2nd January 1947.
In the fresh clear early dawn the fields around Nike's house are all green with new shoots of corn only a few centimetres high, as delicate in shade as very clear emeralds. The orchard, which is closer to the house and is still bare, looks even darker and more massive, compared with the delicate stems and with the paradisiac serenity of the airy sky. The white house is crowned in the early sunshine with the flights of doves.
Nike is already up and she is diligently ensuring that the departing persons have what may comfort them during their journey. First of all she dismisses Lazarus' two servants who were kept by her for that night and who, after taking some refreshment, go away trotting their horses. She then goes back into the kitchen where the maidservants are preparing milk and food on big fires. And from a large earthen pot she pours some oil into two smaller ones, and then some wine into two small wineskins. She urges a servant who is preparing loaves of bread as thin as buns to take them to the stone-oven that is ready. From large boards, on which cheese is desiccated in the warmth of the kitchen, she picks the best whole ones. She takes some honey and pours it slowly into some small vessels fitted with firm taps. She then makes up several bundles containing the foodstuffs, and one of them contains a whole kid or lamb that a servant takes off the spit on which it was roasted. Another contains apples as red as corals. In another there are edible olives. In a third one there are dried currants. There is one of peeled barley.
She is closing this last package when Jesus enters the kitchen and greets all the people present.
« Master, peace to You. Are You up already? »
« I should have been up earlier. But My disciples were so tired that I let them sleep on. What are you doing, Nike? »
« I am preparing... They will not be heavy, see? Twelve parcels. And I have taken into consideration the strength of the bearers. »
« And what about me? »
« Oh! Master! You already have Your burden... » and tears begin to shine in Nike's eyes.
« Let us go outside, Nike. We shall be able to speak in peace. »
They go out and they move away from the house.
« My heart is aching, Master... »
« I know. But it is necessary to be strong considering that you have not grieved Me... »
« Oh! Let that never happen! But I thought that I would be able to stay near You and that is why I came to Jerusalem. Otherwise I would have stayed here, where I own these fields... »
« Also Lazarus, Mary and Martha thought they would be able to be with Me. And you can see!... »
« Yes, I can see. I am not going back to Jerusalem any more as You are not there. I shall be closer to You if I remain here and I shall be able to help You. »
« You have already given so much... »
« I have not given anything. I would like to be able to take my house wherever You go. But I will come, I will certainly come to see what You need. What You told me to do now is right. I shall stay here until they are convinced that You are not here. But later... »
« It is a long and difficult road for a woman, and it is not safe either. »
« Oh! I am not afraid. I am too old to be pleasant and attractive as a woman, and I do not carry treasures to be sought as a prey. Highwaymen are better than many people who consider themselves holy and instead are thieves and want to rob you of your peace and freedom... »
« Do not hate them, Nike. »
« That is more difficult for me than anything else. But I will try not to hate them for Your sake... I wept all night, Lord! »
« I heard you go to and fro in the house as indefatigable as a bee. And you seemed a mother anxious about her persecuted son... Do not weep. Guilty people must weep. Not you. God is good to His Messiah. In the most grievous hours He always makes Me find a motherly heart close to Me... »
« And what are You going to do about Your Mother? You told me that She was coming soon... »
« She will come to Ephraim... Lazarus is going to inform Her. Here is Simon of Jonah with My brothers... »
« Do they know? »
« Not yet, Nike. I will tell them when we are far away... »
« And when I come, I will tell You what happens here and in Jerusalem. »
They join the apostles who are coming out of the house one after the other looking for Jesus.
« Come, brothers. Take some food before departing. Everything is ready. »
« Nike did not sleep last night to provide for us. Thank the good disciple » says Jesus entering the large kitchen where on a refectory table – it is so long – there are cups full of milk steaming hot and sweet smelling buns just out of the oven. And Nike spreads butter and honey generously on them, saying that they are invigorating food for people who have to go on a long journey when the weather is still cold.
The meal is soon over. Nike in the meantime has made up the last parcels with the crisp fragrant bread just taken out of the oven. Each apostle takes his bundle that has been tied in such a way as to be carried without much trouble.
It is time to go. Jesus greets and blesses. The apostles say goodbye. But Nike wants to go with them as far as the border of her fields and she then goes back slowly weeping in her veil, while Jesus with His apostles goes away along a secondary road pointed out to Him by Nike.
The country is still desert. The path runs through fields of new corn and bare vineyards. Thus there are no shepherds either, as they do not take their flocks into cultivated fields. The morning air is warmed a little by the sun. The first little flowers on the edges of the fields are shining like gems under the veil of dew brightened by sunshine. The birds are singing the first love songs. The good season is coming. Everything is beautiful and fresh. Everything is love... And Jesus is going into the exile that precedes His death brought about by hatred.
They apostles are silent. They are pensive. The sudden departure has disconcerted them. They were so certain that everything was settled by now! They are proceeding with their backs more curved than the weight of their bags and of Nike's provisions can bend them. They are bent by disappointment and by the ascertainment of what the world and men are.
Jesus instead, although He is not smiling, is neither sad nor dejected. He is walking with His head erect, ahead of everybody, without arrogance, but also without fear. He is Proceeding like one who knows where to go and what to do. He walks courageously, like a hero, whom nothing shakes or frightens.
The secondary road joins with a main one, which Jesus takes going northwards. And the apostles follow Him, without speaking. As the road comes from Galilee and through the Decapolis and Samaria goes to Judaea, there are wayfarers on it, mostly caravans of merchants.
As time goes by the sun becomes pleasantly warmer and warmer, when Jesus leaves the main road to take another path that across corn fields goes towards the first hills.
The apostles cast glances at one another. Perhaps they begin to understand that they are not going towards Galilee along the road in the Jordan valley, but are instead going towards Samaria. But they remain silent.
When they arrive at the first woods on the hills, Jesus says: « Let us stop and rest while we take some food. The sun indicates that it is midday. »
They are near a torrent with little water in it as it has not rained for some time. But its little water is clear in the gravel-bed and its banks are spread with large stones that can be used as tables and seats. They sit down after Jesus has blessed and offered the food and they eat in silence and as if they were lost in thought.
Jesus rouses them saying: « Are you not asking Me where we are going? Do your worries of the future make you dumb or do I no longer seem to you to be your Master? »
The Twelve raise their heads: twelve distressed or at least bewildered faces that turn towards the tranquil face of Jesus and one only « Oh! » is exclaimed by twelve mouths. And the exclamation is followed by the reply of Peter who speaks on behalf of everybody: « Master, You know that we always consider You our Master. But since yesterday we are like people who have received hard blows on their heads. And everything seems a dream to us. And although we see and know that it is You, You seem to be already... far away. We somehow have had this impression since You spoke to Your Father before calling Lazarus, and since You brought him out of his sepulchre, tied as he was, only by means of Your will, and You made him live only by the strength of Your power. You almost frighten us. I am speaking of myself... but I think it is the same for everybody... And now... We... This departure... so sudden and so mysterious! »
« Have you a double fear? Do you feel that the danger is more impending? Do you not have, do you feel that you do not have the strength to face and overcome the last trials? Speak without restraint. We are still in Judaea. We are near the low roads that take one to Galilee. Everyone may go if he wishes, and you can go in time to avoid being hated by the Sanhedrin... »
The apostles are roused by these words. Those who were almost lying on the grass warmed by the sun, sit up. Those who were sitting, stand up.
Jesus goes on: « Because as from today I am the legally Persecuted One. Bear that in mind. Just now they are about to proclaim in the five hundred and more synagogues in Jerusalem and in those of the towns that have received the ban issued yesterday at the sixth hour, that I am the great sinner, and that whoever knows where I am must denounce Me to the Sanhedrin so that I may be captured... »
The apostles shout as if they already saw Him captured. John clings to His neck moaning: « Ah! I have always foreseen that! » and he sobs loud. Some curse the Sanhedrin, some invoke divine justice, some weep, some become petrified.
« Be silent and listen. I have never deceived you. I have always told you the truth. When possible I defended and protected you. Your presence near Me has been as pleasant as that of sons. I did not even hide My last hour... My dangers... My passion from you. But those were problems that concerned Me exclusively. Now your dangers, your safety, and that of your families are to be taken into consideration. I ask you to do that. With absolute freedom. Do not consider them in the light of your love for Me, or of your election made by Me. As I am releasing you from every obligation towards God and His Christ, just imagine that we have met here, now, for this first time and that, after listening to Me, you decide whether it is convenient for you or not to follow the Unknown man whose words have moved you. Imagine that you hear and see Me for the first time and that I say to you: “Bear in mind that I am persecuted and hated and that whoever loves Me is persecuted and hated as I am, in his person, his interests, his affections. Remember that persecution may end up with death and the confiscation of the family property”. Think it over and decide. I will love you just the same if you say to me: “Master, I cannot come with You any more.” Are you becoming sad? No, you must not. We are good friends who decide with peace and love what is to be done, with reciprocal compassion. I cannot let you face the future without making you ponder over it. I do not disesteem you. I love you all. I am the Master. It is obvious that the Master should know His disciples. I am the Shepherd and it is obvious that a shepherd should know his lambs. I know that My disciples, if they had to face a test without being sufficiently prepared, not only in the wisdom coming from their Master, and which is therefore good and perfect, but also in their own ponderation of the situation, might fail, or at least they would not triumph like athletes in a stadium. To measure oneself and to evaluate circumstances is always a wise rule. In little and great things. I, the Shepherd, must say to My lambs: “Here, I am now going to enter a place of wolves and butchers. Have you enough strength to go among them?” I could also tell you now which of you will not have the strength to withstand the trial, although I can assure and reassure you that none of you will fall at the hands of the executioners who will sacrifice the Lamb of God. My capture is of such weight that it will suffice them... So I say to you: “Think it over”. Once I said to you: “Be not afraid of those who kill”. I said: “He who, having laid his hand on the plough, looks back to consider the past and what he may lose or acquire, is not fit for My mission”. But they were rules to give you the measure of what it meant to be disciples, and rules for the future that will take place when I am no longer the Master, but My believers are the masters. They served to strengthen your souls. But even such strength, which is undeniable you have acquired, as compared with the nonentities you were – I am referring to your spirits – is still too little with respect to the greatness of the trial. Oh! do not think in the secrecy of your hearts: “The Master is scandalised at us!” I am not scandalised. On the contrary I tell you that you must not be scandalised, neither now nor in the future, at your own weakness. In all future times there will always be people among the members of My Church, both lambs and shepherds, who will be inferior to the greatness of their mission. There will be periods when the idol shepherds and the idol believers are more numerous than the true shepherds and the true believers. Periods of eclipse of the spirit of faith of the world. But an eclipse is not the death of a star. It is only a temporary more or less partial obscuring of a star. Afterwards its beauty reappears and it looks brighter. The same will happen to My Fold. I say to you: “Ponder over it”. I say so to you as your Master, Shepherd and Friend. I leave you completely free to discuss the matter among yourselves. I am going over there, to that thicket, to pray. One by one will come and tell Me what you have decided. And I will bless your sincere honesty, whatever it may be. And I will love you for what you have given Me so far. Goodbye. » He stands up and goes away.
The apostles are terrified, puzzled, moved. At first they cannot even speak. Then Peter is the first to say: « May hell swallow me if I want to leave Him! I am sure of myself. Even if all the demons in Gehenna led by Leviathan should come against me, I would not move away from Him out of fear! »
« Neither would I. Am I to be inferior to my daughters? » says Philip.
« I am sure that they will do Him no harm. The members of the Sanhedrin threaten but they do so to convince themselves that the Sanhedrin still exists. They know very well that they have no power if Rome is not agreeable. Their sentences! It's Rome that judges! » says the Iscariot boldly.
« But the Sanhedrin is still concerned with religious matters » remarks Andrew.
« Are you afraid perhaps, brother? Bear in mind that there have never been cowards in our family » says Peter threateningly, as he feels that his heart is overflowing with warlike spirit.
« I am not afraid and I hope I shall be able to prove it. I am only telling Judas what I think. »
« You are right. But the mistake of the Sanhedrin consists in wishing to make use of a political weapon, as they do not wish to say or to be told that they have lifted their hands against the Christ. I know that for certain. They would like, that is, they would have liked to make Jesus commit sin and thus make Him contemptible to the crowds. But with regard to killing Him! Ehi! No. They are afraid! Their fright has no human comparison, because their souls are frightened. They do know that He is the Messiah! They know that very well. So much so that they realise that they are done for, because the new time is coming. And they want to overthrow Him. But will they overthrow Him!? No. That is why they are seeking a political reason so that the Proconsul, that is Rome, should overthrow Him. But the Christ does no harm to Rome, and Rome will do no harm to Him, and the members of the Sanhedrin are howling in vain. »
« So are you staying with Him? »
« Of course. More than anybody else! »
« I have nothing to lose or to gain by staying or going away. I have only to love Him. And I will do that » says the Zealot.
« I recognise Him as the Messiah and consequently I will follow Him » says Nathanael.
« So will I. I have believed Him to be the Messiah since John the Baptist pointed Him out to me as such » says James of Zebedee.
« We are His brothers. To our faith we add the love of kinship. Is that right, James? » says Thaddeus.
« He has been my sun for years and I follow His course. If He falls into the abyss dug by His enemies, I will follow Him » replies James of Alphaeus.
« And what about me? Can I forget that He has redeemed me? » asks Matthew.
« My father would curse me seven times seven if I should leave Him. In any case, even if it were only for Mary's sake, I would never part from Jesus » says Thomas.
John does not speak. His head is lowered, he looks dejected. The others mistake his attitude for weakness and many ask him.
« And what about you? Are you the only one who wants to go away? »
John looks up, so pure also in his attitude and eyes, and fixing his limpid blue eyes on those who are questioning him he says: « I was praying for all of us. Because we want to say and do things and we rely on ourselves, and by doing so we do not realise that we challenge the words of the Master. If He says that we are not prepared, it means that we are not. If we have not become prepared in three years, we shall not become so in few months... »
« What are you saying? In few months? What do you know? Are you a prophet, perhaps? » They assail him with questions, almost reproaching him.
« I know nothing. »
« So? What do you know? Has He perhaps told you? You always know His secrets... » says Judas of Kerioth with envy.
« Do not hate me, my friend, if I understand that the fine weather is over. When will it be? I do not know. I know that it will happen. He says so. How many times has He said so! We do not want to believe it. But the hatred of the others confirms His words... So I pray. Because there is nothing else to be done. I pray God to make us strong. Do you not remember, Judas, when He told us that He had prayed His Father to have strength against temptations? All strength comes from God. I imitate my Master, as is right to do... »
« Well, are you staying or not? » asks Peter.
« And where do you want me to go if I do not stay with Him Who is my life and welfare? But as I am a poor boy, the most miserable of all, I ask everything of God, the Father of Jesus and ours. »
« That is settled. So we are all staying! Let us go to Him. As He is certainly sad, our loyalty will make Him happy » says Peter.
Jesus is prostrated in prayer. With His face on the ground, in the grass, He is certainly imploring His Father, but at the shuffling of feet He stands up and looks at His apostles. He looks at them with a rather sad gravity.
« Be happy, Master. None of us are going to leave You » says Peter.
« You have decided too soon and... »
« Hours or ages will not change our minds » says Peter.
« Neither will threats change our love » proclaims the Iscariot.
Jesus stops looking at them as a group and He gazes at them one by one. A long look which everyone withstands fearlessly. His eyes delay in particular on the Iscariot, who looks at Him more resolutely than the others. He opens His arms in a gesture of resignation and He says: « Let us go. You, all of you, have signed your destiny. » He goes back to the place where He was, He picks up His bag and says: « Let us take the road to Ephraim, the one they pointed out to us. »
« To Samaria?! » They are utterly astonished.
« To Samaria. Or, at least, to its borders. John also went to live there until the hour fixed for his preaching the Christ. »
« But that did not save him! » objects James of Zebedee.
« I am not trying to save Myself, but to save. And I will save at the appointed hour. The persecuted Shepherd is going to the most unfortunate sheep. So that, forlorn as they are, they may have their share of wisdom to prepare them for the new time. »
He strides away, after the stop that has served both to rest and to respect the Sabbath, as He wishes to arrive before the paths become impassable at night.
When they arrive at the little torrent that flows from Ephraim towards the Jordan, Jesus calls Peter and Nathanael and gives them a bag saying: « Go ahead and look for Mary of Jacob. I remember that Malachi told Me that she is the poorest woman in the village, in spite of her large house, now that she has no sons and daughters in it. We shall stay with her. Give her plenty money so that she may give us hospitality without applying to many people. You know where the house is. It is the large one, shaded by four pomegranate-trees, near the bridge across the torrent. »
« We know, Master. We will do as You say. » They go away quickly and Jesus follows them slowly with the others.
From the dell, in the middle of which the torrent flows, one can see the white houses of the village in the late daylight and in the early moonlight. There is not a soul about when they arrive at the house that is all white in the moonlight. Only the torrent can be heard in the silence of the night. Turning round and looking at the horizon, one can see a large stretch of the starry sky bend over a large expanse of ground that slopes downwards towards the desert plain that stretches as far as the Jordan. A solemn peace reigns over the Earth.
They knock at the door. Peter opens it. « Everything is settled, Lord. The old woman wept when we gave her the money. She had not a coin left. I said to her: “Do not weep, woman. There is no more pain where Jesus of Nazareth is”. She replied to me: “I know. I have suffered all my life and just now I was at the very limit of endurance. But Heaven opened on the evening of my life and brought me the Star of Jacob to give me peace”. She is now preparing the rooms that have been closed for such a long time. H'm! There isn't very much. But the woman appears to be very good. Here she is! Woman! The Rabbi is here! »
A very thin old woman comes forward, her meek eyes full of melancholy. She stops perplexed a few steps from Jesus. She feels uneasy.
« Peace to you, woman. I shall not give you much trouble. »
« I wish You could walk on my heart, to make it more pleasant for You to enter my poor house. Come in, Lord, and may God enter with You. » She has recovered her breath and taken heart in the light of Jesus' glance.
They all go in and close the door. The house is as large as a hotel and as empty as a desert. Only the kitchen looks cheerful because of a bright fire in the fireplace in the middle of the room.
Bartholomew, who was tending the fire, turns round and says smiling: « Console the woman, Master. She is sad because she cannot honour You. »
« Your heart is enough for Me, woman. Do not worry about anything. We will provide tomorrow. I am poor as well. Bring her our provisions. Poor people share their bread and salt without shame, but with brotherly love. Filial love in your case, woman. Because you could be My mother. And I honour you as such... »
The woman weeps the silent tears of an old distressed soul, wiping her tears with her veil and she whispers: « I had three sons and seven daughters. One of the sons was carried away by the torrent and another one by a disease. The third one has left me. Five of the girls caught the same disease as their father had and died, the sixth died of childbirth and the seventh... What death did not do, sin did. In my old age I am not honoured by my children and it makes me so... In the village they are good to me... that is, to the poor woman. You are kind to the mother... »
« I have a mother, too. And in every woman who is a mother I honour Her. But do not weep. God is good. Have faith, and the children who are still left may come back to you again. The others are in peace... »
« I think it is a punishment, because I come from this place... »
« Have faith. God is more just than men... »
The apostles who had gone to their rooms with Peter come back. They bring provisions. They warm up on the fire the little lamb that Nike had roasted. They put it on the table. Jesus offers and blesses them and He wants the little old woman to sit at the table with them, instead of sitting in her little corner, eating the poor chicory of her supper...
The exile at the border of Judaea has begun...