The time of the evening sacrifice is past. The ritual lamb has been slain, the sweet savor consumed upon the altar of incense, the ever-burning lamps renewed. The night-watch guards the gates of the House of God, as darkness settles over Jerusalem.
Yet still the priest stands in the Holy Place, facing the veil that separates him from the presence of God.
Though he has washed at the laver, he feels unclean, unworthy, for tonight he has prayed with his lips but not his heart. Tonight, he doubts what he has never doubted before.
The seven-pronged candlestick seems to mock him, reminding him of the long-ago covenant, the promise of generations. Before the captivity in Egypt, before Moses and Joshua, before David, before Solomon who built this Temple... yes, long before there were kings in Israel, Jacob blessed his sons, and said:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come.
And through the generations, the seed of Judah endured—through slavery and conquest, unity and division.
A tear falls, coursing through the creases that line the priest’s face. And the tear is not for the king, the wicked Ahaziah, but for his still-innocent children.
O God of our fathers, God of Judah, God of David and Solomon, was there not one of them who would have followed your will: repaired the breaches in these ancient walls, thrown down the altars of the daughter of Ahab?
For today, Athaliah in her wrath has murdered the sons of the king—her own grandchildren—and made herself queen in place of her fallen son.
O God, did you not promise a light in Judah, for David’s sake? We have failed you, as Israel failed; our kings have done wickedly, and our people have followed in their ways. But now the blood of Ahab and Israel sits upon the throne.
Why do the temple lamps still burn tonight, when there is no light in our hearts?
But there is a noise in the outer court—whispers and voices, at a time when no penitent should enter. Two draped figures have appeared at the gate, and the priest knows one of the forms well, for she is his wife. But who is the other, who cradles a bundle within her arms?
The priest moves swiftly, asking no questions. And no word is spoken until all of them are safe within the hidden chamber above the Most Holy Place.
Then the Royal nurse unwinds the swaddling cloth, revealing the face of a slumbering child.
“Joash...” The priest’s wife whispers the child’s name. “He is the only one that remains.”
Her husband lights a candle. He holds it high, illuminating every corner of the dark space.
“You will stay here, you and the child,” he tells the nurse, whose eyes are amazed and fearful.
“How long?” she whispers, stroking a shock of dark hair above a small pale face.
“Not long. He is the king.”
His wife is no longer veiled. He touches her hair and speaks with his eyes: You have done well, Jehoshabeath, my Beloved. But aloud he says, still in a whisper:
“I must return...”
In the blackest hours of the night, the priest walks sleeplessly before the ever-burning lamps. And he begins to understand.
The child’s face appeared pure and holy in the candlelight. Yet how long would it have remained so, had the small lips been made to chant prayers to Baal, the small head to bow before idols, the small eyes to see the frenzied rituals of the heathen priests?
This child... child of an unworthy father and grandfather, but a noble lineage... this child shall live and grow here, and every day he shall know the daily rituals of prayer and sacrifice to the God of his fathers. And he will love this Temple, as he will love the one true God...
The priest closes his eyes and bows toward the veil. He has journeyed far since the evening sacrifice; yet this is the beginning of the journey, not the end. He must keep the child safe and hidden; he must endure the depredations of the false queen and her followers. And when the child is old enough to understand, and to lead...
But tonight, this revelation is enough. For now he knows that the promise has been kept—will be kept—until the dawning of the Light in Judah that will illuminate the world.
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