The Baptism of Jesus 2005
Mary stared out the window into the dusty Jerusalem street. A gaggle of Pharisees in their long black robes were arguing, and it was becoming heated. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, and the lazy midmorning light caught the dust they scuffed up in a way that made their animated exchanges look magical, a mystical slow-motion choreography of arm-waving and spittle. Elizabeth, her cousin, leaned over her shoulder to see what had caught her attention. "A little wine, my dear?"
Mary started to turn before her eyes could break away. "What?"
Elizabeth poured for the both of them. "I never trust men who presume to speak for God," she said, handing Mary an ornate cup.
One of the things Mary enjoyed most about their annual visit to the holy city was staying with Elizabeth. For one week out of the year, she could pretend she wasn't poor. In Elizabeth's company, she felt like a queen, and it was a feeling she could all too easily get used to.
"My Zachariah never did that," Elizabeth sounded sad for a moment. Her husband had died almost twenty years ago, now, but he was very much alive in the conversations in this house. "In fact, when Zachariah heard from God, he never spoke at all." She smiled at her young cousin, and consciously lightened the mood. "Tell me how your boys are doing."
"Well, all right. I suppose I should start with James, since there's not much to tell. You remember he was ordained last year? I never see him since he got that post in the little synagogue in Ber-Sheba. He and Rebecca have two daughters, now-"
"Two! That is new!"
"-and still trying for a son, bless him."
"I swear, if the Indians are right and we do come back for another round on earth after we die, then Judas is his father, reborn. He is a master carpenter. Not married yet, but he can put together a table in his sleep."
"He didn't come with you this year?"
"No, he has a commission that won't wait, and after all, someone has to earn somemoney..." she trailed off, not wanting to discuss her poverty. Or her other son, who did not work unless the world was about to end.
"Jesus looks well," Elizabeth brought him up anyway, and topped off their cups.
"Yes, he's well." Mary stared into hers, and watched the oily swirl of color on the wine's surface as it heaved and settled. Like her stomach when she talked about her eldest.
"Oooh, feeling a little touchy about Jesus these days?" Elizabeth asked softly.
"Oh, Liz. I had such dreams for him. There was so much promise. And he's so" The right word eluded her. Lazy? Insecure? Unsure? Emotional? "He's sonot what I thought he would be."
"Well, I know what you mean." If anyone knew how she felt, it was Elizabeth, whose own son had been a terrible disappointment to her. "Both our boys may have abandoned their callings, but at least you have a son at home with you. Heavens, you have two! I've been so bereft since Zacharias died. Sure, I've got money, but what good is it if there's no one to enjoy it with? And Jesus is so good to you. He waits on you hand and foot. Anyone can see that he loves you like there's no tomorrow."
She smiled at Mary, and then sat back, sighing heavily. "The Torah reading from John's Bar Mitsvah was still echoing in the air when he took up with those traitors, the Essenes. I'm just glad Zacharias wasn't alive to see it, it would have broken his heart. They are against everything he loved, everything he stood for. John is as good as dead to me. And now look at him-" she waved her arm toward the window, as if they could see clear out to the Jordan river from here. "He's a raving lunatic. Half naked, eating nothing but locusts. Oh, don't get me wrong, dear, your locust cakes are divine, but a man cannot live on locusts alone. What did I ever do to God to deserve such a son?"
"Some say he's Elijah," said Jesus, walking in with an armful of wood for the fire.
"He's not Elijah," Elizabeth spat, "He's nutty as almond butter. And why are you working, dear? That's what servants are for."
"I'm the servant around our house," Jesus said matter-of-factly. Mary looked like she wanted to disappear into her tunic.
"Well, there's no shame in being poor," Elizabeth, noticing, patted her arm. "Only in acting like it."
"Mother," Jesus said, straightening up, "I'm going off for the day."
"I'm going to see John."
"Like hell you are," she nearly choked on her wine.
"Mother, he's my cousin. He's famous. I want to see what all the buzz is about."
"Absolutely not," Mary was firm.
"Sorry, Mother, but I'm a thirty-year-old man. I respect your opinion, but I make my own decisions."
"Let him go, Mary," Elizabeth moaned. "Let him gaze upon my shame. Let him see just how crazy the man has become. There's no better preventative to madness, that's what I think. Let him behold the wreckage of a man who betrays his family and his God."
The sun was high in the heavens when Jesus came in sight of the Jordan. The water looked deceptively languid, but he could see people struggle to keep their feet as they waded out to meet the Baptist.
Jesus would not have recognized him. The boy he remembered egging on to mischief was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a wild man, sporting a long and tangled beard, and hair just as long and matted hanging off the back of his head. His modesty was barely secured by a mere scrap of a loincloth that at first glance looked all the world like a patch of impossibly overgrown pubic hair that matched his beard and hairdo in its virulent untidiness.
He was a big man, like his father, but his arms were skinny, testifying to all that cared to notice his labor was intellectual and prophetic rather than menial. Jesus could see those skinny arms gesticulating in wide, animated arcs long before he could hear the Baptist's words. Just as he reached the pebbly plain that led up to the water, he finally entered earshot of the prophet.
"be ready," he was saying. "How can you be ready? You've got to be right! The world is a maze of crooked paths. God waits and waits and waits. And you never know when the Kingdom will be upon you."
Jesus took a seat on the pebbles near a pocket of curious onlookers. There were nearly a hundred people, all sitting in little cliques on the riverbank. All of them straining to hear the prophet, or more likely, straining to understand what the heck he was talking about.
Jesus' brow furrowed with the rest of them. Maybe his aunt was right. Maybe John was mad. He hadn't made a lick of sense yet.
"Any day, now" John bellowed, waving those scarily long and skinny arms of his, "the Son of Man will walk among us. But God is waiting to send his salvation. What is he waiting for, you ask? He's waiting for you! He's waiting for you to take the meandering paths of your lives and make them a straight highway worthy of a King to trod! Until you do you will never be free of the yoke of the oppressor. For I tell you true, it is not Rome that holds you in bondage, it is your own sins!"
The crowd murmered and squirmed. Obviously they were curious, but John had not yet won many of them over. Then Jesus noticed a smaller gathering on the opposite shore. These nodded with every word the prophet spoke. These must be his disciples, Jesus thought, the true believers.
"You are the oppressor, and you are the oppressed!" John shouted. "And only you can liberate yourselves! And until you do, our people will never know peace. The Kingdom of Heaven is even now poised above us, pregnant with salvation. The world groans with the pains of her labor. You are the midwife, but until you tend to your duties, the child of promise cannot be born! Midwives, come and wash yourselves, and prepare to deliver! Take all of your greed, your deceit, your willful defiance of God and his law, and let the river carry it away into the outer darkness. Just as Aaron placed the sins of the people upon the head of the scapegoat that carried them into the wilderness, come to this river, empty yourselves of your rebellion, and let it carry away your pride, your hatred, your apathy, your collusion, your-"
He stopped suddenly, staring right at Jesus. He squinted, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. "Cousin, is that you?"
Jesus waved. "Hi, John."
"You look great."
"Well, umyou look kind of scary."
John laughed from deep in his belly. He turned to address his disciples. "Hey, everyone, this is my cousin. The gentlest boy I ever knew. Used to nurse hurt birds and lizards back to health all the time. We used to call him God's little lamb. Are you still the gentle one?"
Everyone turned to Jesus. Jesus was aware that everyone was looking at him, and had never felt more on the spot. "Uh, yeah...If anyone is looking for someone to beat up, I'm your guy."
"Have you come to be baptized, Cousin?"
"I came to see you. And I came to hear you preach. But I'm fresh out of sins. I wouldn't want to wash away any of the good stuff, you know." This got a laugh from the crowd, who had apparently decided Jesus was all right, and turned their attention back to John, whom they were reasonably sure was still a lunatic.
"How about the rest of you? The Kingdom of God cannot arrive in power until you are ready to receive it! Make straight what is crooked! Set free the captive within you! Create a Kingdom worthy of its King, but begin with your own heart! Who will be baptized? Who wants to be made clean? Who would hasten the arrival of the Kingdom!"
To Jesus' amazement, several people got up and picked their way over the stones toward the Baptist. One by one, John asked them to speak their sins over the water, then he grabbed them and violently shoved them under the current. "Clean! Be made clean!" He shouted, and then he released them, and sputtering, they fought for their footing and shambled towards shore, shivering and shaken.
As Jesus watched them, he struggled with a strange stirring in his breast. He felt oddly drawn to the Baptist. He wasn't at all sure he believed what the Baptist was saying, but in his soul he detected a persistent nudging that compelled him to be part of what his cousin was doing.
When the last of the volunteers had made their way back to the bank, John once again addressed the crowd. "Anyone else?" he cried.
"What the heck," Jesus said under his breath, and rose to meet his cousin. John's face registered surprise. "Are you sure about this, Jesus?"
"Nope. Do me before I think better of it."
"But you said you have no sin to wash away. If that is true, then I am not worthy to baptize you-maybe you should baptize me!" John joked, mussing his hair in the same rough and playful way Jesus remembered so fondly. He might look like a barbarian, but he was the same old John underneath all that grime and hair.
"Speak your sins, Cousin."
Jesus hesitated and swallowed hard. No one but John was close enough to hear. "Jesus. Your sins."
"I am so sorry I have been such a disappointment to my mother. She had such hopes for me. And I broke her heart." Jesus might as well have plunged a dagger into John. The Baptist staggered, and nodded unconsciously, waiting for Jesus to continue. "It kills me every time I look at her and see her sadness. I know I have failed, but I don't know what I should have done differently. God forgive me."
The Baptist's face had drained of color, and his own conscience struck at him violently. Distractedly he shook his head, now impossibly ashen, and grabbing Jesus by the front of his tunic, plunged him in over his head. The icy deep swirled around Jesus' ears, so cold it made his head hurt. His lungs had just begun to ache for air when the stone grip of the Baptist released him, and he bobbed up, his feet searching for firm purchase.
He had just stood up again when thunder cracked so loud he and the Baptist both nearly jumped out of their skins. Instinctively they both looked up, and wondering at the cloudless sky, they saw a dove circling about twenty feet above them. Then, without warning, the bird turned and dove straight down towards them. Their jaws both gaped in wonder, and they were entirely unprepared when the dove flew into Jesus' mouth and lit in his throat. A blue light exploded from out of his mouth, blinding them both for a long impossible moment.
"Holy crap!" John exclaimed. "What the hell was that?"
Thunder again pealed out, and Jesus and John grasped at each other's arms to keep their balance in the rushing water. A voice tumbled out from the thunder, proclaiming, "This is my son, whom I love dearly. Today I have given birth to you. Listen to him!" The thunder faded and John and Jesus hovered precariously, gripping the fabric of each other's sleeves for dear life. Jesus felt faint but a strange sweetness on his tongue kept him present.
Their mouths were still unconsciously open, but now they were dripping. John sucked his mouth closed and then spat in his palm. "Milk." He said incredulously, looking at his hand.
"Honey," said Jesus, trailing sticky golden cobwebs between his fingers and lips.
"Goddamn," breathed John.
Jeuss didn't even rebuke his blashphemy. The people on the shore looked at them with a mixture of amusement and concern, apparently oblivious to the theophany that had nearly overcome them.
"You two all right?" One of John's followers asked. "You should maybe sit in the shade for a while, don'tcha think?"
Jesus and John shuffled together towards the far shore where his disciples had risen to their feet and were now buzzing with mild concern. As soon as the water was shallow enough they both sat down and vacantly stared at each other. Unconsciously, Jesus sucked at the honey on his fingers as he swayed back and forth like a reed in the wind.
Supper had ended, but Jesus had barely touched the wooden plate John's disciples had prepared for him. He huddled in a blanket and rocked back and forth. John had recovered somewhat, and after bidding his cousin good night, had retired to his cave. John's followers swarmed here and there, whispering worriedly about their teacher's odd behavior and the stranger he called God's lamb.
Few noticed when a young man joined Jesus by the fire. For a while they stared silently together. Then, tentatively, the young man spoke. "I saw it."
Jesus looked up, snapping out of his private thoughts, and noticed the young man for the first time. "What?" he said.
"I saw it." The young man said again. "I saw the bird fly into your mouth. I heard that voice. I saw the light." Jesus turned and looked at him. "I'm not the only one who saw it, either," the young man added.
As if on cue, another figure emerged from the shadows and sat close to the young man. He was a little older, and had a well-kept beard and an impressive scar on his cheek. "I saw it, too," he said. This new stranger turned to face Jesus. "Are you a prophet?" he asked.
"No. John's the prophet."
"Then who are you?"
"I'm a carpenter. A bad one. What I really am is a failure."
The young man's brow bunched and he tried to size Jesus up. Finally, he announced, "I don't care if you're the Queen of Babylon, I'm going to follow you."
"Don't waste your time," Jesus said, looking at the fire. "I'm not worth following."
"Hey, if get to see more trippy stuff like that, you are."
"I didn't do that."
"Who did? John? I've been following him off and on for five years. The only miraculous thing about him is his verbosity and his obnoxious gascious emissions."
"It's his diet," the man with the scar explained, "Bugs and sweets. Powerful bad combination. I tell you this from experience." He clutched at his gut and feigned a painful spasm.
"Where do you live?"
"Why do you want to know?" Jesus returned.
"I told you. We're coming with you."
"I don't think so. My mother won't have it. The last time I brought a friend home-"
"We'll sleep in the yard." The scarred man interrupted him. "We don't care what you say. We've heard John so often we can mouth the words along with him. 'The Kingdom of heaven is coming, the Kingdom of heaven is coming.'" The other chimed in the second time around, and they both laughed.
"God, I'm so sick of that," the young one said.
"We know what John's all about." The scarred one continued, "But we never heard the voice of God until today. So you can play at your humility bit all you want. We're still coming with you."
Jesus sighed, and felt an unstoppable sadness begin to emerge from deep in his belly. Then he felt another stirring; his throat swelled like he was going to cry, and a voice that was not his own was pushing at his lips. He felt momentarily dissociated, like he was witnessing the scene from above, from outside his own body. With wonder he watched his own mouth open, and the words of another tumbled out.
"John's wrong," the voice said. The men by the fire
looked up at him, with surprise, for his voice had taken on an
authority they had not heard from this slight and insecure stranger
before. "The Kingdom of Heaven isn't coming. It's here."