November 13, 2008
The stones in front of the temple echoed with the footfalls of hundreds of sandals and bare feet as worshipers from far and wide gathered for the Sabbath day sacrifice during the Passover weekend. I stood reverently on the temple steps listening to the hushed voices echoing off the walls, my head filled with turbulent thoughts. Nearly twenty Passover’s had seen me stand on these same steps, watching the same crowd, anticipating the same solemn ceremony, and yet today something was different. The holy men standing above me knew it, too, although they seemed to hold their heads higher and puff their chests bigger than usual.
Nearly a half a Year had passed since my good mother sent me with a prayer to the tutelage of the holy men. “You are blessed by Adonai,” she had reminded with bright eyes as she bid me farewell. “Not many boys from our parts have the privilege of learning from the holy men. Someday you will be a great Rabbi and help deliver our people from the Romans. Perhaps you will be in the presence of the Messiah.”
A man passed me on his way to the temple, and a quick furtive glance in my direction told me he had been there, too. He had seen the horrible death of the Galilean teacher yesterday. I looked over the crowd and saw other haunted eyes. I was not alone. We had been together yesterday, some of us screaming with the mob, some merely curious, but all of us deeply moved and troubled.
Everyone seemed affected by a dark spell. Some looked over their shoulders fearfully. The priests looked older and grayer than they had looked on Thursday. Reports of the grisly scene had been whispered even among those who had not been their, and many amazed and sometimes resentful glances were cast at the holy men.
I watched as an old woman led a blind man slowly toward the temple. They would be looking for the Galilean. Some claimed he was a healer, although when called upon to perform a miracle at his trial, he had done nothing. “Please, good sir,” said a pretty lady holding a child by the hand, “Where is Jesus?”
The question muted me as I stared for a minute at the incredibly wide, hopeful eyes of the little boy. This was a child who would never again play tag in the streets with his friends. One side of his neck was marred with a twisted scar that seemed to continue down his body. He must have fallen in the fire at a very young age, for he had one grotesquely shriveled hand and just the tip of a deformed foot peeked from beneath a tattered frock. Besides the horrible scar, his face was cherubic as he clung to his mother’s hand.
Suddenly my eyes blurred and my throat felt too tight to speak. “I-, I’m sorry,” I stammered, afraid to look the pretty lady in the eye. “He’s gone.” I tried to gather my composure and lift my head as my Rabbi had taught me. “He was charged with blasphemy and was crucified yesterday,” my voice did not convey the confidence I intended.
The woman didn’t believe me. She moved down the line and asked the same question, this time describing the Galilean to make sure there was no mistake. “Madame,” the priest said carefully, “This man that you speak of was a malefactor, pretending to be the Messiah and bringing upon us greater affliction by the Romans—“
“But he healed the sick,” the woman’s voice was panicky, “he touched the poor and he fed the people; how could he be a malefactor!”
“We have a law,” the Teacher’s eyes bulged as he fought to maintain composure, “And by our law he was justly condemned to die.”
“What did he do to deserve death?!” a man nearby interjected.
A small crowd was gathering.
“We have a law!” repeated the Teacher as though this were the clincher. “Anyone who commits blasphemy and sedition must die!” his voice was raising now, and I could see mad fear mixed with the fury in his eyes.
“Mommy, where’s Jesus,” the little voice caught the attention of the gathering crowd.
“Jesus is gone,” said the tender mother with tears cascading down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, he won’t be able to heal you.”
The little lad crumpled to the stone step, letting his hand slip from his mothers. He didn’t bother to cover his face but threw his head back, opened his mouth and let out a thin tired wale. An electric shock of emotion went through the crowd, and the priests were in a frenzied madness as they tried to ward off the seekers of the Galilean. How different they appeared to me from the noble and wise leaders I had come to learn from. Despite my attempts to remind myself that they were God’s leaders, I felt disgust stirring in my heart. I had seen them scream and spit with the vilest rioter and now I saw their desperate attempts to scratch together some dignity. They appeared to me as men who have been marked for the gallows.
The trumpet sounded and the priests smoothed out their robes and regained their composure before stepping pompously into the coolness of the temple. There were muted gasps as the worshippers came in and many for the first time saw the torn curtain and the empty holy place. Never had the throng in the temple been so agitated on a Passover Sabbath. Even the priests could hardly bear the site of the shredded curtain, believed to be so holy. It seemed to them a dark omen of future ruin.
A priest was already leading a lamb to the altar. The gentle animal gave no sign of resistance as the priest pulled on the cord fastened to its neck. Suddenly I felt as a man does when first remembering a dream he has had the night before. Only it wasn’t a dream at all; what flashed into my mind was the picture of the humble Galilean, his wrists tied tightly, being led by a rough hand through the gates of the palace of Annas. How much that gentle lamb reminded me of the calm forbearance, and how much I wished that I could erase the scene from my mind.
Even as the priest drew the sharp blade across the animals throat, and the blood began to flow, the lamb gave not the slightest bleat of pain. Again I saw the Galilean standing in pilots court as curses and jeers were flung at him. How strange and silent he was when asked to defend himself. How calmly he bore the pummeling fists when the weak emperor released him to the mercy of the crowd.
The priest gathered the animal’s blood into a charger, and as it flowed, I seemed to see again the burst of red that had come from the Galileans forehead as the thorns were pushed into his flesh. When they put him on the rough cross, his blood had flowed so heavily that it made a dark pool beneath his feet. The blood is the life, I remembered memorizing the holy words from the scroll. So why was the life being taken from this innocent animal? Though I had been told many times that the lamb was the Messiah, I never understood why the animal must be slaughtered. Suddenly a remembered the mournful words of a disciple as he gazed at the dying form of his rabbi: and we had such hopes that it was him who was to come….
My questions about the death of the lamb and the disciples words seemed to crush me as if I were between two great stones. I had to breathe. Not regarding what my Rabbi would think, I rushed from the building, across the empty courtyard and out in to the street. I did not stop until I was in the garden, where I dropped to the ground and rested my pounding head against a gnarled olive trunk. My thoughts were coming so fast I could scarcely organize them. The lamb. The Galilean. The man they called a malefactor and a fraud, the man they said was of poor and illegitimate birth, the man the priests mocked and stewed over…. The man who matched the lamb.
No matter how my thoughts ran, I could not hide from the comparison. Everything fell eerily into place. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be born of a virgin? And those words of Isaiah I could not understand suddenly hit me like a punch in the stomach: “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter….”
Jesus the Galilean. The Messiah.
Again I saw the priests screaming “Crucify him!” and heard my own voice mingle with theirs. I could not see through the tears and my stomach heaved with nausea. I had shouted to crucify him. The Messiah.
But what did the scriptures say? He will save his people from their sins. Could he even save me from the wretch I had made of myself? He had not reviled or even thrown an angry glance at his accusers. Then, like lightening brightening the darkened sky, I remembered his words as he hung on the cross: “Abba, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”
For me were those words spoken. How well I knew that there were many who would never know or admit to know what they had done, but now I knew and I needed that forgiveness like a drowning man needs a line.
“Abba forgive me, for I did not know what I was doing,” I leaned on a rock. “Father, forgive me for the murder of the Messiah. And let not his death be for nothing.”
The tears still fell like a drizzle after a storm, but in my soul I felt sure that the gentle Galilean and His Abba would not turn me away on this Sabbath day. I knew the lamb, I knew the blood, and now, as never before, I knew the Sabbath. I turned my head wearily and opened my eyes. Near me, there was blood on the rock.
Another Sabbath day in the temple and this time I listen in amazement as a man named Peter talks about the Galilean, why His death was necessary to save mankind, and how he came back from the grave. The priests are on the fringes of the crowd, looking crafty, but older and withered and broken. My mother weeps softly by my side. I am holding the hand of a child with a great twisted scar and withered limbs. At Peter’s invitation we kneel together and give our allegiance to the risen Messiah.
( Inspired by Desire of Ages ch. 80)