5th February 1947.
Jesus is alone. He is still in the grotto. A fire is lit to give light and warmth, and a strong smell of resins and leafy branches spreads in the cavern amid crackling and sparks. Jesus has withdrawn to the end, in a recess where dry branches have been thrown and He is meditating. The flames waver now and again, they abate and brighten up successively because of gusts of wind blowing through the woods and howling upon entering the cavern that resounds like a bugle-horn. It is not a steady wind. It drops, then it rises like long sea waves. When it whistles louder, ashes and dry leaves are blown towards the narrow rocky corridor through which Jesus has come into the larger part of the grotto, and the flames bend lapping the floor on that side, then, when the gush of the wind drops, they rise again, still sparkling, and they resume shining straight upwards. Jesus pays no attention to them. He is meditating. The sound of the wind is joined by the fall of rain that patters, at first lightly then heavily, on the leafy boughs of the underwood. A real downpour soon changes the paths on the slopes into little roaring torrents. The noise of the water is now the prevailing one as the wind has slowly dropped. The very faint light of the stormy twilight, and that of the fire, which is reddish but does no longer blaze, for want of fuel, scarcely light up the cavern and the corners are in darkness. Jesus, dressed in dark robes as He is, can no longer be seen; only when He lifts His head, which is bent on His raised knees, it is possible to see a faint gleam against the dark wall.
Outside the grotto, on the path there is the noise of steps and of anxious words, as if they were uttered by someone who is tired and weary. Then in the empty space at the entrance, a dark shadow is outlined dripping water on all sides. The man, because it is a man with a heavy dark beard, utters an « oh! » of relief and throws his drenched headgear on the floor, he shakes his mantle and says to himself: « H'm! Samuel, you can give it a good shaking! It seems to have dropped into a fulling-mill! And my sandals? Boats! Boats sunk in a river! I am drenched to the skin! Look how my hair is dripping! I look like a broken roof gutter leaking through a thousand holes. It's a good start! Is perhaps Beelzebub on His side defending Him? H'm! It's a beautiful stake... but... » He sits on a stone near the fire, in which, as the flame is dead, there are reddish embers forming the strange designs that are the last life of burnt out wood, and he tries to rekindle it by blowing on it. He takes off his sandals and tries to dry his muddy feet with the drier parts of the edge of his mantle. But it is the same as if he were drying himself with water. His effort serves only to remove the mud from his feet and put it on the mantle. He continues to speak to himself: « Cursed be they, He and everybody! And I lost also my bag. Of course! It's a good job I have not lost my life... “It's the safest road” they said. Certainly! But they don't take it! If I had not seen this fire! Who will have lit it? Some poor wretch like me. But where will he be now? There is a hole over there... Perhaps another grotto... They won't be highwaymen, will they? But... what a fool I am! What can they take off me if I have not got even a farthing? But it does not matter. This fire is worth more than a treasure. I wish I had some more branches to rekindle it! I would take my clothes off and dry them. Ho! I say! This is all I have until I go back!... »
« If you want more branches, My friend, there are some here » says Jesus without moving from His place.
The man, whose back was turned towards Jesus, starts at the sudden voice and jumps to his feet turning round. He looks frightened. « Who are you? » he asks, opening his eyes wide trying to see.
« A wayfarer like you. I lit the fire and I am glad it served to guide you. » Jesus approaches him with a bundle of sticks in His arms and He throws them near the fire saying: « Rekindle the flame before everything is covered with ash. I have neither flint nor tinder-box because the man from whom I borrowed them went away after sunset. » Jesus speaks in a friendly way, but He does not come forward so that the fire may illuminate Him. On the contrary, He goes back to His corner and remains well enveloped in His mantle.
The man, in the meantime, bends to blow hard on some leaves he has thrown on the fire and he remains thus, busy, until the flame rises. He laughs throwing thicker and thicker branches that rekindle the fire. Jesus, sitting in His place, watches Him.
« I should now take my clothes off and let them dry. I prefer to be nude rather than be wet. But I cannot even do that. A slope slid down and I found myself under a fall of earth and water. Ah! I am settled now! Look! I have torn my tunic. Cursed journey! I wish I had infringed the Sabbath! I didn't! I stopped until sunset. Later... And what shall I do now? To save myself I let my bag go and now it will be down at the bottom of the valley or it will be entangled in some bush I wonder where... »
« Here is My tunic. It is dry and warm. My mantle is enough for Me. Take it. I am in good health. Be not afraid. »
« And You are good. A good friend. How can I thank You? »
« By loving Me as if I were your brother. »
« By loving You as is You were my brother! But You do not know who I am. And if I were wicked, would you wish to have my love? »
« I would, to make you good. »
The man, who is young, about the same age as Jesus, lowers his head, meditating. He is holding Jesus' garment in his hands, but he cannot see it. He is pensive. And he automatically slips it on over his bare skin because he has stripped himself completely, also of his vest.
Jesus, Who had gone back to His corner asks him: « When did you have some food? »
« At the sixth hour. I was to have a meal when I arrived in the village, down in the valley. But I lost my way, my bag and my money. »
« I have still some remnants of food here. I was to eat them tomorrow. Take them. Fasting is no burden to Me. »
« But... if You have to walk, You will need some strength... »
« Oh! I am not going far. Only as far as Ephraim... »
« Ephraim?! Are You a Samaritan? »
« Does that irritate you? I am not a Samaritan. »
« In fact... Your accent is Galilean. Who are You? Why do You not uncover Your face? Have You to hide Yourself because You are guilty? I will not denounce You. »
« I am a wayfarer. I have already told you. My Name would mean nothing to you, or it would mean too much. In any case, what is a name? When I give you a garment for your frozen body, some food to appease your hunger, and above all My pity for your heart, do you need to know My Name to feel the comfort of dry clothes, of food and love? But if you wish to give Me a name, call Me “Pity”. There is nothing disgraceful compelling Me to hide Myself. But not because of that you would give up denouncing Me. Because in your heart there is a bad thought. And bad thoughts yield fruits of evil deeds. »
The man starts and approaches Jesus. But only Jesus' eyes can be seen and they are almost veiled by His lowered eyelids.
« Take the food, My friend. There is nothing else to be done. »
The man goes back to the fire and begins to eat slowly, without speaking. He is pensive. Jesus is all curled up in His little corner. The man refreshes himself slowly. The warmth of the flames, the bread and roasted meat given to him by Jesus, make him happy. He stands up, he stretches himself, he lays the cord, which he used as a belt, from a rock splinter to a rusty hook, goodness knows who fixed it there and how long ago, and hangs his tunic, mantle, headgear to dry on it, he shakes his sandals and puts them near the fire, which he tends generously.
Jesus seems to be dozing. The man also sits down and is pensive. He then turns round to look at the Unknown Man. He asks: « Are You sleeping? »
Jesus replies: « No. I am thinking and praying. »
« For whom? »
« For all the unhappy people. Of every kind. And they are so many! »
« Are You a penitent? »
« I am a penitent. The Earth is in great need of repentance so that the weak living on it may be given strength to reject Satan. »
« You are right. You speak like a rabbi. I am a good judge because I am a saphorim. I am a disciple of rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel. His dearest disciple. And now, if the Most High helps me, I shall become even dearer to him. My name will be exalted all over Israel. »
Jesus does not reply.
The other man, after a few moments, stands up and sits near Jesus. With one hand he smooths his hair that is almost dry and tidies his beard saying: « Listen. You said that You are going to Ephraim. Are You going there just by chance, or do You live there? »
« I live in Ephraim. »
« But You are not a Samaritan, so You said! »
« I repeat it. I am not a Samaritan. »
« And who can live there if not... Listen: they say that the cursed outlawed Rabbi of Nazareth has taken shelter at Ephraim. Is it true? »
« It is true. Jesus, the Christ of the Lord, is there. »
« He is not the Christ of the Lord! He is a liar! He is a blasphemer! He is a demon! He is the cause of all our troubles. And no avenger of all the people rises to overthrow Him! » he exclaims with fanatic hatred.
« Has He perhaps done any harm to you, since you speak of Him with so much hatred in your voice? »
« Not to me. I saw Him just once at the feast of the Tabernacles, and in such a tumult, that I would find it difficult to recognise Him. Because, while it is true that I am a disciple of the great rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel, I have been at the Temple definitively only for a short time. Previously... I was not able for many reasons, and only when the rabbi was at home I used to sit at his feet to drink in justice and doctrine. But You... You asked me whether I hate Him, and I perceived a hidden reproach in Your words. Are You perhaps a follower of the Nazarene? »
« No, I am not. But hatred is condemned by anybody who is just. »
« Hatred is holy when it is against an enemy of God and of the Fatherland. The Nazarene Rabbi is such. And it is holy to fight Him and hate Him. »
« To fight the man or the idea that He represents and the doctrine that He proclaims? »
« Everything! Everything! You cannot fight one thing if you spare the other. In man there is his doctrine and his idea. You either overthrow everything, or it serves no purpose. When you embrace an idea, you embrace the man who represents it and his doctrine at the same time. I know because I experience that with my master. His ideas are mine. His wishes are my law. »
« In fact a good disciples behaves thus. But one must be able to tell whether the master is good, and follow only a good master. Because it is not lawful to lose one's soul for the love of a man. »
« Jonathan ben Uziel is good. »
« No. He is not. »
« What are You saying? And are You telling me? While we are here all alone and I could kill You to avenge my master? I am strong, You know? »
« I am not afraid. I am not afraid of violence. And I am not afraid as I know also that if you strike Me, I will not react. »
« Ah! I see! You are a disciple of the Rabbi, an “apostle”. That is how He calls His most faithful disciples. And You are going to join Him. Perhaps the man who was with You was another one like You. And You are waiting for someone like You. »
« Yes, I am waiting for someone. »
« For the Rabbi, perhaps? »
« There is no need for Me to wait for him. He does not need My word to be cured of His disease. His soul is not diseased, neither is His body. I am waiting for a poor soul that is poisoned and raving. To cure it. »
« You are an apostle! We know in fact that He sends them to evangelize as He is afraid to go Himself, since He was condemned by the Sanhedrin. That is why You follow His doctrine! It is His doctrine not to react against those who offend. »
« It is His doctrine because He teaches love, forgiveness, justice, meekness. He loves both enemies and friends. Because He sees everything in God. »
« Oh! If He should meet me, if, as I hope, I will meet Him, I don't think He will love me! It would be foolish of Him! But I cannot tell You, as You are His apostle. And I regret what I have already told You. You will inform Him. »
« There is no need. But I solemnly tell you that He will love you, nay, He loves you, notwithstanding that you are going to Ephraim to ensnare Him and hand Him over to the Sanhedrin, who have promised a large reward to whoever will do that. »
« Are You... a prophet or have You the python spirit? Has He transmitted His power to You? So You are cursed as well? And I accepted Your bread, your garment, You have been friendly to me! It is written: “You shall not raise your hand against your benefactor.” You have done that! Because, if You knew that I... Perhaps to prevent me from acting? But if I spare You, because You have given me bread and salt, fire and clothes, and I would sin against justice by harming You, I will not spare Your Rabbi. Because I do not know Him, and He has not done me any good, but He has done me evil. »
« Oh! poor wretch! Do you not realise that you are raving? How can one whom you do not know have done evil to you? How can you respect the Sabbath, if you do not respect the precept not to kill?... »
« I do not kill. »
« Materially, you do not. But there is no difference between him who kills and him who hands the victim over to the killer. You respect the word of a man who says that you must not harm your benefactor, but you do not respect the word of God, and with a snare, for a handful of money, for a little honour, the filthy honour of being able to betray an innocent person, you are getting ready to commit a crime!... »
« I am not doing it just for the sake of money and honour. But to do something pleasing to Jehovah and beneficial to our Fatherland. I am repeating the gestures of Jael and Judith. » He is more fanatic than ever.
« Sisara and Holofernes were enemies of our Fatherland. They were invaders. They were cruel. But what is the Rabbi of Nazareth? What does He invade? What does he usurp? He is poor and He does not seek riches. He is humble and does not want honours. He is good. To everybody. Thousands of people have been assisted by Him. Why do you all hate Him? Why do you hate Him? It is not lawful to injure your neighbour. You serve the Sanhedrin. But will the Sanhedrin judge you in future life, or will God judge you? And how will He judge you? I do not mean: how will He judge you as killer of the Christ, but I mean: how will He judge you as killer of an innocent. You do not believe that the Rabbi of Nazareth is the Christ, and consequently, because of your belief that He is not, you will not be charged with that crime. God is just and He does not consider guilty an action accomplished without full knowledge. So He will not judge you for killing the Christ, because, as far as you are concerned, Jesus of Nazareth is not the Christ. But He will accuse you of killing an innocent. Because you know that He is innocent. They have poisoned you and by means of words of hatred they have intoxicated you, but not to the extent that you do not understand that He is innocent. His works speak in His favour. Your fear, and your masters are more frightened that their disciples, dreads and sees what does not exist. You are afraid that He may supplant you. Be not afraid. He stretches out His arms towards you saying: “Brothers”! He does not send soldiers against you. He does not curse you. He would only like to save you, both the great ones and their disciples, as He wishes to save the last person in Israel. And He wishes to save you, more than the least person in Israel, more than the child who does not yet know what are hatred and love. Because you are in greater need than ignorant people and children, because you know, and you knowingly sin. Can your conscience of a man, if you clear it of the ideas they have instilled into it, if you cleanse it of the poison that makes you rave, can it tell you that He is guilty? Tell Me. Be sincere. Have you ever seen Him infringe the Law, or advise people to infringe it? Have you ever seen Him being quarrelsome, greedy, lustful, hard-hearted, have you heard Him utter slander? Speak up! Have you seen Him being disrespectful towards the Sanhedrin? He is living like an outlaw, in order to obey the verdict of the Sanhedrin. He could utter a cry and the whole of Palestine would follow Him to march against the few who hate Him. He, instead, advises peace and forgiveness to His disciples. As He gives back life to dead people, sight to the blind, motion to the paralysed, hearing to the deaf, freedom to demoniacs, as neither Heaven nor Hell are insensible to His will, He could strike you by His divine lightning and thus get rid of His enemies. He, instead, prays for you and cures your relatives, He cures your hearts, He gives you bread, clothes, fire. Because I am Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Whom you are looking for to have the price promised to who hands Him over to the Sanhedrin, and the honour of being the liberator of Israel. I am Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Here I am. Take Me. As Master and as Son of God I free you from the obligation of not raising your hand and I absolve you of the sin of raising it against your benefactor. »
Jesus has stood up removing His mantle from His head, and He stretches out His hands as if they were to be caught and tied. But tall as He is – and He seems even more slender as He is left with only His short close-fitting vest on, with His dark mantle hanging from His shoulders, holding Himself upright, His eyes, fixed at the face of His persecutor, in the mobile reflection of the flames that illuminate highlights in His flowing hair and make the large pupils of His eyes shine within the sapphire circles of the irises – so majestic, so frank and fearless, He commands more respect than if He were surrounded by an army of defenders.
The man is fascinated... paralysed with astonishment. Only after some time he is able to whisper: « You! You! You! » He does not seem to be able to say anything else.
Jesus insists: « So, take Me! Take that useless cord that you put up to hold a dirty torn tunic, and tie My hands. I will follow you as a lamb follows a butcher. And I will not hate you for taking Me to die. I told you. It is the purpose that justifies an action and changes its nature. As far as you are concerned, I am the ruin of Israel and you think that by killing Me you will save Israel. You believe that I am guilty of all crimes and therefore you are serving justice by suppressing a criminal. So you are not more guilty than the executioner who carries out the order he received. Do you wish to sacrifice Me here, on the spot? Over there, at My feet, there is the knife with which I sliced your bread. Take it. From a blade that served for the love for My neighbour, it can be changed into the knife of the sacrificer. My flesh is not harder than the roasted lamb that My friend had left Me to appease My hunger and that I gave you, to satisfy the hunger of My enemy. But you are afraid of the Roman patrols. They arrest the murderers of an innocent. And they do not allow justice to be administered by us. Because we are the subjects and they are the rulers. That is why you dare not kill Me and then go to those who sent you, with the slaughtered Lamb on your shoulders, like goods that make one earn money. Well: leave My corpse here and go and inform your masters. Because you are not a disciple, you are a slave, so much have you renounced the sovereign freedom of thought and will that God Himself leaves to men. And you serve your masters servilely, to the extent of committing a crime. But you are not guilty. You are “poisoned”. You are the poisoned soul that I was waiting for. Come on, then! The night and the place are propitious to crime. I am wrong: to the redemption of Israel!
Oh! poor boy! You are speaking prophetic words without being aware of it! My death will really be redemption, and not of Israel only, but of all Mankind. And I have come to be sacrificed. And I am longing to be sacrificed, so that I may be the Saviour. Of everybody. You, the saphorim of learned Jonathan ben Uziel, certainly know Isaiah. Here is the Man of sorrows in front of you. And if I do not seem to be such, if I do not seem to be the man whom also David saw, with My bones laid bare and disjointed, if I am not like the leper seen by Isaiah, it is because you do not see My heart. I am one big sore. Your indifference, your hatred, your hardness and injustice have wounded and broken Me completely. And did I not hide My face, while you were despising Me for what I really am: the Word of God, the Christ? But I am the man accustomed to suffering! And do you not consider Me as a man struck by God? And do I not sacrifice Myself because I want to do so to cure you through My sacrifice? So! Strike Me! Look: I am not afraid and you must not be afraid. I, because I am the Innocent and I do not fear the judgement of God, and also because by offering My neck to your knife, I have God's will fulfilled, anticipating My hour a little for your welfare. Also when I was born I anticipated the time for your sake, to give you peace before the time. But you have turned My anxiety of love into a weapon of denial... Be not afraid! I do not invoke the punishment of Cain on you or the lightning of God. I pray for you. I love you. Nothing else. Am I too tall for your hand of a man? Well, it is true! Man in fact could not strike God if God of His own will did not put Himself into the hands of man. Well, I kneel down before you. The Son of man is before you, at your feet. So, strike Me! »
Jesus in fact kneels down, and offers the knife, holding it by the blade, to His persecutor, who withdraws whispering: « No! No! »
« Come on! A moment of courage... and you will be more famous than Jael and Judith! Look! I am praying for you. Isaiah says so: “...and He prayed for sinners”. Are you not coming yet? Why are you going away? Ah! perhaps you are afraid you may not see how a God dies. Well, I will come there, near the fire. There is always a fire at sacrifices. It is part of them. Here you are. Now you can see Me well. » He has knelt down near the fire.
« Don't look at me! Don't look at me! Oh! where shall I run not to see Your eyes staring at me? » shouts the man.
« Whom? Whom do you not wish to see? »
« You... and my crime. Really, it is my crime that is in front of me! Where shall I run, where? » The man is terrorised...
« On My heart, son! Here, in My arms nightmares and fears disappear. There is peace here. Come! Do come! Make Me happy! » Jesus has stood up and is stretching out His arms. The fire is between them. Jesus shines in the reflection of the flames.
The man falls on his knees, covering his face and shouting: « Have mercy on me, God! Have mercy on me! Cancel my sin! I wanted to strike Your Christ! Mercy! Ah! there can be no mercy for such a crime! I am damned! » He weeps with his face on the ground, sobbing, and he moans: « Mercy » and he swears: « The cursed ones! »...
Jesus walks round the fire and goes towards him, He bends, He touches his head saying: « Do not curse those who led you astray. They obtained the greatest gift for you: that I should speak to you. Thus. And that I should hold you thus in My arms. »
He has taken him by his shoulders and has lifted him up, and sitting on the ground He draws him to His heart, and the man leans on His knees shedding tears that are less phrenetic, but so purifying! Jesus caresses his dark hair to calm him.
The man at last raises his head and with changed countenance he moans: « Your forgiveness! »
Jesus bends and kisses his forehead. The man throws his arms round His neck and with his head resting on Jesus' shoulders he weeps and begins to speak; he would like to tell Him how they had worked on him to make him commit the crime. But Jesus stops him saying: « Be quiet! Be quiet! I am aware of everything. When you came in I knew you, both for what you were and for what you wanted to do. I could have gone away from there and eluded you. I remained to save you. And you are saved. The past is dead. Do not recall it. »
« But... are You so confident? And if I should sin again? »
« No, you will not sin again. I know. You are cured. »
« Yes, I am. But they are so astute. Don't send me back to them. »
« And where can you go and not find them? »
« With You. To Ephraim. If You can read my heart, You will see that I am not laying a snare for You, but I am only begging You to protect me. »
« I know. Come. But I warn you that Judas of Kerioth, who sold himself to the Sanhedrin and is the betrayer of the Christ, is there. »
« Divine Mercy! You know also that?! » He is utterly amazed.
« I know everything. He thinks that I do not know. But I know everything. And I know also that you are so converted that you will not speak to Judas or to anybody else about this. But bear in mind this: if Judas can betray his Master, what will he be able to do to harm you? »
The man is pensive, for a long time. He then says: « It does not matter! If You do not reject me, I am staying with You. At least for some time. Until Passover. Until You join Your disciples. I will join them. Oh! if it is true that You have forgiven me, do not drive me away! »
« I will not drive you away. We shall now go over there, on those leaves and wait for daybreak, and at dawn we shall go to Ephraim. We shall say that we met by chance and that you have come to stay with us. It is the truth. »
« Yes. It is the truth. At dawn my clothes will be dry and I will give Your garment back to You... »
« No. Leave those clothes there. A symbol. The man who divests himself of his past and puts on a new uniform. The mother of Samuel, the ancient one, sang in her joy: “The Lord gives death and life, He brings down to Sheol and draws up.” You died and are reborn. You are coming from the place of the dead to true Life. Leave the clothes that have been affected by the contact with the sepulchres full of filth. And live! Live for your true glory: to serve God with justice and possess Him forever. »
They sit in the recess where the leaves are piled up and they soon fall silent, because the man, tired as he is, falls asleep with his head resting on the shoulder of Jesus, Who is still praying.
...It is a beautiful morning in spring, when they arrive at the house of Mary of Jacob, following the path along the torrent, which is becoming clear after the downpour and is singing more loudly with its increased waters, and is shining in the sun between its banks polished by the rain.
Peter, who is at the entrance, utters a cry and runs to meet them, hurrying to embrace Jesus, Who is all enveloped in His mantle, and he says: « Oh! my blessed Master! What a sad Sabbath You made me spend! I could not make up my mind to go away without seeing You. I would have been upset the whole week if I had to leave with uncertainty in my heart and without Your farewell! »
Jesus kisses him without removing His mantle. Peter is so engaged in contemplating his Master that he does not notice the stranger who is with Him. In the meantime the others have come and Judas of Kerioth utters a cry: « You, Samuel! »
« It is I. The Kingdom of God is open to everybody in Israel. I have come to it » the man replies without hesitation.
Judas has a strange sly laugh, but he does not say anything.
Everybody's attention is focused on the newcomer, and Peter asks: « Who is he? »
« A new disciple. We met by chance. That is: God made us meet, and as I accepted him as one sent to Me by My Father, so I tell you to do the same. And as it is a great feast when one comes to take part in the Kingdom of Heaven, lay down your bags and mantles, you who were about to leave, and let us be all together until tomorrow. And now let Me go, Simon, because I gave My tunic to him and the morning air is nipping Me while I am standing here. »
« Ah! I thought it was! But You will be taken ill, if You do that! »
« I did not want... But He insisted » says the man apologetically.
« Yes. He was swept away by an overflowing large stream and only his will saved him. So to ensure that nothing should remind him of that painful moment, and to enable him to come to us in a clean state, I made him leave his dirty torn tunic where we met, and I made him put on Mine » says Jesus and He looks at Judas of Kerioth who repeats his strange sly laugh, as he did at the beginning and when Jesus said that a great feast is made when one comes to take part in the Kingdom of Heaven. He then goes quickly into the house to dress Himself.
The others approach the newcomer expressing their greetings of peace.