The Farewell Feast
The feast was everything I thought it would be and much more. Even James and Joseph couldn’t help being excited today. Samuel had promised Papa that the furniture he had made would be sold on consignment in a great city, such as Rome. Since Mama had not actually purchased food yet for the banquet, Papa didn’t have to dip into his box of coins. No one knew about Papa’s hiding place except Jesus, my parents, and I. I no longer trusted Michael, who I was afraid might discover the box. While we all marched happily to the event, accompanied by Ezra and his wife, we met my parent’s other friends while hiking up to Simon’s estate, which sat on a hill overlooking the town. As I looked around at the cheerful faces, however, I found Michael missing in the group.
“What’s wrong?” Jesus bent down to whisper in my ear.
“Michael’s missing,” I sputtered frantically, “I think he might be trying to steal Papa’s coins.”
Jesus shushed me by placing a finger on his lips and, shielding his eyes, looked back over the trail. “This isn’t good,” he mumbled to himself.
“I didn’t tell him.” I began to weep softly. “I swear!”
“You didn’t tell him,” frowned Jesus, “but Michael is very observant. I have a feeling he followed Papa to his hiding place and saw him pull out his box.” “Stop simpering,” he scolded me from the corner of his mouth, “I’ll explain to Papa that Michael is missing and I’ll go find him. You keep walking with the others, so Michael won’t think you tattled on him.”
“But I did tattle on him.” I stuck out my lower lip.
“No,” said Jesus, giving me a sly look, “I already knew.”
“Oh yes, those pictures in your head.” I nodded grimly. “What do your pictures tell you now?”
Jesus could not lie when asked a direct question. “They tell me,” he bent down to murmur, “that Michael has already taken the coins and decided to run away.”
“To Jerusalem,” I whispered excitedly, “to see his mother!”
Without further comment, Jesus scurried up to Papa to explain his errand. I heard Papa say in a loud voice “No, Jesus, absolutely not, all this is for your sake. Michael knew we were leaving. He knows where Samuel lives.” After this reply, there was muted conversation between Jesus and Papa a distance away from the group. I knew he would have to tell Papa the truth. What else could he do? Otherwise, Michael would get away with all of Papa’s coins. At that point, however, I heard Papa laugh, slap Jesus on the back, and bend forward to whisper in his ear. Jesus also laughed, the procession started up again, and I found myself heaving a great sigh. When Jesus returned to the end of the procession where I waited, he informed me discreetly that Papa had found a new hiding place that even mother couldn’t find.
When our group arrived at Samuel’s estate, a servant greeted us with exaggerated politeness. Samuel ambled up waving his cane, explaining excitedly that his nephew had just now been spotted on the highway nearby, and then led us personally into the grand hall. This, my Papa grumbled under his breath, was a bit overdramatic, but we were all in a jubilant mood and loitered in Samuel’s large house, the children delighting in pomegranate punch and the adults drinking Falernian wine.
As Simon and I played hide-and-go-seek in our host’s garden, I stood on the fountain scanning above the many plants and over the top of my brother’s raven head. Suddenly, to my surprise, I could see a forlorn figure in the distance beyond the boundary of Samuel’s house . . . . Michael had decided to show up. Fortunately for him, our honored guest had not yet appeared. Simon and I found a side path by the garden and detoured Michael through the greenery, as if he had been here the whole time. Papa and Jesus, of course, wouldn’t be fooled.
I had decided not to accuse him of attempting to steal the coins. How could we prove it? He would deny it and make up an excuse for dawdling back at the house. Papa avoided eye contact with Michael, but I knew he was disappointed in him. Jesus approached the three of us as we re-entered the main hall, a severe expression on his tanned face.
“A servant reports that Samuel’s nephew is within the town’s precincts,” he said sternly. “Papa wants you boys to stand with James, Joseph, and me until he arrives.”
Jesus was angry with Michael. I wondered if he was upset with me too for sneaking Michael in the back way. Everyone followed Samuel and his servants back through the house to the front of the estate where we all congregated to await our honored guests. To make idle conversation, Samuel told us, as we scratched, fidgeted, and shielded our eyes from the sun, an interesting account about his nephew’s visit to Jerusalem during the Passover when he first laid eyes on Joseph bar Jacob’s son. Knowing where this flattering anecdote was leading, my parents flashed him a worried look. As I scanned the faces of the audience, I saw raised eyebrows and frowns and heard Ezra and others murmur to themselves. Before my parents were forced to explain this event, however, there was the distant bark of a driver, whinny of horses and rattle of a coach. The details of Jesus debate with the doctors of the law was cut short by the timely arrival of Joseph of Arimathea.
When his carriage appeared in a cloud of dust, pulled by four beautiful black horses, mounted guards, and his two sons, who galloped ahead to announce the arrival of their father as would two desert warriors, we stood at the entrance of the estate goggling as would spectators at a parade, listening to Samuel clap and hoot with glee. Though his voice cracked at times and he coughed and hacked as if he was on his last breath, the old man dashed onto the cobbled path even before the coach had stopped, calling greetings to Joseph, his wife and sons.
All members of this group, we discovered, including even the coachmen and four guards (two of whom had ebony skin) were dressed in what seemed to us like princely garments. With the exception of my parents and Samuel, no one else at the gathering had ever seen a man with black skin. My memories of such a procession in Sepphoris was not as wondrous as what my ten-year-old eyes beheld. The first ones to dismount were Matthias and Levi, who had the sparse beards of youth, but the haughty mannerisms of spoiled young men. After an impatient signal by Samuel, a servant opened the coach door. Calliope, Joseph’s wife, was the first to step out. Ezra shook his head. Several onlookers gasped. Her face was covered with a vale, a Syrian custom that made her seem even more mysterious as the servant took her delicate hand. She wore a glistening dress and, because she wore so much jewelry, jingled like a dancer as she walked. Joseph, himself, wore the fine clothes of a Pharisee, his turban speckled with lustrous stones and his exquisite robe swishing to and fro as he was led into Samuel’s house.
The most spectacular sight to my dazzled eyes, I must confess, were those magnificent black warriors, who each held long gilded spears. The Nubians, as Papa later called them, were beardless and bared armed, wore leather vests and Roman boots, and sported red caps on their shaven heads. The shorter but more muscular Syrian guards wore chain mail shirts and shiny spiked helmets with metal flaps over each ear. In addition to swords, the black men had bows and quivers slung over the shoulders to make up for their lighter armor. Though it seemed out of place in Samuel’s house, the four guards seemed fully prepared for combat if it occurred. I wondered that moment, as I watched the Nubian and Syrian guards follow Joseph and his family into the house, how many wondrous kinds of people lived in the world. Where there other black men in Galilee? Had they once been warriors in some distant land? Why did Matthias and Levi swagger like soldiers? Each of them wore a short Roman gladius and dagger on each side of their belts. Joseph, himself, wore a long curved saber that he removed and handed to a servant by the door. His sons and the guards did the same. The last one to enter was the coachmen, who seemed dwarfed as he stood next to the four guards. Later, it was explained to me by Papa, who had already drank much wine, traveling rich men such as Joseph and his sons, to protect themselves against thieves, had to carry such weapons while walking in unfamiliar cities. To guard themselves against bandits on the road, they also brought with them fierce bodyguards, such as the Nubians and Syrians. Naturally, this information, more than anything I had learned about Joseph of Arimathea, excited me the most.
Before our sumptuous meal and entertainment, during the awkward silence when the servant had just shut the door and everyone stood inside Samuel’s grand house, Samuel brought my oldest brother up to Joseph of Arimathea, who stood expectantly with his wife, coachmen, guards, and arrogant sons. I will never forget that moment. As so many other moments I would mentally catalog, it holds a special place in my mind.
“My friends of Nazareth,” he turned to us, “this is my illustrious nephew, Joseph bar Ibrim of Arimathea. This beautiful woman is his wife Caliope, and these are his sons Matthias and Levi. His daughters Lilith and Cassandra were left in the care of an aunt.”
“Thank you Samuel,” Joseph gave our host the kiss of welcome, “but please include my faithful driver and protectors.” “This is, Phineas, who will be our coachmen until we set sail from Egypt. These fine warriors,” he pointed to the Nubians, “are Loftus and Strabo. My Syrian guards beside them are Glychon and Tycho.”
“Greetings, Joseph of Arimathea,” Papa managed to say.
“Greetings, Joseph of Nazareth,” our most honored guest replied with a slight frown.
Papa, I could tell, was slightly intoxicated. He and other members of our group bowed, in a slightly exaggerated manner, as if they were confronting royalty. Samuel introduced each of the Nazarenes, including the woman and children, pausing dramatically when he came to Jesus, who had been standing modestly in the background wrapped in his thoughts. In spite of the opportunity confronting my oldest brother, I felt sorry for him. I wasn’t so sure he wanted to leave. It appeared to me, however, that he was certain that God wanted him to go. For an indeterminate period of time, he would be leaving behind his beloved family and all of his moorings to this world.
Finally, after parting politely through the guests, Joseph of Arimathea was standing in front of him. “Ah yes,” he declared, gripping Jesus’ shoulders, “here he is—the wonder child, who discussed the Torah with the greatest minds in Jerusalem.”
There was a collective gasp among the guests.
“I serve the Lord,” Jesus replied enigmatically. “Without His words, I’m nothing. A jug is empty without the water poured into it. We must not glorify the jug, but the living water poured therein.”
Jesus was talking about the salvation he would one day give to the world. No one understood this then, not even my parents, who not only witnessed his miracles and heard him speak but knew things about him we children would never know. He was much more than a wonder child who had argued with a bunch of old men, and yet his tone was tinged with rebuke for Joseph of Arimathea. It made me very proud of Jesus, who resented the high-handed treatment given to Papa and his simple friends. The rest of us were bumpkins in Joseph’s educated eyes. Papa, I noted with amusement, smiled with approval. I couldn’t see everyone else’s expressions, but I had a feeling they were smiling too. Jesus would not be intimidated even by Joseph of Arimathea and was exhibiting the same modesty shown after bringing on the storm. Samuel was the only person to take issue with Jesus’ reaction, though Joseph of Arimathea’s eyes glimmered with respect.
“Jesus,” he scolded, hobbling across the floor, “what’s wrong? Are you ill? I have organized all this for your benefit. Please, apologize to our honored guest. What exactly does that nonsense mean?”
“It wasn’t nonsense,” interrupted Joseph, placing his hand on Jesus head. “The jug he speaks of is mortal man and the water is the spirit of God.” “. . . This is he,” he sighed deeply, “the one who dazzled the gray beard’s minds.”
“You’re not a gray beard,” Jesus said thoughtfully. “I saw you on the sidelines with your two sons. Your mind was filled with doubt.”
“All men doubt,” replied Joseph, stroking his beard. “From a distance, as we approached, we didn’t know what to make of you, but, as we came close, we realized that you were indeed a prodigy, the likes of which my tired eyes have never seen,” “. . . and here you are,” he added, bowing deferentially to Jesus. “He is the honored guest Samuel, not I!”
Once again everyone gasped. Samuel muttered in disbelief. What we heard now convinced my parents that Joseph of Arimathea’s interest in Jesus was more than idle curiosity. He held Jesus in awe. Joseph insisted that Jesus, not he, sit at the head of the long table. Joseph sat beside him, with my Papa then Mama on the opposite side. Down the line on each side of the table, without realizing it, sat men, women, and children who would one day count themselves as followers—among the Seventy—of Jesus, the Risen Christ, but were puzzled by the esteem given to him now. Overlooked by our host was the fact Joseph’s coachmen and guards were, I would learn later, Gentiles. Because they served a Pharisee merchant, everyone assumed they were also Jews. No one, even Samuel, had made an issue of them entering the house, and yet, on their own initiative, they tactfully slipped away before we entered the main hall. The fact that they were Gentiles excited me even more. Joseph of Arimathea had great respect for them and, in his introductions, treated them like equals. Though not seated with the dinner guests, they were given the same food and wine. It struck me as amusing that a table, with attending servants, was set for them in the atrium, which, by orthodox standards, still contaminated Samuel’s house. Later in our kitchen, with a flicker of humor, Jesus would confide to me his delight at his benefactor’s open mindedness and Samuel’s light-hearted mood.
We were all, after our long wait, hungry and anxious. Yet my head swam with the pomp and splendor of Joseph’s family and guards. The smell of roasted foul and lamb wafting from the kitchen into the hall made us anxious and irritable because of the delay. So Samuel clapped his gnarled hands and the first course was brought by servants into the room.
The Shema—“Hear oh Israel, the Lord God is one…”—seemed short, perhaps because our host said it so fast. As was the custom in all Jewish homes, conversation was the main entertainment during a meal. Samuel, however, to show off his own wealth to his nephew and the simple folks sharing the table with him, had hired singers and lute players, who serenaded us with songs of scripture as we ate. I wondered, as I munched on a tender morsel of meat, if Samuel ever had dancing girls like the ones in pagan households in Sepphoris. I was greatly honored, myself, by being seated next to Jesus and so close to the Arimathean. When I leaned to my right just a little bit I could hear the faintest murmur between our honored guests. The two sons of Joseph, who sat the end of the table, had resentful looks on their faces after being overshadowed by Joseph bar Jacob’s son. During that hour, though, I felt as if I finally understood my brother Jesus. This was, of course, not completely true. We knew who he was and some of the things he had done, but none of us, even his own parents, knew what he was.
Papa and Ezra had both drank too much wine. I knew that Papa was upset by the fact that Jesus was leaving, but I knew it was much more. This small group of townsfolk were all that was left of his friends after the incident with Mariah. Jesus miracles and strange behavior had also made enemies of many Nazarenes, as did the Romans presence in town. As I sat there eating my share of lamb and pheasant, guzzling fruit juice, and looking forward to the fabulous dessert Samuel promised his guests, I thought about everything that had happened to my family and me. Michael was a sneak and a thief. Jesus himself so much as admitted that Mariah was a self-styled witch. Papa now had to work so much harder and travel great distances to practice his trade. What purpose had saving Michael’s mother served us? I knew Jesus had dark thoughts about this matter he would never admit. I listened now, as I savored a peculiar dish of lentils and fish, to Joseph and Jesus discuss their upcoming trip.
“How far will we go?” Jesus asked discreetly. “Will our journey take us to the ends of the earth?”
“Almost,” Joseph replied softly. “This will not be like my other journeys. You will meet strange people in remote corners of the Empire. There will be times, Jesus, when we will be in strange, unfamiliar places. Will that make you afraid?”
“We will be safe, Joseph,” Jesus promised. “It’s not my time yet. The Lord has placed me in your hands. Therefore you’re safe too.”
As I listened through mouthfuls of food, I wondered what Jesus had meant by “It’s not my time yet.” Even a child such as I knew that the world was a dangerous place. How could those, who overheard, have known he was referring to Golgotha—this mere stripling, whose adolescent voice had only just begun to change? I write this with a heavy heart but buoyant spirit, though when I first heard the words my mind quickly turned back to the topic of soldiers, horses, and my own future travels in the world.
I was, most of all, greatly distracted by thoughts of the great black warriors I had seen. Joseph’s guardians, I heard Samuel explain to Papa, couldn’t eat with Jews because they were Gentiles, but they were being fed the same food as us. What he failed to tell Papa, as I would learn from Jesus, was that they were still in the house. Technically, Samuel’s house was being defiled. Remembering our treatment of Cornelius, the prefect, I could understand why Papa would argue with him over this matter. Of course, I know differently now. At the time, however, not knowing that Samuel turned a blind eye to Jewish law, I was impressed with how well Papa made his point, after drinking three cups of wine. Ezra could barely talk at this point. But, as many men in their cups, Papa became irascible and spoke indiscreetly about the subject. Gradually from a low murmur his voice rose until those around him could here his slightly slurred words.
“These faithful warriors guard his very life, but they can’t share his table—bah!” he snorted. “I can understand applying our laws to most Gentiles—they are ritually unclean, but for men who’ve saved our very lives we should make an exception.”
“Hump! These poor souls you speak of are paid well for their service,” scoffed Samuel. “You’re lax in you observances of the law, Joseph. That whole business with Mariah was brave and stout hearted, but your house has become ritually impure because of the traffic of Romans in and out. Have you considered having a priest purify it for you? Joachim knows several priests that would do this cheaply.”
Samuel, also in his cups, cackled foolishly, as if he had spoken in jest. I would understand later that he hadn’t been serious. Samuel had never liked the self-righteous rabbi, and had no qualms against Roman protection of our town. In his tipsy frame of mind, of course, Papa wasn’t just talking about Joseph’s guards; he was referring to the Romans, in general, and Nazareth’s attitude toward them.
“Joachim, that hypocrite?” He made a face. “Have you forgotten his role in all this? I don’t need him to recommend one of those greedy temple priests. I’ve seen what goes on the temple: the money lenders, over-priced doves, and unscrupulous priests squeezing the last mite out of the poor.”
“Ah but Joseph,” Samuel teased, raising a bony finger, “recall what the Torah says. It speaks very plainly about this: ‘to purify the house the priest must take two birds, a stick of cedar. No one may enter until he comes out again after purifying himself—’”
“Please,” Papa’s voice reached earshot, “don’t quote scripture to me. You really think the letter of the law is greater than its spirit? Didn’t Isaiah include the Gentiles as someday sharing our God?”
“Ah, a notion shared by my friend Gamaliel,” Joseph of Arimathea now joined in the debate. “Gamaliel is a follower of the great teacher Hillel. I’ve come to agree with his writings myself. That great teacher believed that the spirit of our law should always come first.” “Isaiah’s claim for the Gentiles,” he added thoughtfully, “is well known.”
“Those. . . who agree with Hillel. . . are in the minority.” Papa said, between gulps of wine. “I don’t know anyone, other than Mary and Jesus, who agree with Isaiah about a universal faith. Most of the townsmen are for that other fellow—Shammai, who believes in the letter of the law. They think only Jews go to Paradise. I’ve met good Gentiles. Curse those narrow-minded men. Thanks to Shammai, most Pharisees, priests, and rabbis are concerned with the least little jot or tittle of the law.” “Bah! They’re all a bunch of hypocrites and fools!” He slammed his mug onto the table.
Until that moment, Samuel had been only teasing Papa. Unfortunately, Papa was too tipsy to catch on. Without realizing it, he had crossed a line. It had been, considering the mood of the town, a long time coming. Simon and I giggled foolishly. James and Joseph shook their heads in dismay. Papa had announced his utter contempt for the conservative practitioners of our faith, which by definition included Samuel and the honored guest, himself. Ezra was too drunk to care, but there were groans and gasps from everyone else around the table. Mama, who was thoroughly embarrassed, mumbled over and over “Dear me, I’m so sorry.” Samuel, however, was laughing softly, and Joseph, to my surprise, seemed thoroughly amused.
“Don’t apologize,” he grinned warmly at her. “I can
see where Jesus gets his spirit.”
“I think I might have had some help,” said Papa looking into his cup.
“Well, Joseph,” Samuel exclaimed in good humor, “if anyone deserves to get ‘the spirit’ its you.”
Clearly, I detected, Samuel was in his cups too, but the merchant-Pharisee gave Papa a sober appraisal. He had, I noticed, drunk very little wine. Not only did I notice that special slur of drinkers in our host, but Samuel’s nose was bright red. Now that I reflect upon it, it was the same red that had afflicted Uncle Ahab during his last days. I had never seen Papa drink as much as he had in the past few days. His disappointment with the town and Jesus’ upcoming trip with Joseph of Arimathea were too much for him. Though it was hot and musky in the room, a sudden fear, as a gust of cold wind, caused me to shiver. A murky premonition surrounding Papa overtook me. I didn’t know the word for prophecy then. It was not pictures, as the kind that probably appeared in Jesus head, but dark feelings and a sense of gloom—the sort of feeling I had upon awakening from a bad dream. Had it not been for the trays of pastries and sweet meats brought out by the servants, I would probably have lost my appetite. Also serving to distract me was the verbal exchange between Joseph of Arimathea and my oldest brother. They talked about minute aspects of the Torah, such as Adam’s sin and the sentence of death for mankind that followed, which Jesus claimed would be exonerated by the Messiah foretold by Isaiah and Amos. Papa had talked about this subject many times and it came as no surprise to his children. It was the fact that it came from the mouth of a fifteen-year-old youth, who conversed with a learned Pharisee of the law. Not being present in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus argued with the graybeards, I could only imagine the priests and scribes reactions. According to our parents, the good doctors had been greatly impressed. Joseph of Arimathea, as did Samuel, saw Jesus as a great prodigy. Yet in Nazareth, because of his miracles and strange, brooding eyes, he was considered an outcast.
I wondered what Papa’s remaining friends thought of Jesus now. Until Jesus brought up the subject of the Messiah, everyone seemed bored with the details of the Torah discussed by Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea. Papa’s outburst had been the high point in our table talk. Several muted conversations broke out between the guests, most of which were about what Papa said, but several elders perked up upon hearing that word. The rich merchant listened intently to Jesus expound his view, which was similar to Papa’s, that God, and therefore the Messiah, would come for all men. Following this statement, which invoked gasps from listeners, perhaps to get Jesus off the topic, Joseph seemed to change the subject:
“The question of heaven and hell has never been central to our faith. The Sadducees don’t believe in either, while the Pharisees and rabbis agree upon a shadowy place called Gahenna and a place where we shall reunite in the bosom of Abraham or some such nonsense to make men accountable for their sins.” “In general, however,” he added ruefully, “most practical Jews like our Gentile neighbors are more concerned about this world. They believe that they will be rewarded for their good deeds on earth, not in the Elysium Fields as the Greeks call it or eternally punished in Tartaros—the Roman’s hell, where one scampers about in thoughtless bless without a care or roasts forever for their sins.”
“When you’re as old as me,” Samuel muttered, “that’s not very comforting. Those Elysium Fields begin looking mighty good.”
“I agree,” said Joseph, stroking his beard.
“You didn’t mention the soul,” Jesus replied softly. “The soul, whose home becomes either heaven or hell, is the most important part of men. Sin is caused by the perversion of free will which opens the porthole of our soul to allow Satan to control our lives.”
There was an intake of breaths. Everyone at the table, except his family, was taken back by this statement. We, his family, had heard him say stranger things than this. I hoped, in fact, he would not begin babbling about his heavenly Father, which Papa explained, would be considered blasphemy around simple folk.
“Sounds Greek to me,” Matthias, Joseph’s eldest son spoke for the first time.
“Or like heresy,” mumbled Levi.
“I can’t believe a fifteen year old boy said that,” Samuel exclaimed, taking a gulp of wine. “What do you think Joseph? Is he not a remarkable lad?”
“Remarkable, indeed!” His nephew laughed to himself. “I can understand how so many of his fellow townsmen could misunderstand his words. He was, a moment ago, simply talking about the coming Messiah, whom most Jews look forward to seeing one day.” “But your insight about the soul,” he added, patting Jesus knuckles. “That’s very deep for a youth.” “I can see no guile in this young man,” he concluded. “His heart guides his words. . . . He’s touched by God.”
“You mean touched by the devil,” Matthias snarled. “We’ve heard about his miracles? How can you assume they are heaven sent?”
Joseph of Arimathea sprang up from his stool and pointed accusingly at Matthias. “You will apologize to Jesus and our host for that outburst or leave my company at once!”
Matthias rose from the table, bowed curtly, and mumbled an apology.
Levi, who had been grumbling, himself, looked down the table and offered one too. “Forgive us for our confusion, Jesus. We still don’t understand why our father, a Pharisee and god-fearing Jew, would not find offense at your words.”
This well crafted apology was taken at face value by our host, but Jesus replied after the deepest sigh, “I was asked to travel with your generous father. It was not my design. If you don’t wish it, perhaps I shouldn’t go. I would never come between a father and his sons.”
This masterful reply caused Joseph of Arimathea to smile with mirth but also frown, when he noted the reaction of his sons. Both Matthias and Levi sat quietly and moodily on their stools for the remainder of the meal. The conversation at the table among the guests turned to idle chatter, as Papa and Ezra fought very hard not to fall asleep.
When our feast was over, everyone retired to a place that Samuel called the great hall, where a central fountain and beautiful pots filled with all manner of plant lined the walls. Here, on a raised platform intended for entertainers, in a ceremony that I found quite boring, Samuel officially announced the purpose of our gathering, as if everyone didn’t know. His aged voice crackled as he introduced the event. “Friends of Joseph bar Jacob, it is my honor to present Jesus’ benefactor in this enterprise, my nephew, the illustrious Joseph bar Ibrim. . .” I had laid down discreetly on a convenient ledge by a window, behind a large potted plant and fallen asleep during this overdrawn affair in which Samuel paused to enumerate the background of his illustrious nephew, catching snatches of his introduction and Joseph of Arimathea’s long-winded response aimed at my parents. Samuel appeared to be somewhat intoxicated. My parents had already made up their minds to let Jesus go. So I saw no reason for paying attention, especially when I noticed Simon and Michael playing tag in the garden and Papa, himself, nodding off to sleep.
Falernian wine and fine food had made the small group sleepy and squirmy. Many had to use one of Samuel’s cloacas. I tried one myself. It was much larger and more luxurious than ours. As I slept, Cornelius entered my dream—a glorious specter, standing over me, his armor shining in the sun, his voice booming “wake up Jude, you naughty child!” I was shaken by this un-Roman command. Why would Cornelius be talking to me like my mother? And then, as my eyes opened, Mama was shaking me and whispering the same words. Samuel’s speech making appeared to be over. I had my own audience of disapproving adults. Fortunately for me, Papa was smiling, not frowning, as I yawned, stretched, and rubbed my eyes. I will never know what fine words Jesus had uttered. Joseph of Arimathea had his arm around my brother’s shoulder, talking to some of our family’s friends. My mother stood there shaking her head, as Papa took my hand.
“You’re a lot like your Papa,” he said from the corner of his mouth. “I won’t punish you. I almost fell asleep, myself. But you’ll be doing extra chores for your mother this week. Most of them didn’t notice your absence, but Jesus will know. Give him a big hug and thank his benefactor Joseph. I think he’s a good man.”
“I don’t like him.” I stuck out my lower lip. “He’s taking Jesus away.”
“Jesus will return soon enough,” promised Papa, sending me forward with a shove.
I could hear Mama scolding Papa for his leniency under her breath. Doing what my father ordered, I gave Jesus a perfunctory hug, gave Joseph of Arimathea’s hand a tepid shake, and then scurried away into the garden where I found Michael and Simon playing hide-and-seek.
“I think we’re going to be leaving soon,” I informed Michael.
“Finally!” He exclaimed.
“You’re not even sorry, are you?” I searched his freckled face.
“Sorry for what?” He frowned.
Simon, who had been hiding behind a large bush, appeared suddenly, whacking Michael soundly on the head. “You’re it!” He cried.
That moment I realized how much Simon and Michael were alike. They were both sneaky, untrustworthy, and lazy, but there was a difference between them that mattered very much, something that Simon had and Michael didn’t. It was a word I did not know then, only felt. . . a conscience.
On the way home, Michael skipped, cavorted, and sang nonsensical songs, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, which I’m certain he didn’t. Simon seemed fascinated with my friend, but even he backed off when Mama looked at him disapprovingly. I knew Papa had told her. Now there were four members of my family who knew that Michael was a thief. The problem was Michael’s plan had been foiled. As far as he was concerned he had done nothing wrong. He never mentioned it again, but, to show Michael that he knew, Papa gave Michael a special job. He would keep the cloaca spotlessly clean. It seemed harsh to me at first, until Papa explained to me that it was either that or he would send Michael to Jerusalem to live with his mother’s relatives. That same day Papa also confided a big secret to me, perhaps the greatest confidence I would ever have to keep: his stash of coins were now buried inside the housing of the cloaca itself. The only way to reach it was lifting up the seat and reaching into the recess between the abyss and housing.
“Without knowing it,” Papa whispered merrily, “Michael would become the guardian of our savings. He would never guess how close he was to the bag of coins.”
As we walked in the garden, I laughed so hard I rolled on the ground as if I was bereft of my senses. Papa picked a ripe fig, split it open, and handed it to me. As we munched the succulent fruit, we strolled idly into the backyard where we found Jesus praying, this time with his elbows on a rock, a shaft of light breaking through the limbs to highlight his upturned face. “He looks like an angel,” Papa muttered to himself. I thought nothing of this, since I had seen Jesus praying like this countless times. But then we noticed something very strange about this setting: it was late afternoon, not high noon, when sunlight would fall straight down as it appeared to be doing now. As that special time in the meadow, after the curing of the dead bird, Jesus face was illuminated, as if by inner fire. Startled by the phenomena, I gasped. Papa cupped his hand over my mouth to muffle my voice. Not wanting to disturb his communion with God, we crouched down quietly behind the pomegranate bush, peeking through the branches at this extraordinary event. Soon, however, the effect faded. Evening shade fell upon Jesus, and he slumped down, resting his head on his arms. At that point, as if on cue, Papa rose up, grabbed my hand and led me down into the orchard where Jesus sat.
“Greetings!” Papa exclaimed, trying to be calm.
“Jesus! Jesus!” I was not so subtle. “You did it again—you lit up like a Syrian lamp!”
“It’s true.” Papa looked down at him. “I hope you don’t do that around Joseph. He might think you’re possessed.”
Papa and I laughed at this banter, but Jesus wasn’t amused. Looking back, I realize that even Jesus’ earthly father couldn’t fathom who he was. How could he? How could anyone? Nothing in our religion had prepared us for this. The Messiah was suppose to be a warrior king, who would smite the Romans, not a dreamy youth walking in the hills. His future disciples could not believe that we, his family, had been so dense. The truth was, though we had many clues, we didn’t want to know. He was ours—at least for a little while. The God-boy frowned severely, his blue eyes flashing with anger, but then, so typical of Jesus moods, he smiled up at us, took Papa’s outstretched hand and was pulled up onto his legs.
“I’m hungry,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“Praying’s hard work,” teased Papa. “I’m still stuffed after Samuel’s feast!”
“What did God say to you this time?” I asked, as we began our trek to the house. “Did he tell you to bring me a horse back from Egypt or Rome?”
Jesus looked down at me thoughtfully but didn’t reply. Papa waved at Mama as she stuck her head out the back door. That moment Simon was chasing Michael up to house. As we entered, I could see James and Joseph, as sullen as ever, slouched at the table. The twins ran out to greet Jesus, giggling and grabbing both of his hands, . . . memories I would carry forever of when Jesus was still, like his brothers and sisters, still a child. I couldn’t put it into words then, but I was fearful that Jesus would return a worldly, young man, filled with strange ideas and no longer the dreamer he once was. This would be partly true, of course. His travels with Joseph of Arimathea, I realize now, helped shape his later views on religion. Yet, though we rejoiced in this opportunity for him, during the week preceding his departure an unspoken gloom filled us. On that fateful day, when he embarked upon his odyssey with Joseph of Arimathea, it seemed as though nothing would ever be the same.