Saturday, October 20, 2012

Into that darkness

Farewell, beloved brother! Farewell, brother beloved of the Lord! Though we loved you well, our love could not heal you of that sickness, nor stop you from descending into that darkness of the grave. But we knew, I knew, that the man who loved you would heal you, would not let his holy one experience corruption, would not leave his lover’s bones scattered at the mouth of She’ol. I sent word to him by a servant, ‘Come, Master! The man you love is ill,’ knowing he would come in time and raise you from your bed of sickness as he had many others. I knew he would come, but he did not.

I was devastated. I was destroyed. But then as now, I prayed, ‘I have faith, even when I say I am completely crushed.’ Only now, I know for sure that which before I had merely hoped, because he who said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ proved on the battlefield of his body that even the vanquished is victor, that not sickness only is swallowed up in health, but death in life. Yet here I sit beside you, watching, as I did many years ago, a second time talking to you as alive, though you sleep, and this time for good. I need send no message by a servant. I know he comes. He knows I call.

He comes, yes, but nothing ever happens the same way twice. Then, our house in Bethany was full of rich Jews, friends from Jerusalem, come to help us through those awful days of wretched mourning, only to see that all they could do was nothing. The grief of death remained in me, cold, stiff, dead, incapable of rising on its own, except as a statue with sculpted sorrow on stone lips, with unseeing eyes, unhearing ears, locked forever in formal poise. Then, sister roused me from my hopeless reverie, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ I fell at his feet, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother…’

That time by his words he remade the world, yours, and ours. The crowd of consolation looked on, in consternation, as he stood among us before your tomb and wept, and they said to each other and to us, ‘So now he weeps! Where was the wonderworker when his beloved lay dying? He could have prevented…’ but we didn’t listen to them. Already by his presence, my eyes were beginning to see, my ears to hear, as they saw and heard you, brother beloved, emerging in your swaddling like a wrapped babe, as his words, ‘Lazarus, here, come out!’ undying resounded from that first moment, and even now.

Yes, even now, as I sit here before your quiet body a second time, but nothing ever happens the same way twice. Our house on this Greek isle again hosts your mourners, few Jews among them, but gentiles, and their sorrow is not grief, nor is mine, only a chill to the bones and a quietude, the same as we experience when we pray in the purple, pre-dawn darkness in a cemetery of the just, waiting with them for the final sunrise. ‘Eternal be your memory, dear brother, for you are worthy of entering into life,’ this song cutting broad swathes of melody in the fields of our hearts, healing us as he has healed you.

Healing you, brother beloved of the God who walks among us, who loves us more, invisibly, even than when he was visible among us. Healing you he comes, even as he knows I call. Yet the day is dark. Dark as that prayer cried out in the house of separation. Once, he delayed his coming, that we might descend into that darkness with you, proving us in the weakness of our human faith helpless and lost. Then, standing before that darkness, he called you, and us, out of it once and for all. Yet the darkness remains. It is the world. It is where we must live, no, where we must die in order to live beyond it.

I remember our last walk together, yours and mine, before you took to your bed, and our last talk. We reminisced. We were wealthy, once, many years ago, living in our villa in Bethany outside of Jerusalem. I could not remember how you met the Lord, but you reminded me, ‘I was that rich young man who at first went away.’ The Lord was attracted to your beauty. You always were a handsome man, even as you are now, lying before me, asleep in the body, soul listening to my thoughts. He was attracted to your beauty, but not to what is only seen, for he knows all men. He looks into our hearts.

Even in letting you go, after telling you, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell what you own, and give to the poor, and come and follow me,’ he knew. He knew you would return. And he has replaced our former riches with treasure that cannot be depleted, his words, even taking from us our old wealth and granting us a new, ‘A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “Go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it, and went,’ and again, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Wealth not to buy things, but to purchase men’s souls.

He who is infinitely rich became poorest of the poor to walk among us, teaching us, we are all poor in the eyes of the Lord. Yet that poverty is true wealth, because he has bestowed it. You reminded me of these, and other sayings you heard from his lips. And I revealed words he spoke to me, or heard him tell to the crowds when I followed him into Jerusalem that final week. I remember how surprised I was when I heard him tell of what you dreamt when you lay in your tomb, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple… and at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus…’ and like Joseph, interpret it.

These things, dear brother, let me rehearse in your presence as I sit watching over you. By mercy you were once raised from death, and by grace you have now been freed, this time forever. We spend all our lives trying to hide from the darkness of the fact that everything is moving, unstoppably, toward dissolution and death, towards nothing. Then a man appears who not only commands the dead to ‘come out’ but at last even disappears himself into that darkness, and then reappears, alive. ‘Man makes an end of darkness when he pierces to the uttermost depths the black and lightless rock…’

Monday, August 13, 2012

Now I Know For Sure

Touching Him, no one ever remains unchanged. I didn’t touch Him. He touched me, but not with His hands. He touched me with His words, and starting with that fateful day, nothing in my life remains the same.

I was a common servant then, a boy really, hired out by my poor parents whenever anyone needed help. I always did as I was told. I was glad to help my father and mother, who gave me life and did so much for me, even though sometimes I wished I could be free like the other boys, to amuse myself. When I became a man, I still honored my parents and, seeking to help them in their age, I hired myself out, working for a man that supplied marriage suppers with food and drink. I traveled all over Galilee with my master, catering the weddings of small and great. I continued to sleep in my old corner at home when our business brought me back to my village. That’s when I brought my earnings to my family’s relief. When I was away for longer, I sent word to my younger brother to meet me where I was. He took the money for me, and between him and me, we four were able to have food and shelter, and even a little for giving alms. From my father I learned, contempt of the poor is a luxury no one can afford. Though a man be poor, there are others poorer still. ‘Cast your bread on the water,’ my father used to say, ‘at long last you will find it again.’

You will no doubt believe me when I tell you that I was a poor man, for as you can see, that is what I am. When I tell you that I whom you see before you now clad in moth-eaten robe and faded turban was once Chuza, the steward of the great prince, Antipas of Galilee, you will laugh. I don’t blame you. I also laugh, though not out of doubt, but out of faith. For He that is Mighty has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. Like our forefather Yosef in Egypt, I was raised up out of my humble state to serve the Lord’s purposes, and when I had done as I was told, He released me to dwell the rest of my days in peace. For no one who serves a great prince is ever safe, or free of cares. The Most-High is merciful, blessed be He! Now, I will tell my story.

I was of marriageable age, but my family’s poverty constrained me from taking a wife. As I have already related, I worked with a master who catered marriage feasts, from Nazareth, to Cana, to Capernaum, everywhere in Galilee. So it was, that we were hired to prepare the feast for the marriage of a man of Cana and his bride. This is what happened. Half-way through the feast, the supply of wine we had ordered ran out. My master was beside himself. As he explained it to the steward of the feast, one of the guests, a young woman—or, at least, she looked young—overheard what was said. At her left sat a handsome young man whom I took to be her lord, though afterwards I discovered to my amazement, he was her son. I was standing near with another helper, awaiting my master’s orders. I heard the woman tell the man, ‘They’ve run out of wine.’

The young lord—for now I was sure he was a lord because of his gentle courtesy—replied, ‘My lady, what does this have to do with you and me? It is not yet time.’ In the pause that followed, I puzzled within myself, ‘What could he mean, saying, it is not yet time?’ but I had no time to wonder, for the woman turned to me, tugged on my sleeve and said, almost in a whisper, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

I felt embarrassed and confused, but something in her voice gave me confidence as I approached the young lord from his left, bent down, and waited for his instructions. He nodded across the courtyard where the feast was being given, and my eyes followed his gaze. There were six stone water jars lined up against a wall under the eaves. He commanded, ‘Those jars are empty. Fill them with water.’ My companion and I were more than bewildered, but I said to him, ‘Come on! Let’s do what the master says!’ The debate between the man we worked for and the steward of the feast kept their attention off us while we filled the jars.

Fortunately for us, there was a stone cistern just over the garden wall. It didn’t take us long to finish our task.
We were out of breath when we returned to the young lord. ‘Now, go back to the jugs. Ram, you fill a pitcher and pour it into a goblet. Chuza, you give the goblet to the master of the feast.’ I was as stunned as my companion, if his expression meant anything. ‘How does he know our names?’ I asked myself, as we hurried to do what the young lord commanded.

We came up, I reached out and handed the steward the goblet. ‘What is this?’ he gasped as he looked at the rich red wine in the cup, then took a drink. ‘Baruch, what is this?’ he demanded of our master. ‘You tell me the wine is run out, and now your boy hands me this?’ It was impossible for us at that moment to know for sure if he was mad or glad. He asked for another goblet, and we filled it. This the steward took to the head table and handed to the bridegroom. ‘Taste and see!’ he proudly said, and then spouted, ‘Others offer the fine wine first, and then the common, after everyone’s too drunk to know their left hand from their right. But you, Aharon, you saved the best till now!’ He looked around to make sure everyone had noticed.

This is where nothing remains unchanged. This is where no one remains unchanged. The paths of everyday life, zigzagging as they always have, are penetrated from an unseen center, where sometimes a hand is seen, sometimes a voice is heard, but from beyond the world the lightning flash that earths itself in every man is deflected by divine knowledge. A new point of entry is emblazoned on the heart, and the Lord of myriads of divine chariots takes more than Sinai for His sanctuary and Judah for His domain. My life suddenly was broken free from the bonds of fate, and like a golden leaf I was carried downstream in a glistening torrent, and deposited at the Lord’s feet.

Yes, He picked me up, though at the time I didn’t know who He was, only that he must be a young lord. Now I know for sure, He is the Ancient of Days.

The gossip began immediately as the marriage supper was ending. Everyone had his own version to tell of what happened, where the wine came from. Ram and I knew, but we didn’t tell. Strangely, no one even bothered to ask us. Gossips are never interested in the truth. Our master was wroth with us nonetheless, and dismissed us both from his service, punishing us for his mistake, and envious of our startling invention. I returned home dejected and cheated of my wages. Days later Baruch turned up at the door of my parents’ house asking for me. They told him they did not know where I was. He said he would pay them my wages if they would tell him how I had produced the wine. ‘What are you talking about?’ they protested. ‘What wine?’ But of course, I had told them all.

The first change was losing my livelihood. The second was finding it again. I did not have to look for it. It found me. As I now know, He found me.

Not long afterwards, an official came to our door with two soldiers asking for me. ‘Is this where we can find Chuza the wine maker?’ My parents were afraid, thinking, ‘What has he done now?’ I sensed their fear and emerged from behind the opened door. ‘Are you looking for me, sir? I am Chuza, but I am no wine maker.’ ‘That’s for the king to decide,’ he replied. ‘We are here to present you to the king. He has heard about the marriage feast in Cana.’

Afraid, and yet not afraid, I turned myself over to the soldiers and they carried me into the presence of the prince. (We do not call Herod Antipas ‘king’ for we have no king but the Holy One of Israel, blessed be He!) I was surprised at his gentleness as he asked me in detail what happened at that feast. Something inside me said, ‘Tell him the truth,’ and I did as I was told. About the young lord and the lady, I told him. What she said, what he said, I revealed all. ‘Well, this is a wonder!’ exclaimed the prince. ‘Come, Chuza! We sense that there is something about you, something mysterious and auspicious. Come and stay with Us, and be Our steward. Since you have told Us the truth, We want you to rule Our household.’

I looked down and stammered, ‘But majesty’—I didn’t know how to address him; I had never met a prince before—‘I am only Chuza, the support of my aged parents. You must be mistaken. I did nothing. I performed no miracle. It was that man I told you about. I only did what I was told, what he commanded.’

The prince stood up—he was seated and I knelt before him—and raised me to my feet. ‘Come, Chuza, We make you Our steward. We will provide for your parents. We will give you a wife as well. Stay with Us.’ And so it was. My parents were cared for, and my brother too. The prince gave me a wife of the house of Israel, even of the house of David, the virgin Joanna. Her family was rich, known at court. They were Hellenists. At the time, I knew nothing of these things. Now, I know more.

Joanna was chosen for me because—again, this was a change incredible and unexpected, for both of us—she was a relation of the mother of the young lord that worked the sign. Yes, it was Joanna who explained it to me. Miryam was the mother of the young lord whose name was Yeshua. Though her family and Miryam’s were of different wealth and station, Joanna visited Miryam and Yeshua often, helping them. Unknown to me, she was even at the marriage feast, and drank of that new wine that knew no vine. Joanna and I lived happily together in the palace for three years, as we followed the young lord, she with her feet, I only with my heart.

‘For three years?’ you ask. ‘What happened to that life, emulator of Yosef son of Yaakov?’ I know, I know. Yes, it is very hard to believe, but I am telling you the truth. I was the steward of Herod Antipas. Joanna was my wife. The young lord Yeshua grew in stature and in favor with God and men. Well, with some men, and only for a time. The same who followed Him when He healed and fed them, many of those called for His execution, not knowing who He was. But I knew. Joanna knew. When they lay His lifeless body in the tomb, my Joanna went with some other women disciples—yes, my wife was among the first to know He had scattered hell’s minions and taken it captive when He rose from the dead—to anoint His body. She came back screaming that the tomb was empty.

The commotion came to the ears of the prince. He was already very troubled, for the sake of that Man, as were all the rulers of the parceled land of Israel. He called us into his presence, seeking to know the reason for this outburst of my wife’s.

‘What is this all about?’ he demanded. In my heart, I knew that a tie was about to severed. Touching Him, no one ever remains unchanged. The prince had commanded me, one day not long before, to tell him the truth, for he wanted to know, and I told him. This time it was different. Seeking not the truth, indeed terrified of it, nevertheless he asked. As she began to speak, he suddenly shut tight his eyes, shot out his left hand, and barked, ‘Enough! Enough of these lies! I’ve heard all I want to hear! Get out of my sight!’ Even with his eyes closed, Joanna’s testimony pierced through those jeweled eyelids.

As quickly as I once was snagged in the maw of his service I was—we were—disgorged, and turned out into the street as though we had never known the palace. This was, for me, a blessed relief, for I wanted to follow that Man with more than my heart. Returning from Yerushalayim where she had followed Him that holy week before the Passover was sacrificed, she now shared with me the good news that He was to meet His disciples right here in Galilee, and that is what, in fact, happened, not many days after. Yes, He appeared to us again and again in those days before Shavuot. Even I was among those who met Him again, this time knowing who He is.

Touching Him, no one ever remains unchanged. I didn’t touch Him. He touched me, but not with His hands. He touched me with His words, and starting with that fateful day, nothing in my life remains the same.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Wed At Last

‘How can you sleep with a mere man when the Desire of the ages chooses to lodge under your roof?’ This thought, this question, raised me from my bed of sickness, from my sin, and set me on my own feet for the first time in my life. I had always let myself be carried, always wanted to be carried, not where I would have gone, but where my lover of the moment desired to take me. I had no other purpose but to fold into a man, any man, and do his bidding. That’s what women are for after all, isn’t it? We only exist to help our man. Without this mission we have no existence, no right to exist, we are not even alive.

Yes, I had had my share of them, men, even more than my share. My own father found me too choice a morsel to let me go to another before he had his way with me. Why then was he so severe, so merciless, with Avram when he, my first lover, got me with child? It happened within the same moon, besides, so whose was my first-born son, really? Who was the father of my Yosef? Who can know these things but God? And so my father forced the boy to make me his under the canopy of marriage, and denied his womenfolk the chore of checking the sheets for the blood they would not have found.

‘Go, call your husband,’ the strange Jew had commanded me, forcing my mind to swiftly search my heart for an answer, for I had no husband. Avram had not truly loved me, though caught in the net of his beauty, I surrendered my freedom gladly. I should have known better, but I was only a girl. Were other men like my father? I wanted to know, could a man be gentle? I had not much time to find out, for like his namesake, my first husband Avram soon left his father’s house, and me his wife with child, and went to work for his brother in a distant village. To divorce me he did not dare, but I never saw him again.

Perhaps the Jews are right, we Samaritans are all offspring of adultery. Perhaps their rabbis speak the truth when they call us ‘unredeemable’ and ‘unclean,’ a people that cannot change, a race that is born craving what is unlawful, a brood doomed to die in its sins. But what about them, those Jews? The stranger’s words, ‘we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews,’ was he just another self-righteous rabbi? But why did he speak to me, then, a Samaritan, and even worse, a woman? ‘Who is this man?’ I kept asking myself, every moment hope mixing with fear, as a new desire was aroused in me.

Hoping to hide behind the truth spoken as a lie, I answered him, ‘I have no husband,’ but this stranger—I could already sense that here was the man who had always known me, who knows me better than I know myself—this man who asked me for a drink, replied, ‘Yes, that’s right. You have no husband. You’ve had five…’ And for a moment it felt as though my heart stopped, my ears burned for his boldness, my eyes opened as if for the first time. ‘I see, you are a prophet,’ I blurted out without thinking. There was nothing else I needed to tell him about me. Now, I only thirsted to hear him tell me who he was.

He already knew about the others, those men whom need or desire had compelled me to take to my bed. There was nothing, though, of blame in his voice as he told me, ‘and the one you’re living with now is not your husband.’ How could he have known? Something in me was caught, no, released from a net, like a bird set free. Hope spoke again in my heart, ‘He tore the net, and we escaped,’ and I heard myself tell him, ask him—I had never given it a thought before, but now it seemed important—‘our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that only in Jerusalem can true worship be offered.’

Why did this come to mind? I was a woman, to whom holy and divine matters are of no importance. That is what men do. They alone are worthy to approach the One, they alone can worship, while we must humbly wait for them behind the wall. We approach the unmade Maker only by being hidden like Eve was hidden in Adam’s side. But this strange Jew, as if he knew the longings of my wounded heart, spoke what no man had ever spoken before, that worship is not what is offered on mountain tops and in temples, and only by men, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’

I could not hold back any longer. I put down my water jug—I was holding it tightly against my body without noticing, and it suddenly felt very heavy, like a child within me—and I said, ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ The stranger smiled, looked at me with a love that I had never seen in the eyes of any man, and gently said, ‘I who am speaking to you, I am He.’ I stood there while a shiver ran over me, and then—how long had it been? It seemed like forever—I heard the sound of men’s voices. Some travelers came up and encircled me and that man.

They looked shocked, but they didn’t say anything, at least not while I was there. Suddenly, I remembered myself, ‘I am just a woman.’ I pulled my veil back over my head—I had unmindfully slipped it off while talking to the stranger—and looking down now, I left my water jug and passed through the circle of men. How I wanted to say something to him, to thank him, to look at him looking at me one more time. How I wanted to be carried by him, to go where he would take me, for here was the first real man I had ever seen. I was too excited now to stay or to go, but I knew I wasn’t welcome in this crowd.

Yes, I ran back to the village. ‘Hey, everyone! Come here, quickly! I’ve just met a man at the well who has told me everything I’ve ever done! I think he must be a prophet, maybe even the Messiah. Come and see!’ I ran to my house, fetched my boys Yosef and Ezri, and told the man who was living with me, ‘He knows all about us!’ Pinchas snarled, ‘Woman, what are you babbling about? Where’s the water?’ I dared to ignore him, and ran out with my boys to join the other villagers who were already taking the road downhill. I didn’t look back, though I heard him growling behind me, but more and more faintly.

I reached the well after everyone else. When I got there, the stranger was sitting where I left him. I could see that he was some kind of rabbi by the way his disciples regarded him, yes, those men who came up and through whose midst I escaped. No, not some kind of rabbi. As I stood there, far off with my two sons, listening, I knew it was He, the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah, who was speaking. The villagers were engaging Him with their questions and their quests, and they encircled Him closer and closer until they were at His feet, and the closest sat there in the dust, drinking in His words.

The disciples of the Master—for that is what they called him, though I knew more—made as though to depart, and He arose finally to go with them, but my villagers crowded closer and couldn’t keep their hands off Him. I watched from a distance in silence. They were imploring Him to spend the night. They wanted Him to stay with us. ‘We’re only Samaritans,’ I complained to myself, ‘He won’t stay with us, He can’t stay with us. Look at His disciples’ faces. They’re just being patient, but they want Him to go… now!’ As I watched, He looked closely at us, in silence gazing on us, this brood of sinners, then nodded, ‘Yes!’

Cheers and ululation accompanied the procession as we walked back uphill to our village. I followed the crowd at a distance. A kind of shyness had overcome me. Everyone had forgotten all about me, and I was happy with that. My boys tugged at me, though, wanting to go home. I was worried what I might find there when we returned. Would my man beat me, as he sometimes did over trifles? I began to be afraid. The people up ahead had surrounded the Teacher, so I could barely see Him. Suddenly I heard someone call my name, ‘Shulamit! Shulamit! Where’s Shulamit?’ I came out from behind a myrtle tree.

‘Yes, here I am!’ I called back, ‘what is it?’ One of the men—actually it was the headman of our village—broke with the crowd and walked toward me. He had never come to me, let alone speak to me, before. I was a shameful thing in his eyes, not only a weak woman, but a sinful one, and everyone knows, a man should even speak to his own wife no more than is necessary. ‘The Master wants to spend the night at your house. He said that he knows you, and that he wants to stay with one of his own. Aren’t you a Samaritan like us? He’s a Jew, isn’t he?’ A thousand excuses, the man I live with, but I couldn’t tell them.

Torn between fear and joy, my heart lit the path ahead to where it ended at my door, and the Master followed. ‘Who am I to receive Him—some of the villagers were already calling Him the savior of the world—under my roof? I who have slept with… I who am sleeping with… oh, no, where will He sleep?’ The fire of my anxiety was found and quenched by His meek suggestion, ‘Let me sleep here tonight, with your boys. It will do.’ Where was my man? I looked around for Pinchas. ‘Maybe he’s gone out,’ I said to myself with a sigh of relief, ‘but what will I do when he returns?’ A shadow filled the open doorway.

‘You forgot the jug at the well! Didn’t you think our guest would want something to drink? And why haven’t you given him the best berth? We can sleep there in the hay with the boys. There’s plenty of room. Let him sleep in our bed.’ I couldn’t decide what was happening. ‘What had come over him. Had he talked to any of the neighbors? How did he even know? Why wasn’t he angry? He’s never treated me, or a guest, like this before,’ my mind wouldn’t quiet itself. Then, the Master said, ‘No, Pinchas, you and Shulamit keep your bed, but I thank you for your offer.’ In the growing darkness, we all lay down.

That night we didn’t draw the curtain across our corner of the room. Pinchas and I slept side by side as brother and sister. Something had changed in me, and he sensed it. I too could feel a change in him. What had caused it? ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ Those words I said to the stranger at the well would not cease, but flowed through me like a stream of living water. In the coolness of the night, I felt loved, I felt carried in the arms of a real man for the first time, I knew that where He would carry me would be where I never dreamed, yet where I always wanted to go.

No, the man I was living with was not my husband. In the morning of that day he understood it too. He knew for sure that I did not belong to him, nor he to me, but that both of us belonged to Another, to Someone who neither of us ever knew but always wanted. In the night, I had turned to him lying beside me, wanting warmth, wanting touch as my body had ached for years, wanting to be held in a man’s arms, but it was not to be. I had been married to five men, yet knew not love with any, until the One appeared who makes everyone His bride, and forever. Shulamit was enlightened. She was wed at last.