18th March 1947.
They must have stopped half-way between Jericho and Bethany because, when they arrive at the first houses in Bethany, the last drops of dew are evaporating on leaves and stems in meadows and the sun is still rising in the vault of heaven.
The farmers of the area drop their tools and rush round Jesus, Who is passing blessing men and plants, as insistently requested by the peasants. And some women and children come towards Him with the first almonds still enveloped in the light silver-green plush of the husks, and with the last blossoms of the late fruit-trees. I notice, however, that here, in the area of Jerusalem, probably because of the altitude, or because of the winds blowing from the highest mountain tops in Judaea, or I do not know for which other reason, perhaps also because the trees are different, there are many trees still blossoming and they look like light white-rosy clouds hanging over the green meadows. The tender vine leaves quiver under the high tree-trunks like large butterflies of a precious emerald hue, tied to the rough vine-shoots.
While Jesus stops at the fountain, which is situated where the country ends and the village begins, and He is respectfully greeted by almost the whole population of Bethany, Lazarus arrives with his sisters and they prostrate themselves before their Lord. Although little more than two days have gone by since Mary left her Master, she seems not to have seen Him for ages, so untiring she is in kissing His dusty feet in His sandals.
« Come, my Lord. Our home is awaiting You to rejoice at Your presence » says Lazarus standing beside Jesus, while they proceed slowly, as the crowds allow them to do. The people in fact throng round Him and the children cling to Jesus' garments and walk in front of Him, with their heads raised looking at Him, so that they stumble and make Him stumble, so much so that Jesus first and then Lazarus and the apostles pick up the smaller ones in their arms, to be able to walk faster.
At a junction with a lane leading to Simon Zealot's house, there is Mary with Her sister-in-law, Salome and Susanna. Jesus stops to greet His Mother, and then He goes on as far as the large wide open gate where Maximinus, Sarah and Marcella are, and behind them all the many servants of the house, beginning with those employed in the house and ending with those working in the fields. They are all in order, very happy and excited in their joy that bursts into hosannas, while they wave their headgears and veils and they throw flowers and leaves of myrtle and laurel, of roses and jasmins, which shine in the sun with their splendid corollas or spread like white stars on the dark ground. The scent of plucked flowers and trodden aromatic leaves rises from the ground warmed by the sun. Jesus passes on the sweet-smelling carpet.
Mary of Magdala, who follows Him looking at the ground, stoops, step by step, looking like a gleaner who follows the man tying the sheaves, to pick up the leaves and corollas and also the plucked petals that have been pressed by Jesus' feet.
Maximinus, in order to be able to close the gate and give peace to the guests, orders the servants to give cakes, that have already been prepared, to the children. A practical way to distract the children's attention from the Lord and thus send them away without rousing a chorus of complaints. And the servants carry out the order taking out into the street baskets full of small cakes decorated with white-brown almonds.
And while the little ones crowd there, other servants push back the adults, among whom there is still Zacchaeus and his four friends – Joel, Judas, Eliel and Elkanah – and others whom I do not know, because they are all covered with veils, to protect themselves from the dust raised by a rather heavy wind and from the sun, which is already strong.
But Jesus, Who is already far ahead, turns round and says: « Wait! I have something to tell some of you. »
And He goes towards Johanna's brothers and He takes them aside saying: « Please go to Johanna and tell her to come to Me with all the women who are with her and with Annaleah, the disciple from Ophel. Tell her to come tomorrow, because the Sabbath begins at sunset, tomorrow and I want to spend it with My friends of Bethany. In peace. »
« We will tell her, Lord. And she will come. »
Jesus dismisses them and He goes to Joel: « You will tell Joseph and Nicodemus that I have come and that on the day after the Sabbath I will enter the town. »
« Oh! Be careful, Lord! » says the good scribe anxiously.
« Go. And be strong. He who follows justice and believes in My truth must not be afraid. But he must rejoice because the accomplishment of the ancient Promise is about to take place. »
« Ah! I will run away from Jerusalem, Lord. I am a man of a delicate constitution, as You can see and You know, and I am laughed at because of that. I could not stand any... »
« Your angel will guide you. Go in peace. »
« Shall I... see You again, Lord? »
« Of course you will see Me again. But until you see Me again consider that your love has given Me so much joy in the hours of sorrow. »
Joel takes the hand that Jesus had laid on his shoulder and presses it against his lips; through the thin veil of his headgear kisses and tears descend upon Jesus' hand.
He then goes away and Jesus goes to Zacchaeus: « Where are your friends? »
« They remained at the fountain, Lord. I told them to stay there. »
« Join them and go with them to Bethphage where My earliest and most faithful disciples are. Tell Isaac, their chief, to spread through the town and inform all the groups of disciples that the morning after the Sabbath, about the third hour, I will pass through Bethphage and enter Jerusalem and I will go up to the Temple in a solemn way. Tell Isaac that this information is for the disciples only. He will understand what I mean. »
« I understand as well, Master. You want to surprise the Judaeans so that they may not be able to hinder Your entrance. »
« Exactly. So do as I told you. Remember that I am entrusting you with a confidential task. I am making use of you and not of Lazarus. »
« And that tells me how Your kindness to me is incommensurable. I thank You, Lord. » He kisses the Master's hand and goes away.
Jesus is about to go back to His hosts. But from the gate from which the last people are coming out, pushed by the servants, a young man departs and runs towards Jesus, throwing himself at His feet and shouting: « A blessing, Master! Do You recognise me? » raising his head, which is not veiled.
« Yes. You are Joseph named Barnabas, the disciple of Gamaliel, and you came to meet Me near Giscala. »
« And I have been following You for many days. I was at Shiloh, on my way from Giscala where I had gone with the rabbi while You were absent, and where I remained studying the rolls until the month of Nisan. I was at Shiloh when You spoke, and I followed You to Lebonah and to Shechem, and I waited for You at Jericho, because I had heard that You... » He suddenly stops as if he realised that he was about to say what he was not to mention.
Jesus smiles kindly and says: « The truth bursts out impetuously from sincere lips, and it often flows over the dams that prudence places before people's mouths. But I will complete your thought... “because you had heard from Judas of Kerioth, who remained at Shechem, that I was going to Jericho to join My disciples and give them My instructions.” And you went there to wait for Me without worrying about being seen, about wasting your time and being away from your master Gamaliel. »
« He will not reproach me when he learns that I delayed in order to follow You. I will take him Your words as a gift... »
« Oh! Rabbi Gamaliel does not need words. He is the wise rabbi of Israel! »
« Yes. No other rabbi can teach him anything of what is ancient, nothing, because he knows everything that is ancient. But You can. You have new words, full of the fresh life of what is new. Your word is like the sap of springtime. That is what rabbi Gamaliel says, and he adds that the wisdom by now covered with the dust of ages, and thus dry and dull, becomes lively and bright when Your word explains it. Oh! I will take him Your words. »
« And My greetings. Tell him to open his heart, his intellect, his sight, his hearing; and his more than twenty-year-old question will be answered. Go. God be with you. »
The youth stoops again to kiss the Master's feet and goes away.
The servants can at last close the gate and Jesus can join His friends.
« I took the liberty of inviting the women disciples here for tomorrow » says Jesus standing beside Lazarus on whose shoulder He lays His arm.
« You did the right thing, Lord. My house is Yours, as You know. Your Mother preferred to stay in Simon's house. And I respected Her desire. But I hope that You will stay under my roof. »
« Yes, I will. Although... also the other house is your roof. One of your first generous actions on My friends' behalf and Mine. How many of them you have done, My dear friend! »
« And I hope I shall be able to go on doing them for a long time. Although that is the wrong word, wise Master. I am not being generous to You. You are being generous to me. I am the debtor. And if before the treasures You have given me, I lay a farthing for You, what is my miserable gift as compared with Your treasures? “Give and it will be given to you” You said. “A shaken and pressed measure will be poured on your lap and you will receive one hundredfold of what you have given” You say. I received one hundredfold of a hundredfold even when I had not given You anything. Oh! I remember our first meeting! You, the Lord and God, Whom seraphim are not worthy to approach, came to me, when I was all alone and distressed... closed in here, in my sadness, You came to Lazarus, the man shunned by everybody, except Joseph and Nicodemus and my faithful friend Simon, who from his sepulchre of a living being did not cease to love me... You did not want my joy in seeing You to be perturbed by the corrosive splashes of the world's contempt... Our first meeting! I could repeat all the words You spoke then... What had I given You then, if I had ever seen You, that I should receive from You, at once, one hundredfold of one hundredfold? »
« Your prayers to our Most High Father. Ours, Lazarus. Mine. Yours. Mine as the Word and as Man. Yours as man. When you prayed then with so much faith, were you not already giving Me your whole self? So you can see that, as it is fair, I gave you one hundredfold of what you were giving Me. »
« Your goodness is infinite, Master and Lord. You reward in advance, and with divine generosity, those whom Your thought acknowledges as Your servants even before they realise to be such. »
« My friends, not My servants. Because, really, those who do the will of My Father and follow the Truth that He has sent, are My friends, not My servants. Even more: My brothers, as I am the first to do the will of the Father. So whoever does what I do is My friend, because only a friend does spontaneously what his friend does. »
« May it be so forever between You and me, Lord. When are You going to town? »
« The morning after the Sabbath. »
« I will come as well. »
« No. You will not come with Me. I will tell you why. I have other things to ask of you... »
« As You wish, Master. I have to speak to You as well... »
« We shall speak. »
« Do You prefer to spend the Sabbath among ourselves, or can I invite our mutual friends? »
« Please do not invite anybody. I am anxious to spend these hours in prudent peaceful friendship with you alone, without any constraint of thought or formality, in the kind freedom of one who is among such dear friends as to feel at home. »
« As You wish, Lord. In actual fact... that is what I wanted. But I thought I was being selfish towards my friends. They are all inferior in friendship to You, my only Friend, but still so dear. But if that is what You wish... Perhaps You are tired, Lord. Or pensive... » Lazarus questions his Friend and Master more with his eyes than with his words, and Jesus replies to him only with His rather sad and somewhat absorbed eyes and with a faint smile of His lips.
They are now alone near the fountain, whose jet of water sounds like a song... All the others have gone into the house and one can hear voices and the noise of kitchenware...
Mary of Magdala twice or three times puts her fair-haired head out of the door protected by a heavy curtain waving lightly in the wind that is getting stronger, while the sky is overcast with clouds that are becoming more and more ruffled and dark.
Lazarus raises his head scanning the sky. « I think we are going to have a storm » he says. And he adds: « It will help the obstinate buds to open, as they have much difficulty in doing so this year... Perhaps the late severity of the weather has delayed the shoots. Also my almond-trees have suffered and much fruit has been lost. Joseph was telling me that one of his kitchen gardens outside the Judicial Gate appears to be completely unfruitful this year. The trees are restraining the buds, as if they had been laid under a spell. So much so that he is undecided whether he should leave them or sell them as firewood. Nothing. Not one blossom. They are now exactly as they were in the month of Tebeth. Tiny heads of buds, so hard and closed that never swell. It is true that the northern wind is very strong there and it blew continuously during winter. Also the fruits of my kitchen garden beyond the Kidron were damaged. But what is happening in Joseph's kitchen garden is so strange that many people go to see that place that refuses to awake in springtime. »
« Are You smiling? Why? »
« Because of the childishness of men, the eternal children. They are charmed by everything that appears to be strange... But the orchard will blossom. At the right time. »
« The right time is already past, Lord. When have many trees in one place not blossomed in the month of Nisan? How long has that place still to wait for the right moment? »
« When it is time to give glory to God with their blossoming. »
« Ah! I see! You will go there to bless that place, for Joseph's sake, and it will blossom giving new glory to God and to His Messiah by means of a new miracle! It is so! You are going there. Can I tell Joseph if I see him? »
« If you think that you should tell him... Yes. I shall be going there... »
« When, Lord? I should like to be there as well. »
« Are you an eternal child, too? » Jesus smiles more heartily shaking His head good-naturedly at the curiosity of His friend who exclaims: « Oh! I am happy that I have cheered You up, Lord. I once again see Your face bright with a smile, as I had not seen for a long time! So... shall I come? »
« No, Lazarus. I shall need you here on Preparation Day. »
« Oh! But on Preparation Day we attend only to Passover! You... Master, why do You want to do something for which You will be rebuked? Go there some other day... »
« I shall be compelled to go in there just on Preparation Day. But I shall not be the only one to do something which is not in preparation for the old Passover. Also the most severe people in Israel, such as Helkai, Doras, Simon, Sadoc, Ishmael and even Caiaphas and Annas will do entirely new things... »
« So is Israel going mad?! »
« You have said it. »
« But You... Oh! here is the rain. Let us go into the house, Master... I... am worried... Will You not explain to me... »
« Yes. Before leaving you I will tell you... There is your sister coming with a heavy cloth, as she is afraid we might get wet... Oh! Martha! You are always provident and active. But it is not a heavy rain. »
« My dear sister! Nay, my sisters. They are now both like two tender girls unaware of malice, both Mary and this one. And when Mary came from Jericho the day before yesterday, she really looked like a young girl, with her plaits hanging down her body, as she had sold her hairpins to buy sandals for a boy, and the thin iron hairpins were not strong enough to support her hair. She laughed and coming off the wagon she said to me: “My dear brother, I have experienced what it means having to sell in order to buy, and I have learned how even the most simple things are difficult for the poor, such as having to keep your hair tidy by means of hairpins, twenty of which are worth a didrachma. I shall remember that to be even more merciful to poor people in future.” How much You have changed her, Lord! »
The woman of whom they are speaking while setting foot in the house is already there with amphorae and basins to serve her Lord. She will not surrender the honour of serving Him to anybody, and she is not satisfied until she has restored the limbs and appetite of her Master and she sees Him go, wearing fresh sandals, towards the room allotted to Him and where His Mother is waiting for Him with a fresh linen garment still smelling of sunshine...