Fiction that may well contain a core of truth
by Theresia Saers
Actually, it began with John the Baptist, as we used to call him. One day he stood on the bank of the Jordan, a man straight from the desert, and he just started to preach. And lo and behold, we had our very own prophet.
From the readings in the synagogue I knew about the existence of prophets, way back in history. People who were supposed to speak on behalf of Jahweh. They used to fulminate against the injustice of the people of Israel and they called on them to repent. There was one, Jesajah, who varied his tirades with the promise of a Saviour, a Messiah, as we would say. Thus the idea of a Messiah had become part of our tradition, something to dream about, but certainly not to be taken very seriously as a phenomenon for realisation in our own lifetime, however much I for one hoped that this would indeed be the case. Until suddenly there was this John the Baptist.
Religion was a dimension of my heart, like the capacity for love, and at the first rumours I went down to see this new prophet for myself. I must say I was impressed. All in all he sounded very much like Jesajah, with his insistence on the need for conversion. There, too, was the promise of a Saviour. However, there was one big difference: Jesajah had always been vague about the timing. This John the Baptist promised us that the coming of the Messiah was imminent. He was there to prepare the way by preaching the need for conversion.
The newcomer from the desert began to intrigue me, and I was at his feet as often as I could free myself from my tasks in our household in Bethany, where I lived with my sister Martha. I heard him admonish us to give a goodwill token, by performing a symbolic cleansing of ourselves. In other words to be publicly baptised in the waters of the Jordan, so that everybody would see that we were prepared to change our behaviour. People openly asked the Baptists advice about what aspects of their lives they would have to change for this great thing to happen: the coming of the Messiah. In the first days there was only a trickle of candidates for baptism, but as the days went on more and more of my countrymen approached him to be allowed to enter the waters of the Jordan for this healing ceremony of forgiveness of sins. I was one of them. It was not an easy thing for a woman to do, as in preparation one had to take off most of ones clothes. That ritual was not performed because of the soaking wet clothes that would cling to your body as you made your way home. It symbolised the shedding of old habits that had previously stained and putrefied ones soul. Actually, people were scandalised by my joining the crowd of male candidates for baptism and shedding my clothes. I got the reputation of being eccentric, a woman to be shunned. No good can come from somebody that is felt to be different from the common herd . However, I did not mind. Seeing the Messiah with fresh and clear eyes would be worth it .
One day a listener from a group of Galileans got on his feet and approached the prophet. It appeared that he wanted baptism. There seemed to be some hesitation on Johns part, though. But the candidate loosened the clasp of his mantle and let it slide form his shoulders. He drew his tunic over his head and walked towards the water. Where he could no longer safely go, he halted, and John pressed the mans shoulders and head deep down almost to near suffocation, as he had done with all those before. Then he allowed him to come up, helping him towards the river bank.
The stranger dressed without a word and moved off , in the direction of the desert. But the Baptist stood there, as if gasping for breath. He seemed on the brink of speech, but why did he hold back?
Then slowly he raised his right arm, pointing and shouting: It is Him, its our Saviour. Its the man I was having to announce. Only, I did not know who it would be. This is Him. He has arrived !
I can tell you that I did not need much encouragement to go and investigate what the truth of this remarkable announcement was. The man who had just been baptised was a Galilean. How could any person from that province, which all of us around orthodox Jerusalem looked down on, be the Saviour? However, now that John had spoken these exciting words, I would not let this once in a lifetime chance pass without investigation. I was already on my feet and ran after him.
Somebody else must have thought likewise, for another Galilean that had stayed behind in Jerusalem after the recent pilgrimages, was on his feet, too. He looked at me askance, as if wondering what a woman could be seeking at that moment. He did not voice his opinion, though. When we had overtaken the man, the latter reacted to our presence: What is it you are after?.
Sir, we said as if we were both following the same inner cue: Sir, where are you staying?
Come and see for yourselves, was his kindly answer. We followed him till we arrived at a narrow cave, the kind of place where a leper, ostracised, would find room between himself and a final burial place.
It turned out to be a wonderful day.
Any more questions? the man suggested. Of course we had. What, for instance, was his name? Had he really come to save Israel? Did he have a plan? To all our questions we got clear answers. There was no evasion whatsoever. I got the impression of a very wise man, strong, too, knowledgeable and very devout. And most of all, very likeable.
Dusk was creeping in, when I realised that we might have overstayed our welcome. I ventured one last question.
Sir, why not start straight away? Israel has waited for such a very long time
There was a certain hesitation now, as if I had strayed unto private territory.
I need more time The task I am going to perform is a hard one. You may be ready to accept John the Baptists lessons and mine, but what about the traditional Teachers of the Law, the High Priest, the Pharisees? Have you not heard their scathing remarks about the Baptist? Some have compared him to a devil incarnate. And yet, what he teaches is nothing new, except that the Messiah is coming. So, what fate will await me ?
Indeed, I need more time. I have to steel my soul, to pray for guidance and determination To conquer my desires, fasting and praying .
But you two. Would you be prepared to follow me and be my disciples?
Yes, we would. From that moment onwards he would be our Teacher and we his faithful followers. All the days of my life, I said to myself.
Go home, then he decided. And when the moment is there I will find you.
So we went our own ways, Andreas to meet his brother and his friends, and I to tell my sister Martha and my brother Lazarus in Bethany of the wonderful things that had befallen us .
In the weeks that followed I approached my friends, those that had heard the Baptist make his special announcement. Would they be willing to become helpers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Rabbi I had encountered in the desert? I won the support of Johanna, the wife of Chusa, an official at the court of Herod, who reigned over Gali