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Chapter Thirty-Four

 

Cousin John

 

 

 

In the morning Papa returned to Samuel’s house to find Nehemiah washed and dressed for burial.  The servants had been instructed by the Pharisee in the proper ritual.  It was our custom to bury the dead as quickly as possible, preferably the same day before sundown, but darkness had fallen soon after we arrived in town.  Though he awakened at dawn, Papa had much to do to organize a proper funeral with no time to spare.  A hole was dug by servants on the grounds of Samuel’s estate and a large slab of limestone was removed from one of Samuel’s fountains to serve as a headstone until a proper stone would be carved.  Under the protection of our guards, Jesus, James and Joseph walked around town inviting our friends in Nazareth to Nehemiah’s funeral service and burial.  Simon and I tagged along after Papa and Ezra until the festivities began.  To avoid further alienation, many of the townsfolk, who had shunned our family, would at least be notified but not expected to come.  Papa, Ezra, and Samuel agreed that Rabbi Joachim would not officiate at any ceremony where Joseph and his family were present, so the rabbi would not be invited, although I had hoped Uriah could come. 

Once again, as so many times before, I was filled with mixed emotions about Jesus.  As I look back on that day, I feel remorse for my treatment of him.  At the same time that I was angry with him for not saving Nehemiah, I continued to feel ashamed for blaming him for something that wasn’t his fault.  Nehemiah had been sick for a very long time.  As they lowered him into his grave, I kept telling myself it was not Jesus’ fault.  I had expected too much from him.  Nehemiah was not a bird; he was a little boy.  For reasons, I could not yet fathom, he was able to save Levi, a one-time foe and revive, through prayer an old woman, who had been at death’s door, and yet all of our prayers, not merely Jesus’, failed to save my friend.  Jesus had not deceived me.  He told us all along he would never go against God’s will and had never promised to save Nehemiah’s life.  And yet, as I listened to him give a powerful eulogy for my friend, I still had the irrational hope he would call down into the abyss and bring him back from the dead. 

He said many fine things about Nehemiah, including praise of his loyalty to our family and faithful friendship with his adopted brother Jude, but then slipped into a long-winded prayer directed mostly at me.  As he prayed, he looked across the grave at his audience.  Slowly his eyes traveled around to where I stood.  He asked God to heal the wounds caused by my grief and fill me with abiding peace.  He promised me that Nehemiah suffered only an earthly death and was in Paradise today.  Jesus moved around the grave toward me as his prayer turned into a sermon about forgiveness and the healing of friendships.  Members of the small crowd present at the funeral looked with embarrassment at me, while James, Joseph, Simon and I looked at our brother in disbelief.  We hated Nazareth for its treatment of our family.  For obvious reasons, Rabbi Joachim and Uriah had not shown up this morning, but we knew that Jesus’ sermon included them.  Fine words indeed! I thought, clinching my small fists and looking at the ground.  That Jesus was even suggesting that we try mending fences with Joachim again struck me as absurd.  Knowing Jesus’ great, unreasonable compassion, I ignored this foolishness as I listened with disgust to his final words:  “Nehemiah had suffered in this life but has been healed and given a new indestructible, heavenly body in Paradise. . .”  Nonsense, my mind cried out, Nehemiah was dead—food for maggots and worms!  

At that point, everyone, even James and Joseph, turned to smile sadly at me.  I felt Papa’s heavy arm on my back and Simon, of all people, suddenly clasping my hand.  I don’t remember breaking away from them or hearing their protests when I bolted from the crowd, but finally, after walking around in a daze, I found myself in Samuel’s orchard, beneath a large olive tree. 

With heavy heart, I sank down by the tree trunk, dropping my brow to my knees.  Jesus had reached out to me last night, and I rebuked him as if he was to blame for my friend’s death.  Today, I had still expected him to defeat the Angel of Death.  Since my brothers appeared to have made peace with him at the funeral, I felt terribly alone, and I began to doze off as I thought about my life.  Michael was gone.  Nehemiah was dead.  Uriah was no longer my friend.  Except for Simon, who didn’t seem to count, I no longer had any friends.  It seemed as though my family had abandoned me too.  After the way I had acted, I didn’t expect them to comfort me now.

When I looked up into the light cascading through the branches, a shadow emerged overhead.  Though he was only a silhouette, I recognized John’s husky frame and curly head.  A nimbus of light outlined his body, which gave him an otherworldly look.  I was certain that Jesus had sent him out to find me, so I said nothing at first as I brooded under the tree.  As I shielded my eyes from the sunlight, however, the thought came to me that John, like Jesus, must have some great purpose in this world.

            I felt his hand on my head, as if in blessing. “Peace be upon you Jude,” he said, giving my head a pat.  Reaching down in the morning shadow he took my hand and pulled me to my feet.

            “Let us walk, my cousin,” he murmured, leading me through the trees.

His voice rose and fell with idle chatter about his adventures and the places he had been.  The story sounded familiar.  His mother had taken him with her to Jerusalem, Tarsus, and Alexandria.  He had seen many wonders, as had Jesus, and, because his father had been a priest, met many famous men.  I thought he might lead me back to Samuel’s house, but he led me further into the orchard, sharing his world with me.  I hoped that one day I would also visit such places and now, many weeks after Jesus had given us glimpses of it, John was reintroducing me to the world.  I could scarcely believe that he, like Jesus, had seen the great library and lighthouse of Alexandria.  During a visit to Jerusalem, he had been close enough to touch Herod Antipas’ robe.  According to John, the tetrarch smelled like a Syrian dancer.  I didn’t ask my worldly cousin how he knew this.  I wasn’t convinced that everything he told me was the truth, but it was an excellent diversion for my troubled mind.  John had won me over with his chatter.  I was glad to have his company on this dark day. 

“I heard you’ve had some interesting dreams.” He motioned for me to sit down. “Tell me about them.”

“They’re just dreams.” I shrugged, sitting down on a log. “I’ve had several of them.  One of them I promised Jesus never to tell.  I dreamed about our enemy Reuben, but the worst were my dreams about the three crosses.  I’d rather not talk about my dreams.  They’re rather stupid—scary too.”

John seemed taken back a moment when I mentioned my dream of the crosses, and yet he respected my feelings.

“Jude.” He shook his head gently. “Not all dreams are important; some are just nightmares.  But if you have the same dream over and over it means something.   In Jacob’s dream, he wrestled with God.  Your father also had a special dream.  In the Torah great things come to men as they sleep.”

            “I heard about Papa’s dream.” I nodded thoughtfully. “An angel actually spoke to him.”

            John’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes, I heard about that.  Did you know that an angel came to my father too?” 

            I shook my head, feeling a prickling at the back of my neck.  John told me in careful detail a story I overheard Mama and Papa talking about as I pretended to be asleep.  Because I caught only snatches of the story as their voices rose and fell, what I heard—“Zechariah was told by an angel that Elizabeth was pregnant”—did not leave a great impression on me.  After comparing this to all the wondrous stories of Jesus’ birth, I yawned and finally fell asleep.  That moment in the clearing, I sensed, as I listened to John, that, in consideration for my age, he wasn’t telling me the whole truth.  Much later in my youth, I would hear the full story of Jesus’ birth, but for now John filled in the pieces to my parents’ puzzling conversation.  I would read in the draft of my friend Luke’s testament a most poetic account of Mary and Elizabeth’s joint births.  According to John, an angel appeared before his father informing him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a son.  I would learn one day that my mother was visited by an angel who announced to her that she would conceive a child fathered by God.  Later—a fact, which I already knew—an angel told Papa to take Mary and her babe to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s wrath.  Though John’s birth was, in itself, not a remarkable event, I was surprised to hear that Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old when Gabriel first appeared to Elizabeth and then her husband with this news. 

 “I didn’t know old woman had babies.” I whistled under my breath. “That was a miracle!”

“Yes, it was a wondrous event.” He looked wistfully into the unknown. “I don’t know how much of this you know about Jude.  I don’t know all of it, myself.  Much of it comes to me in dreams, as they did for you.”

“Really?” I considered this news. “Did the angel come to your father in a dream?”

“No, he came in person,” he answered thoughtfully, “but my father didn’t believe him.   My father told him that he and my mother were too old to have children, so the angel struck him deaf and dumb.”

“Really?” I clapped my hands with delight. “Was the angel joking?  I wouldn’t have believed that story myself.”

“You’re very candid.” John chuckled. “I found it hard to believe, myself.  After the prophet Malachi, there has been four hundred years of silence in our holy books: no miracles and no great leaders.  My father couldn’t accept the miracle that had befallen him: a middle aged woman, long passed the birthing age would give birth to a man child who would prepare the world for the Messiah.  My father was a priest and should’ve trusted God, but it was just too fantastic for him to believe.  According to mother, when I was born, father’s hearing and speech returned to him, yet he died only a few years after my birth.”

“I’m sorry.” I dropped my head contritely. “I’m sure he was a fine man, but what does all this mean?”

For a moment, as he thought about how he might answer that question, I heard voices down the path in the orchard.  In the moments he had shared his miracle with me, I felt a rush of excitement.  Unless he had made the story up, my cousin John must, as Jesus, be touched by God.  Before he had a chance to reply, however, Simon came running into the clearing, with Papa, James, and Joseph trailing behind.

“There he is.” Simon pointed gleefully. “I knew we’d find him!”

James and Joseph, as they broke into the clearing, were not as happy to see me. 

I could hear James shout in the distance: “Jude, where have you been?”

Joseph, close behind, grumbled “This was a sacrilege.  A funeral is a sacred event!” 

Huffing and puffing, Papa emerged from the tree line, calling out wearily, “I knew John would track you down.”

“Jude and I were having ourselves an important chat,” John said, ruffling my hair.

            “Yes, Papa,” I stepped forward light-headedly, “an angel told Aunt Elizabeth she was pregnant, but John’s papa didn’t believe him so he was struck deaf and dumb—”

“That’s very nice.” Papa waved impatiently. “I’ve heard that story before.  Jude, why’d you run away?”

“I’m sorry Papa.” I chewed on my lower lip. “I didn’t mean to hurt Jesus’ feelings, but I had to leave. . . . Everything was swirling in my head!”

“You were overwhelmed,” suggested John. “I’ve felt that way before.  It’s not easy to understand God’s will.  Jesus would’ve saved Nehemiah if it had been in God’s plan.”

Papa’s frown now melted into a smile.  My love for my father soared that moment.  Once again John placed his hand on my head.  It was as if he had read my mind.  His unblinking dark eyes reminded me of Jesus’ unwavering gaze.   Standing between these two great souls, I felt very small as the words spilled from my mouth.

“God’s will is like God’s wrath.  Both can kill—the good with the bad.  So tell me Papa and tell me John, why God would save old people but let children die?”  “It’s wrong,” I exclaimed, “and so unfair!”

“We know that,” Papa said, clasping my hand, “but we can’t change it Jude.  Jesus tried to explain this to you, as have I.   Now John has said the same thing.  We must obey God.  His reasons are not for us to question or understand.”

As we returned to Samuel’s house, we met Jesus walking the opposite way.  I don’t know why he waited so long to come up the path.  Perhaps he had been hurt by my actions.  He might even have been praying for me all this time.  When he was an arm’s length from me, however, I raced toward him and buried my face in his chest.

“Forgive me Jesus,” I sobbed.

“Don’t cry little brother,” he whispered, patting my back, “there’s nothing to forgive.  God forgives our doubts.  It’s our deeds that He judges.  Your mind’s befuddled Jude, but your heart’s pure.  Trust His judgment.  He has big plans for you.”

Papa pulled me away from him, spun me around, and looked deeply into my eyes. “Jude, you must stop blaming Jesus.  He’s still a youth, barely older than James, also struggling with God’s will.  Such matters as life and death are not your concern.  You’re a child.  Think like a child.  Romp in the hills and explore the mysteries of simple things.”  

Suddenly, once and for all, it was driven into my thick skull that Nehemiah’s death was not Jesus’ fault.  I was behaving like a fool.  It was the fault of his Aunt Deborah who had starved and mistreated him for so long after he survived the plague.  God did not cause his death, either.  For reasons that should have made sense to me He had taken my sick friend up to Paradise, where, after a very long life, I will see him one day.

 

******

Papa, Jesus, and cousin John had brought me finally to my senses.  As I look back upon the funeral, I realize it was another turning point in my life.  I would endeavor to take Papa’s advice and not trouble myself about God’s will.  Likewise, from that day forward, until my cousin John baptized him in the Jordan River, Jesus settled into the mundane routine of apprentice carpenter.  With new orders coming in and work piling up, there was much to do.  Less frequently now, did Jesus gaze at the sky, talk strangely to us or disappear into the hills.  We didn’t notice an immediate change in him, of course.  The night before the funeral he had given us his most prophetic and soul-searching words.  Jesus, our extraordinary brother, didn’t disappear, only those moods which made him seem distant and apart from his family.  Unlike my sudden transformation back into a carefree child, the change for Jesus, other than his work habits, seemed gradual.  Though I couldn’t quite define it, I noticed in the days following the funeral, a more lighthearted, less introspective attitude in my oldest brother.  At times he would stare into space as a visionary or look longingly at Nazareth’s hills, until it passed as an ill wind.  When he wasn’t working in the carpenter’s shop, he helped mother in the garden, and sometimes joined Simon and I in our explorations in the hills.  Jesus might not have joined in many children’s games, but he showed us many interesting things, including new animals and plants, and continued to protect me from James and Joseph’s wiles.

A prelude to Jesus’ return to normalcy was evident in his words to John during our visit to our aunt: “The Lord wants me to obey my parents and cease acting the fool.”  I know now that Jesus spoke out of modesty, for I never saw him act like a fool.  He was merely telling our cousin to be an obedient son and enjoy his youth while there was still time.  In retrospect it seems as though Jesus regretted his maturity over us—a process that began when he brought that dead sparrow back to life.  I noticed, after I fled into the orchard, that John was older than his years too.  The way he talked and looked at me reminded me very much of Jesus during our talks.  In spite of being six months older than Jesus, however, John still romped with us as a child in the hills.  Unheeding Jesus’ advice it seemed, he would stoop to making us bows and arrows from olive and fig branches, teaching Simon and I to be excellent marksmen in hitting cleverly designed targets placed in the trees.  John, of course, forbade us to shoot indiscriminately at small animals or birds and, like Jesus, had deep reverence for all forms of life. 

While we enjoyed John’s stay at our house, Jesus would watch our actions with mirth and occasionally take his hand with the bow.  Though we practiced thoroughly when our chores were done, Jesus, with no practice at all, proved to be a better shot than John, Simon or I, which annoyed James and Joseph, who had no aptitude for this game.

Jesus transformation, if that’s what it was, was most noticeable after Mama and the twins returned, under Roman guard, with her ailing aunt.  Mama seemed happy now that Jesus was “back down to earth” as Papa would say.  Our clothes were washed by Mama and the twins, and we began eating regular meals again, including many fine dinners at Samuel’s house.  Samuel had insisted that Elizabeth stay in his large house and be treated by his physician.  Though it seemed that Abner had enough on his hands, Micah had lost Mama’s trust.  Abner, on the other hand, had kept Samuel alive for nearly a year.  Micah’s bleeding of poor Elizabeth had only seemed to make her condition worse.  My parents agreed that her physician lost confidence in her recovery, which explained the bleeding—an act of desperation, and his pessimistic refrain “It’s in God’s hands.”  It was obvious, Samuel told Papa, that Elizabeth’s physician was unfit to treat her anymore.

This arrangement now burdened Abner with another seriously ill patient and extended John’s visit for several months, which suited Jesus, Simon and I just fine.  Elizabeth was in good hands.  Unlike James and Joseph, we welcomed our easy-going cousin into our home.  Papa began teaching John the carpentry trade, which didn’t make James and Joseph very happy at all but brought he and Jesus even closer together as friends.  While James and Joseph in quiet, secret hostility, went off on their own, John taught us all how to make sling shots, bows, and spears from various kinds of wood, and Jesus explained God’s marvels to us as John, Simon and I followed him, as his childhood disciples, through the Nazareth’s hills.  Finally, after several weeks of routine and fellowship, Jesus transformation seemed complete.  Recalling the words he spoke to John at Aunt Elizabeth’s house in Sepphoris, I sometimes wondered, as I watched him join in our childhood games, if his divinity would all turn out to be passing phase.

 

******

When Elizabeth appeared to be out of danger, Abner allowed her to walk the premises of Samuel’s estate.  On occasion, the old Pharisee would join her and they would stroll, arm-in-arm through the house, in the garden, and into the orchard.  With his eyes twinkling with mirth, Samuel related to us the great joy he found in her company—two old people sharing their convalescence in the twilight of years of their life.  Though Mama didn’t trust Micah, after he bled her aunt, Elizabeth defended her old physician.  Evidently he had tried everything to save her.  The bleeding he gave her, which was meant to get rid of vile humors, was a common practice in Greece and Rome.  Perhaps, because of the care given to her by Abner and the attention that Samuel also gave her, her color was coming back (from ghastly white to jaundiced, Abner quipped), her wheeze had grown faint, and she was able to walk several paces without assistance.  Samuel looked much better than Elizabeth and he was eighty years old!  Though John didn’t find Abner’s sarcasm funny, the physician’s descriptions caused Simon and I to laugh foolishly amongst ourselves.  The real joke for all of us was the fact that Elizabeth wanted to go home.  Zechariah, her husband had died in their bed.  As much as she loved her relatives and was fond of the old Pharisee, it was time, while she still felt better, to go home.  This meant John must go home too and Elizabeth would once again be under the care of Micah, her old physician.

Jesus and our parents tried to talk her out of leaving before she was better.  John wasn’t sure this would ever happen, and Abner cautioned against travel, but Elizabeth was firm in her decision.  She wanted John to stay with us, but our cousin, playing the part of the good son, insisted on watching over his mother, vowing to find another physician in town.  Samuel was so upset by all this, he took to his bed, so that my parents had three people to worry about: Samuel, Elizabeth, and her son.  I would let my parents and Jesus worry about Mama’s aunt and the Pharisee.  I was mostly concerned about poor John.  Except for Joseph and probably James, we would all miss our free-spirited, easy-going, fun-loving cousin.

Longinus provided Elizabeth and her son with better security than what was provided for my family on our journey to Sepphoris.  Citing her health as a factor, Papa was able to talk the centurion into providing six guards instead of two.  To my satisfaction, Priam and Falco would stay with us, and guards were pulled from the garrison for the task.  Papa and his friend Ezra would accompany Elizabeth and John and make sure that the old woman would be properly cared for when they reached her home.  The servants must make sure she follows Abner’s strict diet and takes the special potion he made for her.  Whether or not this also meant Papa would, with John’s help, find another physician or simply trust Micah one more time we would never know.  When Papa and Ezra returned later that week, not much was said about Elizabeth’s condition, except that she was alive and Micah had sworn not to bleed her again.  In muted voices, I chose not to overhear, he consoled Mama, who wept silently over Elizabeth’s stubbornness.  I felt sorry for Mama’s aunt, but mostly I felt sorry for our cousin.  When Samuel’s carriage arrived in front of his estate and Elizabeth and John climbed aboard, even Joseph wiped away a tear.  Mama was afraid she would never see her aunt alive again.  John had been happy with our family and, though he gave us a brave face, was heartbroken by this turn of events.  We had all thought that Elizabeth might stay much longer and, even if she returned home, John would stay with us until her health returned or she died.

As we stood at the entrance of Samuel’s estate watching the carriage depart, Jesus raised his hand to salute his cousin one more time.  Samuel was not well enough to be present, but Mordechai, his chamberlain stood in his place, alongside of Abner, who looked unwell, himself.  I half believed that John and Jesus shared a deep secret between them.  As I conclude this first volume, I think my brother and our cousin clearly understood each other’s missions already, but that moment Jesus merely smiled.  There were no telltale words as there had been the last time they parted, such “I’ll see you at the river.”  All that business about miracles and Jesus connection to God was tucked away in our memories.  For the time being, he was ours!  In this hope we were united.  We were the family of Joseph, carpenter of Nazareth.  That was enough for now. 

That night Mama served us a special dinner of lentil stew and fowl with her own special spices.  After a hasty Shema by Papa, we devoured the food set before us with gusto, anxiously waiting for the candied dates Mamas promised for the last course.  While we waited for this prize, there was a short prayer circle for the healing of Samuel and Elizabeth.  Papa had another mug of wine.  Jesus sat by the window looking out at the night.  With no cares for the morrow, my brothers, sisters and I whiled away the hours before bedtime tossing dice and listening to our parents discuss the events of the day.

Tomorrow would come soon enough.

 

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