The Gathering

DSCN3534Many years ago I awoke and made ready for the day ahead. Spirits soared at the prospect of ascending the lofty ridge towering high above Glen Kingie. My heart leapt in anticipation of standing atop Sgurr Mor to survey the wild and piercingly beautiful handiwork that has emerged from the celestial crucible. A herd of deer leapt with me. Rugged mountains plunged breathlessly into the depths of shimmering sea lochs as the gulls swooped silently below my feet. From the sparkling, tumbling burn I could hear an orchestra of sound as sunlight shimmered and danced on its bustling surface to the ambrosial conductor’s quickening tempo. Isolation amidst raw beauty- wind; sun; rain; river; sea; mountain ridge; the silence of solitude. A time of rejuvenation; of communion with God; of self-discovery.

By the end of the week the silence felt louder than the shrieking winds that seemed to slice through rock itself. My senses were heightened- high mountain grasses thrust skywards like individual spears of rusty red and burnished gold; the cold and hunger made for unwelcome bedfellows; the imposing flanks of Sgurr Mor appeared as monstrous tidal waves looming through the gray and damp mists, threatening to engulf me as readily as the wild beauty was ready to consume me. I felt alive, joyful, and afraid in equal measure.

Following Ash Wednesday, we take those first tentative steps into the lenten journey. Each year as I look inwardly and outwardly, I am reminded again and again of that heady sensation of fear, of joy, and of life I experienced in the mountain wilderness. I bring on this path my successes and my failures, my joys and my sorrows. Every year that we gather we are each drawn, week by week, closer and closer, to our own high mountaintop and to the parapet of the Temple where we feel the tension as our own failings meet with the path Jesus has set out for us to follow. I am not yet ready to gaze upwards at that blood encrusted cross- but at this early stage of the journey I give thanks for the gift of life and the people in it with whom I share its glorious mysteries. And I thank God for the gift of the Church in holding love, grace and forgiveness as lanterns to guide us.

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Luke 4:11 NIV)

daybreak

As light broke the horizon, Jesus began to stir.

Zadkiel looked up at his companions. ‘You can go. I can manage, now, but thank you for staying with me.’

Last night, he had needed them. Once the snake fled and the desert ceased its hissing, Jesus had collapsed in exhaustion. All through the darkness, the angels tended him and kept him warm. Michael took watch and warned the wildness away. Gabriel knelt, and called to Word and Wisdom through the stories of the stars. Jophiel sang lullabies, and Zadkiel sheltered Jesus in his wings.

The hills blazed red as the angels rose. Jophiel bowed and left without speaking. Gabriel and Michael masked themselves in splendor, till they were indistinguishable from the light. As his form shifted, Gabriel called out: ‘Courage, Zadkiel. Make him laugh.’

Zadkiel nodded to him, and smiled: their days together never lacked laughter.

Jesus rolled over, and opened his eyes. For a moment, he sensed the shimmering –a presence he’d known from childhood. Then, it eluded him, and he turned to the familiar face of his friend.

‘You’re here!’
‘I am always here.’
‘But you weren’t — these 40 days. I had only the birds for my friends.’

Zadkiel ruffled his feathers, and looked at Jesus coyly.
‘Yes. I’m sure that’s how it seemed.’

Jesus scowled at him and laughed.
‘Oh well, if you insist. Were you the partridge I thought of roasting, or the kestrel who tore at the shrew?’

Zadkiel narrowed his eyes, and sought retaliation.
‘So, what next? What does God’s Beloved want to do today?’
‘You’re not going to let me forget that, are you?’
‘No. I’m not going to let you forget that.’

Laugher hung in the air, but Jesus sensed Zadkiel’s seriousness.
‘And that’s why you’re here?’
‘That is why I am here.’

Jesus thought back across the forty days. He had liked being alone. For a while. He sensed the freedom of it, and there was joy in the huge spaciousness of God. But, if truth be told, it was only nice sometimes. Sometimes, it was frightening and confusing. Sometimes it was far too cold.

‘Well, I’m glad that you are.’ Jesus said, as he reached out to stroke Zadkiel’s feathers, ‘though that day with the partridge? … it was a close run thing.’

Zadkiel chose to ignore him.
‘Since you can’t have partridge, maybe fish?’ Zadkiel asked, eager to be on their way.
‘Fish. Of course. To Capernaum. To the Sea!’

Jesus rose and ran down the valley. Zadkiel watched him joyfully, then took to wing.

bright gift

The women ran from the tomb as the angel chased after them, flapping his wings sharply.

‘Wait!’  Zadkiel ordered, catching Sariel’s wings in his own.

‘But they don’t believe me!  They are running way. They won’t tell anyone.  They are too afraid.’   Sariel’s words tumbled in breathless panic.  ‘They do believe you.  They will believe you.  You just need to wait.’

Sariel watched the women as they ran across the hill, and his wings dropped.  ‘But it’s never been like this before.  My wings flap, and my word is effective. My wings close, and it is done.’

‘Yes, with death.’ Zadkiel said gently, ‘But when the word is life, it takes longer.  They have to choose…’   Sariel looked disappointed.  Zadkeil went on: ‘You knew that it would be different now, yes?’

‘Yes.’ Sariel whispered, a bit embarrassed. ‘So what do I do now?’

Zadkiel pondered.  He knew he had to slow Sariel down.
‘Do you remember — in the beginning?  Before you learned to close your wings:  what was it like then?’

Sariel was reluctant.  He had blocked that memory for a long time.  He could feel Zadkiel prowling about in his mind, uncovering the loss of it.

‘It was simple.  No one was afraid.  The blossom died to give way for the leaf.  The leaf died to nourish the root.  The root gathered strength to send out a new branch.  Most of the time we just played.’

‘Yes.’ Zadkiel said, realizing how simple Sariel’s complexity really was. ‘So help them remember.’

Sariel looked for the women, and saw that they had stopped running.  They sat with their backs against cool stone, catching their breath.  In front of them, there was a tree in blossom, which they didn’t see.

‘There.  The tree.  I can show them.’
Sariel gathered his skirts and began to run.
‘Wait!’ Zadkiel cried, slowing him down again.  ‘You need to go gently.  Don’t show yourself at first.’  Sariel was getting impatient: ‘But you always do.’  ‘Yes, but I’ve been living with them a long time. I know how to fit in.  Don’t show yourself at first; just touch them with your wing.’

Sariel stood back from the women, and stretched his wing till the tip brushed Mary’s arm.  He saw her shudder, and drew back in alarm.  ‘It’s all right.’  Zadkiel said, ‘they take fright easily and are slow to let it go.  Go gently.’  So Sariel tried again.

He stretched out his wing and willed Mary to look at the tree.  He focused all his being on blossom — on his desire for her to see.  When he shook with the strain of it, he felt her move.  She bent her neck and brushed her hair from her eyes, then looked up.

Zadkiel saw her eyes soften as they fell on the tree. ‘Good,’ he said to Sariel.  ‘Very good.  Now: fill her mind with something familiar. Sing her a song.’

Sariel reached — naturally enough — for a Sanctus:  sharp as glass, with refracted rhythms.

‘Wait!’ Zadkiel cried again.  Sariel fell silent and looked perplexed.  Zadkiel continued: ‘That one is too hard.  She needs something familiar.’

Sariel thought for a moment and summoned a fiddle:
Tra -li- laa, la-li-laa, l’ laa.
‘Better.’ Zadkiel said, as he took up the song.

They sang till the gold light shimmered.  They sang till the women relaxed.  They sang till they drew breath and dropped their shoulders and turned their faces to the sun.

‘Now,’ Zadkiel said.  ‘Tell them again.’

Sariel stepped forward and let himself be seen.  The women flinched only a bit.

‘Do not be afraid.  He is Risen.  Go and tell the others what you have seen.’

Mary reached out, tentatively, and let her hand trail down the dark shimmer of his wing.  Her eyes widened, and at last she understood.

Jophiel was watching, now, too as Mary stood and ran quickly toward the town.  Sariel deserved his Sanctus.

Jophiel nodded and the choir began.  Light shattered the last darkness, and Sariel stood amazed as his wings turned bright.

wing-held darkness

Zadkiel looked slowly around the crowd. Mary. Mary. John.  Most of the others had fled.  But as his eyes searched he saw familiar faces. The blind man. The woman who had bled. Those who had realised that suffering was not the end of the world.

But this suffering might be, he thought.

Jophiel knelt on the other side of the clearing, tears streaming down his face as he recorded the fugue that had begun with those hard struck nails.

Michael seemed unflinching, but one wing reached out.  Feathers brushed the woman he had chosen, who had done her work so well.

On the edge of the crowd, stood Sariel: his work not yet done.

Michael drew close to Zadkiel and said, ‘It is time.’
‘Must we?’ Zadkiel said angrily. ‘God seems to have gone already.’   ‘No. This is just the beginning. You know what we must do.’

Zadkiel nodded and caught Jophiel’s eye.  Jophiel set down his quill, and called the angels to attention.  One signal, and the circle formed: wings locked to forge a wall around the cross.

The tent of absence, Zadkiel realised.  He raised his wings reluctantly, and darkness covered the whole earth.

Their task was to keep God out.  God had withdrawn himself from himself, and become as remote as the deepest fear of the heart.  God stood on the edge of non-being to create a space where he was not, to allow this darkness, this freedom, this choice.

And we bear the weight of it, Zadkiel uttered, still resisting his task.

The darkness held for three hours.  The angels strained with it, letting love and grief, longing and abandonment bash against their wings.

Then Jesus cried aloud, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’  and Zadkiel’s scream filled the heavens.  Michael and Jophiel flexed their wings around him, absorbing the force of his grief and using it to strengthen the circle.

God’s agony pressed in on them too. The sun stopped; the heavens shuddered, and the whole earth stood on the edge of the abyss.

Jesus cried out again, and Sariel stepped forward.  He curled his dark wings around the cross, gently. Then, as Jesus breathed out, his wings snapped shut: cutting breath from breath; life from death.

Jophiel was the first to break the circle, as anguish overwhelmed him.  Myriad of angels shut their wings as the sky was rent and the veil of the temple torn in two.

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ Zadkiel whispered, the words now fully his own.

turning point

As soon as the birds sang, Jesus slipped out of the house and went down to the stream.  Zadkiel watched him from beneath his wing, then rose to follow.  It was getting warmer, at least.  But hot days and cold nights still made for wet grass, and Zadkiel went reluctantly down the path.

By the time Zadkiel got there, Jesus was leaning against a tree, looking out at the water.  As usual, he’d found a stone, and was turning it over and over in his hand.

Zadkiel felt weary.  They were getting close now, and there were moments when he didn’t want the job he’d been given. He walked past Jesus to the water’s edge, and stooped down to trail his fingertips through the ripples.

Jesus watched him for a while, and registered his own surprise.  Usually it was the other way round:  Zadkiel watching, Jesus longing for the bright splash of grace.  He set down his stone and went to Zadkiel’s side.   The angel smiled, but did not move, and his eyes went out to the far shore.

‘Peter thinks that I am the Messiah,’ Jesus said suddenly.
‘I heard.’ Zadkiel muttered.
‘I told him not to say.’
‘Yes, that was probably wise.’

Both of them, now, were trailing the fingers through the water, relishing the cool of it against the warmth of the sun.

Zadkiel looked at Jesus, cautiously, and summoned his will.  He could do this…
‘And you?  What do you think?  Are you the messiah?’

It was Jesus’ turn to look away.  He turned from the stream and walked up the bank.  He saw a dead branch lying there, picked it up and gave it a tentative swing.

‘When I was young, some of the boys would play “Messiah”.  They’d find a stick, like this, and they’d steal a pot to wear as a helmet. Then they’d round us all up, with stories of how unfair the world was, and claim that they would be the one to change it.  Sticks, pots, off we’d go to prepare for battle.’  Jesus threw down the stick he’d been swinging and turned to face Zadkiel.  ‘The thing is: I hated it.  It never felt right.  Violence breeds violence, and killing people doesn’t really tell me much about God’s love.’

‘No,’ Zadkiel said, ‘I can see that.  So, if you were the messiah?’

Jesus sat down, looked at the stream.  Further up, the women were beginning to gather, filling their jugs.

‘There was a song my mother used to sing — a sort of lullaby when I couldn’t sleep.  A song of trust in what God was doing, of light coming to the nations.’

‘Yes.  I remember.  Simeon had taught her.’

‘Simeon.  She used to talk about him.  She loved remembering that day they took me to the temple and Simeon raised me in his arms and sang, and Anna laughed and shouted that God was good.  They were so startled by it that they forgot about the doves, and went home carrying them still.  We had those doves for years.  It was one of her favourite stories.’ Jesus paused, remembering.  ‘But sometimes, if I asked her about it at the wrong moment, it felt different.  She’d say all the same things, but her eyes would be distant.  She seemed afraid.’

Zadkiel turned away from Jesus, and went back to the stream.  He watched the light dance and thought how Jophiel would be noting the rhythms of it.  He wished he were anywhere but here.

‘Yes, well, Simeon said a lot of things that day.’

Jesus was getting annoyed now.  This wasn’t like Zadkiel at all.  He went to him, and put his hand on his shoulder, forcing Zadkiel to look at him.

‘What is it?  What did he say?’
‘Oh, just the usual sort of thing.  The sort of thing Peter said.  And that you would be opposed.’

Jesus laughed harshly, ‘is that all?  Well that proved true enough.  Opposed at every turn.  I’m getting used to it by now.’

Zadkiel looked relieved.  Maybe they could stop here, and go back to looking at the water?  But no. Jesus was still thinking, and when he spoke it was less bravely: ‘But there was something else too, wasn’t there? Opposition doesn’t explain the look in her eyes.’

Zadkiel looked at Jesus, and knew he would have to tell him.  ‘Simeon saw it all.  He had met so many mothers.  He told her that a sword would pierce her own soul too.’

Jesus looked confused, as he turned Simeon’s words over in his mind, and then he seemed to realise.
‘When we played,’ he said, ‘when it was my turn to be “Messiah”?  I never swung my stick.  I just carried it, and they followed.’

‘Yes.’ Zadkiel said sadly, ‘I remember that too.’

Jesus stood long on the water’s edge with his eyes closed, absorbing the warmth of the sun. ‘I know how it will be, then.  I think I’ve known for a while, really.  I must tell the disciples.’

Zadkiel nodded, and said nothing.  He knelt down to touch the water again, as Jesus turned and walked up the dusty path alone.