28th April (40 days before Pentecost)
The sun rose upon the Metropolis of Ephesus. A city of carefully-restored splendour. The cracked streets had been repaved, the old stones picked up from the dirt and refashioned to new purpose. Old statues had been toppled and new ones raised, proclaiming that a new God looked down from Heaven, for the old ways had failed. Had not the Stars fallen, the Sun darkened, the Heavens rolled up like a scroll; had not the Mountains been removed from their places and cast into the Sea?
A new Earth had been born, under a new Sky. Yet to the men and women who lived within it, this new age looked much the same as the one that had fallen so heavily before. Only time would tell if it would last as well or as long as the fallen age it had replaced. For now though, the sun rose upon a City carefully restored. A City of faith and hope.
The sun also rose upon a mirror sea that lay before the City, reflecting the heavens, though scattering and wasting its light. The Sea rolled and shifted restlessly, its purpose undefined, primordial. Across it, moving from night to day, the ships came. Great vessels with many oars. Rowers sat and strained in ranks, the strength of men harnessed and turned to the purpose of a single mind. They could not see their destination, but they laboured to the sound of a beating drum. No chains held their limbs, and no lash forced their will, for whatever bonds and whips held them were found only in their minds, installed long ago, perhaps at birth, perhaps before.
They rowed, these rowers, steadily, unhurriedly, unceasingly. Together in harmony, as one mind they worked. A machine fashioned to the benefit of all. And if one man faltered and fell aside, the whole ship would slow, and turn aside from its path. The Bishop could see the lesson God was showing him here, and his mind already pondered its use for a sermon. Would they see it, he thought. If he painted this picture for them with words, would the simple minds of his flock comprehend what he was being shown when he looked upon the straining backs of these steady, diligent men. Or would they see only slavery, the exploitation of men’s labour for the benefit of their masters. Such a lesson would be a mistake, he knew. For God’s yoke was not the yoke of slavery, or of mindless beasts. For did not Christ say that his yoke was light?
The Bishop stood upon the prow of the ship, and watched the rowers row, and framed his argument in his mind. He was a strong orator he knew, and when he had time to compose his thoughts, his words could illuminate and inspire the minds of any man, from the simplest to the most learned, from an unlettered peasant to the Emperor himself.
Was it not his voice, his skill of speaking, that had raised him from the poorest parish to the highest throne of God’s Church? Not his voice, he corrected himself, for it was the Spirit speaking through him. “For no man can boast”, he reminded himself with the words of the Apostle. “For the first will be last,” he recited to himself as he recalled the words of the Lord, “And the greatest among you will become the servant of all”. He gathered the rich material of his robe about his shoulders for the chill of the night had not fully dispersed in the thin light of the rising sun.
“Am I not the servant of all”, he prayed to his Lord. “And is that not by your hand alone,” he said. He shook his hands free of the thick folds of his fine-dyed cloak and raised both his hands up in the sign of prayer, his eyes open upon the deep blue above.
“May the name of the Lord be praised”, he said aloud, and moved his right hand in blessing over the naked sweating backs of the oarsmen. He had already said morning prayers at the appropriate hour with his priests, but he felt God upon him now and he could not help but acknowledge His grace.
Upon the prow the captain of the ship stood also. And it was not the backs of his rowers that held his attention but the bay beyond them. As the sun rose above the hills to the east, its light fell now upon a scene that appeared to the Captain as chaos. He shielded his eyes with his hand as he gazed out and saw that the outer harbour of the City was already crammed with ships, large and small, fighting for space. Sailors yelled across the water of the bay, their voices strident and angry; cursing, bellowing, threatening, ordering. Every ship fought for a space at the artificial docks that floated in the bay like islands of scurrying activity. The ships manoeuvred for a safe approach at their piers, hulls sliding past each other dangerously close, collisions avoided by dexterity and cursing in equal measure.
The Captain, Demetrius, sweated, despite the early hour and the morning breeze. He wiped his brow with his bare forearm and squinted against the light as he eyed the water ahead, calculating if he had time to slip between two other vessels as they raced for a position that had just opened up. His ship was large and flew the imperial banners, they alone should have guaranteed priority for him. Usually the signal that the ship was on the Emperor’s orders would let it push through to the best dock in any harbour. But today it was every man for himself.
The noise was deafening, Demetrius’ concentration had to be unstinting. He sweated at the prow even with the right clasp of his sleeveless short-tunic undone to bare his right shoulder and breast, and his brown legs and calloused feet naked on the rough wet planks of the deck. Behind him, his passengers waited on the deck, dressed in their finest robes, having risen and come out early to watch at first light. They wore long-sleeved tight-fitting sticharia tunics underneath an outer fine-wool himatium draped about them to their ankles, with kid-leather sandals on their soft white feet.
The passengers were calm, betraying no sign of impatience or concern. But still he felt their eyes boring into the back of his head. He wished they had remained in their cabin. Or at least the Bishop. The presence of the man’s companions was easier to handle, being only clerks and servants. Though a couple of them were ordained clerics he felt they were closer to his equal. But the Bishop was not only a man of God, but a man of overwhelming power. He felt the man’s presence beside him, watching, weighing him. At least the man had stopped praying. The prayer should have calmed Demetrius, for he was a catechumen himself, and hoped to be baptised next Pascha. But he hadn’t felt calmed by the Bishop’s upraised hands, his voice strong in the half-light of the dawn. The words were a blessing, protection from their Lord on this last leg of their long journey. But Demetrius had still felt the prayer as a weight on his shoulders, a reminder of who his passenger was. No ordinary man, no ordinary Bishop even.
The ships beside them slipped aside, the pilot roaring curses at Demetrius as he hauled on his rudder to avoid a collision at the last second. And the floating deepwater dock was before them, Demetrius shouted orders and the oarsmen hauled back on their oars, dragging the ship to a slower pace, and Demetrius expertly manoeuvred it up against the side, between two other vessels crowded with crates and jars being unloaded.
Breathing hard, Demetrius called out further orders, sailors throwing ropes and tying the ship off, making it secure. A barque was nearby, heading back from the city empty of cargo and high in the water. Its captain saw his frantic waving and the imperial flag on his ship’s side and pulled it over, its oars hauling it up alongside.
“Passage for the Bishop and his men”, Demetrius cried. The barque’s captain nodded and a sailor threw a rope across to them. Demetrius turned, wiping the sweat from his brow, trying to steady his racing heart.
“Lord Bishop.” He called down respectfully. “We’ve docked. You’ll need to take the barque on to the City further up. Ships can’t sail through the canal.”
“Thank you Demetrius,” the great man replied graciously. “You’ve conducted us with skill and speed. May our Lord God bless you for your work today.” His right hand rose, his first two fingers extended in blessing. Despite his stress Demetrius felt the blessing as a wave of calm washing over him, unlike the prayers earlier. For now he had carried them successfully, his duty was done.
Demetrius smiled and gestured to his passengers and they moved to the side as he indicated. A ladder was thrown out and they began to climb down to the barque. Servants carried their belongings, crates and chests and furniture. The barque’s sailors grabbed hold of them and stowed them aboard. Demetrius leapt to help with the unloading. He didn’t have to, his own job was done. But he was eager to get them moved across quickly. He was eager to get back to sea and leave the Bishop and his men long behind. Demetrius was a sailor, uncomfortable with the high manners and expectations of city life, and the sooner he could get onto the open water and feel the weight of the Bishop’s presence fall from his shoulders, the better. He vowed he would only carry cargo for a long time to come.
Within half an hour the Bishop, his servants, clerks, and priests, and all their belongings were loaded onto the barque and they untied the ropes and pulled away. Demetrius watched them steadily as they pushed their way between other ships, barques, ferries, and fishing boats, heading towards the mouth of the canal. Most of the ships would be carrying goods; cloth, wine, oil, spices and other luxuries from across Asia and the Empire. But Demetrius knew that some of the other ships would be carrying Bishops as well. Bishops from all across the Empire, from Asia, from Africa, from Syria, from Greece. Demetrius imagined he could spot their ships by the sweat on the brows of the pilots at the prows.
That one, a man almost as dark as an Ethiopian, his face running with sweat, surely he must be carrying one of them. Another, driving his ship like a mule, as blond as a goth, wiping his face with a cloth. He must have another aboard. Did they feel the weight of their responsibility as much as he? He thought they must. They all knew the importance of their passengers, and not only that, the importance of this journey, the reason they were all here, as the most important men in the world gathered together to decide the faith and fates of millions. A gathering that had not been seen before in his lifetime, not for fifty years.
Demetrius shook his head and felt his pulse calm as he saw the barque disappear into the mouth of the canal and was lost from sight behind the other traffic. His sailors had made his ship ready, taking on ballast and cargo to fill the hold, and the oarsmen were levelling their oars. He called out instructions and took hold of the rudder. He would be back at sea on the next tide, and he would leave these Bishops and their politics long behind him. It was safer that way.