First time pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover are quite conspicuous: gaping their way around “The City of David!” enjoying the coolness at the Siloam and Bethesda pools; passing the heavily-guarded extravagance of Herod’s palace; bartering in the markets; or tracing our walls with their immense gates; they're walking around what they have only ever read about.
At the Temple, priests reluctantly find faults with the sacrificial birds of overawed pilgrims. Mostly from those who have come furthest; but they will sympathetically mention special “Passover deals” for birds that Yahweh will accept!
These priests only sympathise with the shekel: from selling their own doves - or recycling already rejected birds - and from varying Temple coinage exchange rates!
You should have seen the Master whipping them out of the place last Sunday; with money flying everywhere and dealers scrabbling to retrieve it! And the power in his voice! “My Father’s house is for prayer – not for you thieves!”
We’d cheered him, riding a donkey-colt, in from Mt Olivet. Imagine his control with an untried animal in all that noise! But with the city spread beneath him, he suddenly lost control and began weeping.
I could not help but notice Iscariot skulking away as we broke up, unaware that our enthusiasm had triggered a malevolent momentum.
By Friday Jesus was arrested. Dragged to the priests; to Herod; and finally to “Pompous Pontius,” whose soldiers brutalised him before a crowd of first-timer pilgrims declared its mindless verdict: “Crucifixion!”
At Golgotha, Jerusalem's dump.
We felt gut-wrenchingly impotent in face of the sneering, brutal display that had two criminals sentenced with him. We winced as they writhed in torment: constantly trying to transfer the weight from the nails trapping their hands to those holding their feet; and quickly back again.
Descending from nowhere, clammy darkness suddenly cloaked everything. And stayed.
Soldiers gambling for his robe cursed louder, for whose lot had really won it? Priestly taunts grew louder so everyone would know that the important people were still there. The crucified trio spoke in brief gasps to each other, as their inevitable suffocation began to take hold.
At three o’clock, Jesus yelled out: “It is completed!”
Then he slumped forward. Lifeless.
With daylight suddenly returning, the guards broke the thugs’ legs. But they stabbed Jesus to ensure he was dead, before lowering him and taking him away.
Feeling spiritually disembowelled, we could only shuffle emptily towards a numb, meaningless Sabbath.
Late on Sunday my wife and I left town for home; downhill, with a lowering, glowering sun burning into our faces. With breezes scouring the valleys for bodies to chill - there was no familiar softening glow of afternoon light.
And no inner light, as grief kept us recounting the whole picture. Could anyone have seen or done anything different?
“What are you talking about?” A voice from behind.
Shocked, we stood stock still. Not even glancing back, I retorted: “So you’re the only visitor to Jerusalem who hasn’t heard!”
Everything just tumbled out then: “About Jesus … his teaching and his miracles … his brutal death … our hopes for a Messiah have been blown away ... And now we’ve heard that somebody robbed his grave … there are rumours about angels … We can’t work it out!”
Well, didn’t he unload on us for being a stupid, faithless pair! He also opened up what the law and the prophets had promised about our Jesus.
Our hearts were burning. Our heads were spinning. But we also knew that hundreds of rabbis, scholars and philosophers flock along to our festivals to find new disciples among the thousands of tired, zealous pilgrims. So which guru had pounced on us?
Nearing Emmaus, I knew that cynicism was no excuse for not offering hospitality. It looked like our newly-found “life-long friend” had nowhere to go, for he willingly agreed to stay for the night.
Inside our house our lamps dispelled the gloom. Bereft of appetite ourselves, but for the sake of our guest, we set bread on the table. And deferring to his superior insights we invited him to bless it.
He reached for the loaf.
Suddenly we saw his hands.
And he was gone!
Oi vey! Embarrassment still sometimes jabs me as I recall my jibe: “So you’re the only visitor to Jerusalem...”
Visitor indeed! I’d picked the only one who could know it all!
Of all the people to ask …
I hope no one ever finds out.
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