7th February 1947.
The main square in Shechem. A characteristic trait of spring-time is given to it by the new foliage of the trees that surround it in a double row along the square-shaped walls of the houses, forming a kind of gallery. The sun plays among the tender leaves of plane-trees projecting an embroidery of light and shadows on the ground. The basin in the centre of the square is a silver plate in the sunshine. People in groups are discussing their business here and there.
Some people, who are apparently strangers, as everybody is asking who they are, come into the square, they look round and approach the first group they meet. They exchange greetings to everybody's amazement. But when they say: « We are disciples of the Master of Nazareth » all mistrust ends and some go to inform the other groups, while those who remain say: « Did He send you? »
« He did, on a very secret mission. The Rabbi is in great danger. No one loves Him any more in Israel and He, Who is so kind, asks you at least to remain faithful to Him. »
« But that is what we want! What are we to do? What does He want of us? »
« Oh! He wants nothing but love. Because He relies too much in the protection of God. And with what is said in Israel! But you are not aware that He is being accused of satanism and insurrection. Do you know what that means? Reprisals of the Romans against everybody. And we who are already so miserable will be struck even harder! And we shall be condemned by the holy ones of our Temple. It is certain that the Romans...
Also for your own sake you ought to take action, and persuade Him to defend Himself and defend Him, and make it almost, nay, make it definitely impossible for Him to be caught and thus be harmful, having no intention of being so. Persuade Him to withdraw to the Gerizim. Where He is now, He is still too exposed and He does not appease the anger of the Sanhedrin or the suspicions of the Romans. The Gerizim is certainly entitled to the right of sanctuary! There is no sense in telling Him. If we told Him He would say that we are anathema because we advise Him to be cowardly. But it is not so. It is love. It is prudence on our part. We are not allowed to speak. But you can! He loves you. He has already preferred your region to the others. So organise yourselves to accept Him. Because you will at least find out for certain whether He loves you or not. If He should refuse your assistance, it would mean that He does not love you, and then it would be better if He went elsewhere. Because, believe us – we are telling you this with sorrow – His presence is a danger for those who give Him hospitality. But you are, of course, the best of His admirers and you do not worry about dangers. However, if you risk reprisals of the Romans, it is fair that you should do so for an exchange of love. We advise you for everybody' sake. »
« You are right. And we will do as you say. We shall go to Him... »
« Oh! be careful! He must not become aware that it was our suggestion! »
« Don't worry! Don't be afraid! We know what to do. Of course! We will let people see that the despised Samaritans are worth a hundred, a thousand Judaeans and Galileans to defend the Christ. Come. Come to our houses, you messengers of the Lord. It will be the same as if He came to us! Samaria has been waiting for such a long time to be loved by God's servants! »
They go away keeping in the middle of their group those whom I do not think I am mistaken in calling emissaries of the Sanhedrin, and they say: « We realise that He loves us because this is the second group of disciples that He has sent to us in a few days. And we did the right thing in being kind to the first one. It is right to be so kind to Him because of the little children of that dead woman of our town! He knows us by now... »
And they go away looking happy.
All the people of Ephraim pour into the streets to see the unusual event of a procession of Roman wagons passing through the town. There are many wagons and covered litters, flanked with slaves and preceded and followed by legionaries. The people make gestures of mutual understanding and whisper. When the procession arrives at the crossroad for Bethel and Ramah it separates into two parts. A wagon and a litter stop with an escort of armed men, while the rest go on.
The curtains of the litter are drawn for a moment and a lady's white hand studded with gems beckons the head of the slaves to go near it. The man obeys without speaking. He listens. He approaches a group of curious women and asks: « Where is the Rabbi of Nazareth? »
« He lives in that house. But at this time of the day He is usually at the stream. There is a little island there, near those willow-trees, over there, where that poplar is. He stays there praying all day long. » The man goes back and reports. The litter sets out again. The wagon remains where it was. The soldiers follow the litter as far as the banks of the stream and bar the way. Only the litter proceeds along the stream as far as the islet, which in the process of the season has become well-wooded: a huge impenetrable tuft of greenery surmounted by the trunk and the silvery foliage of the poplar. At an order the bearers with tucked up garments enter the water and the litter crosses to the other side of the little water course. Claudia Procula comes out of it with a freedwoman, and Claudia beckons a dark slave escorting the litter to follow her. The others go back to the bank of the stream.
Claudia, followed by the two people, proceeds into the islet, towards the poplar standing out in the centre. The tall grass stifles the noise of steps. She thus arrives where Jesus is absorbed in thought, sitting at the foot of the tree. She calls Him advancing by herself while with an authoritative gesture she makes her two faithful attendants stop where they are.
Jesus looks up and He stands up at once as soon as He sees the woman. He greets her holding Himself upright against the trunk of the poplar. He does not appear to be astonished, or annoyed or irritated at the intrusion.
After greeting Him, Claudia enters into the subject promptly: « Master. Some people have come to me, or rather to Pontius... I do not make long speeches. But as I admire You, I say to You what I would have said to Socrates, if I had lived in his days, or to any other virtuous man unjustly persecuted: “I cannot do very much, but I will do what I can.” And in the meantime I will write where it is possible for me to do so, to have You protected... and to make You powerful. So many undeserving people live on thrones or in high positions... »
« Domina, I have not asked honours and protection of you. May the true God reward you for your thought. But give your honours and protection to those who long for them. I do not crave after them. »
« Ah! There You are! That is what I wanted! So You really are the Just Man I foresaw! And the others, Your worthless slanderers! They came to us and... »
« You need not tell Me, domina. I know. »
« Do You also know that they say that because of Your sins You have lost all power and consequently You live here as an outcast? »
« I know that, too. And I know that it was easier for you to believe the latter rumour than the former. Because your heathen mind can descry the human power or the human meanness of a man, but it cannot yet understand what is the power of the spirit. You are... disappointed by your gods who in your religion appear to be quarrelling continuously and to have such a failing power, subject to easy interdictions because of their reciprocal contrasts. And you think that the true God is the same. But it is not so. As I was the first time you saw Me cure a leper, such I am now. And such I shall be when I appear to be completely destroyed. That is your dumb slave, is it not? »
« Yes, Master. »
« Tell him to come forward. »
Claudia utters a cry and the man moves forward and prostrates himself on the ground between Jesus and his mistress. His poor heart of a savage does not know whom he should venerate more. He is afraid that to venerate the Christ more than his mistress may cause him to be punished. But even so, after casting a suppliant glance at Claudia, he repeats the gesture he made at Caesarea: he takes Jesus' bare foot in his big dark hands and stooping with his face on the ground he lays the foot on his head.
« Domina, listen. According to you, is it easier for a man to conquer a kingdom by himself, or to make grow again a part that no longer exists of a human body? »
« To conquer a kingdom, Master. Fortune favours the brave. But no one, that is, only You can make a dead man revive and give eyes to the blind. »
« Why? »
« Because... Because God can do everything. »
« So according to you I am God? »
« Yes... or, at least God is with You. »
« Can God be with a wicked person? I am talking of the true God, not of your idols that are the frenzy of those who seek what they perceive to exist without knowing what it is, and they imagine phantoms to satisfy their souls. »
« No... I would not say so. Even our priests lose their power as soon as they fall into sin. »
« Which power? »
« Well... the power to read the signs of the sky and the responses of victims, the flights and singing of birds. You know... Augurs, haruspices... »
« I know. So? Look. Raise your head and open your mouth, man, whom a cruel human power deprived of a gift of God. And by the will of the true, only God, the Creator of perfect bodies, have what man took away from you. »
He has put His white finger into the open mouth of the dumb man. The freedwoman, who is very curious, cannot remain where she is, and she comes forward to see. Claudia has bowed to watch. Jesus removes His finger shouting: « Speak, and make use of the reborn part to praise the true God. » And, all of a sudden, like the blast of a trumpet, of an instrument so far mute, a guttural but clear cry replies: « Jesus! » and the negro falls to the ground weeping for joy and he licks, he really licks Jesus bare feet, just as a grateful dog would do.
« Have I lost My power, domina? Give this reply to those who throw out such innuendos. And you... stand up and be good thinking how much I have loved you. I have had you in My heart since that day at Caesarea. And with you all those like you, who are regarded as goods, considered inferior even to brutes, whereas you are men, equal to Caesar, by conception and probably better because of the good will of your hearts...
You may withdraw, domina... There is nothing else to be said. »
« Yes. There is something. There is the fact that I doubted... that I, with grief, almost believed what they said about You. And I was not the only one. Forgive us all, except Valeria, who has never changed her mind, nay, nay her mind is more determined than ever. And there is my gift to be accepted: this man. He could no longer serve me now that he can speak, and my money. »
« No, neither. »
« So, are You not forgiving me? »
« I forgive also those of My people, who are twice guilty of not knowing Me for what I am. And should I not forgive all of you, deprived as you are of all divine knowledge? Here. I said that I would not accept your money or the man. I will now accept both and with the money I will free the man. I give your money back to you because I am buying the man. And I am buying him to make him free, so that he may go back to his country to say that on the Earth there is the Man Who loves all men, and the more He sees their unhappiness the more He loves them. Keep your purse. »
« No, Master, it is Yours. The man is free just the same. He is mine. I have given him to You. You are freeing him. No money is needed for that. »
« Well... Have you a name? » He asks the man.
« We used to call him Callisto scoffingly. But when he was caught... »
« It does not matter. Keep that name, and make it real by becoming very handsome in your spirit (1). Go. Be happy because God has saved you. »
(1) Callisto is in fact a Greek word meaning « very beautiful, very handsome ».
Go! The negro does not tire of kissing and saying: « Jesus! Jesus! » and he lays Jesus' foot once again on his head saying: « You. My only Master. »
« I. Your true Father. Domina, you will take upon yourself to let him go back to his country. Use the money for that and give him the rest. Goodbye, domina. And never listen to the voices of darkness. Be just. And strive to know Me. Goodbye, Callisto. Goodbye, woman. »
And Jesus puts an end to the conversation by jumping across the stream to the side opposite to the one where the litter is and He disappears among the bushes, the willows and the reed thickets.
Claudia calls the litter bearers and enters the litter again with a pensive countenance. But if she is silent, the freedwoman and the free slave talk as much as ten people and even the legionaries forget their rigid discipline in the presence of the wonder of a reborn tongue. Claudia is too absorbed in thought to order them to be silent. Reclined in the litter, one elbow resting on pillows, her head supported by her hand, she does not hear anything. She is engrossed in thought. She does not even notice that the freedwoman is not with her but is chattering like a magpie, with the litter bearers while Callisto is speaking to the legionaries who, if they keep lined up, do not keep silent. They are too excited to do so!
Going back the same way, they arrive at the Bethel and Ramah crossroads; the litter leaves Ephraim to join the rest of the procession.