Wednesday, March 27, 2013

wednesday: the temple

From one pool to another. From Bethesda to Siloam, the pool for travellers, for those coming to pay their taxes. We have bathed and healed, ourselves and others. The long narrow stairs away from the pool and up to the temple seems to take forever, but it is our preferred way, as we find we are less likely to run into soldiers and priests.

The day has filled with tension. There are too many new people. We have outgrown even what we know how to do. There are many times when I cannot even see one of our group, let alone the teacher. My Lord travels among crowds without thought of his safety and no longer thinks at all of his own wellbeing. No rest, no food, no time alone. He is forgetful of his ablutions, his garments, his prayers. Only at night does he steal away, often taking one of us with him.

John and I are not getting along. Peter scorns me too. They say I am too bold, that I have become vain. They are unkind and their words sting. I ignore them and they me. I know the teacher gives them messages for me that they do not relay. I have given up trying to stay alongside them, or anyone. I have begun to sink back in the crowds, to become less visible, to them, to anyone. I am lost in bewildering feelings, as if my old shame will never truly leave me. I have spent the day drifting from one place to another, avoiding all those who judge me. The closer I come to the edge of the crowd, the more likely I am to find the men of my former life. Some I used to know stare at me and try to present me with favors. I hurry away but do not always escape their grasping hands. When we have been there nearly four hours, Junia searches me out, brings me word from my Lord. Running toward me, out of breath.
"The teacher says," she begins, and then leans over, hands on her knees, "that you are being too modest. He needs you to stay closer. He was quite firm as he said it. Mary, you are too far back. If you stay here then even I cannot be with you."
My heart melts at this. For my friend's sake, I overcome my own shame and fear and anguish. Taking her arm, I let her guide me forward again.

The group has become too big for fires, for ritual prayers. Our numbers are filled with strangers who have only just joined us. There is no way to tell who is good and who isn't. A woman from Nazareth told Thomas there are spies among us and many times we believe it to be true. But it is more worrisome than that. It almost seems as if the more people he gathers, the more the spirit of my Lord shifts and his impatience grows. I can see by his face and his body that he is too tired, too drawn. He is frightened too, though he will not say it. He prefers to be angry.

And there is much to anger him.

Now we have been inside the temple terrace all day and his mood has worsened by the hour. He speaks harshly to the priests who are trying to disperse us. Sometimes it seems he is courting their judgement by choice, by will. He insults the Sadduccees; as always there are other priests trying to trick him in his teaching. He gives them harsh teachings; he has even called them not of Abraham! Then, as if even he cannot bear his own behaviour, he retreats and sits against the terrace wall among the widows and orphans. He sits with them as they wait for doves and teaches them. Slowly his voice becomes quiet and restored, his face alive with beauty. One of the widows has purchased her dove and brings it to him, offering the dove to him instead of giving it over for sacrifice. The gesture moves him. She sits down beside him and he blesses her. Then he holds the bird, stroking its wings with tender grace.

I have known for some time that my Lord is partial to these small birds. Their beauty bewitches him, he cradles them like the most beloved of beasts. And yet in every moment there is the scream from afar of one being slaughtered.

Eventually, he stares forward, listening to something internal none of us can ever fully grasp. Sadly, he stands again, breathes deeply and moves to go inside the temple. We follow.

It is hours later and it is not going well. Inside, the sheep and cattle roam without rope or containment. Those who are changing the money haggle with simple farmers over rates much too high and my Lord tries to reason with them. More than once we all have stepped forward on their behalf. It is this that reawakens his anger. He sees and hears the harsh dismissal of the money lenders, the dejection of the peasants. My Lord begs them to be fair. All as the soldiers watch him. The priests watch him. They are never far away now.

He sees things we don't. He knows which people have been here for days unable to pay the money-changers their interest. He sees the children and old people who are waiting for someone to buy them a dove so they can make their atonement. He points these things out to us all the time.

And then it happens. I see a man I have known: a terrible man from long ago, who beat me and enslaved me. I start to cry as he makes his way toward me. For now he is a soldier, a man with power. He has recognized me. There can be no doubt what he wants. I start to cry out for my friends, my voice lost in the wilderness of sound.

Now he grabs me, pulling me out of the crowd so that all can see, dragging me forward and holding me by the hair in front of my Lord.
"Do you really care what a woman like this is offering?," he sneers.
Two of the priests snicker behind me. The crowd falls silent and watches me; some turn their heads in shame.
"Don't you think this girl herself should be an offering? For how will she ever atone for all of her sins!"
I am in pain, my whole body trembling. Staring at the floor in agony.
Then I hear a violent rush. Stealing a glance upward I see that my Lord has pushed over a doveseller's table to come forward and fallen to the floor with the force of it. He is laughed at and mocked by the soldiers. I follow his face, his gaze, see what he sees. There is a whip used for the cattle not far from his hand. Immediately he is on his feet with it. The whip cracks across the floor in our direction and the soldiers react in shock, letting go of me. I shield my face, run into my women who enfold me as if returning me to a womb.

The whip cracks again, scattering people. The sheep and cattle are restless and make a terrible din. In the far reaches of the temple, all continues as normal, for they cannot hear us way down there. The same Roman soldier shouts now, clearly looking for me.
"Well then teacher, take her and whip her, if you want something to whip."
My women scream.

My Lord falls into rage. His rage tears out against all he has seen throughout the day. The tables fall, the moneychangers are chased from their seats. My Lord moves in terrible anger, shakes out purses so that the coins fall together in uncountable piles. He takes handfuls of them and throws them into the crowd. The peasants scramble on the floor. Matthew tries to reach him, tries to restrain him. John is at his side, begging him to stop. But my Lord is overcome. I see it, peering out from where they are concealing me. I hear the air crackling, the floor alive with pounding and the rushing here and there of animals.

Something catches my eye then, almost unseen. Between the robes of my friends I spy Judas standing near a column, shaking his head in disgust and moving away so as not to be counted with our Lord. "No!," I cry out to him, for I have a knowledge I don't understand. "No!!!" I say it again. But he does not hear. He has left the column and is moving away in the temple toward the other places. Within my hiding place, I fall back in despair. My knees slide like water; I am terrified.

There is a moment of stillness then. When it has gone on too long, I cannot control my desire to know what is happening and slowly stand up. My Lord is catching up to himself, seeing what he has done. His face is alive with emotion and sadness, surveying it all. The soldiers and priests are frozen in place. In this odd silence there is only the sound of the doves. My Lord is suddenly drawn to it.

Laying down the whip, he claps his hands loudly several times. Immediately the cages of the doves fly open and the birds take flight. The sound of their wings becomes like angels rising, hovering and beating against the roof of the temple. Everyone falls back in astonishment. The soldiers move to grab him and he leaves quickly, eluding them in the crowd and going out to the terrace. I see James and Philip suddenly move to follow. Thomas runs anxiously behind them. One of our women cries out for us to follow. Junia pushes me forward, wraps her cloak around me again to conceal me. I am moving with her, against her body, blind, unable to see what is happening past the soldiers and the priests. Bodies press in around me as we go, half-running. I feel the sudden press of air, even through the cloak that conceals me, the din of voices released into the sounds of the terrace. Junia's arm tightens around me under her cloak, guiding me swiftly. Down the steps, I fumble and fall and she rushes me to my feet again. Breaking free of the cloak, I find my strength and we run together. The head of Andrew visible before us in the crowd, is how we know where to go.

It is long after dark when my women and I finally arrive at the fire outside the city wall. We had lost Andrew, lost the others, wandered in fear from one place to another, constantly hiding. Two or three of our party who were looking for us met us on the way and we fell on them with gratitude. Then they told Junia, myself, the other Mary, and some other women to wait now til after dark to try to leave. We took refuge with some tentmakers who love our Lord, hiding inside their tent. Finally, late in the night, we passed through the gate quickly, after the judges were gone from their posts and the guards were drunk.

Now as we approach the fire, I see my Lord rise and come toward us. When we are near he pushes gently through us and soon draws me to him, embracing me and holding me. Immediately, I feel all my shame from the day vanish. The horror and fear and the shaming of my body dissolve into peace. I feel only joy, only love. I cling to him, while behind my closed eyes, I see the swooping and halting of released doves, binding us in cords of blinding white.

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