This week's musing is written by Tom Burnham; it is a fiction, a creation of his imagination, inspired when we travelled into the Judean Wilderness in October 2012. It gives us an insight into Jesus' wilderness experiences...
by Tom Burnham
I’m in a cave, high above Jericho. My legs ache, my feet are cut to pieces, but at last I’m free.
The twenty years of cosseting are well behind me now. At first my chosen route was like a vision of gehenna: the stones piercing my sandals, my soft feet bleeding, the sun beating down; the bandits leaving me for dead; the lack of water on the way, and the musty taste of leather in what was left in my backpack. For several thirsty days I saw celestial visions in the distance, but I could never reach them. My bread was finished, and where there’s no grass there are no locusts, so I starved. I’m a patrician, with no skills but strutting.
As my near-blind eyes began to make sense of my surroundings I established an instinct for faint tracks in the stone and sand; and on my fourteenth day of hell I stumbled into this cave, where I slept for twenty-four hours.
There’s no chance of a bite to eat; but there’s a water-drip which fills my bottle in a day, so I’ll survive. I’m alone, and at last I can consider what life should be.
Not what I left behind: a large house, rich parents growing ever richer, the cellar where the captives were starved to teach them humility. Starvation certainly does that to a man, I can vouch for it.
I try to dream of the future, but the pages are blank. I have no trade; I have no family; I know nothing. I am one of the flies that have followed me into this cave.
But I’m a patrician: so I must be the lord of these flies.
I’m woken by a scrabbling noise outside the cave. I take my stick and stand next to the entrance. A man staggers in and sees me. I lift the stick as though to strike him. He looks at me and I turn to liquid, flowing into those large brown eyes until I have no substance. I drop my stick, and he smiles.
“Ye had me a wee bit worrit there, ye ken.”
A damn northerner, that’s really made my day. He’s still panting from the climb and, like me, torn to bits.
He’s looking at my garment, still very fine despite its rips and stains.
“Ye’ll be frae Jerusalem, then?” he says.
“And you’re from up north,” I reply.
“Ay, frae Nazareth, ye ken. Ma name’s Jesus.”
I can think of nothing to say, so reluctantly decide to share my water bottle. I limp to the rear of the cave and fetch it. Wordlessly those deep friendly eyes thank me. I would have emptied it in a oner: he takes two sips and gives it back. He can see that this unsettles me.
“And wha’ do ye call yersel’, auld freend?”
“Nothing,” I tell him. “I’m just the lord of the flies.”
His eyes pierce me again. “Weill, Laird Fly, it’s guid to meet ye in these barren pairts. Sit yersel’ doon an’ tell me why ye’re here.”
I sit on the cave floor with my back to the wall, and he squats comfortably in front of me. What is it about this darned northerner? Why am I about to tell him my life story?
“I just had to get away,” I blurt. “It was stifling, superficial, empty.”
He nods. He seems to know what I’m going to say next.
“We had a large house, a loving mother, brothers and sisters to play with. But of course bar mitzvah came along: my father was an important man, and from then on I was expected to emulate him. Fancy clothes, the special strut for walking to the Temple. There was a dungeon beneath the house – it was my job to abuse the prisoners. I met a girl: but her father was a Pharisee, and I was gated. So what with the strutting, the priestliness, and the gating, I climbed over the wall and claimed my freedom.”
“An’ aifter a hellish journey ye foond this cave, like.”
“That’s about it, yes.”
“And ye met me, like.”
I’m getting confused. “Yes, about ten minutes ago.”
“Ye ken, them Sadducees will pit me in that dungeon, and then kill me.”
I’m horror-struck. “They’re going to kill you? Why?”
He lifts me to my feet, leads me to the cave entrance, and points. “Wha’ can ye see?”
“Just the river. The place where a long-haired weirdo makes people jump into the water.”
“That lang-haired weirdo’s ma coozen.”
“Your cousin? Sorry, Jesus, I didn’t mean to ...”
“He made me lowp into the waiter too. An’ ye ken wha’ happent naist?”
I shake my head.
“Ma bodie stayed in the waiter, like, but the raist o’ me flew into the air like a doo, an’ a voice comes oot o’ the blue and says I’m its son, like. It was gey scary.”
This northerner has gone mad. I take him by the arm and lead him to where we sat before. But this time I lower him to the floor with his back to the wall and then sit myself ten feet away.
“So you were baptised and heard a voice from heaven. And then you decided to take a gentle stroll up this mountain.”
He smiles and nods. I need to humour him.
“And you tell me that my father’s colleagues are going to kill you.”
“Ay, in aboot thray year. It is writ.”
I’m getting more and more worried.
“Jesus, would you like some more water?” He shakes his head. “You’re not having hallucinations? This sun can do things to people.”
His face grins at me, but the eyes aren’t grinning, they’re boring into me.
“That voice I tellt ye aboot. It was my faither.”
He really has flipped. “Your father’s up in the sky?”
“Well, Jesus, old chap, I really don’t know what to say.”
“Close yer eyes, Laird Fly. Noo then, imagine yersel’ in yer mammy’s womb.”
I close my eyes and do my best.
“Tell us wha’ you feel.”
“It’s warm and comfortable. I can hear her singing, and breathing, and I can hear her blood flowing. I feel safe.”
I’m telling him the truth. I feel a lot safer in that vision than I do in this cave with a rambling maniac. On the other hand he does seem harmless, and those eyes aren’t the eyes of a madman.
“Ay, ye’re richt. Ye gat it in yen go.”
What was that all about, I ask myself. “I believe you, Jesus. Let’s go for a walk.”
I lead him out of the cave and point to the scree tumbling down the mountainside.
“We need to eat,” I say. “If you’re truly the son of God, tell these stones to turn into bread.”
He looks at me angrily. “It says i’ the buik, ‘man shallnae leeve on breid alane, but on every wurd at comes furth o’ God’s mooth.’”
Neither of us has eaten for days, and yet he refuses to use the powers he claims. He’s clearly having me on; yet he speaks with conviction.
“I’ll nae be eatin’ breid for many days yet. Ye dinnae gettit, dae ye, laddie?”
Now the crazy Jesus is in the lead, and I follow him upwards around the mountainside until we come to a large flat ledge. He lies down in the shade and I do the same.
“Ye enjoyed the picture o’ yer mammy’s womb,” he says unexpectedly. “Me too. As I climbed up frae the river, I felt the same thing, like. Only it was ma faither, nae ma mammy. I was inside him, like. And I was him, and he was me. And fair outwith the airth, beyond space n’ time, I saw the future. I saw a’ as it is written: yer faither’s freends condemning me, the Romans nailing me tae a cross; and the Temple being destroyed.”
He is speaking softly, compellingly, not for effect. He has mentioned the Temple, and that takes me to the expanse of rock we’re sitting on.
“Jesus: imagine we’re now sitting on the Temple Rock.” He glares at me, but there’s no going back. “If you’re truly the son of God, throw yourself over the edge. The book says the angels will come and save you.”
He really is angry now. “Ay, and the buik also says, ‘Ye shallnae pit the Lord thy God tae the pruif.’”
I can’t argue with that, and relapse into silence. But within seconds the man is away again, striding upwards despite his bleeding feet, and mine for that matter. Within minutes, or so it seems, we have risen the last five hundred metres to the rocky summit.
I’ve got enough courage for one more try, and I point to everything we can see before us: Jericho and the river, the Sea of Salt, the smoke from the fires of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives.
“All this could be yours, Jesus, and the nations beyond. Use your divine power to take it, and become king of the world.”
He looks at me pityingly, no longer angry. “Awa’ wi’ ye, Laird Fly. Ma kingdom is the kingdom ‘o heiven. It says i’ the buik, ‘Ye shall wurship the Lord yer God, an him alane shall ye sairve.’”
And then ... he’s gone. Poof. As though I’ve been talking to a demented pigeon, and it’s had enough of me. It’s taken me almost three weeks to get here: but the man’s already far in the distance, half way along the parched ridge heading south.
My mind is made up. I’ve gone mad in the wilderness, and must return home for treatment.
I receive a warm welcome, accept the hand of a Sadducee’s daughter, and join the training school for the High Priesthood. I never mention my encounter with the mysterious vagrant who says he has a father in heaven; and gradually he fades from my mind.
A couple of years later there’s some excitement about a rabble-rouser from Nazareth who claims to be the son of God and gets himself crucified; but I’m embarked on my apprenticeship in the Temple, and hardly have time to think about the coincidence.
But not long afterwards the memory of that bizarre encounter is jogged again. At the time I’m a member of Saul’s security committee, rounding up the dissidents who claim to follow a Nazarene risen from the dead. And then -- just as we’re winning -- Saul has an epileptic fit, claims to have met the dead Jesus, and converts to the other side. Damn Pharisees: they’ll believe any yarn with an after-life in it.
After that I resume the normal life of a man of the Temple. Whenever I’m asked, I cast my vote against those who claim to be in contact with the dead Jesus. Of course I do: they predict the destruction of the Temple, so the welfare of Jerusalem is at stake.
Some years later I travel to Caesarea to put a stop once and for all to the pernicious teachings of those who are now called Christians. As I gather evidence I listen to a speech by Saul himself. He’s preaching in the synagogue and I’m astonished ... every word he says echoes the madman on the mountain. I gape, and Saul grins at me across the crowd. I realise at last, miserable wee Fly that I am: I once met the man Jesus, and he was kind to me.
Another twenty years have passed. The Temple has fallen, I’m unemployed, and I’m back in Caesarea standing on a heap of rubble that used to be the synagogue.
I’ve been listening to an old man called Lucus as he teaches the crowd a prayer that Jesus left behind ... ‘our father in heaven’, it begins. Uncanny. I hear again the voice of the madman in the cave.
Lucus is collecting anecdotes about Jesus of Nazareth. I still can’t believe the resurrection stuff: but there was certainly more to Jesus than met the eye, so I’ve handed this memoir to Lucus in case it’s useful for his book.
He’s due to speak again tomorrow. I’ll be there.
|Looking across the wilderness to the Dead Sea. photo taken by Julie Woods|