Eight years had passed before the cousins met again. When Jesus said goodbye to his mother and left the workshop in the hands of his brother Joses, he set off for Jordan valley to the east of Jericho. For the past twelve months frequent rumours had reached Nazareth of the immense impression which John the Baptiser was making, not only on the people of Jerusalem and Judaea, but of the whole country. Pilgrims were flocking to him from every quarter; rich and poor, young and old, they were coming in their thousands, from the farming province of Galilee as well as from the neighbourhood of the capital; and all agreed that John was a wonderful preacher and was having an astounding influence on those who heard him. It was even rumoured that some of the Pharisees and priests had condescended to be baptised by him; Jesus could not restrain a smile when he thought of John’s contempt for the priests and wondered how he had received these penitents.
Jesus had a double purpose in coming south before beginning his work. He wished to establish contact with John, and find out whether he could come to some arrangement with him by which each of them might help the other in his work; and after that he proposed to follow his cousin’s example and retire into the wilderness for a while to prepare himself for his own life of service. He had no intention of spending years in retirement as John had done; but he felt the need of a few weeks of concentrated prayer and of more careful thought than the busy life of a working man had allowed him in the past.
Jesus had no fixed plan for reaching the Jordan on any particular day; so there was no special hurry. The roads were comparatively empty, for it was not a time of pilgrimage; he thus had plenty of leisure for thinking. In the last eight years an idea had gradually been forming itself in his mind; he could trace it back to the moment when John had suddenly stopped in the middle of the Jericho road and made that astounding remark, “Then you claim to be the Son of God,” and had then gone on to say something about that being a description of the Messiah. Jesus had tried to forget the incident; the whole idea was so wildly improbable. But try as he would, he could not get rid of the recollection altogether; as he sawed or planed, the thought of it would come creeping into his mind; it was like a nagging anxiety which is always at the back of one’s brain, filling one with a vague sense of uneasiness, and occasionally coming out into the open, demanding to be remembered.
Could it possibly be true that he, Jesus the Carpenter of Nazareth, was destined to be the promised Messiah?
Whenever this straight question came into his mind, he had to face up to it. At first he had tried to laugh it away; but it refused to be banished. It seemed too presumptuous even to think of himself as God’s chosen Saviour; he had prayed to his Father to take from him all conceit and to give him a true knowledge of himself and of the work he was meant to do in the world; and he had found that the more earnestly he prayed like this, the more insistent became the feeling that his appointed path was one which no one else could tread; that the work to which God had called him, no one else could do. He had accepted this; it was at least a partial answer to his prayer; and Jesus knew by long experience that his Father had never failed him.
So the years had passed. But in the last few months the summons to be up and doing had seemed to him more urgent. His decision had been finally made ten days ago; that night he had asked his Father to give him fuller knowledge; was he to be, like John, another messenger to prepare the way—or was he to be the Messiah himself? He prayed for a sign.
The next day he had broken it to his mother that he was leaving home; she had told him things he had never dreamt of before; an angel had foretold his coming; the heavenly host had jubilantly proclaimed his birth; shepherds had been mysteriously guided to his manger cradle; a new star had been seen in the sky and had led three astrologers to pay homage to a new-born baby; with his own eyes he had seen their royal gifts.
Was this the sign for which he had prayed?
Such were the thoughts which surged through Jesus’ mind, as he walked steadily southward along the dusty main road. If he really was to be the Messiah, why had God placed this awful weight of responsibility on his shoulders?
Another idea came into his head, an idea which half alarmed and half amused him; he knew himself to be as unlike the popular idea of the Messiah as it was possible to be. The Jews were expecting a warrior prince who would lead them to victory over the foreign invaders. Jesus could not see himself as a great general; the whole idea of war and bloodshed was hateful to him, as was also the thought of being a King to whom others would do homage. He smiled a little sadly as he realised how bitter would be the disappointment of patriotic Jews, if they discovered that their Messiah was spending his energies in teaching and helping the despised poor instead of rallying the warlike elements of the nation to the popular cause.
Perhaps this was a proof that he was not the Messiah; yet when he thought it out, it was no proof at all. He knew he was right in believing that God was a Father to everyone on earth—to Romans, and Greeks, Syrians and Ethiopians, as well as to the Jews; and how could a loving Father wish his sons to shed one another’s blood? It was impossible that the Father should ever have had such a purpose; it was only an invention of the Jewish people themselves that the Messiah was to lead them through blood and misery to power and dominion over the nations of the world.
To his surprise, Jesus found that the road eastwards from Jericho was more crowded than the main highway. He entered into conversation with two of the travellers and learnt that they were bound, like himself, for the Jordan to hear and see John the Baptiser. One of the pair was a short dark young man with a merry smile and beady black eyes; his face seemed strangely familiar to Jesus, but for the moment he could not place him. The other was taller and more serious, but they were evidently close friends. Both obviously came from the working class, and Jesus put their age at about twenty-five. Seeing that the little man kept on glancing at his face, he was confirmed in his impression that he had seen him before. At the next pause in the conversation, he put the question to him.
“I can’t help thinking,” he said, “that we have met at some time.”
“I’m sure we have,” replied the other cheerfully, “but when and where beats me. What’s your name?”
“Jesus, from Nazareth.”
The little man slapped his thigh. “Well, I’m blessed,” he exclaimed; he turned to his friend, “This is the very chap I’ve so often talked to you about, James, the chap who pulled poor old Sol off my leg; you remember Sol, don’t you?” he continued, turning to Jesus, “our old donkey?”
“Thaddy,” exclaimed Jesus. “I knew I’d seen you before.”
He saw again the narrow alley—the stumbling donkey—the little ragamuffin pinned beneath its weight—the poor, anxious mother—the child’s courage. Once more he felt the power streaming through his hands into Thaddy’s leg.
“That’s right,” replied the little man; “but Thaddy sounds funny now; my name’s Thaddaeus.”
“Yes, or Hebbaeus,” put in his friend James with a chuckle, “Or even Judas.”
“Doesn’t matter which, does it?” said the owner of the three names. “One name’s as good as another; what matters is the chap that answers to the name; and I’m ready to answer to all three. But I plump for Thaddaeus; mother always called me Thaddy, and Thaddy’s short for Thaddaeus; and mother’s more likely to have known my name than anyone else, now wasn’t she?” he finished, turning triumphantly to his friend.
“Then that settles it,” said James with mock seriousness. “But I shall go on calling you Jude.”
“That’s right,” said Thaddaeus, “Jude I am to you; though whatever my rightful name is, it’s not Jude—it’s Judas.”
“I thought it was Thaddaeus,” James teased him. The little man roared with laughter.
“One up to you,” he burbled; “what I mean is that my name’s either Thaddaeus or Judas—not Thaddy or Jude.”
“It might be Lebbaeus,” suggested James.
“So it might,” agreed the other good-temperedly. “But no one’s ever called me Lebby, so I don’t see how it can be.”
Jesus was strangely attracted by the little man’s infectious good humour.
“Funny thing that, when you come to think of it,” went on Thaddaeus; “I mean shortening down names for kiddies or for your pals—sort of sign of affection; same with animals too; Sol’s name wasn’t Sol, it was Solomon. Father said we’d call him Solomon because he was so wise. He wasn’t very wise when he stepped on that orange peel, was he?”
“But he showed the wisdom of Solomon when he guided us home,” returned Jesus. “I’ve often wondered what had happened to you, Thaddy.”
“Thaddaeus,” said the young man solemnly.
“Very well—Thaddaeus,” replied Jesus with a laugh. “When I went to Jerusalem two years later,” he continued, “I went to your home. The house was deserted.”
“Yes it would have been,” said Thaddaeus more gravely. “About a year after you came to us, mother was taken with the fever; we couldn’t afford a doctor or medicines; it didn’t last long. After we’d buried her father wouldn’t stay on in the house; he was working for a market-gardener outside the town. His employer was a good chap, wasn’t he, James?” He looked at his friend affectionately and gratefully. “Well, to cut a long story short, he gave us an empty cottage and there father and I lived till he died: that’s three years ago. Since then I’ve been living with James here.”
“It was a lucky day for me, sir,” said James, “when Jude and his father came to the village. You see, Jude’s father was working for mine; it was my father who put them into the cottage; that’s how Jude and I became such friends. Four years ago my father died quite suddenly and left me the garden and the business; I was young and inexperienced and if it hadn’t been for Jude’s father, I don’t know what I should have done; he taught me a lot in that one year. But I was never such a promising pupil as Jude; he’s a real gardener by nature.”
“What I say,” said his friend, “is that plants know as well as animals if you’re fond of them. If you love an apple-tree, you’ll take care of it, feed it, prune it properly; and the tree knows you’re fond of it and’ll do its best for you. It’s the same with flowers and vegetables; now take a cabbage; you might not see much in a cabbage; but when you’ve seen it born from the seed, when you’ve handled it tenderly as quite a little thing at transplanting time, when you’ve watched it grow from childhood to manhood and do the job for which the good God made it—well then I say, there’s something in a cabbage you can get attached to, and something you can learn from it too. I often think,” he continued thoughtfully, “if folks did the will of God as well as the flowers and fruit and vegetables do their part of it, the world would be a better place than it is.”
There was something simple and moving in the little fellow’s outlook on life, which gave Jesus the feeling that he was nearer to God than many abler men.
“Not that I have anything to complain of,” added Thaddaeus, after a moment’s thought. “Folks have been very good to me, especially James and his father.”
“Nonsense,” said James; “think what I owe you. Do you know sir,” this to Jesus, “all the time we were growing up as boys, it was Jude who helped me to keep straight. When it was only a bit of harmless mischief, he was just as ready for it as I was; but when I started stealing our neighbours’ eggs, Jude was down on me like a ton of bricks. Then a bit later I started fooling about with a girl, and Jude—”
“I only told you to stick to the cabbages,” interrupted Thaddaeus, who was uncomfortable at having his praises sung; “there’s no use you chasing after butterflies, that’s what I told you, James. They may be very pretty, but while you’re dodging backwards and forwards after them, you’ll maybe trip on the edge of the manure heap and go head over heels into it. You stick to cabbages; that’s your job—and cabbages won’t lead you into trouble. That’s all I said to him,” he concluded, looking at Jesus.
“And it was good advice,” said James, “and I’ve always been grateful to you.”
“Now, don’t you start talking about being grateful,” lectured Thaddaeus. “What about me? You and your father have done everything for me—gave us a house—taught me the trade I love—then when father went, you gave me a home and a share in the business.”
It was James’ turn to blush; “that was only common-sense,” he said hastily; “You’re a much better gardener than I am.”
This was a wonderful pair of friends, Jesus thought, each helping and sympathising with the other. Now that he had met little Thaddy again, he must not lose touch with him.
Both the young men were now walking along in an embarrassed silence; each wished the other had not shown his gratitude so openly before a comparative stranger. Jesus sensed their discomfort and tried to put them at their ease by turning the conversation into a more trivial channel.
“How do you come to have three names?” he asked.
Thaddaeus’ eyes twinkled. “Well, it was like this,” he explained. “Father and Mother had three kids; there was Thaddaeus and Lebbaeus and Judas; Father was out at work all day and when he came home in the evening, all of us were tucked up and asleep; so he didn’t see much of us; and he was always a bit absent-minded, was father—thinking about the fruit and vegetables, as a gardener should do,” he added loyally; “so he used to get mixed up which of us was which. Then the cholera plague came and two of the kiddies never got over it. Mother managed to pull me round, though. Then when mother went, father couldn’t remember which I was.”
“But surely, you must be Thaddaeus,” said Jesus, puzzled. “Your mother certainly called you Thaddy.”
“That’s what I say,” said Thaddaeus, with a triumphant look at James; “but father wouldn’t have it. He said Thaddy was always mother’s favourite; and when only one of the three of us got over the cholera he thinks mother called it Thaddy to make believe to herself it was Thaddy that recovered. And father was much too fond of mother to call me anything else; but he thought I was really Judas.”
“That’s why I called him Jude, when he said he was too old to be called Thaddy any longer,” explained James. “Thaddaeus was such a mouthful.”
“Well, I don’t object to Jude,” answered the cheerful young man critically, “though I think Thaddaeus sounds better. It’s all one to me, so long as I’m not Lebbaeus.”
“What’s your objection to Lebbaeus?” asked Jesus, trying to conceal his amusement.
“Sounds like some kind of apple blight,” returned Thaddaeus with disgust.
They all laughed. For a few minutes nothing more was said.
They crossed a tiny clear rivulet in the next valley; a few rowan trees overhung it, making a pleasant shade.
“This would be a good place for a meal,” suggested James.
The three slipped their packs from their shoulders and sat down. They began to eat in silence. Thaddaeus was sitting on the bank, dangling his feet in the cool water; a small lump in the middle of his shin bone caught Jesus’ eye. Thaddaeus noticed this and explained.
“That’s been there ever since the day you pulled poor old Sol off me. I dare say you remember mother thought the bone was broken.”
“It was broken,” replied Jesus quickly; “the two ends of the bone were overlapping when I picked you up.”
“I’ve always been puzzled about that,” said Thaddaeus; “you see, I was frightened when I heard mother say it was broken; I remember thinking it might drop off like the leg of a broken chair; funny the ideas kiddies have, isn’t it? And next morning I was scampering about as usual and could feel nothing. But that lump has been there ever since. I showed it to a doctor not so very long ago; he told me it had undoubtedly been fractured; the bump is where the ends of the bone have healed up. I asked him how long it would take to join up like that; he said anything from six to eight weeks. It’s funny.”
Jesus said nothing. Thaddaeus was not expecting an answer. After a moment he spoke again.
“You were holding me under the arms, weren’t you?” was his unexpected remark.
“Yes,” replied Jesus. Nothing more was said on the subject, but Jesus noticed that his companion was very thoughtful for the rest of the meal. He wondered if little Thaddy, more than twenty years ago, had been conscious of that pulsating force which had communicated itself through his hands to the child’s body.
James had finished eating, and was lying on his back looking up through the trees; his face was dappled with specks of sunlight which filtered through the leaves. His mind had reverted to the conversation of half an hour before.
“The difference between Jude and me,” he began suddenly, “and the reason why he’s a better gardener than I shall ever be, is that I love the whole garden while he loves every tree and plant in it. Now I like to see a of crop of onions; but Jude loves every onion for its own sake—I believe he almost has names for them all. Like a father he is to them.”
Was this an opening from God? Jesus felt it must be.
“In that,” he said quietly, “he is reflecting the nature of God.”
The two young men turned quickly; the remark was so unexpected, so puzzling. Jesus continued: “You see, that’s just how he loves us. The usual idea about God is that he cares for the whole of mankind—like you admiring your onion crop, James. But that’s not really how God loves us; he’s like Thaddaeus, knowing every single onion by name and loving them all equally.”
And Jesus explained to these two childlike souls his own simple but stupendous discovery—that God is a perfect Father who loves each one of his children, whoever he is, whatever he does.
And in this quiet, intimate way the Messiah began his work.
The sun was sinking behind the western hills as the three looked down on the waters of Jordan. In the half-light, they could see a few small knots of people returning from the river. On the bank a tall, lean figure, clad in skins, stood looking after them. Then he turned and moved with long, springy strides up the slope and disappeared behind the shadow of a heap of boulders.
The sight of his cousin after all these years filled Jesus with a sense of eager anticipation.
The three travellers passed the night under the open sky.
At an early hour, people began to drift in twos and threes down the road to the river bank. Soon after sunrise a considerable crowd had collected and more were pouring down the slope. There were people of every rank and every occupation. Jesus was surprised to see a fair sprinkling of priests and other religious notables from Jerusalem; he recognised among these the face of Dr. Alexander, harder and more contemptuous in middle age. There were wealthy business men, soldiers, shopkeepers, fishermen from the sea of Galilee, tax-collectors, a fair sprinkling of professional men and even some of the riff-raff of the city streets. All were waiting expectantly for the appearance of the hermit preacher.
A low murmur ran through the crowd as his tall figure stalked down the hillside. Jesus remembered with something akin to amusement John’s plans for gaining a hearing; there was something intensely dramatic about this scene—the waiting crowd, the skin-clad prophet advancing to address them.
Jesus had lost touch with Thaddaeus and James; they had edged their way through the throng and were not far from the river bank; Jesus himself preferred to remain on the outskirts of the multitude, where he could see and hear without being noticed.
John mounted a flat rock and began to speak; his voice rang out, clear and menacing, in the still morning air.
“Day after day,” he said, “I make the same appeal; day after day I give the same warning. I am no teacher; others more able than myself can interpret the Scriptures in the Temple lecture-hall and in the village synagogues. But I bring you a message from the Almighty God; my message can be summed up in one word—Repent.”
He paused; his audience, in tense silence, waited.
“Repent,” he went on in slow, impressive tones. “Change your whole outlook on life. Change the way you live. Our nation is not ready; you yourselves are not ready. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand; already the Messiah is among his people.” Was it joy or fear or excitement or just the sheer magnetism of the preacher’s voice which caused that thrill to run through the crowd? It was hard to tell.
“At any moment,” continued the resonant tones, “the Messiah may declare himself. We know not the day nor the hour. But God has commanded me to call the people of this land to repentance. I ask you most solemnly, are you prepared for his coming?”
Standing at some yards from Jesus was a large group of the leading Pharisees and Sadducees; he could not help watching their expressions. A very few seemed to be genuinely interested; several looked uncomfortable; but most of them were openly scoffing, whispering remarks to one another, exchanging glances and covert smiles, as if they wished to make it clear that they were neither interested nor impressed.
The voice had ceased; Jesus looked back at the preacher to discover the cause. John was gazing at the group of cynics. Slowly, very slowly, he raised his right hand and pointed his finger at them: a silence fell upon them.
“You viper’s brood:” John did not speak loudly, but with slow scorn; every word fell like a lash; “why are you here? Who warned you to flee from the Messiah’s wrath which will surely descend upon you? Perhaps you’ll say that because you are Abraham’s descendants, you are the elect of God. Don’t you know that God could make of these boulders better sons of Abraham than you are? When the Redeemer of Israel appears, his eye will probe every soul and see its record of good and evil. He will take no account of a man’s wealth or position or education; it is by his life and actions that the Messiah will assess him, as a tree is judged by its fruit. Now, at this very hour, the axe is laid to the root of every tree; and any tree which does not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire. Will your lives bear the inspection of his searching eye? Are you producing the quality of fruit to save you from the flames?”
The influential party, on whom John had showered his contempt, looked supremely uncomfortable; as soon as he had pointed his finger at them, the head of every man in the throng had been turned in staring amazement: it was the spiritual leaders of the nation whom the prophet had treated with such disrespect. The rest were astounded—but secretly delighted; the religious leaders were not popular. Dr. Alexander shrugged his shoulders and turned his back ostentatiously on the preacher as if to speak unconcernedly to his neighbour. But the look of fury on his hard face belied his action.
“One thing more for all;” as John resumed, every face was turned to him again; “I have called you to repent. As a sign of your repentance I call you to be baptised, to wash away all sin, all your past life, in the waters of our sacred river; yet this is only a symbol; no water can cleanse you from the stain of evil; nothing except the genuine turning of your hearts to God can make you ready to meet His Messiah. I can only baptise you with water; but he who comes after me is far greater than I am. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandals. His baptism will bring to you the spirit of God; it will be like the fire in a smelting furnace, burning away the dross of sin and leaving nothing but pure metal.
“You have all seen a farmer, after the crops are safely gathered in, come into his threshing-barn; in his hand he carries a winnowing fan, to separate the good grain from the useless chaff. That is how the Messiah is coming to his people; he will separate the good from the useless. It will be a purge of the nation; those fit for his service he will choose as his followers; but the useless will be turned out of his Kingdom to perish, as the farmer burns up the chaff in the bonfire of his rubbish heap.
“Are you ready for his coming? Repent; change your way of life; wash away your past—that you may be fit to join the ranks of his chosen followers.”
As John ceased, a shiver ran through the crowd like the ruffling of water as a breeze draws near. Then there was dead silence.
It was broken at last by a voice from the middle of the crowd.
“The prophet has told us,” said this voice, rather hesitatingly, “that we are to change our way of life. But what I want to know—and I dare say there are other folks here that feel the same as I do about it—what I want to know is, how are we to change? What are we to do about it?”
A murmur of assent passed through the throng.
“That question is easily answered,” replied the preacher in a more conversational tone; “in these times we are all too selfish. We care too much for our own belongings and our own comforts. Share the good things of life with your neighbours; let him who has two coats give one of them away to someone who has none; be generous with your money; let the necessaries of life, especially food, be shared between rich and poor alike.”
A small knot of well-dressed but depressed men was standing near the river bank. Their neighbours had instinctively drawn away from them, as if they were unfit for the society of their fellow-creatures. One of them ventured a question.
“I am a tax-collector,” he said simply; “we are unpopular, I know; but though we are in the pay of the Romans, we are still Jews; and many of us are proud to be Jews. What can we do to be fit for the Messiah’s service?”
John replied at once; in his voice there was none of the scorn which he had poured on the religious leaders.
“Your position is a difficult one,” he said with sympathy; “you are serving the enemies of the nation. But you will do no injustice or wrong to your fellow-countrymen, if you collect from them no more than the amount required. Be scrupulously honest and don’t try to feather your own nests at the expense of the unfortunate taxpayer.”
A rough, insolent voice was raised at the back of the crowd.
“Got any instructions for us, governor?”
This question came from one of a party of tough, hard-bitten fellows, whose kit and bearing proclaimed them soldiers of fortune, those professional mercenaries who were ready to sell their services to the highest bidder, without any thought of the cause in which they were asked to fight.
John looked the man squarely in the face, and said: “Yes, I have a piece of advice for you, my man. Do no violence to anyone.”
The fellow gaped in astonishment.
“What are we for then?” he blurted out.
“A soldier’s job,” answered John sternly, “is to fight for his Country in a righteous cause—not to kill for the sake of loot, nor to turn highwaymen in his spare time, as so many of your kind do.”
“What: no pickings!” said the man, “not when we’ve earned them?”
This remark was greeted with a roar of laughter from his comrades; one of them slapped him on the back and exclaimed, “Good old Hoph!” He was evidently regarded as the wag of the party.
John did not stir a muscle; he continued to look straight into the soldier’s face. “You are paid by your employers,” he said, “and your pay is a good deal more than most men’s wages. Be content with that.”
He turned away and took no further notice of the fellow. The barrack-room jester felt that for once his humour had fallen flat.
He strolled away, followed by his companions, all of whom looked rather sheepish.
It was then that an elderly man advanced a few steps from among the group of priests; he spoke courteously, but without friendliness.
“I have been instructed by the High Priest,” he began, “and by the Council of Seventy, to put a few questions to you.”
John turned to him with interest.
“You have bidden us,” continued the old statesman, “to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Is that, by any chance, your method of warning us that you are soon intending to claim to be the Messiah yourself?”
“Certainly not,” replied John, in such evident astonishment that his questioner was convinced.
“I am glad to hear that,” he answered; “but it has been foretold by the prophets that Elijah is to return to earth before the arrival of the Messiah. Do you profess to be Elijah?”
For the fraction of a second John hesitated. Then he answered, “No.”
“Perhaps I have expressed myself somewhat crudely,” persisted the old gentleman, who had perceived the momentary pause; “I suppose we may assume that the prophecy implies that there will come someone, in whom the spirit and personality of Elijah will be revived. Do you claim to be that prophet.”
“I do not,” said John.
“Then what do you say of yourself?” asked the questioner; “I must apologise for my persistence; but you will understand that it is my duty to take back an answer to those who sent me.”
“You are no doubt familiar with the book of Isaiah?” said John.
“I think I may claim to have some knowledge of it,” replied the old man with a smile. John could not know that he was a celebrated scholar and the works of Isaiah were his special subject.
“Then I will quote from the book,” replied John, “and you will doubtless understand my meaning; ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Where had Jesus heard these words from John’s lips before? For a moment he could not remember; then a picture came into his mind—a sunny hillside, overlooking distant Jerusalem; two boys of seventeen picnicking; John describing his father’s death. Those were the last words old Zacharias had spoken to his son.
There was a movement among the crown; John had descended from the rock on which he had been standing and was now wading into the river. When he was waist deep in the water, he turned and waved his hand; a few of the men nearest to the bank threw off their upper garments and followed him. Each, as he reached John, immersed himself completely and then stood before him; the Baptiser sprinkled a few more drops of the river water upon his head and spoke a few words which were inaudible from the bank. Then the man returned to the shore, dried himself in the warm sun and put on his clothes. The simplicity of the little ceremony lent it dignity.
Jesus sat down where he was to await his turn; he had leisure to look about him and to note the reaction of the different people composing the crowd. He was surprised and glad to see that two of the priestly body had detached themselves from the rest and were slowly making their way down towards the river; the remainder had set their faces homeward and were talking in serious undertones as they went. A mere sprinkling of other people were also moving away; but the vast majority of the crowd, which must have numbered several hundreds, were quietly awaiting their turn for baptism. By this time a steady stream was entering the water while others returned to the bank. James and Thaddaeus were already putting on their clothes again.
One incident gave Jesus particular pleasure. The soldiers who had made themselves so conspicuous earlier in the morning had moved away from the rest of the crowd, and were now sitting a little further up the hillside to Jesus’ right; some of them had been drinking, taking frequent gulps from the leather bottles which hung at their sides. The man they called Hoph was becoming noisy and more ill-mannered; he was shouting coarse and abusive jokes at the pilgrims as they entered the water. One of his companions was trying to keep him quiet, while the rest egged him on to further buffoonery.
At first some of the other folk had looked around with annoyance; but seeing the fellow was half-drunk they had taken no further notice. Finding that he was not appreciated as much as usual, he became even more loud and insolent. But gradually he had relapsed into a surly silence.
The soldier who had been trying to restrain him, now stood up. Without even looking round at his companions, he began walking down towards the river; he was a big, powerful man of about twenty five. He looked a cut above the other soldiers, all of whom were of a coarse type. One of them noticed his movement and called after him.
“Here, Simon! Where are you off to? You’re not going in with them, are you?” He jerked his thumb towards the place of baptism.
“Yes,” replied the other, in a quiet but determined voice. This roused Hophni; he scrambled to his feet.
“No, you don’t,” he shouted in a thick truculent tone. “I’m not going to have one of the good old Rip-me-ups mixing himself up with that camel-skinned blighter. Come back when I tell you.”
The man who had been addressed as Simon turned and came slowly back. Hophni watched him with a satisfied smirk.
“Good dog,” he jeered. “Come to heel.”
Not a word did Simon speak till he stood face to face with the bully. He did not raise his voice much above a whisper, but the whole scene took place so near to Jesus that every word was clearly audible. He noticed that Simon stood with rigid muscles and that his fists wore clenched by his sides.
“You don’t seem to understand, Hoph,” he said, “that I’m going down there into the river.”
“Well, I’ve nothing to say against that,” answered Hophni, with an ugly laugh. “A wash’ll do you good. But you’re not going to go through that pantomime performance with Camelskin. See?”
“I’m going down,” retorted Simon, “to be baptised by the prophet. I’m not so proud of my life up to date that I shan’t be glad to be rid of most of it. A change of outlook, as the Baptiser said, won’t do me any harm; and it wouldn’t do you any harm either, Hoph.”
With lightning swiftness for so clumsy a man, Hophni swung his right hand and brought the open palm with a terrific smack on Simon’s right cheek.
“That’ll teach you to preach to me,” he snarled. But he had misjudged his man. Simon’s left fist shot out and caught his persecutor full on the point of the chin. With a grunt the fellow collapsed and lay still. Simon stood for a moment, looking down at him; then he turned on his heel and strode towards the river. The other three gazed after him in stupefied silence.
The young soldier had roused Jesus’ interest; he was anxious to know him better. He got up and walked down to where he stood, waiting his turn for baptism. Without any preliminaries he addressed him. “You seem to be having a difference of opinion with your friends.”
The young man grinned.
“You saw it, did you?” he asked.
“I was not more than twenty yards away,” he replied, “and your companion, whom you left resting on the ground, doesn’t talk exactly quietly, does he?”
Simon laughed outright. “That’ll keep him quiet for a quarter of an hour or so,” he replied.
The few light remarks which they had exchanged had already put the two on a basis of easy going intimacy. Jesus noticed with interest that the young man was more cultured than his present occupation would have led one to expect.
“Are you going to rejoin your company after this?” he asked.
“No,” answered Simon; “this is the end. I’ve put up with it now for nearly two years, but it’s been hell all the time. Everything I have been brought up to believe in is ridiculed—truth, honour, kindness, purity, even patriotism, are openly scoffed at. Every man for himself and let the weakest go to the wall—that’s the code of our barracks. I’m sick of it; when I’ve washed off the contamination of these two years today, I shall go home and find some honest civilian job.”
“Where is your home?” asked Jesus.
“Cana,” said Simon; “it’s a little place in Galilee,” he added in explanation.
“Not many miles from mine,” replied Jesus. “I’ve lived all my life at Nazareth.”
“Then I hope we may see something of one another,” said the young man warmly. “What’s your job?”
“At the moment,” answered Jesus, “I’m out of one. I’m a carpenter by trade. I’ve just handed over the family business to my brother; when I return to Galilee I’m hoping to find work of a different kind in one of the cities on the lake. What are you going to do?”
“I’ve not decided yet,” said Simon; “my father’s a wheelwright in a pretty big way of business. I shall probably go back into the firm if nothing more important turns up.”
He said the last words in a tone which seemed to imply some inner meaning. Jesus could not help wondering what was in his mind, though he did not care to ask the question direct. Instead he said:
“Why did you join up with that lot?”
“I wanted to have some military training,” replied Simon readily enough. “You see, since I was about eighteen I’ve been a member of the Zealot party—you’ve heard of us, no doubt?”
“We believe,” continued Simon, “not only in keeping the laws of Moses strictly, like the Pharisees, but in being ready to strike a sudden blow to free the nation from the Roman yoke. A few of us in Cana joined the movement; we used to hold secret meetings.”
Jesus could imagine this little band of enthusiastic young men in the small country town visiting one another’s homes to discuss how best to defeat the mighty military machine of Rome. It was fine, but rather pathetic.
“Then it struck me,” Simon went on, “that if we were to be any use we must study the art of fighting. The others couldn’t get away from home; they were all in good jobs. But father let me go; he said it would be experience for me; it has been,” he finished gloomily.
At this moment James and Thaddaeus came up; Jesus introduced his new acquaintance. The two gardeners had come to bid Jesus farewell; they were due back at their business on the next morning but one, and must get back to Jericho before night.
“You must come and see us next time you are in Jerusalem,” urged Thaddaeus.
“I will indeed,” replied Jesus heartily.
“On the Bethany road, you know,” added James; “You’ll know the place at once; there’s a notice up, ‘Alphaeus and Son, market-gardeners;’ we still keep father’s name for the firm. It’s well known, you see.”
Simon and Thaddaeus were now chatting a few yards away; James drew Jesus a little further apart and spoke in an undertone.
“Are you going back to Galilee?”
“Not immediately,” said Jesus; “but I shall be returning in a month or two. I shall probably go to Capernaum.”
“Capernaum,” exclaimed James; “that’s a strange thing. I was going to ask if you ever went there.”
“Why?” asked Jesus.
“My elder brother’s there,” answered James; “I was wondering if you’d look him up.”
“What’s his name?”
“Levi.” James paused for a moment. “I’ve not seen him since he left home five years ago. You see he became a tax-collector. Father never quite got over it.”
“If he’s an honest tax-collector,” remarked Jesus, “he’s a very fine man.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said James cautiously. “But I should like to have news of him; Levi was always my hero when I was a youngster.”
“I’ll look him up, certainly,” Jesus promised.
The two gardeners said goodbye and went their way. By now there were only a few more people waiting to be baptised and Jesus moved with Simon down to the river brink. They threw off their coats and shirts. Simon entered the water first. When John had baptised him, he looked up to see if any more were coming. It was then that he saw Jesus for the first time. Their eyes met. In the moment that passed before either spoke, both seemed to know the answer to the question which had troubled them for eight years. The Messiah had come.
Slowly and respectfully, John at last spoke. “I need to be baptised by you. Why do you come to me?”
“Please do this for me,” answered Jesus in an undertone; “it’s right that I should begin my work in this way.”
He plunged beneath the water as the rest had done and stood face to face with John. Mechanically the Baptiser sprinkled Jordan’s water on his head and murmured his customary formula. Then the two began to wade in silence towards the shore.
It was then that they saw it. Out of a blue and cloudless sky shot a beam of intense white light; it illuminated Jesus’ half naked body as he stepped knee deep in the water. In the shaft of light he realised a Presence. It seemed to descend upon him. In some strange way it reminded him of the pigeons which used to fly down from his mother’s dovecote and perch on his shoulder. He found that words were beating in his ear: “You are my much loved son. It is a joy to me to use you for my work.”
The light faded; the cousins were standing in the river with the hot sun pouring on their heads; they might have been returning from a bathe. John was a little way behind Jesus to his right. Jesus glanced round at him and again their eyes met. The knowledge which had come to them a few minutes before was now certainty.
“You are my much loved Son,” said John beneath his breath.
“You heard it then?” asked Jesus slowly.
“I heard it,” answered his cousin.
That was all. But for both of them the world was a different place.
Jesus glanced a little anxiously at the bank; had the people there seen and heard? He hoped not; he wanted to begin his work without advertisement.
Several parties were unconcernedly eating their midday meal before starting to trudge home. No one was looking at him. A few had their eyes on John as if wondering why the Baptiser, after a long and tiring morning, was standing still in the water instead of coming straight back to the bank. Simon was looking up at the sky with his eyes screwed up as if he was dazzled by the sunlight.
As he stepped on to dry ground with John, Jesus said to him: “There’s a young soldier here whom I met today. Come and speak to him;”—not a word about the experience which they had just been through.
Simon stood up as they approached; the three men, all of powerful build, made an impressive group, one dressed in his dripping camel skins, the other two stripped to the waist.
“Did you see that light?” asked Simon with a puzzled frown. “As you were coming out of the river, it seemed to me that the day suddenly became brighter, as if the sun had just come from behind a cloud. But there’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“Where did you see it?” asked Jesus quietly.
“Where?” said the soldier, “oh, everywhere.”
“You didn’t hear anything?” Jesus asked again.
“No, no. It wasn’t lightning,” answered Simon, not realising the reason for the question.
So to this straight young soldier had been granted a partial vision. But he did not understand what he had seen.
“Won’t you both come up to my home?” said John with a smile, “and share my simple meal. I can offer you no better fare than dried locusts, followed by some honey, which I have found among the rocks.”
They walked together up to the cave.
Early in the afternoon Simon took his leave to start home for Galilee. As he stood with Jesus at the entrance of John’s cavern, he said:
“Don’t forget your promise to come and see me when you come north. It’ll be good to be at home again—with my own family.”
“You have brothers?” asked Jesus.
“No—only one sister; we have always been tremendous friends. She’s going to be married in a couple of months’ time. Why not come to the wedding? I’d like her to meet you; and there’ll be several of our Nazareth friends there. So do come if you can; and bring any of your family or friends who’d care to come with you,” he added hospitably.
“I’m not certain when I shall be going home,” replied Jesus; “but if possible I’ll be there. Do you know the bridegroom?”
“Oh yes; he’s one of our neighbours; has a farm just outside the town. He’s a very good chap.”
He set off in a happier frame of mind than any he had known for the past two years; he was going home; and he had found a friend who he felt was going to make a great impression on his whole life. What made him think this he could not imagine. It was an instinctive idea.
Jesus passed the night with John. He told him of his immediate plan of thinking things out in the wilderness. John smiled.
“So you’ve come round to my view after all,” he said.
“Far from it,” replied Jesus; “I must do my work in the homes of men. You’re cut out for this hermit life, John; I’m not. I shall probably start in the large towns near the Lake—the Sea of Galilee, you know,” he added, remembering that his cousin was from Judaea. “But my plans must be worked out in more detail; a few weeks by myself will give me a chance for this.”
“From a carpenter’s bench to a Kingdom is a big step,” said John thoughtfully.
“Perhaps our ideas of the Kingdom of God are different,” answered Jesus.
“Whatever it is,” said John simply, “it is for you to found it. For eight years I have wondered if it was you; now I know. In uncertainty of God’s purpose I have done my best to prepare the way; it is your work to complete what I have tried to begin. The voice in the wilderness can soon be silent. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
That night Jesus lay awake, thinking; the moon rose across the river and threw her pale light into the mouth of the cave. The long period of uncertainty was now at an end; he was to be the Messiah. In a way the knowledge was a relief. The Messiah! There came into his mind words which he had heard as a child in the Temple Lecture-hall: “the Messiah must suffer, perhaps even die, to accomplish his work.” He could see the kindly wise face of Dr. Gamaliel, as he said the words. He could hear the quiet tone of his voice as he read the opening words of that great passage in Isaiah, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.” What was his Father’s purpose for him? what did the future hold in store?
“John,” he said softly.
“Well?” came the answer out of the darkness. So John was awake too.
“Do you remember my telling you about Dr. Gamaliel’s lecture?”
“About the Messiah having to suffer?” said the voice.
“Yes—and perhaps to die,” went on Jesus. “I can’t get that verse of Isaiah out of my head. ‘He was led as sheep to the slaughter.’”
There was silence for several minutes. Then the voice spoke out of the blackness again.
“The sacrificial lambs are supposed to be an offering for sin—to win the forgiveness of God.”
“Do you believe that?” asked Jesus.
“No. But I believe the voluntary sacrifice of a perfect man’s life could accomplish anything—could take away the sin of the world.”
Was it John who had said that? Or was it a divine answer to his own thoughts? John’s voice had spoken the words. But the Father often uses his sons as channels to express His will.
John himself was wondering what had made him say that; yet he felt convinced of the truth of it. He had suddenly realised that his previous idea of the Messiah’s work was all wrong; he had accepted too readily the popular notion of a conqueror who would lead the Jews to victory over the Romans. John smiled in the darkness as he thought of his cousin as a great military leader. Yet Jesus was the Messiah; of that he had had positive proof today. All his ideas needed readjustment.
Yes; that was it. The Messiah was to be a Saviour—that was certain—but not a Saviour of the Jewish Nation from their conquerors. He was to save men and women from sin, from fear, from hopelessness. He was to give them a new idea of God; why, years ago Jesus had startled him with his discovery that God is like a Father. He was to show the world in his own person the love of God—perhaps he was even to prove the greatness of that love by sacrificing his own life. Then he would be the sacrificial lamb, and he would take away the sin of the world.
The next day Jesus sat leaning against a rock, as he listened to John’s preaching. The whole tone of his address was different; he spoke more quietly, but with even greater conviction. He talked of the coming of the Messiah, as before; again he declared that the Messiah’s presence would show up the good and bad—those who accepted his message would be separated in this way from those who turned a deaf ear. But he said not a word about the Messiah’s vengeance on sinners, nor a word nor a hint about victory over the foreign invader. There was much about the Messiah’s Kingdom; a Kingdom of love and justice and brotherhood between all classes and all nations.
Then the preacher explained how the sacrifice of a lamb had for centuries been a symbol of the removal of guilt from the person who presented it; he declared that the offering of a harmless animal could not really take away sin. And he wound up by saying:
“The Messiah is with us here and now; he is the Lamb of God who is to take upon himself all the sin and misery in the world and so free all men who turn to him from the burden of evil which they and the generations before them have placed upon their own shoulders.”
The crowd was at least as great today as yesterday; it listened in rapt attention. There were no interruptions and no questions; and when John entered the river, there was not one who did not offer himself for the baptism of repentance.
Jesus himself was profoundly moved, not so much by John’s words as by the fact that John had at last come to a vision of the truth, that the Messiah’s kingdom was not to be a narrow national movement, but a universal reign of love and goodness.
In the afternoon Jesus decided to take a long walk up the river; as he set out he saw John talking to two men. They were a curiously assorted couple; one looked like a young man of means and education; the other was a rough, middle-aged man, with skin bronzed by the sun and a pair of astoundingly candid blue eyes. The two appeared, in spite of their difference, to be on terms of considerable intimacy both with one another and with John. As Jesus passed them, though at some distance away on the hillside, he waved his hand to John; his cousin returned the greeting and turned to speak to his companions. Both of them looked round and gazed at him; Jesus walked on, wondering who they were.
The words which John had spoken were destined to change the course of the two men’s lives. As he waved back at Jesus, he had said: “that is the Lamb of God, who is to take away the sin of the world.”
Jesus had not walked more than half a mile when he heard footsteps behind his. A well-bred voice said, “Master.” Jesus turned in some surprise; he had never been addressed in this way before. The same two men had been following him; he waited for them to catch him up.
“I hope you will forgive us,” said the younger man courteously; “the Baptiser told us you were going for a walk. We wondered if we might join you.”
“I shall be delighted,” replied Jesus. “But I am afraid you have the advantage of me. You must tell me who you are.”
“My name is Philip,” replied the young man; “My father owns a small property on the lakeside, just outside Bethsaida. This is my friend Andrew; he and his brother Simon are the best fishermen on the lake.”
“I don’t know about that,” put in Andrew with a laugh; “old Zebedee and his sons want some beating.”
He turned to Jesus; “this young gentleman is a bit prejudiced, sir; you see Simon and I have taken him out fishing ever since he was eight years old.”
So that explained the odd intimacy. It was a friendship of the open-air and of long night expeditions in open boats, sometimes of perils shared in the sudden squalls which sweep down on the inland lake from the mountains. It was a friendship between the amateur and the professional; for the younger man fishing was a pastime, for the older a means of livelihood. Boats had always had a strange attraction for Jesus; he took to the two at once.
“I come from Galilee myself,” said Jesus.
“So John told us,” answered Philip. “From Nazareth, isn’t it? Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Yes,” said Jesus. “But I am thinking of moving to one of the lakeside towns.”
“Come to Capernaum,” urged Andrew; “Simon and I have taken up a partnership there lately with three first class fishermen, old Zebedee and his sons James and John. When you have a bit of spare time, you could come out in the boats with Philip here, he’s almost as handy with the nets as Simon and I.”
“It’s a long way to Capernaum for me now,” grumbled Philip. “Several miles ride for a night’s fishing. You never ought to have left Bethsaida.”
“Well, we were sorry to go,” replied Andrew, “and that’s a fact. But there’s a better sale for fish in Capernaum; and when old Zebedee made us the offer, we should have been fools not to take it.”
While the other two talked, Jesus had had an opportunity of observing them more closely. Philip was a good-looking young man of medium height and athletic build; he had evidently been brought up in comfortable circumstances. But there was nothing selfish or soft about him; his love of night fishing was itself strong evidence of that.
Andrew was a typical fisherman, the sort of man you can see on any quayside the world over; Jesus judged him to be a man of extraordinary gentleness in spite of his rough exterior and hard calling. There was a far-away look in his honest blue eyes, which is so common in those who occupy their business in great waters; it suggested that in dark nights on the lake he had held intercourse with God.
By degrees Jesus led the conversation into this channel. He found just what he had expected—a simple faith in the power and protection of his maker. It was easy then to get on to his favourite subject, the fatherhood of God. In direct and glowing words he explained his beliefs. Andrew said nothing, but every now and then he nodded his head in silent agreement. Philip, with his eager, enquiring mind, put question after question. Both were convinced of the truth of what he said; and both were convinced that John had been right in calling him the one “who is to take away the sins of the world.” This was the Messiah.
When they returned to the point where they had first met, Philip said: “Where are you staying?”
“In John’s cave,” answered Jesus. “If you’ve not been there, come and see it.”
As they walked towards the cavern, Jesus said to Andrew, “I am looking forward to meeting your brother when I come to Capernaum.”
“No need to wait till then,” replied the fisherman eagerly; “we’re staying not half a mile from here. Simon’s the toughest man I know in a boat, but he’s not much of a walker; he said he’d have a nap in the sun. I’ll go and find him.”
He turned to the right along a rough track and disappeared from sight round some boulders. Jesus and Philip went on to the cave.
Half an hour later Jesus saw Andrew approaching with another man. He himself was alone; Philip had gone down to the river; he had seen John worming with his rough tackle in the hope of a better supper for his guest than dried locusts. Two decent-sized fish lay by his side on the grass.
Jesus thus had leisure to observe the two brothers as they drew near; Simon was like Andrew, but was fashioned in a harsher mould. His face was rugged, as if rough-hewn in granite; the square line of his jaw, the deep-set eyes, the strong creases downwards in his cheeks, all argued a character determined to the point of obstinacy. He was taller and more stoutly built than his brother; there were streaks of grey in his dark crisply curled hair. Altogether he gave the impression of one who would be a good friend, but an implacable enemy—the kind of man it would be good to have by one in a tight corner.
“I’ve brought him along,” said Andrew; “but I’ve had some trouble to get him here.” He looked at his elder brother with a humorous, but affectionate, gleam in his childish eyes.
“Andrew told me,” said Simon, coming bluntly to the point, “that he had found the Messiah. I told him not to talk nonsense.”
Jesus laughed outright; the other man saw the funny side of the situation and burst into a loud guffaw.
“You mustn’t mind me saying that,” he went on, “but this brother of mine gets queer ideas into that simple head of his; he’s a fine fisherman, but he has the mind of a kid.”
Andrew smiled—a far-away sort of smile. His eyes were fixed on something infinitely far away.
“A child often sees the truth,” said Jesus, “when a man’s mind is groping all round it. It is only someone with the heart of a child who can understand the truth I want to teach, because only a child can appreciate the love of a Father.”
For a moment Simon said nothing, then, “but I’m a practical chap,” he argued. “I do like to get things straight. Are you the Messiah or are you not?”
“If anyone told you he was the Messiah,” answered Jesus, “would you believe him? Surely it needs more than his mere statement to convince you. Apparently your brother Andrew has made up his mind about it. But I know he will bear me out in saying that I never made any such claim.”
Simon looked at Andrew: he was still gazing into the distance.
“The Baptiser put me on the right track, Simon,” he said deliberately, “but it was not till young Philip and I heard Jesus talk that I really believed it.”
“It’ll take longer to convince me than my brother,” said Simon with decision. “But if ever I was convinced that you or anyone else was the Messiah, he’d find he could depend on me. I’d stick to him through thick and thin.”
“Yes, I believe you would,” said Jesus. “You’re like one of these boulders, Simon. It would be pretty difficult to make any impression on them. But a sturdy rock can be depended on to give you support if you’re in danger of slipping; and a rock like one of these, if it were hewn into shape, would make a magnificent foundation stone for any building. There’s a Greek name, Peter, which means a rock; I think I shall call you Peter. Do you mind?”
“Call me what you like,” said the fisherman with gruff friendliness. He had found so many people in his life who were inclined to give way to his rather overbearing manner, and liked someone who could stand up to him. Already both liking and respect were growing in his mind for this stranger whom Andrew called the Messiah.
At this point John and Philip rejoined them; John was childishly delighted with his catch, six plump little fish, which he brought out of the leather bag at his side. “Now I’ve got something to offer you,” he said. “You must all stay to supper. They were biting well, weren’t they, Philip? They’re no great size, but they’ll taste all right. I lost a beauty just before Philip came down.”
“Curious how one always loses the big fish when one’s alone,” Philip remarked drily.
“But it really was a good one,” replied John, a little on his mettle. “Quite three times the size of any of these.”
“The fisherman’s yarn, eh, Peter?” said Jesus.
Simon Peter chuckled.
A merry fire was soon crackling near the mouth of the cave. The fish tasted good to five hungry men. Then they sat round the fire and talked till well after nightfall. Philip managed to steer the conversation on to the same subject which had been discussed in the afternoon. Then Jesus talked and the rest listened, occasionally putting in a question or a comment. There was a rare intimacy in this little meeting round the fire of driftwood; the light flickered on the five eager faces, so different, yet all absorbed in the one topic that really matters. It was not till they were almost invisible to one another in the dull red glow of cooling ashes that the flow of talk began to die away, as if in sympathy with the dying embers.
As the two fishermen walked back to their humble lodging Simon Peter suddenly said: “That chap’s a wonderful talker; and there’s a lot in what he said.”
“It’s the truth,” answered Andrew.
“Maybe you’re right,” said the elder brother; “but it needs more than talk to make me believe he’s the Messiah; it’s deeds, not words for me.”
“He’s coming to Capernaum,” remarked Andrew; “when you’ve seen more of him, you may be convinced.”
“May, yes,” returned Peter doubtfully; “you see, I always imagined the Messiah someone great and grand; this chap’s so—well, so ordinary.”
Philip took a track which led downstream; he was staying with a wealthy friend who owned a villa in this neighbourhood as well as a town house in Jerusalem. He was anxious to get back to the villa as soon as possible so as to tell his friend of the thrilling experience of the afternoon. Nathaniel, with his quick intelligence and ready sympathy, would at once understand his enthusiasm.
Half a mile down the river he took a fork to the right, climbed a steepish hill and saw the lights of the house on the hillside opposite. Ten minute’s more quick walking brought him to the garden gate. The sweet scent of thyme assailed his nostrils as his foot crushed the herb on the old flagged path; the moonlight caught the branches of ancient Lebanon cedars and transmuted their dull green to silver. A group of five cypresses rose ghostly against the indigo sky.
Before he reached the house Philip heard his name called; he stopped and asked: “Where are you?”
“In the usual place,” answered the voice. “It’s too good a night to be indoors.”
Philip turned aside over the dew drenched grass; his shadow, supernaturally long, moved like a patch of inky blackness over the diamond studded carpet. He reached a gnarled tree and stooped to avoid its hanging branches which in places swept the ground. In the daytime this old fig-tree gave pleasant shade from the hot midday sun; in a night like this it was an enchanted spot of gloom, from which one could look out over the silent peace of the moonlit valley across which Philip had walked a quarter of an hour before.
The fig-tree formed a natural arbour in which a rustic seat had been placed. Sitting on this seat was a young man of about Philip’s own age; the moonlight fell full upon his face, illuminating his sensitive features. At first sight it was not a strong face; the delicate curve of the nostrils, the high forehead, the smooth oval face, the almost too perfect mouth gave it a look of exquisite refinement. In this light the eyes were hidden in deep shadow; but Philip knew well that it was the eyes which gave Nathaniel’s face all its character. They were piercing eyes, set deep under strong eyebrows; those eyes could look you through and through; could see into your very soul and find where troubles lay. And it was when a friend had something on his mind that he turned naturally to Nathaniel for sympathy and strength; and he never turned in vain.
“How late you are, Philip,” he said; his voice was quiet and melodious. “Have you had supper? There’s something cold indoors if you want it.”
“Thanks, I’ve had a meal,” returned Philip. He sat down by Nathaniel. “John gave me supper,” he added as an afterthought, and relapsed into silence. Nathaniel knew instinctively that his friend wanted to tell him something and waited for him to begin. The minutes passed and Philip remained quiet gazing thoughtfully over the gentle undulations of the opposite hills.
“Out with it,” Nathaniel prompted.
“What a queer chap you are,” said Philip with a half laugh, “you always know when I’m wanting to talk but can’t start.”
Nathaniel smiled, “it’s pretty obvious as a rule,” he said. “You’re not very clever at hiding your feelings. Well, what is it?”
“You know John has been saying for months that the Messiah is soon to appear,” he began, with some hesitation.
“Yes.” He glanced whimsically at his friend. “And you’ve met him, I suppose.”
“Well,” said Philip, “as a matter of fact, I have.”
Nathaniel did not laugh; his friend was too much in earnest. “I see,” was all he said.
“You don’t believe it?” queried the other excitedly.
“I don’t believe and I don’t disbelieve,” answered Nathaniel calmly: “you see, I’ve got nothing to go on. I only know one thing; when the Messiah does appear, he will fulfil the highest ideals which everyone has in his best moments. He will be all things to all men. He must have perfect sympathy and perfect understanding of human weakness. He must be the friend of sinners, as well as of the righteous. Above all, he must be utterly honest. We Israelites have most of us inherited some of the subtlety of our forefather Jacob—but he must be above all that—an Israelite of course, that is foretold by Moses and the prophets, but an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” He paused. “Does your Messiah answer to that description?”
“In every particular,” answered Philip, amazed. “If you had met him yourself, you couldn’t have described him more accurately.”
“Very well, I’ll keep an open mind,” went on Nathaniel. “If I meet someone like that, I’ll accept him as the Messiah, the Son of God and King of Israel.” Though he still spoke quietly, there was a fervent note in his voice which did not escape Philip.
“I think you’ll be convinced,” he said, “that he is the Messiah about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.”
“Who is he?”
“His name is Jesus: he’s a carpenter.”
This brought the conversation back to earth. A carpenter? Why a carpenter? A sound, honest trade, no doubt; but the Messiah—a carpenter! The idea was so incongruous. But Nathaniel made no comment. He merely asked: “Where does he come from?”
“Nazareth!” echoed Nathaniel, and this time a gleam of amusement passed over his expressive features. “My dear fellow, where is Nazareth?”
But Philip did not rise. Nathaniel loved to chaff him about his beloved Galilee; it was a standing joke between them. Nathaniel himself had been born and brought up in Cana, not many miles from Nazareth, as Philip knew quite well. But Nathaniel, after the death of his parents, had left Galilee and settled in Judaea, so as to be more in the centre of life and culture.
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” murmured Nathaniel in a bored voice.
Philip grinned. “Come tomorrow and see.”
Nathaniel nodded. All the amusement had died out of his expression; a look of infinite longing had taken its place.
So they sat for a few minutes more, unheedingly drinking in the beauty of the night; each was conscious that the other was deeply moved; each had the feeling that this sight was a moment of destiny in both their lives. But the sympathy of deep friendship needed no words.
Together they got up and walked back to the house.
Soon after their guests had gone, John had turned in. But Jesus still sat by the remains of the burnt out fire; the night was warm and the position sheltered, under the lee of a low cliff. The moon cast a pale and tender radiance on the river valley and exaggerated the sense of peace and isolation.
Jesus was feeling happy in the thought that already in the few days since he left the workshop he had made several intimate friends, with most of whom he had been able to share his great discovery—the love of the Father. There were Thaddaeus and James; Simon the young Zealot soldier; Andrew and his brother Simon, that hard-bitten, middle-aged man whom he had nicknamed the Rock; and young Philip, the sportsman-scholar. All of them, different as they were, would be men who would have an immense influence on those with whom they came in contact. The idea began to grow in Jesus’ mind of forming a little band of friends, who could work with him in spreading his good news. As his mind reverted to Philip, a curious thing happened—an experience such as had never come to him before. As plainly as if he had been with him he saw Philip sitting under a great spreading fig-tree. The moonlight fell on his features and on the face of a young man whom Jesus had certainly never seen before. He could even hear scraps of their conversation; the young stranger was speaking of the Messiah, “he must be an Israelite in whom there is no guile:” the speaker himself looked as if that description would aptly fit him. His candid face gave the impression of absolute honesty. Jesus stood up; he had not been dreaming. He knew that he had shared an experience with Philip; he knew that he would soon meet his friend—perhaps tomorrow, before he set out for the desert. Standing in the moonlight he poured out his gratitude to his Father for what he had been able to do in the last few days.
Some time before the crowds began to assemble on the following morning, two figures appeared on the skyline to the south. Jesus watched their approach with growing interest: in one of them he felt sure he recognised Philip. The other man was a little taller and of more delicate build; but he moved with agility and grace. When they were a few hundred yards distant, Jesus knew he was the young man he had seen so clearly the night before. Jesus waved his hand, and Philip acknowledged the greeting. His friend was eagerly scanning the face of the Nazareth carpenter, whom Philip had accepted as the Messiah.
Jesus spoke as they came up to him:
“So this is the Israelite in whom there is no guile.”
Both the young men started.
“Yes,” Jesus went on, “that was your own description of your ideal—of the Messiah as he should be; you didn’t realise that you were painting a portrait of yourself—not only as you would wish to be, but as you have succeeded in becoming.”
“But how do you know me?” enquired Nathaniel in bewilderment. “How did you know I said that?”
“I heard part of your conversation last night,” replied Jesus.
“You mean you followed me back?” cried Philip; he was inexpressibly disappointed and nettled. “You listened to what we were talking about?”
“No, Philip,” said Jesus quietly. “I remained just where I was when you left us, sitting by the dead ashes of your fire.” Philip looked away uncertainly. “I see you don’t believe me. Then ask John.”
“I believe you,” put in Nathaniel. “But still I don’t understand.”
“I was sitting here,” explained Jesus. “I was thinking of Philip; and suddenly I saw him; I saw you too quite distinctly; I heard what you said; you were talking about the coming of the Messiah; you were telling Philip what you thought he should be like.”
The attention of the two young men was now riveted on him.
Nathaniel in awed tones asked: “But where did you see us?”
“You were sitting in your garden,” answered Jesus promptly, “under a fig-tree.”
“Then Philip was right,” whispered Nathaniel. “You are the Messiah—The Son of God and King of Israel.”
Jesus made no reply.
Early in the afternoon Jesus set out for the wilderness. The two friends suggested walking with him for the first part of the way. So the three set off.
Before leaving, Jesus had a few words with his cousin.
“In the wilderness,” said John, “you will find the answer to all your problems. Then your great work can begin.”
“Goodbye, John,” said Jesus. “I want to thank you for what you have done for me.”
“I have tried to prepare the way,” answered John.
“You have made everything possible,” said Jesus.
As the three topped the crest of the hill, up which the track ran to the wilderness, Jesus turned to look back. John was standing motionless near the mouth of the cave; his gaunt figure, in its strange garment of camel’s hide, stood out majestic against the grey rocks. His face was turned towards the retreating form of his cousin, who was wearing nothing more striking than his ordinary working dress. Yet the majestic prophet was only the “voice of one crying in the wilderness;” the working man was to be the Saviour of the world. Simultaneously both raised their hands in farewell.
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts