Arrival of the Guards
When Jesus returned from his discussion with Samuel, the look of alarm on his face told us that a new disaster was about to befall our family. For the moment the incredible realization growing in our minds was delayed.
“It’s not over,” he announced, dashing into the house. “There’s Romans galloping up the road! They’re holding javelins. A column of armored soldiers with swords drawn and shields follow. They’re heading into the hills, behind our house.”
As we looked out of the kitchen window, we could see the flash of armor and helmets and hear the clop-clop-clop of legionnaires riding past our house. There was also, following Jesus declaration, the familiar thud of hobnail boots tromping through the gate, across Mama’s garden and into our yard. Racing across the floor, we peered through the back door in time to see a squad of soldiers, with lighted torches rushing down the trail.
“What next?” Papa grabbed the sides to his head. “They’re looking for Reuben and his friends. Has our new friend decided to avenge us? Why couldn’t Cornelius have just concentrated on one good deed.”
“Good,” I said through clinched teeth, “I hope they catch him and cut off his head.”
“You don’t mean that Jude,” Jesus tried calming me, “the townsfolk would turn on Papa for siding with the Romans. Reuben will be punished in his own time.”
“Not soon enough,” Michael spewed. “Those men burned down my mother’s house. Reuben talked them into it. He hates my mother and your family. That kind of hate never dies. He and his friends will be back. I hope the Romans tie them all to stakes and burn them up!”
Even I winced at his exclamation. To underscore his words, more Romans appeared in our backyard, swords drawn, blazing torches lighting their way. Into the hills they streamed, phantom warriors gobbled up by darkness. An eerie quiet followed as the Romans vanished. In the front of our house, however, we heard the commotion of the horseman and the more distant bark of Roman officers calling to their men. Fear had replaced anticipation in our minds. Something terrible must have happened, we all agreed. Mother would not let her children leave the house, including even Jesus, but Papa approached the marching soldiers, looking frantically for Cornelius. We could see from the front door and window the torch lit armor and shiny weapons and hear the stomp of boots from more dismounted troops.
“How many are there?” Mama gasped.
“There must be hundreds of them!” I murmured in awe.
Voices carried well from the road, so we listened with bated breaths, hoping to hear word from our friend. Clipped commands, such as “Loosen ranks!” and “At the double!” I sensed meant that the columns were moving faster than an ordinary march. What did this mean? The Romans had taken control of the entire town. What had Reuben done to bring down such anger from Rome?
“Cornelius! Where’s Cornelius!” Papa shouted.
“You there,” a deep voice ordered, “ get off the road. Get back into your house!”
“Please, my name’s Joseph bar Jacob. I’m a friend of the prefect.”
“Stand back Joseph,” the officer replied. “I shall ride ahead to inform him of your presence.”
A long silence followed in which everyone took turns using the cloaca. James and Joseph snuck swigs of wine, while mother wasn’t looking. Mariah sat motionless at the table, watching my brothers pour helpings from the wine jar and then place it back in the new cupboard Papa had built. Jesus was as nervous as everyone else but managed to give comfort to Mariah now.
“I know you have the cravings,” he whispered softly, “but wine destroyed my uncle as surely as the plague. I’ll pray constantly for you, but you must pray too, Mariah. Each time it comes upon you, you must ask the Lord for strength and resolve.”
“How did you get so smart?” she grinned foolishly, looking back at the cupboard.
“Where you listening to me?” Jesus touched her hand. “This is very serious, Mariah. You must put yourself in the hands of God.”
“You sound so adult for a boy,” she laughed stupidly, “but I’ll be all right.”
I watched Jesus face fall. A thought came over me (I would now interpret as a revelation) that Jesus not only knew that Mariah would never see her son again, but something dark awaited her in Jerusalem. . . perhaps sooner. I temporarily forgot that I was Joseph’s adopted son. After all, I was in good company now. Instead of worrying about myself, I began worrying about foolish Mariah and her poor son, who I assumed my parents would have to adopt too. Jesus looked over at me as I stood on a stool by the window and gave me a sad smile. Jesus’ maturity back then astonished everyone. Those times in which he lost his temper like everyone else or broke down and cried as would a little child had always amused me, but now I had the urge to run and hug my oldest brother for the burdens he took upon himself.
Mama noticed Mariah’s glassy look too as she hovered by the window, waiting for Papa’s return. James and Joseph, who were slightly tipsy, had sat down on their pallets and fallen asleep. The twins, however, having awakened during all the commotion, climbed up on stools to nestle beside mother at the table. Simon and Michael joined my vigil by the window, as I waited for Cornelius to answer Papa’s summons. When, after a nerve-racking period of time, we saw a lamp in the garden and heard footsteps up the path, we assumed it was him, but mother made us wait until we heard a knock at the door and Papa’s voice. Hardly had Simon unbolted the door when Papa came rushing in, out of breath, a worried look on his faith.
“Did you talk to Cornelius?” I jumped up and down excitedly.
Papa nodded faintly. He was sweating profusely
“But we didn’t hear you.” Simon looked at him disbelief.
“He spoke to me from his saddle in a discreet voice,” Papa explained. “It’s not good, not good at all.” “Please everyone,” he motioned impatiently, “let’s sit down.”
“Would you care for some wine?” asked mother, wiping his brow.
“No, I have to keep a clear head,” he motioned for Simon, who ran to bring him a dipper of water.
“Here Papa,” Simon chirped.
“Where’s James and Joseph?” he looked around the room. “How can they sleep at a time like this?”
“They drank wine,” Michael blurted. “I saw them dip into your jar.”
Papa stepped forward as if he wanted to punish them severely but broke into laughter at the comic poses his sons had fallen into on the floor. James lay on his back his mouth gaping open, and Joseph lie on his face, an arm draped over his brother’s chest.
“Like two drunken sailors!” Papa exclaimed through guffaws. “My sons are drunk on wine! What else will befall my house?”
“It’s not funny Joseph,” Mama frowned. “Our sons have tasted the vine!”
“Doesn’t anybody care what Cornelius said?” I shouted this time.
Papa expelled the words then dropped his face into his hands. “Apparently, Reuben and his friends rolled a boulder down a hill and injured one of the prefect’s men. One of the soldiers Cornelius said it was an accident, but they are hunting them down as incendiaries. Now they are not only suspected of arson but are responsible for attacking a Roman soldier as well. I heard distant shouting, coming from the town square. Our friendship with Cornelius will only make matters worse!”
Everyone except Mariah rose from the table and went to console Papa. James and Joseph stirred on their pallets, scratching their heads. Papa explained to us what they would do if they caught Reuben and his friends. They would turn them over to the procurator for trial and punishment, if they didn’t kill the fugitives on the spot. This appeared to be a disaster for our family. We all chattered fearfully at the same time as Papa sat groaning in his chair. Mariah appeared to be withdrawing again into a mental shell. Reason and sanity came back to our family slowly as we listened to Jesus utter a supplication “Lord guard us this dark hour against our enemies. Soften their hearts to your will. You know the truth. Impart this truth to the elders, and guide the hard hand of Rome to justice, not vengeance. . .”
The prayer lasted for several moments more. Much of it sounded like repetition, so Simon, Michael, and I stopped up our ears, but the distraction served to take our minds off of our fears. At the end of his prayer, however, Jesus uttered something that awakened our dulled wits. Even the groggy James and Joseph pricked up their ears when Jesus cried out “Lord protect your misguided children Reuben, Josiah and Asa. If they’re caught, the Romans will kill them, and the punishment will not fit the deed. The townsfolk will blame the house of Joseph bar Jacob. Quickly heal the brave Roman harmed during the pursuit. Change the heart of our enemies Reuben, Josiah and Asa. Quiet the storm in Nazareth with your calming breath. Please Lord, if it be your will, send the Romans away!”
The last words in his supplication brought our father to his feet. It also awakened Mariah from her lethargy.
“No, Jesus,” he wrung his hands, “we need the Romans to escort Mariah. You must alter the end of your prayer!”
“You have said it,” Jesus smiled, pointing at his head, “and God has listened.”
James and Joseph laughed hysterically.
“The Romans? We need the Romans!” Mariah muttered, staring wild-eyed around the room.
“He did the alteration in his head,” Mother explained, taking her trembling hand. “We must do as Jesus says, and trust in the Lord.”
“I know the Romans will help Mariah.” I looked trustingly at Jesus. “Cornelius said so!”
“Yes,” Jesus nodded, “Cornelius is a man of his word.”
“But what about that scoundrel Reuben?” Papa gave him a worried look.
“I think Reuben and his friends will be gone a long time,” Jesus said less convincingly. “Even before I prayed I got the strongest feelings about him leaving our town.”
“Did the Lord tell you that?” James frowned.
“The Lord does not speak in Hebrew or Latin,” Jesus explained patiently. “He speaks in flashes and sensations, not words. Where’s your faith?”
“I believe in what I see,” grumbled James. “Whether or not Reuben and his friends leave Nazareth, the Romans have persecuted our people. Our neighbors will hate us for that!”
“Well, maybe we should all pray,” suggested Papa, looking around the room, “all of us praying together, at the same time, just to be sure.” “What to do you say?” he elbowed James. “You would rather Mariah walk to Jerusalem by herself?”
“Well, . . . no,” James made a face. “I just wish Odeh would have done it, not them!”
“I’ll hold your hand Papa.” I stepped forward excitedly. “Jesus taught us how to pray!”
Jesus, smiling happily at us all, reached out for Papa’s hand. Papa motioned for me to take the other. I offered my hand to Michael, who took it eagerly and clasped hands with his mother, who seemed to have an embarrassed look on her face. James appeared to be excited to join hands with Mariah. Then, with a shudder, he took Joseph’s hand, who linked up with Simon, the twins, and then our mother, who completed the circle by taking Jesus’ free hand.
“What do we say?” Michael whispered in my ear.
“Pray in your head, like Jesus said,” I answered curtly.
“That’s correct,” Jesus agreed, “a circle of prayer. Everyone will give God his or her own special words.”
“What special words?” Michael turned to me. “I can’t think of any words.”
“Make them up,” Simon groaned
“Yes, use one of your mother’s spells,” grumbled Joseph.
“Listen children,” Jesus reminded us, “clean out all your thoughts, like our mother sweeps the floor. Pretend, as you shut your eyes, that you’re looking up to heaven, through a clear blue sky. In your own words, ask God to protect our house and allow Mariah a safe journey.”
“Jesus! Jesus!” I sputtered. “What about the Romans? What about Cornelius?”
“That too,” sighed Jesus. “We want our friend to come back.”
Sounds of Roman officers in the distance shouting orders filtered in the night wind through the window. Unceremoniously Papa ordered us to commence our separate entreaties with one word “begin!”
At first I saw a big white horse riding in my head. It was difficult not to think of my horse, until I did exactly what Jesus said. First, with some effort, came the house cleaning, followed by the clear blue sky, and the simplest prayer a boy my age could muster: “Bless our house, watch over our guests, and make our enemies go away!”
After opening my eyes, I discovered that many of the others were having trouble “thinking” their prayer too. Michael and Simon stood there with their eyes tightly shut and lips moving, while James and Joseph, who had drank too much wine, clung miserably to their partner’s hands. While Mariah had the look of a trapped animal, Jesus and our parents appeared to be offering God more eloquent prayers, but the twins, having been excused by the ordeal, broke ranks and fled to the next room.
The sound of marching, more shouts, and one piercing blast of a horn, now halted our circle of prayer. I shuddered and sighed at the same time. Papa looked around at us and said hastily “Amen!”
Suddenly there was a clatter of swords against metal pleats, followed by knocking on the front door. After releasing each other’s hands, we fled from the kitchen. James, Joseph, Simon, Michael, and I now cowered in various corners of the room. Our parents, hand-in-hand, stood bravely in front of the door. Once again Jesus settled calmly at the table as Mariah, as the twins earlier, ran from the scene.
“Yes?” Papa called anxiously. “What business do you have with us this hour?”
“This is Cornelius,” the prefect answered impatiently. “My apologies for disturbing you again, but I must speak to you Joseph. Please let me in.”
“Of course,” Papa mumbled, pulling the board from its cradle.
The prefect, now covered with dust and grime, clamored into the room. In back of him, but not crossing the threshold were several legionnaires, still holding their swords.
“Cornelius! What’s the meaning of this?” Papa gasped, looking out into our yard. “Why are they holding swords?”
“I’m sorry, Joseph,” he replied hoarsely, “I fear for the safety of your family. Three fire-raisers, who almost killed one of my men, are at large. A village witness claimed to see them near your house.”
Papa looked at Jesus, as if by eye contact, to confirm the legitimacy of their prayers. Having rose up to greet our guest, Jesus nodded both greeting and assurance to each man. I ran over finally, halted a few paces in front of Cornelius, and looked up admiringly at our friend.
“Reuben and his friends, Josiah and Asa, are gone,” Jesus said with great conviction. “They’ll bother this house no more.”
Cornelius laughed softly. “Really? We couldn’t find them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were hiding somewhere in the hills or outskirts of town.”
A Roman prefect would only laugh if we told him about our prayers. Mama, always the good host, immediately handed him a mug of wine.
“What was all that commotion in town?” Papa changed the subject, as Cornelius took a long, slurping gulp.
“Thank you my lady,” he murmured, handing the half-empty mug back. “I hope you forgive this intrusion in your home.”
“The good prefect has our best wishes at heart.” She bowed.
“I don’t wish to alarm you.” Cornelius stared gravely at our father. “Those incendiaries have caused a mood of insurrection among your fellow Jews.”
Papa’s eyebrows shot up. “So it’s not just the pursuit of Reuben requiring the Romans. You’re here to maintain order and keep the peace.”
“Yes,” Cornelius replied, making a sweep with his arm, “our presence is a show of force for agitators.” “I’m sorry,” he looked around the room, “Rome has an ancient fear of insurrection and fire. We must keep order. I insist that you all stay inside, as I’m sure most citizens are doing this hour. Unless I post guards tonight, I can’t vouch for your safety against Reuben and other trouble-makers in town.”
“Will there be very many posts?” Papa gave him an anxious look.
“Four for each security zone.” Cornelius nodded. “We’ll have three shifts—day and night—at each corner of town.”
“Is that necessary?” Papa groaned.
“I’m afraid so.” The prefect folded his arms. “Nazareth is close to the fort, making it easier to patrol than other towns. The main caravan road isn’t far from here, which makes this area especially important. It’s not merely that rogue Reuben and his men that are a problem. A robber band, led by Abbas, is causing trouble in Galilee, so other towns, such as Cana and Nain, require security too.” “Mark my word.” He socked his fist. “They’ll pay dearly for that fire. They picked the wrong time to anger Rome!”
“Death to incendiaries!” cried a soldier in our yard.
“Aye,” another shouted in the distance, “death to all Jews trifling with Rome!”
“Fantastic!” I clapped my hands. “The Romans are here!”
James and Joseph, jolted from drunken slumber, frowned severely at me. Papa and Mama shook their heads. If it’s true that voices are carried in the wind, the last soldier’s shout put our town on notice. In the torchlight, through the open door, we could see the faces of our protectors: unshaven, steel jawed, cold-eyed warriors. That moment, as my admiration soared, my words stung James and Joseph, yet Jesus gave me an indulgent smile. It was one of the countless childhood memories of my oldest brother tucked away in my memory. Other than Jesus, himself, only Michael was glad to see the soldiers, but he seemed frightened of these men.
In a more tactful fashion than his men, Cornelius spoke to us, going into more detail about the security measures for Nazareth. In the background, as my parents stood there with wide, unblinking eyes, James and Joseph stood glaring at our visitor. I could hear them whispering back and forth. They were unhappy about the Roman presence. Wine had loosened their tongues.
At first, the prefect seemed unruffled by their hostility. “These fellows,” he announced, pointing to his men, “will take the first watch. Essentially, they’ll be guarding your house. Horsemen will patrol the main road in and out of Nazareth and the footpaths in town. Sentries, in teams of four, will guard the north, south, east, and west sectors of town. You’re neighborhood, particularly your property, is closest to the Arab encampment and old Jerusalem trail, so it might require added security. Horsemen will also patrol the perimeter of the hills and surrounding desert, and the entire cohort will divide its forces throughout Galilee to seek out and destroy Abbas and his band. Rest assured, because of the unrest in this province, what happened here in Nazareth will be closely watched. I’ll return in a few days to talk to your town elders, so I can explain the schedule and how I’ll station my men. For the remainder of this week, I’ll spend most of our time in the saddle, determining how many cities and towns require around-the-clock protection. You’ve probably noticed our growing presence here—a show of force to remind Galileans that we’re here. Rome is always watching. There’ll be no more rebellions against Rome!”
Cornelius had given James and Joseph a warning. Though Papa gave them his most severe frown, they grumbled unhappily to each other.
“The Romans are oppressors!” Joseph whispered in James’ ear.
“Our name is now sheep dung in this town.” James muttered back.
Still quite tipsy, they had been overheard. The prefect picked up on their whispers yet spoke indirectly, as if they weren’t in the room.
“Meaning no respect.” He bowed deferentially to my parents. “I don’t understand the Jewish mind, especially its ill-tempered youths. Despite the efforts of our emperor and governor to appease them, many Jews are hotheads and rabble-rousers, like those troublemakers in your town. I have noticed that older men are more prudent. The peaceful village of Nazareth was the last place I would expect unrest. It’s not merely the incendiaries who set Mariah’s house on fire or Abbas, the bandit chief, who worry me. I can hear it now in the air: mutiny and sedition. I can even hear it in this room. The incident in Nazareth was a wake-up call. I’m afraid that fire, awakened a mood of civil disobedience, placing your family in conflict with those agitators in town.”
“Will your men be friendly?” Papa asked carefully. “….They won’t mistreat my neighbors and friends?”
“Yes and no,” he answered, raising an eyebrow. “ It’s a two-way road. The optios in charge of the four security zones will instruct their men to be polite and patient for Jews obeying the law. Later, when they have time, your sentries should introduce themselves. Hopefully, very soon, the routine will run smoothly here. Don’t worry, Joseph and Mary, you have nothing to fear!”
“What about my mother?” asked Michael, dashing across the floor.
“Hello there,” Cornelius reached down to pat his head. “So you’re Mariah’s son. A strong likeness, I must say.” “Don’t you worry,” he winked at Michael, “I’ve given my word.”
“You poor dear.” Mother clasped her hands. “You and your men must be exhausted.”
“We’ll manage.” He sighed raggedly. “Rome never sleeps.”
The quip was taken seriously by my family. Cornelius meant business. The prefect’s eyes rolled around the room. James and Joseph’s surly faces caught his attention as did Jesus, who, with much different viewpoints, stood there contemplating our new friend. It appeared by the glow on his face that Simon, like Michael and I, was greatly impressed by this gallant soldier. Though appreciative, my parents had looks of concern on their haggard faces. How far would the prefect go to protect our town?
“I’m aware,” his voice grew stern, “that only three incendiaries were reported tonight. Most of the hecklers ran into the shadows like frightened lambs. But don’t be fooled, my friends. All of us remember that terrible time when Nazarene youths were executed alongside of Judah’s other rebels for rebelling against Rome.” “This was a long time ago,” he added reflectively, “but the mood hasn’t changed. We know that Nazareth, like other Galilean towns, is filled with hotheads. I heard some of them shouting insults at my men. We’re here to protect you but also to keep order, especially with those fire-raisers running amuck. Rome will not tolerate another Judah the Galilean. Nor will we allow innocent townsfolk to be terrorized by criminal’s carrying torches and making threats.”
For a moment, after reaching over to ruffle my hair, the prefect made eye-contact with James and Joseph again. Papa nodded gravely at the connection then suggested politely that Cornelius sit down, have some more wine, and rest a moment before going back to camp. The prefect smiled and shook his head then chatted disarmingly awhile with us about the fire and the miraculous storm that put it out. He laughed softly to himself about the story he heard. At that point, he looked squarely at Jesus but said nothing. I wanted to cry out “It’s true! It’s true!” Roman soldiers, I would discover later, were a superstitious lot, but their officers were practical men who dealt only with facts. The lecture he gave us had been expected. He cared not a wit about Jesus supposed divinity or the gossip from townsfolk that he had summed Beelzebub to make it rain. Cornelius, however, had presented the problem Rome had with we stiff necked Jews in a kindly enough fashion. He didn’t talk down to us or make us feel like a conquered people. The gruff mannerism expected of no-nonsense military men was absent from the prefect, at least the side of himself shown to us. He had made us feel like friends.
The warning he had given for James and Joseph’s benefit had silenced them. In a tremulous voice, to avoid discipline, they begged his pardon. With Papa’s prodding, they stepped forward one-by-one to shake the Roman’s hand. Cornelius gave them both a stern smile but said nothing. Before departing, he summed up the plan for spiriting Mariah away. All of us, except Michael’s mother, perked our ears up and drew near. The plan had changed only slightly. Papa and Ezra would escort Mariah to the orchard, where a contingent of soldiers would take her through the nearby hills to the camp of Odeh and his men. Odeh, who had been frightened off because he thought Mariah was a criminal or witch, would lead the Roman escort with their secret cargo to Jerusalem during his monthly wool caravan to the holy city. We never found out how Cornelius talked him into this. It seemed so fortuitous to us that Odeh’s periodic journey would coincide with Mariah’s planned rescue, we once again glanced knowingly at Jesus, who stood quietly in our midst.
“I had nothing to do with it,” he stated unequivocally. “The Lord answered our prayers.”
“Of course,” I smiled slyly.
“Jesus has great powers,” Michael whispered into my ear.
Mariah, who had a withdrawn, glassy-eyed look, frowned and tilted her head, as if she was hearing voices. Mother, with a look of alarm, reached out to squeeze her knuckles, but Mariah withdrew her hand, smiled crookedly, and began muttering softly to herself.
“She’s not right in the head,” observed James.
“She’ just upset,” Papa frowned at James. “She’ll be all right when she leaves Nazareth. In Jerusalem she’ll be with relatives. It’ll do her good.”
“What about her son?” Cornelius gave Michael’s head another pat.
“He’ll come later,” Papa said reassuringly, “when Mariah’s ready. We mustn’t rush matters. We’ll let Mariah decide that for herself.”
Our adopted father was in denial. So much had happened to us in such a short period of time the fact that Mariah might still be insane, though a logical conclusion after yesterday’s events, was being ignored. She’s just upset Papa told us. She’ll be all right in Jerusalem (with relatives who hate her, Michael, himself, had said.) I can scarcely believe Papa said such a thing. I knew nothing of literature or history then. Now, what comes to my jaded mind are the words of my friend Paul of Tarsus, who summed up my ten year old grasp of these years when Jesus, himself, was still a youth:
“Now we see through a glass, darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
I was confused and sad about our new status as the adopted children of Joseph, the carpenter. Our small act of charity in Nazareth, which loomed so large now, reeled around us in chaos, and yet I had time to daydream about a better day. My white horse and troops were always there to comfort me. In my dream my friend Michael, who I thought shared my dream, was by my side.
The prefect paused one last time to salute us and thank us for our hospitality and the mug of wine. I saluted him back: a fist brought up against my chest. This time, we knew the Romans would not leave Nazareth and our own property until things had quieted down. With the Lord’s protection, Jesus thought this was unnecessary, but my parents, Simon, Michael, and I felt much better with legionnaires guarding our house. Papa now ordered everyone to get some sleep. First light, when they must be in the orchard, he reminded us, would come early. Now that there was a large contingent of Romans watching our house, we need not worry about Mariah and her safety. In spite of Jesus confidence that Reuben would be no threat, however, we knew it would be a sleepless night and everyone, except perhaps the twins, would be up at the crack of dawn.