The Naked Man – pt. 11

???????????????????????????????The following afternoon, Mark accompanied his mother to her seat in the courtyard. After helping her down, he sat on a low wall so he could face her as they talked. They sat in comfortable silence for a while, until a memory brought a smile to Mark’s face. “Do you remember that evening when Daniel burst in to tell us about going to see John out in the wilderness?” “Remember?!” his mother exclaimed. “I remember not knowing whether to hug him in relief or slap his face in anger! Taking off like that – not telling us where he was going, missing the evening meal. I had all kinds of wild thoughts about what trouble he might have gotten himself into with those new friends of his. That little bit of fluff on his chin made him feel like a man – but he was just a little boy.” Seeing Mark’s raised eyebrow, she laughed and said, “Well, he was just a little boy to me.”

“I remember the look on your face – and I was glad I was not on the receiving end of it! I don’t think Daniel noticed, though. He was all stirred up from hearing John – I don’t think any of us got a word in edgeways for quite some time.” “He was a little excited, as I recall,” responded Miryam. “‘It’s Elijah! It’s Elijah!’ If he said that once, he must have said it a dozen times.” “Well,” said Mark, “he did always love the stories about Elijah. Especially the ones where he called down fire from heaven on his enemies.” “Yes,” she agreed. “And now one like Elijah was out in the wilderness, calling all to repent, and to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. That did not go over well with your brother Benyamin.” “No, no it didn’t. He seemed to take the news as a personal affront. I remember him spluttering, his face turning red at Daniel’s words.” Mark tried to imitate his brother’s adolescent, nasal accent. ‘How dare he? Who does this John think he is? Baptizing for the forgiveness of sins? The forgiveness of sins is the business of the temple, not some wild-haired, crazed prophet out in the wilderness!’” “You know, that’s very good,” said Miryam with a rueful grin. “He doesn’t sound like that anymore – well, not unless he gets upset. How they argued over that – it went on for days.”

“Daniel’s friends stoked the fire well,” said Mark. “with all their talk of John being a great prophet. Perhaps he was Elijah, just as the last of our prophets spoke:

‘Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.’

Miryam nodded thoughtfully. “The fathers of those young boys filled their heads with talk of revolution. How they hated Herod and his family. How they despised the Herodians’ attempt to win over the people by continuing the work on the temple – and the burden that that work was on the poor. I have often wondered if they wanted John to be one like Elijah because of the way Elijah had confronted King Ahab – especially for his treatment of his neighbor, Naboth. I think they believed John would help them foment rebellion against the Herodians.” Mark’s voice took on a mournful note as he spoke. “And Herod Antipas apparently shared their belief. With the crowds going out to John growing daily in number, he must have believed John’s eloquence and power of speech might lead to some form of sedition. And so he had John taken into custody. And then…” His voice tailed off.

“But you went out with the others to hear John before he was arrested.” His mother’s voice cut short his reverie. “Yes I did. I admit I was only curious at first. Daniel’s description of John intrigued me. This man clothed with camel’s hair, wearing a leather belt around his waist – just like Elijah – whose diet was locusts and wild honey. He sounded quite the character. And so I followed the crowds from Jerusalem to the spot in the Jordan river where he was baptizing. I heard him speak of our need to repent, and as I watched people go down into the water, and come through to the other side, I remember being suddenly gripped by a vision of the exodus: Moses had brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea into the wilderness, and freedom. Now, here was this prophet, calling us out of the slavery of sin, to come through the waters of the Jordan and into a new life of freedom, right there in the wilderness. It was like he was splashing cold water in our faces and saying, ‘Wake up! A new day is coming! A new exodus is at hand!’ I watched people go down into the water and before I knew what I was doing, I was following them, wading out to John.” He leaned forward, speaking in earnest. “I wanted to be washed clean, mother. The endless visits to the mikvah – washing ourselves to become ritually clean – on that day, out in there in the wilderness, I wanted to pass through the waters of the Jordan from death to life. That’s what it felt like.”

Miryam smiled. “I remember when you returned. It was clear that you had had quite a different experience than Daniel.” “I was older, mother.” “That is true. But still, you were…different. More reflective. Less…militant than Daniel. But now Benyamin had two brothers ‘caught up in that dangerous nonsense.’ He refused to go with you, of course, when you returned to the Jordan later that week.” “As did my father…and you as well.” His mother sighed. “Well, we didn’t know what to make of it all – not at the time. And Benyamin’s friends’ parents were our friends. Some had great influence on the Council, and I admit we did not want to appear to support what was happening around John.” “But they knew that Daniel and I had been baptized. “Yes, and they took your father – he of blessed memory – to task for that. But,” and a twinkle appeared in her eyes, “he gave as good as he got. ‘But what if this man has come from God?’ he asked them. That question did not go down well, let me assure you.” The twinkle slowly faded. “But when he told me what he had said, I loved him for saying it, even while I saw the trouble that would come from him doing so.”

They sat in silence for a while, caught up in memories of events long past. Eventually Mark spoke again. “It wasn’t just the call to repentance that stirred me though. It was John’s declaration that another was coming after him, a stronger one even than he.” He looked up as a couple entered the courtyard. “And after we break bread tonight, perhaps I will tell that story…”

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