11th January 1947.
The ten apostles, tired and covered in dust, have come back to the house. When the woman greets them opening the door, they ask her at once: « Where is the Master? »
« I think He is in the wood, praying as usual. He went out very early this morning and has not come back yet. »
« And has no one gone to look for Him? What are those two doing?! » shouts Peter excitedly.
« Don't become impatient, man. He is as safe among us, as He would be in His Mother's house. »
« Safe! Of course! Do you remember the Baptist? Was he safe? »
« He was not because he could not read the hearts of those who spoke to him. But if the Most High allowed that for the Baptist, He will certainly not allow it for His Messiah. You must believe that more than I do, as I am a woman and a Samaritan. »
« Mary is right. But where did He go exactly? »
« I don't know. At times He goes one way, at times He goes another. At times He is all alone, at times with children who are so fond of Him. He teaches them how to pray by seeing God in everything. He is probably alone today because He did not come back at midday. When the children are with Him, He always comes back because they are little birds who want to be fed at the right time... » says the old woman smiling, as she perhaps remembers her ten children, and then she sighs... because joys and sorrows are in all the memories of one's life.
« And Judas and John, where are they? »
« Judas has gone to the fountain, John to get firewood. I have none left as I finished it all washing all your clothes to let you have them clean when you depart. »
« May God reward you, mother. We are making you work hard... says Thomas laying his hand on her thin bent shoulder, as if he wished to caress her.
« Oh!... It is not hard work. I feel as if I had my children again... she says smiling again as tears begin to shine in her hollow eyes.
John comes in bent under a huge bundle of sticks, and the rather dark corridor seems to brighten up as he enters it. I have always noticed the brilliance that seems to light up wherever John is. His childish smile that is so sweet and candid, his limpid eyes that smile like a beautiful April sky, his joyful voice that is so affectionate in greeting his companions, are like sunbeams or a rainbow of peace. Everybody loves him except Judas of Kerioth; I do not know whether he loves him or hates him, he certainly envies him, he often makes a fool of him and at times offends him. But Judas for the time being is not here.
They help him to lay down his load and they ask him where Jesus may be. John also becomes somewhat frightened at the delay. But, confiding in God more than the others he says: « His Father will deliver Him from evil. We must believe in the Lord. » And he adds: « But... come. You are tired and covered in dust. We have prepared food and hot water for you. Come... »
Judas of Kerioth also comes back with his dripping pitchers. « Peace to you. Have you had a good trip? » he asks, but there is no kindness in his voice. It is mingled with mockery and discontent.
« Yes. We began from the Decapolis. »
« Because you were afraid of being pelted with stones or of being contaminated? » asks the Iscariot ironically.
« We were afraid of neither. We did it out of prudence as beginners. And the proposal was made by me, who – I do not wish to reproach you for anything – have grown hoary over parchments » says Bartholomew.
Judas does not reply. He leaves the kitchen where the apostles who have just come back refresh themselves with what has been prepared.
Peter looks at the Iscariot depart and shakes his head. But he does not say anything. Thaddeus instead plucks at John's sleeves and asks: « How did he behave these past days? Always so cross? Be frank... »
« I'm always sincere, Judas. But I can assure you that he caused no trouble. The Master is almost always isolated. I stay with the old mother who is so kind, and I listen to those who come to speak to the Master, and then I tell Him. Judas instead goes about the village. He has made some friends... What can we do! He is just like that... He cannot live tranquilly, as we would do... »
« As far as I am concerned he can do what he likes. I am happy providing he does not cause grief. »
« No. He does not do that. He certainly grows weary. But... Here is the Master! I can hear His voice. He is speaking to somebody... »
They rush out and see Jesus coming forward, in the deepening twilight, carrying two children in His arms and one clinging to His mantle, and He is comforting them as they are weeping.
« May God bless You, Master! But where are You coming from at this late hour? »
Jesus on entering the house replies: « I am coming from the highwaymen. I got My prey as well. I walked after sunset, but My Father will absolve Me because I accomplished a deed of mercy... John, and you, Simon, take them... My arms are aching with tiredness... I am really tired. » He sits on a stool near the fireplace. He smiles: He is tired but happy.
« From the highwaymen? But where have You been? Who are these children? Have You had anything to eat? But where were You? It is not wise to be out when it is dark and to be so far away!... We were worried. Were You not in the wood? » they all ask at the same time.
« I was not in the wood. I went towards Jericho... »
« How imprudent of You! On those roads You may find someone who hates You! » says Thaddeus reproaching Him.
« I took the path that they told us. I had been wanting to go there for days... There are poor wretches to be redeemed. They could do Me no harm. And I went just in time for these children. Give them something to eat. I do not think they have had any food, because they were afraid of the highwaymen. And I had no food with Me. If at least I had found a shepherd!... But because of the oncoming Sabbath all the pastures had been deserted... »
« Of course! We are the only ones who for some time have not kept the Sabbath... » remarks Judas of Kerioth who is always sharp.
« What are you saying? What are you insinuating? » they ask him.
« I am saying that for two Sabbaths we have worked after sunset. »
« Judas, you know why we had to walk on last Sabbath. It is not always the sin of the person who commits it, but also of those who force one to commit it. And today... I know. You want to tell Me that also today I have infringed the Sabbath. My reply is that if the law of the Sabbatic rest is great, the precept of love is very great. I am not obliged to justify Myself with you. But I am doing it to teach you meekness, humility and the great truth that in the case of a holy necessity one must apply the law with resilience of spirit. Our history has many instances of such necessity. At dawn I went towards the Adummim mountains, because I know that there are some wretches there, whose souls are affected with the leprosy of crime. I was hoping to meet them, speak to them and come back before sunset. I found them. But I was not able to deliver them the intended speech, because there were other things to be said... They had found these three children weeping at the entrance of a poor fold in the plain. They had gone down during the night to steal lambs and also kill, if the shepherd had opposed resistance. Hunger pains are dreadful in the mountains in winter... And when cruel hearts suffer them, they make men more ferocious than wolves. These children were there with a little shepherd not much older than they are, but just as frightened as they were. The father of the children, I do not know why, had died during the night. Perhaps he had been bitten by some beast, or because of heart failure... His cold body was lying on the straw near the sheep. The oldest son, who was sleeping beside him, became aware of it. So the highwaymen, instead of making a massacre, found a dead man and four weeping children. They left the dead man and drove away the sheep and the little shepherd, and as even in the most wicked people there can be a piety hard to be beaten, they took also the children... I found them while they were consulting one another on what to do. The more ferocious ones wanted to kill the ten-year-old boy, who was a dangerous witness of their theft and refuge; the less fierce ones wanted to send him away after threatening him and they intended to keep the flock. They all wanted to keep the little ones. »
« To do what? Have they no family? »
« Their mother is dead. That is why the father had taken them with him to the winter pastures, and he was now going back to his lonely home crossing these mountains. Could I have left the little ones to the highwaymen to bring them up like themselves? I spoke to them... In all truth I tell you that they understood Me more than many other people. So much so that they left the little ones with Me and tomorrow they will take the little shepherd to the road to Shechem. Because the brothers of the children's mother live in that part of the country. In the meantime I accepted the children. I shall keep them until their relatives arrive. »
« And You flatter Yourself that the highwaymen... » says the Iscariot and he laughs...
« I am sure that they will not hurt the little shepherd in the least. They are wretches. We must not judge why they are such, but we must try to save them. A good deed may be the beginning of their salvation... » Jesus bends His head, absorbed in I wonder what thought.
The apostles and the old woman speak to one another pitying the frightened children whom they do their best to comfort...
Jesus raises His head when the youngest one, a brunet hardly three years old, begins to weep, and He says to James, who in vain busies himself to give the child some milk: « Give Me the boy and go and get My bag... » and He smiles as the little one calms down on His knees and greedily drinks the milk that he had previously refused. The others, who are a little older, eat the soup placed before them, but tears stream from their eyes.
« Dear me! How much misery! Now! It is fair that we should suffer, but innocent children!... » says Peter who cannot bear to see children suffer.
« You are a sinner, Simon. You are reproaching God » points out the Iscariot.
« I may be a sinner. But I am not reproaching God. I am only saying... Master, why must children suffer? They have not committed any sin. »
« Everybody has sins, at least the original one » says the Iscariot.
Peter does not reply to him. He awaits Jesus' reply. And Jesus, Who is lulling to sleep the child now sated and drowsy, replies: « Simon, sorrow is the consequence of sin. »
« All right. So... after You have removed sin, children will no longer suffer. »
« They will still suffer. Do not be scandalised, Simon. Sorrow and death will always be on the Earth. Also the purest people suffer and will suffer. Nay, they are the ones who will suffer on behalf of everybody. The victims propitiatory to the Lord. »
« But why? I don't understand... »
« There are many things that you do not understand on the Earth. You must at least believe that they are wanted by the perfect Love. And when Grace restored to men makes the holiest men know the hidden truths, then one will see the holiest people wish to be victims, because they will have understood the power of sorrow... The child has fallen asleep. Mary, will you take him with you? »
« Certainly, Master. We say: a frightened child sleeps little and weeps much, and a bird without nest needs a motherly wing. My bed is a very large one now that I am its only occupant. I will put the children in it and watch over them. These other ones are also about to fall asleep and forget their sorrow. Come, let us put them to bed. »
She picks up the little one from Jesus' lap and she goes out followed by Peter and Philip as James of Zebedee comes back with Jesus' bag.
Jesus opens it and rummages in it. He pulls out a heavy tunic, he unfolds it and examines its width. He is not satisfied. He looks for the mantle of the same dark shade as the tunic. He puts them aside, closes the bag and hands it back to James.
Peter comes back with Philip. The old woman has remained with the three children and Peter sees at once the garments unfolded and laid aside and he asks: « Are You going to change your clothes, Master? Tired as You are, a hot bath should refresh You. There is hot water and we will warm Your clothes, then we shall have supper and go to bed. This story of the poor children has moved me deeply... »
Jesus smiles but He does not make any remark on the matter. He only says: « Let us praise the Lord Who has led Me here in time to save the innocent children. » He then becomes silent, as He is obviously tired...
The old woman comes back with the children's garments. « They should be changed... They are torn and dirty... But I no longer have my children's garments to replace them. I will wash them tomorrow... »
« No, mother. When the Sabbath is over you will make three small garments out of Mine... »
« But, Lord, do You realise that You have only three tunics left? If You give one away, what will You be left with? Lazarus is not here, as when You gave Your mantle to the leprous woman! » says Peter.
« Never mind! There will be two left, and they are too many for the Son of man. Take this, Mary. Tomorrow at sunset you will begin your work, and the Persecuted One will rejoice in helping the poor whose worries He understands. »