamin.
« No. Not the others. Not out of selfishness, but out of prudence and respect for the mystery. If God wants, the hour will come when we are able to speak. For the time being we must be quiet » says Matthias again, and addressing Simeon he goes on: « You and I were disciples of John. Remember how he taught us prudence concerning holy things: “If God, who has already blessed you, will grant you extraordinary gifts one day, do not let that make intoxicated chatterboxes of you. Remember that God reveals Himself to the spirits, which are enclosed in the flesh, because they are celestial gems not to be exposed to the filth of the world. Be holy in your bodies and in your senses in order to be able to control every carnal instinct, in your eyes and your ears, in your tongues and in your hands. And be holy in your thoughts checking the pride of letting other people know what you have. Because your senses, organs and intellects must serve and not reign. They must serve the spirit, not rule over the spirit. They must protect, not upset the spirit. So put the seal of your prudence on the mysteries of God in you, unless He gives you an explicit order otherwise, as the spirit has the seal of temporary imprisonment in the body. Our bodies and intellects would be completely useless, harmful and dangerous, if they did not serve to give us merit through the afflictions we compel them to suffer in reply to the wicked incentives by which they urge us, and if they did not serve as temple for the altar over which hovers the glory of God: our spirits.” Do you remember, John, and you, Simeon? I hope you do, because if you do not remember the words of our first master, he would be really dead as far as you are concerned. A master lives as long as his doctrine lives in his disciples. And even if he is replaced by a greater master - and in the case of Jesus' disciples, by the Master of masters - it is never right to forget the words of the previous one, who prepared us to understand and love the Lamb of God with wisdom. »
« That is true. You speak wisely and we will obey you. »
« But how painful and fatiguing it is to resist looking at Him again, when we are so close to Him! Will He still be as He was? » asks Simeon.
« Who knows?! How His face shone! »
« More than the moon in a clear night! »
« His lips had a divine smile... »
« And His eyes shed divine tears... »
« He did not utter one word. But everything was prayer in Him. »
« What will He have seen? »
« His Eternal Father. Do you doubt it? Only that sight can give such an aspect. Nay, what am I saying? Rather than see Him, He was with Him, in Him! The Word with the Thought! And they loved each other!... Ah!... » says Levi, who seems to be in an ecstasy as well.
« That is exactly why I said that it was not right for us to stay there. Consider that He did not even want His apostle with Him... »
« Of course. That's true! Holy Master! He needs to be overflown with the love of God, more than dry land needs water! There is so much hatred around Him!... »
« But also so much love. I would like... Yes, I will do it! The Most High is present here. I offer myself and I say: “Most High God, God and Father of Your people, Who accept and consecrate hearts and altars and sacrifice the victims pleasing to You, let Your will descend like fire and consume me as a victim with Christ, like Christ, and for Christ, Your Son and Your Messiah, my God and Master. I implore You. Hear my prayer.” » And Matthias, who had prayed standing up with raised arms, sits down again on the bundle of sticks, where they were sitting.
The moon stops illuminating the cave because it moves westwards. It still shines brightly on the country, but no longer in here, and faces and things disappear in the darkness. Words also become rarer and voices lower, until sleepiness overcomes their good will, and words are intermittent, and at times without reply... The cold, which is biting at dawn, is a stimulant against sleep, and they get up, they light some twigs and warm their limbs numb with cold...
« What will He do, as He certainly will not think of a fire? » says Levi whose teeth are almost chattering with cold.
« Will He have at least some food? » asks Elias and he adds: « Now we have but our love and some poor food... and today is a Sabbath... »
« Do you know what? Let us put all our food at the entrance to the grotto and then we shall go away. We can always find some bread before evening, either at Rachel's or at Elishah's. And we shall be the providence of the Providence, of the Son of Him Who provides for us all » suggests Joseph.
« Yes. Let us light a good fire so that we can see and warm ourselves properly, then we shall take everything there, and go away before He or the apostle may come out at dawn and see us. »
They open their sacks near the blazing fire and take out bread, cheese and some apples. They then load themselves with firewood and go out cautiously while Matthias shows the way with a branch taken from the fire. They put everything at the entrance to the grotto, the faggots on the ground, the bread and the other foodstuffs on top of them. They then withdraw, they cross the river, one after the other, and they go away in the silent first faint light of dawn, broken by the sudden crowing of a cock.