Monday, August 4, 2014

I witness, and I wait

Is it really over? Three years in love with the God of heaven and earth, whom once we knew only as ‘the rider of the clouds’ whose thunderbolts pierced the earth, perforating our hearts with fear, who stepped down from His glorious throne to make His flesh supple to my touch, to become a man as I am, to return my gaze through those beauteous eyes, green shot through with gold, to answer my childish wants with a wisdom that ripened my desire to a sweetness beyond all earthly glory. I blush to remember thinking He was merely messiah of Israel, sent only to us, to rule in iron rod magnificence our hereditary oppressors—everyone—and put them under our feet. My hidden desire too ashamed to openly reveal, I spoke my request to Him through my mother’s lips, ‘At your right and left hand, let my sons be seated…’

And yes, He did indeed grant my request after a manner unforeseen and unknowable, and my brother’s too, for I had forced him twenty years my junior, and the most beloved of His disciples—yes, I envied him but held my peace—to press Him in other ways, without success. We should have known that He knew all about us, knew us through and through. Our breed was of a better cloth than the others. Our father Zebedee was not forced to earn his bread by toil, nor we, yet he trained us just the same, working with us among his hired men, fishing the lake, mending nets that often failed from heavy catches. That’s what we were doing, in fact, when the Lord walking along the edge of the lake called us both, and we, seemingly thoughtless, left our father and followed that Man. We didn’t know then what we were in for.

Father’s business had made our family prosper, but that did not make him senseless, his piety well-grounded in Tehillim, if not Torah. We were not scholarly, our family, but we prayed the psalms of David daily, every morning, every evening, ‘Lam’natzeach, al ha-gittit, mizmor l’David. Adonay Adoneynu, mah adir shimkha b’khol ha-aretz! For the choirmaster, on the gittit, psalm of David. Adonay, our Lord, how great Your name throughout the earth!’ I remember father pausing often when we chanted the forty-ninth psalm, his favorite, and deeply intoning the refrain as if to engrave it on our hearts, ‘Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter.’ No, father never let us dwell too long on what we had, just long enough to bless the Lord for it. Then, back to the nets…

My brother John—well, what can I say?—he followed me like a lamb follows its mother, I old enough to be his father, and sometimes resenting it. Something in me—perhaps my angel guarding me—always stopped me from acting on the envy I sometimes felt. John seemed to be everyone’s favorite, and why shouldn’t he have been? Boyish, affable, energetic, sometimes boisterous. I had to admit, he really was like me when I was his age. The two of us were, yes, as they say, cut from the same cloth, that better cloth I just told of, but he unlike me seemed to forget our status. While I tried to use it to gain advantages, he received them unasked and without striving. That too was a sore point. But he was my brother. Along with everyone else, how could I not love him, even when he entered the Master’s love?

Cut from the same cloth, I was saying. Perhaps I should say, cast from the same cloud, rather. For we two were likened to thunderbolts by the Lord. The others—His disciples and their friends—would never let us forget that time we were thrown out of one of those filthy Samaritan villages. Insulted, we rose to our Master’s defense, ‘Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to incinerate these animals like Elijah did?’ What we really meant was, that the Lord should show His power by annihilating His enemies—though enemies of His they were not, only ours alone, for He rebuked us strongly, ‘And what kind of spirit will they say has possessed you two?’ then grabbed us by our necks with both His hands, gave us a brisk shake and bellowed, ‘Sons of thunder!’ and then fell on us in a long, quiet embrace that pacified us.

Adonay, our Lord, how great Your name throughout the earth! Forgive me, brethren, for my tearful eyes. Let me pause and wipe them for they witness against me. What a fool I was! How I tested the Lord, even though I was unaware. You ask me, how did Jesus of Nazareth grant our request to be seated at His right and His left hand? Well, as I said, it was in a manner unforeseen and unknowable. He told us, ‘to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father,’ yet He granted our request in a way both mysterious and wonderful. Though we didn’t know what was yet to happen to Him and to us, it came to pass in this manner. One evening as the sun was setting, the Lord called to us, to Cephas, and to my brother John and me, ‘Let’s go to pray!’

Somehow we found ourselves alone with Him at the time of prayer. We had all been encamped near a copse at the foot of Mount Tabor. His other disciples were engaged in discussion, as we often were at nightfall, sitting around a fire for warmth. Strangely their attentions elsewhere, they did not notice us as we followed Him up a trail into the woods. I don’t know what the others felt, John and Cephas, but I was apprehensive. Though the overarching night was warm and scented, I shivered, I trembled and couldn’t control it. I felt like a new bride following her husband into the bridal chamber. Me, a ‘son of thunder’ and a mighty man in my own eyes, I felt afraid. My reason rescued me, ‘It’s colder than you think, and you’re getting tired. You’re just going with Him to pray, nothing more. Just keep on the path.’

I couldn’t believe how dark it was. It was ten or twelve days before the full moon, but neither moon nor stars were visible where I could see the sky between the tall pines that rose around us. Yet there was light on the path. I invoked the psalm, ‘By Your Light we see light,’ and wondered at the glory of God, how He guided our footsteps up that mountain trail. Then we were there, we had arrived where the Master wanted to pray. We sat down for a moment to rest, and then He began to intone the psalm of ascents, ‘Come, bless Yahweh, all you who serve Yahweh, serving in the house of Yahweh, in the courts of the house of our God!’ We joined Him but our fear forbade us from uttering the Divine Name. ‘Adonay’ we chanted, while He, fearless for it was His own Name, blessed the Name of the Holy One.

Darkness greater even than the dark of night fell upon me, upon us all, except on Him. We slept. How long we had been awake, offering the psalms with Him, I cannot remember, only the deep darkness and silence of my slumber. Yet we awoke. I think it was Cephas first, and his startled, quick movement as he lunged back, and his hushed, almost whispered, cry woke John and me at the same moment. The contrast between night and day can hardly be compared to what we saw. Light, light, wondrous light, bright, bright, brighter than anything I could have imagined or can even now describe, and colors, such as we have no names for, colors our eyes were never made to see, yet we saw. A whiteness into which all colors fall and from which all arise, that is what seemed to clothe Him.

I heard my heart chanting what my eyes beheld, the psalm ‘Bless Yahweh, my soul, Yahweh my God, how great You are! Clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in a robe of light!’ as it revealed to me not only the Divine Name but its Owner. For though we call Him now ‘Lord and God,’ we didn’t know then, no, we didn’t know who He really was. Just a few nights before, He had asked us, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ and we told him. Then, He pressed us further, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and we sheepishly kept silent until Cephas stood and confessed what we all halfway knew, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ All this came to my mind more quickly than a flash of lightning, as again I looked up after lowering my gaze. Yes, I looked up and received my sight, and realized for once what blindness really is.

For there, standing beside the Lord were two more sons of Adam. We three looked up at them in wonder. We heard the Lord speaking to them, and they, turned toward Him, responding, but what they spoke we could not clearly hear. Like the colors our eyes of flesh were not made to see, their words scathed our ears not made to snare their sounds. We watched and listened in awe. Then the two—we learned later from the Master that these were Moses and Elijah—seemed to recede from our sight. I heard Cephas call out, ‘Master, should we set up tents for…’ but his voice died away as we were overpowered by a brilliant cloud that made us invisible to each other. My eyelids snapped shut as if to deflect a dart, as I heard, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’

I was afraid to open my eyes. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes again. It was dark, very dark, and Jesus sat in our midst, His hand touching me. ‘Was I asleep, Master? Did you have to wake me?’ I anxiously asked. I knew that what I had seen was real, but the memory of it seemed like a dream. The Lord didn’t answer me, but beckoning us three closer to Him, said, ‘Come, let us go!’ We arose together and began our descent. ‘Back to the world of men,’ I thought to myself, but where were we? On the mountain? My tired body followed Him down the trail in a warm, dark swoon, not trembling this time, for something in me was consummated. I felt strangely free. ‘Tell no one what you have seen, until the Son of Man is risen from the dead,’ He said, though we were afraid to ask Him what He meant.

How did He grant our request—my brother’s and mine—to be seated at His right and left? Well, yes, that was in a manner unforeseen and unknowable. Little did we know that He would reign from His throne, the Cross. The world sees only shame and defeat where faith beholds glory and victory. My brother and I—blessed be the Name!—were less worthy than two convicted criminals to be ‘seated’ at His right and left hand, that I know. But to us was given to sit at His right and His left as He revealed to Moses and Elijah the strategy of the redemption of Israel and of the nations. That was forty days before He rose from the dead, prophesying the forty days He spent with us before His ascension on that other mountain. Now, I ask myself, what is that cup He drank of, that I shall also drink? I witness, and I wait.