First Century Photo Op
It seems to have been long ages ago,
and there has since been little reason to think
about these things so lodged in the past;
but here is what I remember…
He did not shine
as I had been led to expect,
and he smelt like my father,
except for his feet, which smelt of dust.
My father’s feet recalled the overturned loam
of the cultivated fields after a rain,
and the richly pungent dung of the sheepfold.
But, I get ahead of my story:
First, they came, two-by-two, his advance men,
disciples; and they knocked on those doors
within which they apparently had reason to expect
a welcome, a meal, perhaps a pallet on the floor,
or on mounded straw in a humble shed, comforted
in the chill of night by the body heat of beasts.
A strange lot, they walked unafraid through the dark
forests and over the cave-riddled hills of the Galilee,
with nothing more than a stout staff between them
to afford a bit of protection from highway robbers.
Despite the chill of the nighttime hills, each was content
with but a single coat. And a robber would not have
profited for the effort made to waylay these gentle
souls, for they carried no purse, nor even a rough loaf;
each relied for his sustenance on God’s providence
through the inspired agency of sympathetic strangers.
Neither did the stones in the road slow them,
though they wore neither shoes nor sandals,
but made their way like children, unshod in every weather.
I happened to have been with my father, bringing a cartful
of fresh produce to market on the day when a pair
of these forerunning promoters arrived in our little country
township, trailing a line of curious youngsters
like the tail of a noisy gust-buffeted kite. Knocking,
they were swiftly admitted through the front door
of Jacob, the greengrocer, whose wife, one recalls,
had a local reputation for mild hysteria, founded
upon a devoutly anticipatory and credulous disposition.
Having established this advance station and operational
headquarters in the home of a respected merchant, and
generous supporter of the local synagogue, each man went
his separate way, mingling with the market folk, engaging
in conversation whomever they could, to announce to every
man and woman thus detained the imminent arrival
of their teacher; a rabbi, so they claimed, of unprecedented wisdom,
whose message of universal brotherhood and unconditional love
of each for all would soon be the end of sickness and death
in a gloriously transformed world; a New Eden in which
the righteous would wear crowns that shone like stars,
and where every miscreant would receive on that Last Day
his just deserts, long since earned through their enjoyment
of evil in its myriad manifestations, which mirror this fallen world.
I may be too earthy, too pragmatic, too dubious
a man; finally too much the straw-sucking hick,
but even as a lad I never gave much credence to the rumor
that these fellows possessed the power to cast out demons.
To this day, I cannot personally attest to the reality of evil spirits.
I tend to harbor a tentative, but persistent, conviction
that your “demon” is really no more than a weak man’s
excuse for his flagrant failure to do what is right,
having exchanged the quieting of his conscience
for the satisfaction of some overweening appetite;
the gratification of his greed for gold; the titillation
of his lust for forbidden flesh; or a bottomless hunger
for an excess of victuals and wine to fill his burgeoning belly
and muffle the quiet voice of prudent decency: elective deafness
empowering a fear of damnation deferred to another day.
Based upon the wonders told of this miraculous rabbi by his pitchmen,
I had almost expected him to arrive in glory, shining like a Roman pillar,
riding upon the winds in a colossal chariot of light-saturated clouds.
But the sky did not open. It was a day much like any other. Hot, busy.
Children ran the streets in shrieking packs. Women in pairs, well-wrapped
despite the sun, stooped to criticize the goods in the market stalls,
in hopes of getting a better price on the basis of their skepticism.
Excited dogs pursued the soles of laughing men, who had walked
on the urine pooled in the alleyway behind the public house.
And when he arrived, barely stirring the dust of the market’s
central lane, his mode of transportation was but humble shank’s mare.
Without being led, he made his way to Jacob’s door, knocked and entered.
He was not seen again for an interval of time during which village life
went on as always. There had been little to see. And that had ended.
I was later to learn from my sister Shoshana, as she had from the lips
Jacob’s all-too-nubile daughter, Rachaela -- a girl of fourteen and ripe
to a fault -- just what had transpired within Jacob’s four walls.
This girl had been bidden by her hyper-ventilating mother, to heat
water for the bath of this dust-ridden rabbi, while she spread a meal
on the table that his presence in their home so abundantly honored.
And Rachaela told Shoshana, and she to me later whispered,
that the bath duly poured, Rachaela had bowed and quickly departed,
but only to peek through a chink in the wall as this guest in their home
disrobed for the bathing. And Rachaela reported, with a lascivious titter,
that this rabbi, once naked, had stood gleaming with water;
wholly man, as revealed in every proportion.
There stood a small copse, just without the market, where
the women of the village maintained a small garden of flowers,
not to squander such shade as leafy boughs had to offer.
It was here, on a monolith, in the midst of this beauty, that his
scouts predetermined that he would be seated to preach to those
gathered of the glory of his Kingdom, which would surely arrive
without preview or warning, like a thief in the night, was how he later
described it. And all through the market, their master once seated, his
disciples had scurried, exhorting the shoppers to come hear their teacher
whose words would transform them, show the way to redemption; and
so a crowd gathered, not many in number, and quietly waited.
There was now consultation of this man with his helpers;
for led by Rachaela, a giggling set of young girls had shouldered
their way to the front of those tightly assembled. And I was there
watching, interested more in those girls, I can rightly assure you,
than I was in the preacher. And I saw that his eye picked out the bracelet
on the ankle of Rachaela, and he shook his head slightly and made a
small gesture. It was not girls like these that would illustrate his message.
His eyes searched the crowd and he picked out and summoned
the innocent young ones. He bade them come forward. Pushed
from behind by their fathers and mothers -- I amongst them --
these reluctant children stood before the high seat of this
stranger and soon found themselves unexpectedly joyful.
He reached down and hoisted up two of the smallest, whom
he placed on his lap, where they beamed like twin cherubs
singled out in high heaven for special attention.
The set thus arranged to his specifications, he began his performance.
And that’s what I remember of that long-ago day.