Tuesday, January 13, 2004

A Shepherd's Story
Part III (Conclusion)
Note: The beginning of this story is in the posting of Jan. 6, below.


Said did not respond to Joel's question right away. He looked
at his two taciturn companions, then spoke to them in a foreign
tongue. After a short, emotional-sounding exchange, Said
turned back to Joel.

"You have referred to him as the Messiah. What does that
mean?"

Joel stammered, "He is the Messiah, the Anointed One of
God."

"Ah. And what does this mean? What has he been anointed to
do?"

"To lead Israel. To bring us freedom from oppression, from the
yoke of captivity, as it is said in Scripture. To be our deliverer.
I felt the holiness surrounding that child the night he was born.
He is greatly favored of God."

"Joel, do you believe he is here to do more than free you from
the Romans? Do you think my companions and I would have
interest enough in opposition to Roman jurisdiction in a small
town of Judea to travel this far? For a look at a child who
might one day be a revolutionary?"

Joel squatted, leaning on his shepherd’s crook, and gazed into
the street as if he might see the answer inscribed there. He
looked up at Said and the others in puzzlement.

"I don't know all the reasons God has brought him here," he
replied, his voice quavering a bit. "I do not understand such
things. I avoid the Romans as much as I can. A shepherd
doesn't have much truck with such, anyway.

"I remember the night the child Jesus was born. Holiness filled
the night, the air, the sky. He can only be sent from God. He
brings hope for the future. Surely he came to restore the reign
of the House of David. An angel directed me to the child to
worship him."

"Just as we came so far to worship him," replied Said.

They had arrived at the tiny home of Joseph and his family.
Joel knocked at the door, and the foreign men entered at
Joseph's invitation. Joel stood on the small stoop of doorway,
watching in awe, as the three men simultaneously sank to their
knees in front of the sleeping child. Their hands had reached
into the depths of their gowns as they entered, and now those
hands lifted gifts in gold boxes toward the child, though their
heads remained bowed to the floor.

Joel gaped until Joseph came to the door and softly closed it
and the tableau disappeared from Joel's view.

At home, Joel looked in on his son Isaac. Joel's heart turned in
tenderness as he gazed upon his own sleeping son. His
daughter, Deborah, scarcely a year older than Isaac, woke and
clamored to be held in Joel's arms. As he sat rocking her back
and forth, her arms tight about his neck, Joel thought, "This
chiild is truly the apple of my eye. And my son, Isaac. Here is
the future."

Joel tossed and turned in the bed he shared with his wife,
Miriam, waking her. He told her all the events of the night. She
professed to understand no more than Joel, and troubled, they
held each other tightly as the hours marched toward dawn.

Early dawn was announced by a donkey's loud bray. Joel
pulled the cover more tightly about his head to shut out the
grating sound, but the racket was persistent. Sighing, Joel climbed
out of bed.There seemed to be a rash of noisy animals around
Bethlehem lately.

"The morning is scarcely here," he announced to Joseph, who
was tightening the strap holding a load of tents and cooking
equipment on the protesting donkey. "Why are you here, and so
early? Where are you going?" he asked, as he surveyed the
animals.

Joseph was a tall and bony man, with great hands that set defly
about the task of tightening the straps on this donkey
and another one, on which sat Jesus and Mary. There was a
tight, white line about Joseph’s mouth.

"Joel, I came to warn you. Get your children out of Bethlehem.
Isaac is in danger. Herod is afraid of losing his throne to the
Messiah. He has heard of the birth in Bethlehem. He will
stop at nothing. He will kill all the young, male children in
Bethlehem to protect his seat on the throne. An angel brought
me a warning and the Magi confirmed this to me. They had
dreams of their own, sent by God as a warning to us all."

Joel felt the color drain from his face. "Wait. I will gather my
family and we will go with you."

"No," said Joseph. "We must go alone to Egypt. This is the
prophecy we received. Just heed my warning and take your son
to safety."

Joel quickly gathered his family and went to Samuel's house.
His cousin nodded tightly when Joel told him what was astir.
Soon, a number of donkeys were laden for travel.

Joel and Samuel went through town, shouting warnings.
Ebenezer, disheveled and apparently just pulled from his bed,
appeared in the street and spoke belligerently. "The mad
shepherd is telling his tales again. Joel, I will have you arrested
for causing a disturbance if you persist in these insane
accusations toward King Herod."

Samuel walked to the front of the family group, his hand on his
sword. "I don't think you’ll be doing any such thing,
Ebenezer."

Ebenzer backed into his quarters as quickly as a turtle's head
pops back into its shell. Still, Joel and Samuel were
disappointed at the small number who heeded their
warnings. They finally took their families to the sheep corral,
where they called their flocks and headed northeast out of
Bethlehem toward the Jordan River, sheep preceding the little
donkey caravan.

We remained in eastern Judea for many weeks, even fording
the river and and staying on its east bank for a time. We
wandered with the sheep, stopping wherever there was decent
grass to be found for them and keeping a watchful eye for
robbers, for we were in unfamiliar country.

Finally, Samuel went to see if it was safe to return. He returned
haggard and pale, with this story: When he reached
Bethlehem, he found Ebenezer's head rotting on a stake at the
city gate. Ebenezer had collaborated with Herod’s men, telling
them which households had young children.

Herod's minions were not discriminating. It was not only the
young, male children, there were many children, both male and
female, from infancy to age five, six and even seven who died
by the sword of Herod. His men swept through the streets of
Bethlehem and out into the surrounding countryside like
locusts, devouring the life they found in their path. Then,
suddenly, it was over, and Herod’s forces withdrew. That had
happened a number of weeks before Samuel's return, It was
deemed safe to return to Bethlehem now.

Return to Bethlehem we did, though the town was never the
same again. There was so much grief it permeated the walls of
the city. I mourned for all those known to me who perished, but
counted myself blessed that my family had been spared.

After a while, I began to be aware of accusing glares from
some of those who had lost their children. It was as though
their anger sought any outlet it could find, and one outlet was
me and my unscathed family. Some felt I had brought this on
with my talk of the Messiah. After many conversations, Samuel
and I once more packed up our families, this time permanently,
and we moved north to the border of Samaria and settled there.
I never heard any more of the Messiah child and I wondered
what happened to him.

Samuel and his wife were blessed with seven children who grew to
adulthood and our flocks multiplied as well. To our surprise,
we prospered in this new land.

My son Isaac continued to grow in stature. He was such a
delight to me. He was a skilled shepherd by the age of 12 and
he could cite the Scriptures as if he’d grown up in the temple.

One day, Isaac went out and did not return. I was not concerned
at first, for Isaac loved being out in the fields. He loved
watching the stars in the evening. But when he had not returned
the next day, we set out to search for him. My concern turned
to alarm when I found a few of the sheep wandering aimlessly,
separated from the rest of the flock.

I found my Isaac at the bottom of a small ravine. He held a
young lamb in his arms. Both of them were dead. Isaac must
have gone into the ravine after the little one and lost his footing
as he climbed back out with the lamb in his arms. His head was
split open on a stone.

I picked up my son's lifeless body and cradled it to me. I hear
my voice saying, "no, no" over and over again. Sobs racked my
body until I thought they would separate my flesh from my
bone. Finally, I carefully wrapped my son's crushed head in
cloth and his body in a blanket.

I stood at the bottom of that ravine as rage filled me.
"God," I screamed. "How could you? How could you let my
son die? You saved Isaac from Herod just to let him die here?
Cruel, cruel joke. And you presume to send a Messiah. Keep
your Messiah, God. Take him back. I don’t want him. I don’t
want anything from you but my son." I spat. I picked up the
blood-soaked stone and hurled it as far and hard as I could, as if
I were throwing it at God himself.

I was in a rage of anguish for many weeks. It was only the
ministrations of Miriam and Deborah that finally restored any
sanity to me. They tended to me ceaselessly until one day I
looked at their tear-stricken faces and realized that they were
grieving doubly -- for both Isaac and me, for I had been lost to
them, too. I was ashamed of my selfishness in front of these
two beloved women, for Deborah was entering womanhood
now, and still the apple of my eye. She would marry in a short
time.

Yet a stream of bitterness tinged my life for several years.

It was Deborah who gave me my grandson Zachary before she
was widowed and I found myself tending to her grief. It is her
son Zachary who is here with me now, and he is a part of the
story as yet unfolded.

Zachary has been my most steadfast companion since the time
he could walk. He has heard the story of the angels, the star, the
Messiah and the Magi many times. He has also heard the story
of the pogrom on the children of Bethlehem. Zachary was as
quick and intelligent as his uncle, Isaac, and even more full of
questions.

We sent him to study with the rabbis. His curious mind was
concerned with many things. He came home with stories of
John the baptizer, whom many called the Messiah. I paid little
heed. I knew the anointed one was named Jesus, though I
had yet to hear more about him. Even though I had professed
not to care about the Messiah any longer, sometimes I guiltily
wondered about my curse at Isaac's death. Had I caused
something to happen to the one chosen of God?

Zachary would not let the matter of John the baptizer rest. He
pestered me to take him to see this John preach and baptize the
repentant. After all, suggested Zachary, maybe it was the same
one from Bethlehem -- maybe his parents had changed his
name to protect him when they fled from Herod.

Well, I have a hard time denying my grandson, so after a time
we headed north to the area where John was known to have his
ministry. After some inquiries, we made our way to a wide,
shallow pool on the Jordan where John was said to be
baptizing.

The afternoon sun was brilliant as we made our way along the
bank...


The sun glinted the way it can sometimes in the afternoon,
turning eddies of water into molten silver which merged into
cool whorls of blue and green. The bark of the oaks and
tamarisk trees shimmered silver. Joel had to squint to see
across the water.

A man stood in the water, north up the river from Joel’s and
Zachary’s position. Wading out a bit into the river, holding on
to the branch of a tamarisk overhanging the water, they could
see what he was doing. He had a shock of unruly,
chestnut-brown hair. His clothes were of rough fiber. He was
sunburned and muscular.

"It must be John the baptizer," whispered Zachary. He and Joel
made their way closer up the bank, hanging on to the tree limbs
as if to dear life, even though the water was only thigh-high, for
neither could swim. They found the river intimidating.

Now they could hear the words.

It was John the baptizer. He prayed over a family, raising his
arms to God as he prayed for forgiveness, pouring water over
their heads each in turn as they stood in the shallows. The
baptizer then put his hands on the shoulders of each as he
exhorted them to a new life. The family made its way up the
bank of the river.

Joel started to make his way toward John, then
stopped. The air seemed to be as heavy as the silvered water
and he was aware of his own labored breaths. With Zachary
peering over his shoulder, he watched as another man entered
the river. The man looked rather like the baptizer, slightly
taller, but with the same shock of chestnut hair and the same
sunburned, muscular frame. Like the baptizer, he looked as
though he had been spending time in the wilderness.

The man waded to within a few feet of the baptizer. The two
similar-looking men looked at each other. The baptizer, who
had been full of gesticulations a few minutes before, seemed
overcome with the same languor Joel felt, for he simply stood
motionless in the water, staring at the newcomer until the man
spoke, asking for baptism. John the baptist stared at him
blankly for another moment.

"I cannot," he said. "I dare not."

"It is necessary. Do it," said the second.

The air around the river seemed to be congealing. Joel had
experienced something like this only once before. They were in
complete silence except for the slight murmur of the river and
the humming of one insect.

With trembling hand, John scooped water from the river and
poured it over the second man's head, pronouncing the words
of baptism. Joel heard Zachary gasp as the air shimmered more
brightly and became a solid white mass above the head of
the newly baptized man. It descended on him and about him.
The man disappeared in the whiteness for a moment, then the
whiteness suddenly radiated from him in all directions. His face
was shining white. The air was thrumming now, as if God
were speaking.

Joel looked at John, then Zachary, whose faces were covered
with hoar. "Shekinah," said Joel. He knew his own face was
similarly transformed. "It is the glory of God." Joel felt as
rooted as one of the trees. He could not have lifted a foot if his life
depended on it. He swayed like a sapling in a springtime storm.

Jesus stood still, his eyes closed, for a number of minutes. Joel
realized that everyone was as transfixed as he himself was.
Finally, the taller man clasped the baptizer’s shoulders and
spoke softly to him. Then, Joel realized in a state of panic, the
eyes of the Messiah were fixed on him. He waded easily to
Joel, who was still frozen to the spot. The man’s eyes were
large, brown and full of compassion.

"Joel," he said. "I came so that Isaac will have eternal life.
Even though he is dead, he will live again. You will both share
in the Kingdom of God."

The tightness in Joel’s throat prevented him from speaking. He
looked at Jesus with awe, his chest too tight to suck in air,
every nerve, every fiber quivering. The anointed one knew
Joel’s grief. He must know Joel’s blasphemy, too. Faintness
began to overtake Joel.

"Joel, your sins are forgiven," said the Messiah, taking Joel's
arm so he could not slip into the water. Joel could see nothing
but Jesus' face, Jesus' brimming eyes looking into his own
with an empathy that made Joel want to weep. Joel suddenly
understood the Magi. This was not a Messiah of sword and
battlefield, but a gift of God, of very God himself, who brought
a different salvation.

"Emmanuel," Joel whispered. He began to cry, for himself, for
a world that demanded such a Messiah.

The Messiah spoke to Zachary also that day. He said that
Zachary would hear things that would tell him it was time to
seek him out.

We have been hearing more and more reports of the ministry of
the one called Jesus of Nazareth, of his healings and parables.
Zachary is preparing to go to Galilee to find and follow him.
His mother will go with him. Deborah said she must serve the
Messiah also.

I, Joel, am too old now for such travel. I will wait here in
Judea with my Miriam. I am at peace. The Kingdom of God
will come.

All this I tell you truly. These events occurred just as I have
said. I speak at the urging of my grandson, Zachary, who
said that a record must be made of these events. He will take
the scroll with him to Galilee.

May the Lord bless all who read or hear this account.

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