a sacred duty


Crowds.  Typical.

Zacchaeus hated days like this.  He’d have a plan and a place to be — he might even be enjoying himself — and then, he’d see them. The men he’d grown up with. The women who laughed at him and scorned his advances. The neighbours’  children who had been taught to hate him and mistrust him him and call him names. The crowds that hated him, and filled him with hate in return. There was no coming back from it now: the day was ruined.

Zacchaeus scurried on and tried to decide what to do.

Option 1: Push through. Satisfyingly hostile. Some would run from him to avoid their debts. But most would jeer and shove and dirty his clothes.

Option 2: Go around. Try to avoid it. Just move on. That was probably the better way.

Zacchaeus was on the edge of the crowd now and felt something brush his arm. ‘Or you could go see him,’ a voice said. Zaccaeus looked up, and saw no one. Bits of other people’s conversation tugged at his ears.

Option 3: go see him. Why should he do that?

He decided to take the hostile option and began to force his way through the crowd.

‘Look, there’s Zaccheus!’
‘Coming to get us, tax man?’
They mocked and they scorned and they shoved him aside.

The tax man. Perfect excuse to be hated. But they forgot: he wasn’t always a tax man. And they’d hated him then too. Rome didn’t care what he looked liked, didn’t care if he wouldn’t conform. So long as he did his job…

Zacchaes tried to comfort himself by rubbing the gold in his pocket. By imagining the Roman armies, marching by his side.  It didn’t work.

‘You must be lonely,’ a voice said. He turned quickly to see who it was. No one. Just other people’s conversations again. All day this had been happening. Words hooking his attention, with no clear source.

Lonely? It was not a thought he allowed himself to entertain.

‘Damn this,’ he thought, as he fought his way out of the crowd. He would try another way.

Once he escaped them, his defences lowered. Lonely? Yes. He was lonely. What of it?  He looked at the people who should be his companions. ‘A motley lot anyway…’ he said to no one in particular.

All the while, Raphael was waiting. ‘Come on you grumpy little man. Come to me!’  Raphael sat in the sycamore and laced his wings through its leaves.

Finally, Raphael saw him: short stocky legs, working quickly to overtake the crowd.  Raphael flicked his wings, and the tree shimmered with bright green gold.

Zacchaeus sensed movement and looked up. On the path ahead, there was a most glorious tree…  For a moment, he forgot his anger.

Zacchaeus liked trees. As a boy, he would climb them: a good task when you are all alone. He was small, and could go high, and then no one could look down on him.

The tree stood proud ahead, and he heard the echo of the strangers words: you could go see him.  It was tempting.  He’d heard things about this Jesus… things he didn’t understand, that confused him and gave him… hope?

But it had been years.

Zacchaeus touched the familiar bark of the tree and looked up into its branches. The limbs were good: solid and strong and not too far apart. He looked back at the crowd and thought about the stranger in its midst.

Really, what had he to loose? He began to climb.

As Jesus moved through the crowd, Zadkiel brushed his arm with his wing.

‘What is it?’ Jesus asked.
‘Look,’ Zadkiel said, pointing to the tree ahead.

Jesus saw Raphael first, leaning against the tree trunk, looking quite satisfied. Raphael bowed to Jesus and smiled.

Then, Jesus looked up. There, in a most undignified position, was a little man in fine robes, trying to get to a branch he couldn’t quite reach.

Jesus’ eyes sparkled, and his laughter filled the hillsides. ‘Zacchaes, come down!’

Zacchaeus startled and slipped in his fright. Once he was safely on the branch again, he looked down. The crowd had caught up with him, and his neighbours were pointing and laughing.

He tugged at his tunic.

But there, coming towards him, was Jesus: his face full of warmth and delight.

‘Zacchaeus, come down. I must stay with you tonight.’

Zacchaeus looked all around, to see if there was another Zacchaeus, if Jesus was talking to him

The the truth of it hit him: a guest. A sacred duty. This was scarier than a tree, certainly, but what choice was there? He was a Jew. Here was a guest. He let himself slip through the branches and drop to the ground.

‘Yes, Lord. Yes.’  Zacchaeus said, dusting himself off. ‘You shall stay with me.’

The crowd grumbled and cried out against him, but now he didn’t care. Let them say what they wanted. Here was a guest. And he was a Jew. At last.

 

always a choice

Bethsaida.

As Raphael appeared, the waters were dark — still sleeping against a night sky. The people were sleeping too: some slumped in the doorways, others stretched out on the stones, one — more peaceful– trailing her hand in the waters and dreaming dreams.

‘Who will it be today, Ramiel?’ Raphael asked, already sure of the answer. Ramiel turned from his drawings, and waved his wing towards the girl. ‘She is ready: look.’

Raphael came to see the sketch pad. A girl, standing tall in the market square. A girl, radiant and laughing with her friends. All around them were rainbows — ribbons of light that seemed to dance on the wind. Raphael leaned in and strained his eyes against the dark.

‘Oh, Ramiel. You have done well.’

The ribbons were formed by words of friendship, words of kindness, the language of joy and hope and connection. And there, in tatters at her feet, were the words she had set down. Words of cruelty of wounding. Words that silenced her and drove her to Bethsaida: mute, afraid, alone.

The first rays of light were reaching the pool, and it was almost time for Raphael to stir the waters. But as the shadows lifted, he knew he was being watched.

‘What about him?’ Raphael asked, nodding to the old man who was staring at him. He didn’t like being watched. Mostly he was invisible. But at some point over the 38 years, the man had learned to see, and had been scowling at him ever since.

‘Still, no.’ Ramiel said sadly. ‘He won’t sleep. He won’t dream. When he does doze off, he blocks me as soon as I lift my pen: restless and angry. It gets harder every year.’

Raphael sighed and dropped his head. He would like to help the man — but not today.

Instead, he turned to the girl. ‘So be it. She is ready: it will be her turn.’

Raphael stepped down into the pool as the last of the sleepers woke. Some of the companions sensed him, and began hurrying their loved ones to the water’s edge. The girl sat up: wide eyed and expectant. The old man did nothing but glower, defying the rest to be healed.

As Raphael stepped into the water, the light changed. He rose his wings, and a thousand golden feathers reflected on the pool. The waters danced as he trailed his wing and turned: stirring the waters, stirring their dreams.

The girl barely needed to move to be in the pool, but as she saw him she rose. She walked deliberately into the waters, holding the angel’s eyes. At once she was surrounded with light and transformed by it. She waded out to meet him and let her head slip down beneath the water’s surface. As she rose, he took her hand, brushed the water from her face, and sheltered her in his wings.

‘Thank you.’ she said. ‘Thank you,’ as tears and laughter mingled.

Raphael released her and set her free. ‘Go in peace. When you need me, I will be with you.’ The girl nodded, and walked form the pool. All eyes were on her, and those who could ran to touch her. A healing. Hope for them all.

Except for one. Raphael saw the old man shift and turn away from the girl.

Raphael felt his own emotions stir — not compassion, exactly. Frustration? Anger? Nothing he liked, certainly. He fought it, and began walking to the man. There was nothing to stop him. He could stir the waters again if he wished. He sent out a beacon of gold, and begged the man: ‘Look, I can help you. Please, won’t you come?’

The man set himself in stubbornness and turned his face to the stones.

And then, suddenly: Jesus was there. He had come as the girl rose from the water. He had stood and shared her joy. But now, his face had changed. He waked swiftly to the man and forced his attention.

Jesus’ voice rose: ‘Do you want to be well?’

It was not harsh, exactly — but it was close. Raphael was bewildered. Here was this man, who had suffered for so many years, and Jesus was…

Challenging him.

The man looked up, too shocked not to respond. ‘There is no one to help me. Someone always gets there first.’

It was true: he had no one. And once — a terrible day — he had tried to get to the pool, and someone pushed past and threw him to the ground. Raphael had snapped his wings shut, and no one was healed that day. But was that what this was about, all those years ago? Was he still harbouring blame?

Jesus stood firm against the man’s excuses. He looked at him without judgement, but without collusion.

‘Stand up. Take your mat, and walk.’

It was a command. And the man heard it as such. But he knew too that he must choose.

He hesitated only a second, and then got to his feet. He walked — stumbled — towards the pool, and washed his face. Then, he rose quickly, took his mat, and left.

Raphael stood, open mouthed, in the middle of the pool
Confrontation?’ he asked Jesus, utterly bewildered.

‘Sometimes.’ Jesus said calmly. ‘Sometimes, it is necessary.’

change of guard

The sun was hot and Zadkiel sheltered in a doorway. Inside he could hear women’s laughter and the clatter of pots. Outside, the the dust stirred, as the young boys ran to and from the well: the place of safety where they couldn’t be tagged out.

Jesus watched, and scratched the ears of the small dog who had been with him all morning.

Zadkiel was getting restless. He wasn’t sure what they were doing there –nor that Jesus knew either. But there they sat, at the height of the day.

The boys saw her first. The youngest froze, and broke the rhythm of the game.

The woman came out of the shadow and glared at the boys in defiance. The air around her shimmered, and Zadkiel suddenly knew why they were there.

Zadkiel stood and bowed to Michael, as the light settled around him. Michael nodded, but said nothing: he had work to do.

The woman walked through the midst of the boys, straight for the well. At first they made way for her, but then they began whispering. Their voices rose and laughter broke as they grew bolder. Then it began: the mocking, the pointing, the name calling that followed her every day of her life.

The youngest picked up a stone and hurled it at her.

Michael rose to her defence.  He very nearly became visible, but decided not scare them. He breathed his wrath slowly, and the boys felt the wind shift. They sensed danger and fled.

The woman drew breath and her shoulders dropped. Michael let his wings drop too, and for a moment she was unguarded: nothing but pain and weariness on her face.

Just then, Jesus stepped forward. She startled, and recomposed her charms.

‘Woman, Give me a drink.’

She assessed him,then rose her chin.

‘How is it that you — a Jew –ask a drink of me?’  She waved her hand in practised gesture: commanding him too see every inch of her, and defying him to look her in the eye.

Zadkiel heard the unspoken words: ‘How do you — a man– ask of me: a woman?’ Zadkiel wondered the same thing.

Jesus was unphased. He laughed, and moved to stand beside her so that they both faced the well.

‘If you knew who asked you…’ Jesus said, still laughing too much to be clear.

Zadkiel listened to them. They spoke of God, and the gift of life. They spoke of endurance, and surviving thirst. Finally, they turned to face each other, and Zadkiel saw Jesus touch her face. He named the thing she was hiding, and her last defence broke. She told him of all the men — all the times she had sought safety, and found nothing but disgrace.

Suddenly, they heard men’s voices in the distance, and her terror rose. ‘Please: don’t let them see me.’

Jesus nodded, and went to deflect them.

The woman looked up, and saw the small dog. She went to him and knelt in the dust to scratch his ears. He jumped up and licked her face till her wild laugher turned to sobbing and the pain was eased away.

Michael stood beside Zadkiel. ‘Watch,’ he said, ‘I am going to lose her.’

And just then, Raphael appeared: wings soft with gold.

The dog tugged on the woman’s skirts, and then ran to his master. Raphael came, and helped the woman rise from the ground. The time for pretence was over. She looked into his eyes, and chose to trust.

‘He told me everything I ever did.’ She said, her eyes wide with wonder.

‘And what will you do now?’ Raphael asked– infinitely gentle.

‘I will tell the others. I will go home.’

They walked together from the clearing, with the dog running at their heels.

hemmed in

She watched as he stepped from the boat. ‘Is that all?’ she thought, eyeing him.  ‘Is this the one who can command demons, and ruffle the rabbis, and stir the hearts of the crowds?’

He looked tired.  And as soon as he was ashore, the crowds pressed in around him:  calling to him, reaching for him, demanding his attention.  She sunk further into the shadows and watched.

The voice startled her, when it came.   ‘You could do it, you know.  If you chose.’ All day she had felt she was being watched, that there was someone.  But it was folly.  She was always alone.

‘Do what?’ she snarled.  ‘Just leave me alone.’

She felt, more than saw him draw closer.  Curious, and encouraging.   She felt the feather touch of his breath as he said,  ‘You could do it.  You could go to him.’   Then she watched him move into the crowd, clearing a path for her.

She was wary.  How could he know what she wanted?  And why would he care?  It has been a long time since anyone had seen her, spoken to her.  Twelve years.  Twelve bloody years.

But this felt different –whomever he was.  She followed him, and her heart echoed his words ‘you could do it. you could choose.’

The crowd was thick, and she’d lost sight of the stranger, but she could still sense his presence.  Yes.  She would do it.  What more could she possibly loose?  She ran, now, forcing her way through the crowd.  ‘Please, God, let me reach him.  Please God, let this stop.’

And there he was, in the clearing before her.  She saw Jesus talking with someone, and her heart sank.

‘Jarius.’  she hissed.  That great man.  The great leader. ‘The swine,’ she thought.  Too many times she’d seen him walk past as if she were invisible.  Too many times he pulled his cloak tight around him to be sure not to touch her, not to take the risk.  And there he was, talking with Jesus.  Pleading for his little girl.  Jesus hanging on his every word.

She tried to summon compassion for the man whose daughter was ill.  She mostly failed.  Oh, she wished them no harm, but she was jealous of him, too:  He whose needs are always met.

Then, she felt the feather touch of the stranger’s breath in her ear. ‘You could go to him.  I will help you.  Just reach for his cloak.’

His cloak… She watched as its hem swirled, filling the space the crowds cleared for him.  Yes.  She could do that.  Jarius could command his attention, but she could catch his hem.

She pushed on through the crowd and tried to believe she had as much right to be there as anyone.  She saw the anger and revulsion as people recognized her, feared her touch; and she decided not to care.

She got to the front of the crowd and saw Jesus, foot-swift and sure.  His cloak spread out behind him, and she let herself fall to the ground so she could touch it.

Her fingers brushed its edge, and the world seemed to cease its turning.  His power surged.  Her bleeding stoped.  Life was given again. She remembered Isaiah, and covered her face with her hands.

Zadkiel had covered his face, too.  And in the distance, Jophiel had set off a Sanctus.

Jesus turned and faced the crowd.  ‘Who touched me?’ he said in alarm.

‘Master, don’t be silly.  Look at the crowds.  It was nothing.’

‘You are wrong.  I felt it.  Who touched me?’

The woman uncovered her face and got her bearings.  She hesitated only a second, and thought, ‘I can do this’.

‘Good girl!’  Zadkiel nodded.  ‘I told you you could.’

His wings spread in triumph, as she stepped forward and lifted her eyes.  ‘I touched you.  It was I.’

faith, green as a leaf

…walking on holy ground means entering a new dimension, looking beyond our familiar horizons – and becoming…

Removing whatever stands between us and God means learning a new simplicity: “the simplicity this side of complexity is worthless; it is the simplicity that is on the far side of complexity which is priceless” [Oliver Wendell Holmes]

Becoming    …healed – means realising that healing is not a destination, but a signpost to what is to come…

The Kingdom

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 Taken from R.S.Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990