The house was just four mud walls and tied branches for a roof. A lean-to against the side wall covered two oxen and a donkey during the day, the man’s sole possessions of any worth. He brought them inside the mud walls during the night, to protect them from thieves with his own body, in the absence of anything else. As he slept, the animals slept, or got up and ate from the two hollows scooped-out from the earth floor. The earth pressed and beaten so hard it was like stone.
Dirty rushes covered the floor to give some protection from the iron-cold ground underneath. A sharp wind slipped under the door and whistled round the room in the dark, freezing the man and his wife to their marrow.
A second room was built onto the back of the hut. Just as poor, and smaller. And without the warmth of the animals. Yet without their smell and mess either. A relative and his wife and children were sleeping there, curled up with each other for warmth against the chill winds, a tangle of bodies under their cloaks, the rough wool spread out to cover as much of them as it could. No bed, no mattress but straw. But the room was clean. And the man was proud that he could offer the room to them. He hadn’t seen the relative in ten years, the guest and his family were all but strangers to the man. But they were kin, and the man would have sooner died than turn them away.
The man was poor, but not as poor as some. He owned the house, which was more than many could say. He had inherited it from his father, recently died. Along with a scrap of land that was barely worth the trouble of tending. He had never cared for farming, and had turned his hands to craftwork rather than the hard labour of his father.
He had found that he had a measure of skill with wood, and even found a small joy in the work of it. Wood could be as hard and unforgiving as the soil. Yet it was his choice, and perhaps that made the difference. He had left home, barely out of his youth, and gone north, leaving the land of his birth, of his clan and tribe behind him. He had said goodbye, not knowing then whether he would ever return. He had occasionally received news from cousins who also came north. His father missed him, but wished him well.
His father hoped he was making his family proud. Then the news of the wars, the revolts, the riots. His father hadn’t gotten involved, but others of the family had. There were deaths. Yet the man did not return for the funerals. It was a long way. And the road was dangerous, with many turned off their land, with young men fleeing lost battles and unable or unwilling to settle back to the hard and unyielding land.
But perhaps, even so, the man would have returned home, for he was young, and so thought himself immortal. But he had found something that had suddenly narrowed his world down to a single point. He had met a girl, and could see nothing, and think of nothing but her. He could not afford an honourable bride-price. He was still living hand-to-mouth, sleeping on the floors of friends, and scraping up work wherever he could find it among the foreign-speaking foremen of the region. But the father, a good Hebrew man, respected in the community, had a relative who was a carpenter. He offered to accept a year of work for his relative, in lieu of a bride-price. The man leapt at the offer, caring nothing for how he would live for a full year working for nothing.
It was a hard year. The hardest he had ever known. The father’s relative was a stern fellow, who could not afford any slack. He let the man share some small food to prevent him from starving, but otherwise could not give him more. His belly was empty more often than not, and he slept in the open building yards among the saws and hammers of his trade. Yet every night he fell asleep with the face of his beloved before him, and he felt the privation a worthy price.
Imagine what a knife to his heart then when the girl came to him, shaking, and admitted that she was with child. The earth gave way, and the mountains fell into the sea, and the stars fell from the heavens. Yet in his pain he could not find it in himself to be angry with her.
The man told her that he would divorce her quietly. He would finish his year of work, so that no one would be suspicious. And only her father and he would ever know. And, her face wet with tears unnumbered, she nodded and fled from him.
Imagine what was it like for that girl when she came to the man that night. She was young and helplessly trapped between the will of her father, and of her fiancé. Though he had a younger, more besotted eye, he was still only a stranger to her? Her father would surely never forgive an unchaste daughter, and no young man could be reasonably expected to accept her now, with the evidence of her shameful faithlessness upon her. All her family and town would see her as wanton and whorish, disloyal to her family and to God.
And yet she did not run into the night so that the darkness would cover her shame. She did not avert her eyes when she came to the young man. She put her faith in God, for she knew she had done nothing wrong or shameful. There was no shame on her face when she revealed her condition. She was shaking and weeping with fear, but there was no shame.
That night she lay awake for hours, starring up at the stars, praying desperately to the Lord for courage, for peace, for a miracle. And, she asked herself for many nights thereafter, did the young man lay staring unseeing up at the same stars also?
Perhaps, at some point, exhausted by the roar and wash of his emotions, he had finally fell into the deepest sleep of his life. And in his dream would he have seen a man dressed in the whitest linen, his face shining like the stars. And in his dream would he have heard the man tell him not to divorce the girl, for her child was from the Spirit, and would be a son, and be named “God Saves”; for he would save his people from their sins. And perhaps, when he woke, the man had felt an astonishing peace; washing over him like a river, like the waves of the sea.
Perhaps that was why the very next day the young man came to her father’s house and accepted the girl’s hand and did not send her away. For the girl could think of no other reason why he would do something so extraordinary, so senseless, so adverse to his own interests. She never asked him for all the years they lived together, for she was too afraid of the answer whatever it may be. But she held her thoughts to herself, close in her heart, like a precious jewel, like a bright ember to keep her warm.
And that was the thought she held onto, eight months later, as she lay on the cold dirt floor, a thin wool cloak spread out beneath her, the cold and hardness of the ground pressing through as though it was not even there, screaming. For the labour of childbirth was a woman’s curse, among many, and it was not without the greatest danger. Too many died, and too many who survived were never the same again. It was a trial of combat in its own right, leaving the dead and dying in its wake. Yet women never spoke of it except in their most secret counsels. For it was a private suffering, a private terror. And their joys too were private.
She held the thought of her husband’s vision before her eyes as she screamed out her terror and anguish. Just as she held the thought of her own vision. For she had seen the man in white linen, and heard his comforting words, long ago when she was still innocent and ignorant of great fear or pain.
Her body shook and clenched, biting down on itself with great sharp teeth that tore her flesh and ripped her in twain in her most private holy places. She could not speak of what was happening for there were no words, and none would attend her in her shame. Her husband stood outside, praying hard, and watching the skies, and shaking with tears he could not express.
And yet she was not alone, for her God was with her.
He had spoken to her, the man in white, and called her “most blessed among women”. She remembered; she held it before her like a beacon, like a great fire upon a hill. She had been told that the Lord Himself was with her. And this thought was her hearth-fire and her noonday sun. And with this before her the darkness was beaten back, again and again.
The darkness fought the light for an eternity. But in the fullness of time it ended, as all darkness must, one way or another. And this darkness ended with the girl holding a child in her arms, her face white, her body shaken and drained to its core. With the last of her strength she lifted the child, a son, from between her legs, hugged him to herself, and placed him in the trough that the animals used for a manger. Her throat was raw and she had no voice left to call her husband to her. But still she forced herself to breathe one word, her son’s name. She whispered; “Yeshua”. And she adored him.
A life of poverty will take its toll upon even the strongest man. Yoseph died. As all men do, and sooner than others if they give their food to their son and wife rather than eat it themselves. Miriam struggled and fled, from starvation, from roving bands of bandits and soldiers, from the leering gazes of her neighbours.
She survived, her son survived. Of those days there is not much to tell. Life went on as it always does. Measured by our scars, by the memories we lock up in our hearts and refuse to look at or speak of again. And we treasure the few memories we can still look at with joy. That memory of the time when she thought she had lost her child and after much searching found him in the Temple, standing up before them all and speaking in such a tone to all the learned men that Mary had to hide her face to stop herself laughing with delight and relief. The memory of when a man of ancient years broke into song and danced at the very sight of her boy. The time when an elderly prophetess burst into tears when she saw Mary’s infant boy, and for days thereafter could not stop praising God and proclaiming the boy’s name to all who would listen. All these memories were precious gems, warm embers, secreted away to be brought out and wondered over during the darkest times.
What is there to say? The boy grew. What is there to say? Her husband starved to death. What is there to say? Rich lenders were rapacious, the cruelty of the courts was worse. Grim-eyed soldiers took whatever they wished. The desperate preached rebellion and their mutilated corpses were displayed for children to throw stones at. The ones who could travel fled to the desert to hide in caves and mutter myths to each other. The wealthy and the pious hurried past trying not to see.
What is there to say? Death everywhere, cramping bellies, endless violence, grinding poverty, soldiers laughing, crippling disease, vicious gangs, and good men losing their minds, running naked down the street and screaming obscenities among the graves. What is there to say about all this? It is how it is. There is nothing that can be said.
My son grew up. As sons sometimes do. He had no father, he had no prospects, he had a mother whom no one would speak to, and inherited debts he had no means of paying. And yet, deep in my heart, despite it all, I still believed he would grow up to be great.
I remember him, that look he had sometimes. That look of desperate urgency, as though he was racing to do something, and no one knew what it was. I saw it often as he grew. As a teenager it was worse. As he grew older I realised how little I knew him. I had given him his name, and I knew what it meant. Was it too much of a burden to give a boy, a poor boy from the backwaters, to give him the name of a hero? The fabled hero of Israel, who conquered all our enemies and brought us into the Promised Land. I don’t know why I gave him that name. It felt right at the time. Was I wrong? I couldn’t have known what it would lead to. But I did know, I’d been told.
He was in his twenties when he left home. Things had got somewhat better. The Romans had finally realised that the endless riots and rebellions could be more effectively dealt with if they dealt with the causes rather than the consequences. They reined in the tax collectors a little, they made some examples of the worst soldiers. They released a few of the most popular prisoners, though they were too broken by their treatment for sudden freedom to make much difference to them.
One of my uncles finally forgave me, and I was permitted to live with his family and clean and cook alongside his daughters. My younger son James managed to get a position in a Greek man’s household, a job that the more holy-minded of us would despise, but a step up for the son of someone like me. He worked hard and evaded the Grecian’s depredations with such grace that the old lech wasn’t even offended, and even promoted my boy to a position of responsibility over the other servants.
Yet Yeshua never worked, and I never pushed him. He was rarely home, and when he was my uncle and cousins treated him like a stranger. I don’t know where he went, but he learned to read somewhere; Aramaic and Hebrew, and even Greek of course, for in our town the Torah was in the Greek tongue because no one spoke Hebrew. I suppose he was always smart, and when he put his mind to something he didn’t let up until it was done.
Later he spent time with the rabbis, first hanging around the synagogues and town gates, to listen to their debates with growing and visible annoyance, and then when he couldn’t keep silent any longer he would burst in with some cutting criticism and furiously argue them to a standstill.
Sometimes I went to watch him. I understood little of their endless disputes, but I enjoyed seeing him so animated and passionate. He made no friends among the rabbis and teachers of the law, but I started to see several young men gathering around the edges, and lurking in the doorways with interest. They never stopped to talk, but scuttled off when you weren’t looking. They were dirty, ragged, wild-eyed types. When I was a girl I would have feared them and fled. I had learned by then that it was the plump-faced and calm-eyed whom one should fear.
And then he was gone. One day he was wandering the streets of Nazareth, kicking his heels and arguing with anyone who’d listen. And then he was gone. He left a message with a boy who came to tell me. He said he’d gone to the wilderness to preach. I asked the boy what he was preaching. He just shrugged and ran off. I wept. Not much, I had wept too much in my life for there to be many tears left. But I still wept, and I could not sleep that night, staring unseeing up at the stars, and praying to the Lord unceasingly. I never thought I’d ever see my boy again.
When he returned, years later, he came with the rest of them, a great crowd of dirty, loud-voiced, boisterous men, broad-shouldered, and gruff, timid and educated, scarred and wild-eyed. Fishermen and rebels, peasants and collaborators, landlord’s sons and old beggars all mixed up together, hugging and slapping each other’s backs and calling each other “brother”.
And among them were the women, young girls, old widows, sisters and mothers and daughters, all shockingly unchaperoned by husbands or uncles, yet each one unashamed and joyful, hugging the men like equals, and being called “sister” in turn. I don’t know where he picked you all up from, and what made you all follow him. I never asked I suppose. For what could you say? You just had to look at him, his dark eyes fierce and urgent. You just had to hear him speak, the authority and forcefulness of his voice.
I met my greatest friends among that crowd of disaffected youths and disillusioned elders. And not only the women, the extraordinary Miriam of Magdala, the wealthy sisters Miriam and Martha, the Thunderers’ mother Shalome and the King’s steward Yoanna. I remember them all, their joy and their tears. Their laughter and their bitter grief. But I remember the men too, Shimon Kephas with his raucous peasant humour and his child-like earnestness. The two “Sons of Thunder” who would laugh uproariously when we clutched ours ears pretending to be deafened when they asked Yeshua a question. Shimon the Zealot who said a prayer every day for his old comrades, and could not see a beggar without trying to give him all the money we had. Even Yudas with his excitement about the future; his words bursting out of him like a spring, talking late into the night about the kingdom to come. I mourn him the most.
Where are they now? Scattered, murdered, imprisoned. The old world has been wiped clean, and the new world – we do not yet know what to expect. He promised pain and suffering, persecution and war. And we have certainly seen that, more than our worst fears. But then he said we would see a new earth, a new kingdom. And he himself would reign from heaven.
I see glimmers of it, I think. Glimpses of that new world he promised us. But I think he did not mean it to be easy, to be dropped into the cosmos like a stone into a pond. He never said any of it would be easy.
I think the kingdom must be built, brick by brick, within us all. I know others disagree. John the Thunderer says the kingdom will come down like lightning from the sky. He tells me that great bowls of God’s wrath will be poured out on the earth, the hosts of heaven will overthrow the legions and burn Rome to the ground. But John is old and angry. He has seen too much violence and seen too many beloved friends tortured to death. He dreams great dreams of heavenly vengeance, and speaks of things no one can understand.
> Chapter Three (Coming soon)