The Naked Man pt. 1: homecoming

Second Temple Jerusalem - croppedThe man eased himself down onto the edge of the well. He slowly drew up the pail, drank from a cupped hand and then wiped it over his face and neck. Although the air of early spring was cool, the ascent through the winding streets of Jerusalem had brought a thin sheen of sweat to his face. As he took time to regain his breath, he once more looked out with affection and more than a hint of sadness at his beloved city, a city whose streets he had not walked in twenty years. Streets he was only able to walk now because of a lull in the fighting of the civil war that had been raging for the past two years.

Simon bar Giora, with his army of 15,000, was now ‘master of Jerusalem,’ with his rivals John of Gischala, and the brutal Zealots controlling the outer courts of the Temple and the inner Temple, respectively. Simon had brought relative peace to the city, whose citizens had seen more bloodshed and atrocities at the hands of their own countrymen than they had seen under the Roman procurator Florus, whose cruelty had precipitated the Great Revolt. Shaking his head at the thought of all those wasted lives, John Mark gazed across the rooftops until his eyes fell upon the Temple. As the late afternoon light caught the gold-plated façade and the dazzling white of the upper layer of marble, his eyes suddenly welled with tears, as words spoken four decades ago echoed down through the years,

“Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”

Like all the others there that day, John Mark’s eyes had been drawn upwards, to gaze upon the magnificence of the Second Temple, Herod the Great’s ambitious and monumental building project. Beginning with doubling the size of the Temple Mount of Solomon’s day, over the course of a decade Herod had built a temple whose beauty was renowned throughout the Roman world. Adorning the completed structure was an ongoing project, providing much-needed employment for many over the past seventy years. As he and the others had looked up with admiration at those adornments on that day, the words of their master had cut through their awestruck reverie,

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

John Mark remembered their confusion at Jesus’ declaration, the seeming impossibility of the thought that this place, the center of the life of his people, could ever fall. His eyes now lifted from the Temple to gaze beyond it, across the valley below to the Roman encampment. General Vespasian’s legions had surrounded Jerusalem since the previous summer, but surprisingly had not begun a formal siege of the city…yet. If they had, John Mark would never have managed to slip into the city as he had. When the word of Emperor Nero’s suicide had reached the general in June, his command had automatically been terminated, and so Vespasian had waited for orders from the new emperor. But Rome had itself been plunged into civil war, Emperor Galba having been assassinated just before John Mark left Rome for Jerusalem, and his successor, Otho, was maintaining an equally tenuous hold on power. And so Vespasian continued to wait. His troops had crushed the Jewish resistance in Galilee, Judea, Perea and Idumea. The remaining rebels were all here, in Jerusalem. As John Mark caught the occasional flash of a spearhead moving among the rows of tents, he thought again of Jesus’ words, and wondered if the day he had foreseen all those years ago was indeed drawing near.

Grunting as he pushed himself up, he looked up the hill to the quarter of the city wherein lay his family’s home. He smiled at the thought of seeing them again – it had been so long. He had lost count of the births, weddings and funerals that he had missed. He had great-nieces and nephews he had never met. Among all the faces that came to mind, one now came to the forefront. Once glossy black hair must surely now be greying, gentle brown eyes would be careworn and dimmed, long, graceful fingers gnarled and wrinkled. Indeed, his mother was of an age that few people saw. But he knew that her inner fortitude was as strong as ever, and she continued to host the gathering of those following the way of Jesus, as she had from the very beginning. He suddenly found himself anxious to see her, and set off on the last leg of his long journey. He reached his old neighborhood, and turned a corner to finally lay eyes on the home he had not seen in twenty years. The sound of children at play reached his ears. He took a moment to drink in the sight, and then stepped into the courtyard.

The olive and fig trees were in full spring leaf, and a pack of children were running in and out of them, playing some kind of game. A young girl almost ran into him, and stopped short when confronted by this stranger. Within moments, the other children spotted him and stopped running. The smallest boy retreated toward a figure seated in a chair, wrapped in a shawl. John Mark looked across to see his mother. As he walked slowly towards her, she suddenly burst into laughter, clapped her hands and then held her arms out toward him. He strode across the courtyard, children in tow, and knelt at his mother’s side. Her hand reached up to touch his face, exploring his features. “Yohanan. My Yohanan. You’re here.” The children watched this exchange in silence. Miryam gestured for her son to stand, and then addressed her great-grandchildren. “Children. This is your great-uncle Yohanan Marcus.” They stared at him for a moment before the youngest’s eyes grew big, and he blurted out, “The naked man!”

“What?” exclaimed Mark. “What?!”

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To read the introduction to the series, click here.

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