Jesus’ Secret Place
As we gathered around Jesus, our teacher, in the backyard, a familiar figure scampered into our yard. Jonah, in his flowing shift, became the first of our fair-weather friends to return to our house. I remember thinking that this curly-headed little boy, though timid and adversely influenced by others, was the best of the new friends, yet I was alarmed by his display of affection and repentance. Not only did he carry on as if he hadn’t seen us in years, but he apologized for telling his uncle we hid stolen treasure near our house.
“Why tell us now?” Simon looked at him in disbelief. “I hope your uncle doesn’t tell the Romans. There are soldiers in our town, Jonah. We’ll probably see some of them in the hills.”
“I don’t think my uncle believed me.” Jonah shrugged. “I was angry that Adam took our gold. That’s why I tattled on you, Jude. But my uncle is much too busy with his business to worry about treasure.” “Do you forgive me?” He looked contritely at both Simon and me.
“I dunno.” Simon made a face
Jesus laughed heartily. James and Joseph, who didn’t like my friends, folded their arms.
here,” I said, reaching out to grip his forearm as the Romans did. “This is how
soldiers greet each other.”
This was not demonstrative enough for Jonah, who embraced me again, then Simon and, for good measure, Jesus and Uriah too.
“Stop that,” Uriah cringed. “You feel like a girl.”
“I am a girl,” he confessed suddenly. “My name’s Tabitha Bar Jonah. I never told anyone what I was. I just let everyone think my name’s Jonah, which is only half a lie.”
“You told us your name is Jonah!” Simon slapped forehead in disbelief.
“I never told you that,” she shook her head emphatically. “Boaz introduced me as Jonah.”
“But you let us believe you were a boy!” I pointed accusingly. “I remember Jethro and Obadiah teasing you about that silly dress.”
“Think Jude,” Jonah held my shoulders tearfully. “You said you had a good memory. Do you remember what Boaz said to you when you first saw me?”
Suddenly, it came back to me. I remembered the day the big, plodding Boaz good-naturedly shoved little Jonah forward.
“I remember,” I confessed, looking into Tabitha’s gray eyes. “He sort of mumbled your name—like he wasn’t sure. Did Boaz know who you were?”
“He knew who I was,” Tabitha admitted, “but he didn’t know what I was.” “My parents died of fever. My uncle raised me the best way he knew how, but most of the children my age in Nazareth are boys like you. Would you have played with me, if you knew I was a girl?”
“No,” Simon and I both answered promptly.
James and Joseph, after looking on in shock for several moments, broke into laughter. At this point, Jesus, who had been listening with humor, himself, stepped forward to ruffle Tabitha’s curly head.
Jesus studied me closely. “Jude, Tabitha has been honest with you. She has no friends in Nazareth, except you and your gang. What would be so wrong about allowing a girl to romp the hills with you boys?”
“Uh-uh.” Simon balked, running back to the house.
“This is embarrassing,” Joseph said to James, “let’s go help Papa in the shop.”
“Jude?” Jesus frowned at me, as Uriah backed fearfully away. “There was a time when you had no friends. Don’t disappoint me. Embrace your new friend.”
I braced my shoulders, lifted my head bravely, and reached out in the Roman manner, only to find Tabitha giving me another hug.
“That is how your greet men,” Jesus announced, moving down the path, “not girls. Tabitha is a girl and you’re still a boy. Come with me. I want to show you both a real treasure.”
Uriah followed at a distance. Out of curiosity, Simon lagged far behind him, with James and Joseph begrudgingly dogging our trail. As we hiked down the Shepherd’s Trail, we met Zeno, one of the lazy guards who patrolled the foothills.
“Greetings Zeno,” I hailed excitedly. “We’re glad to see you back. Where’s Falco and Priam?”
“Those slackers,” he spat irritably, “will be anywhere that’s got food and wine.”
“Your welcome also to our house,” Jesus said, with a nod. “Please give Regulus our regards.”
Zeno said something under his breath that was probably not very nice. In spite of the altercation they had with Seth, Falco and Priam had at least treated us civilly. I hoped that our Roman protectors would warm up to us again. A sudden commotion drew our attention to the Shepherd’s camp at the bottom of the hills. We could see Roman soldiers surrounding a small group of frightened men. Regulus seemed to be very angry with Odeh and his kinsmen. The optio towered over the cringing Arab and his relatives, pointing at each of them with contempt. Though it was too far away to hear them, it looked as if Regulus was accusing the shepherds of something. I had heard from Jethro and Obadiah that these folk often bought stolen loot from bandits and were excellent thieves themselves. The Arabs, as a people, Papa told us, were once called Ishmaelites, after Ishmael, first son of Abraham through the Egyptian maidservant Hagar. They were therefore, I was surprised to find out, the Hebrews first cousins, of impressive lineage—both Hebrew and Egyptian, so I found it hard to believe what Caleb’s sons had said.
When I whispered these thoughts to Jesus, however, he shook his head and reminded me as delicately as possible, “some Arabs, like some Jews are thieves. Odeh’s men have been dealing in stolen loot. I heard Longinus tell Papa about a dead shepherd found in the hills, probably killed by bandits. A golden necklace was found in his clothes.”
Suddenly the words flew out of my mouth, “But there was only cups and plates among Adam’s treasure. My pot of gold contained only coins.”
“What golden necklace?” Simon cried. “We found no necklace!”
Uriah had clearly heard Simon’s outburst, but James and Joseph lagged too far behind to catch his words. At the same time their pace quickened because of our gestures, and then Regulus looked up the hill, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun.
“He saw us! He saw us!” squealed Uriah.
“What happened? What did Jude say?” James charged toward the scene.
“Simon,” Jesus shrilled from the corner of his mouth, “shut up. This is a dead issue now. The gold’s gone. Drop the subject. We’ll talk about this later.”
At this point, we noticed the squad of Romans moving toward our hill with Regulus at the head. James and Joseph froze in their tracks, all other concerns evaporating in the Roman’s dust.
“The Romans warned us not to congregate in groups of more than three or four townsmen,” whispered Joseph. “This is bad. This is very bad!”
“Where do you see four men?” inquired Jesus calmly, glancing around our group. “I see four children, two youths and one young man. Hardly a congregation. Just let me do the talking?”
“What treasure were you going to show us?” Tabitha took Jesus’ hand.
“I haven’t forgotten.” Jesus smiled down at her. “Soon, little lamb, soon.”
Already Tabitha, whom I had thought of as Jonah, had wormed her way into Jesus’ heart. Unlike James, Joseph, Simon, and Uriah, I couldn’t be frightened in Jesus’ shadow. It seemed impossible to me that God would allow a band of Roman ruffians to harm Jesus when King Herod had failed. As I looked around me, it also made good sense how Jesus defined Longinus’ order. Except for Jesus, himself, we were mostly children playing in the hills.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered into Tabitha’s shell-like ear, “Jesus will protect us.”
How could I’ve not seen that this lovely creature was a girl?
“Peace be upon you Regulus, protector of Nazareth’s southern flank,” Jesus called, raising his hand in salute.
“Ave Jesus, son of Joseph,” Regulus brought his fist to his chest. “Your father’s a brave man to call on Rome. Please give him my regards.”
“Thank you optio,” Jesus bowed deferentially. “My father is concerned for the safety of our town and the well-being of our Roman friends. Nazareth shall sleep more safely tonight.”
Regulus inclined his head and grinned at Jesus boldness, gripping Jesus forearm in the Roman way.
“Your not like those young hotheads.” He motioned to James and Joseph with his head. “You’re different. I saw that the first day we met. You’ve got that look about you: the natural leader, self-assured, who knows what he wants. I heard about your miracles. . . . When I look into those unblinking eyes, I’m not surprised. What was it, Jesus, magic? Are you a god?”
“I am my father’s son,” Jesus replied enigmatically, as if his response had a dual meaning.
Regulus was serious about Jesus leadership qualities, but he was playfully mocking Jesus now. Despite his attitude toward Jews in general he seemed to be genuinely fond of him. Before he moved on with his men, he briefly recounted an event that changed my view of this man.
“I was in Greece when I was a youth. Once when I visited a temple I saw many gods, all made of stone, except one pedestal that was empty. The inscription below the platform read simply ‘To the unknown god.’ I thought about your invisible god then. My mother, who was once a slave, had converted to your faith, but my father, a Roman citizen, wanted me to be a soldier like himself and worship Mars and Jupiter—proper gods for a legionnaire serving Rome.
“Tell me, Jesus,” he murmured, a smile twitching on his face, “am I my father’s son. . . or am I a Jew?”
To answer this question it seemed as if Jesus might have to contradict himself. As Jews we were taught religion by our father, but our faith was carried in our mother’s blood. Jesus, who could have dodged the question, by explaining this fact, replied mysteriously, “Of this earth, you are, as myself, your father’s son, but of the father in heaven, the greatest bond is with your mother who gave you life.”
Regulus accepted this dubious answer, though he couldn’t possibly understand what Jesus meant. We understood, though we didn’t fully comprehend, Jesus distinction between his earthly and heavenly fathers, but I wondered that moment if any of my brothers understood Jesus relationship to his earthly mother. I remembered the dream I had about Papa in the orchard, in which I heard Jesus call from behind us “this is our adopted father, husband to the Virgin Mary. The impact upon my brothers would be slow to come. Joseph would never accept this notion, but James, as myself, would be forced to one day accept the fact of Jesus’ virgin birth. For the time being, a severe look from Jesus told me to keep our secret about my dream. Thinking that Jesus had merely referred to Hebrew tradition, James and Joseph nodded in agreement and let the matter drop. Uriah scratched his head, and Simon yawned. When Regulus released Jesus arm, he gave him a curt nod and was on his way. Priam and Falco marched passed as Jesus stood there watching the optio lead his men.
“Fear not Regulus,” Jesus called through cupped hands, “the road you take is to the kingdom where you shall meet the unknown god.”
The optio frowned at this brash statement yet tossed back his head and laughed. Priam winked at me and Falco ruffled my hair. That Jesus might be referring to the Resurrection and rebirth of our faith would not have crossed my mind. Even with my dreams of the three crosses, which I asked Jesus to interpret and he suspiciously dodged, I didn’t have a clue. The notion was just too inconceivable for a Jewish mind. All that mattered was that Regulus had shown us civility, and Falco and Priam seemed to be their old selves.
“Are you going to watch over our house?” I asked.
Feeling Jesus’ restraining hand, I jerked back as the contingent marched past.
Priam’s voice was good to hear after all these months. “I could use some your Mama’s freshly baked bread,” he seemed to barter.
“And some wine,” Falco suggested, “and maybe some of those honey rolls too.”
“Consider it done!” I chimed.
“Whoa, little Jude,” whispered Jesus. “Our mother’s worn out form her labors. That shall be something you and I can do.”
“Bake bread?” I looked up in disbelief.
“Yes, Jude, it’s easy.” He gave me a playful poke. “We can even learn how to make honey rolls from Uriah. Now lets go find that treasure I promised. I think I saw it somewhere down this trail.”
Jesus led our motley band onto a narrow animal trail Michael had shown me that had seemed to lead nowhere. Michael and I had ignored it in favor of the larger paths skirting the overhanging cliff. As soon as we entered the narrow passage, the foliage loomed up on each side of us, almost blocking out the sun. Instead of the thorns and brambles we had encountered on most trails, the underbrush reminded me of the plants growing near Jesus’ cave, yet it was taller and fuller, and its multi-colored leaves didn’t prickle or scratch our feet and arms.
“Jesus,” I exclaimed with awe, “I’ve never seen this part of Nazareth!”
“It’s one of my special places,” he confided reverently
Uriah was whimpering to himself, and James and Joseph murmured fearfully under their breaths, but little Tabitha muttered with delight.
“We almost need a lamp here,” Simon observed, his voice tinged with fear.
“This won’t last long,” Jesus promised, as he took Tabitha’s little hand.
At one point, as we came out upon a rise overlooking the far corner of the shepherd’s camp, Uriah squealed with delight, “pomegranate bushes, scores of them. Wild grapes and berries. Look at the fruit trees!”
I could scarcely believe my eyes. The entire slope was covered with fruit trees and tangled vines. I had never seen so many ripe pomegranates on just one bush. No longer fearful, my brothers ran to the nearest fig tree and plucked several of them, while Simon and Uriah grubbed like pigs among the berries and grapes.
“Is this the treasure Jesus?” Tabitha blinked her large gray eyes.
“No,” he answered, patting her shimmering curls, “it’s the bounty.”
Tabitha’s golden features and fond gaze caught my fancy. She was beautiful. As I looked around at my brothers and Uriah, the rabbi’s son, they seemed special too. As I write down these memories, the word transfigure comes to my mind, especially when I watched Jesus in his white homespun tunic, as a shadow and then, as he turned to face us, a radiant, otherworldly being. Jesus was greatly amused. I’ve never known a happier and more peaceful soul. For a moment, as the late afternoon sun illuminated their upturned faces, while they picked fruit or bent down to pull off handfuls of grapes or berries, I found it strange that it was so important with the same fruit in our yard and so close to our house. It was, I decided, watching James and Joseph pelt each other with ripe figs, the sheer quantity of the fruit that was significant and the fact that Jesus was sharing with us his special place.
“This is Jesus’ bounty,” Tabitha danced gleefully around the slope.
“But it’s not his treasure.” I said, playfully tossing a grape at her head.
Simon snorted happily as he sampled different grapes. Uriah grunted with delight in his berry patch. While James wrestled with Joseph in the evening light, Tabitha and I followed Jesus to the edge of the slope where an outcrop of the stratified rock I’ve seen in the hills jutted out, giving the impression, as Jesus stepped onto the outcrop, that he was at the edge of the world.
“Is this the treasure?” I asked, stepping cautiously to the edge.
“No, this is the promise,” he glanced back slyly at me.
“I know what that is,” Tabitha murmured dreamily. “My uncle told me that this is the Promised Land.”
“So, what’s the treasure?” I grew impatient. “I see no gold in the rock or jewels lying on the ground.”
“God’s creation is infinite,” Jesus seemed to change the subject. “When you look around at the plants, animals, and rocks, you see such a variety of things, but also see a great mystery.”
“Yes, yes we know that.” I muttered with irritation. “The mystery of God—blah-blah-blah.”
“You don’t know about this Jude.” He gave me a troubled look. “I’ve prayed about my discovery in my secret place, asking God how such a thing could be, but this time God has been silent. I know now that the answer is already inside me. God answers in his own way. Sometimes silence is saying to us “well, what do you think?”
“So,” he pointed to the outcrop beneath us, “what do you, Jude and Tabitha, think?”
I had not noticed the strange deformity in the otherwise smooth rock. The shadows caused by the setting sun, however, highlighted the outline of a strange looking creature. I had seen the molds and casts of shells and snails, which Joseph insisted were left over from Noah’s flood. Because of the precarious location of one such oddity, Michael and I had given up trying to reach it and went on to something else. . . . Here in Jesus special place was an even greater oddity but one we could reach down and touch
“What is that?” I gasped.
“It looks like a big snake!” Tabitha exclaimed, clasping her little hands.
“I’ve thought about this a great deal.” Jesus squatted down and brushed dirt away from the outline with a leaf. “It’s not a snake I’ve seen in our hills, and it’s skeleton is made of a crystal-like substance, which I believe replaced its original bones after a long, long time.”
By now James and Joseph’s ears had pricked up. Joseph, always alert for signs of heresy, immediately discounted the strange impression.
“I know what that is,” he declared, folding his arms. “It’s an imprint placed by the devil to confound our minds.”
“No,” James snorted, shaking his head, “it’s a creature that lived before the Flood.”
“What do you think?” Jesus gave me a nudge.
“Michael thought they were really old,” I replied, tracing my fingers over the skeleton of the ancient snake. “I think this serpent once lived here and somehow got itself sealed in this rock.”
think James and Jude are both right.” Jesus nodded thoughtfully. “Six days for
the Lord, which is the time interval for His creation, might have been
infinitely long.” “Come, children.” He motioned to us. “There are more wonders
in the rock that make me also believe God has a sense of humor.”
I remember Jesus mentioning these wonders in the Caves of the Old Ones in his letter from Cyrene. He reminded his brothers of this episode, stopping suddenly at the rim of the cliff and holding his arms out in order to prevent us from pitching forward onto the jagged rocks below. At the very edge of the outcrop, glistening like precious jewels, were other examples of James’ antediluvian animals: small skulls, bones, and teeth embedded in the white stone.
“Jesus,” I piped, tugging on his sleeve, “let’s chip some of these out so I can show them to my friends.”
“Not today, Jude.” Jesus shielded his eyes from the setting sun. “We must turn back before darkness falls.”
We all nodded our heads in agreement. As we negotiated the shadowy passage of Jesus’ secret place, James and Joseph whispered back and forth. I took Tabitha’s small hand, feeling a stirring I had never felt before. I had much to think about: Tabitha’s admission that she was a girl and the wonderful things Jesus had shown us today. Simon and Uriah had made themselves sick gorging on nature’s bounty and cared little for our chit-chit.
“So that was your treasure,” Joseph said scornfully, “the devil’s footprints. It would be better to shield your eyes from these monstrosities. They have no place in our faith.”
“Well, I think they’re treasure,” Tabitha chirped enthusiastically. “Jude and I are gonna chop some of it out and show it to Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz.”
“Not without supervision,” Jesus corrected her gently. “I’ll find a patch of monstrosities we can extract safely.”
Tabitha and I laughed with delight. As we departed Jesus’ secret path and entered the Shepherd’s Trail, our pace quickened. Joseph argued with Jesus about his interpretation of creation. Against Jesus belief in constant revelation, he threw the weight of the Sadducee, Pharisee, and rabbinical tradition. I can see this now, but that evening, as we scurried home, it sounded to me as if Joseph had clamped his mind so tightly shut that any illumination no matter how wonderful and beautiful it was, if it smacked of heresy or blasphemy, would strike his closed mind as evil and wrong.
“What do you think, James?” Jesus asked, looking back at him.
“About what,” grumbled James, “I still can’t believe Jonah’s a girl.”
“Do you think what I discovered is blasphemous?”
“No,” his tone became thoughtful, “Jude and Michael found shell and snail impressions once. It was interesting to find shells so far from the Great Sea. I told him I thought they were deposited before Noah’s Flood. I’ve always taken the Torah literally about God creating the earth in six days, yet I’ve wondered how there could be so much variety in the earth in such a short span of time.”
“James,” Joseph cried in shock, “you don’t believe that?”
“I don’t know what I believe,” James admitted, as we approached the house.
We could see Mama standing in the evening light talking to two shadowy figures, whom I recognized immediately as Priam and Falco, our favorite guards. We called out greetings back and forth. “Peace be upon our protectors, Falco and Priam,” called Jesus. “Peace be upon the family of Jesus,” Priam replied. I thought Papa might scold Jesus for keeping us out so late. He appeared in the doorway with brimming mugs and hot bread for the guards. Falco and Priam’s watch was ending. Their replacements, Arturius and Clement, would be arriving soon, as were the other middle watch guards.
“I’m sorry Mama and Papa,” Jesus apologized. “I should have brought them back sooner, but we were having such a good time.”
Papa stepped out passed the guards, and gave us all a pat on the head. “Don’t worry boys,” he reassured us, “It’s good to see you all getting along so well.”
“Jonah should go home,” Mama said with concern. “His uncle will be worried. Jesus you shouldn’t have kept him out so late.”
Mama’s mild rebuke was followed by our laughter. Jesus winked at me, as if to say, “Let’s not tell her yet.” As Falco and Priam stood drinking from their mugs and chewing off large chunks of bread, I wondered if Papa had given them wine. If this was so, I didn’t smell wine on his breath. Papa had kept his promise to God and his family. The guards, however, finished their mugs with satisfied belches, tucking the remainder of their loaves in pouches they carried on their belts. Thanking Papa and Mama for the bread and wine, the guards patted me on the head and waved at Simon and our friends, but to Joseph and James, who had once heckled and teased Regulus’ guards, they gave only curt nods.