3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Tag: passover

Does it mean nothing to you? 2

Apparently, it’s a holiday. Although, to be honest, most days seem to be a holiday here. And not the sort of decent, joyful, singing-in-the-street sort of holidays we’re used to back home. Here the holidays go on for days at a time, and everyone stays indoors, only emerging to look stroppy and bad-tempered and ready for a fight. Too much religion and not enough wine. Something to do with their miserable mountain god, I suppose.

Anyway, I hate holidays in Judea. Holiday for the Jews, double overtime for the soldiers. You never know when the empty streets will suddenly fill, for no apparent reason, with crowds looking to roll-over a legionary. There are forty crosses on a roadside in Galilee which I filled after the last holiday: I know I told the legates it had been an insurrection, and it probably was, but in my book, as soon as a sword or a club or a rock was lifted towards a Roman, I don’t care what the motivation is. I’ve been a centurion for long enough to know that Pax Romana is not concerned with fine distinctions, and neither is the Governor.

But now here I am, in the capital, for the longest and worst holiday of the year. Appropriate, I suppose, for this is the smallest and worst capital in the Empire. Stuck high up on a desert mountain, where water is short and the air is thin, and nights are freezing cold. The olives are wizened and the wine is worse. All in all, I almost prefer being in Britannia. And the crowds!

The whole of Judea is here, and swarms of people from all over the Empire, pouring into the tiny city as if their lives depend on it. And for such a strange religion as well: a cruel and capricious and changeable god (only one!), who makes demand after demand on his people, and never allows them anything in exchange. Such an exclusive god as well. I’m a well-brought up Roman citizen, and I’m perfectly prepared to offer libations at the altar of Mithras and Zoroaster and Toutatis and Lud. But when I arrived in Jerusalem I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I am NOT to go to the Temple, and I am NOT to attempt to pay respects to the Jewish god: “a jealous god” they call him. Psycho, more like.

And now dumped into mopping up duties. Mopping up after another religious-political mess up. A man who claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a holy man; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a prophet; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a political leader; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a rival King to Caesar. Honestly the story isn’t straight, and I don’t think it ever will get straight. Any little respect I might have had for the Jewish religious leaders, and the little respect I have for legates and governors has long gone. The naked pursuit of private agendas is one thing: how else did Pax Romana get to be Pax Romana without it being imposed so decisively? What really annoys me is the incompetence shown by the priests and the Governor. This trouble-maker could’ve been arrested long before the holiday, or he could’ve been “disappeared” until after the crowds dispersed. But a public trial and a public execution on the day before the holiday when the city was at its most volatile? … well! If you want a problem solved, best call the Legion VI Ferrata!

The execution spot, just outside the city walls, is prepared. Golgotha, the Jews called it (barbarous tongue): Calvary to civilized folk. We’ve had executions there regularly, the last three days ago, and the bodies have been taken down this morning. There are four crosses ready, although we’re only going to need three: one for the Galilean political, and two for ordinary criminals— robbers? bandits? something like that. The next problem to sort out is getting to the execution ground. The streets between the Governor’s palace, the Antonia, and the nearest gate to Calvary are narrow, and bound to be crowded. Short swords might be needed, but clubs will be more effective for close-up work. Better make sure that the detail are issued with them. I’ll pick up the execution party (party! Great name for it!) at the Antonia, and lead them through. Should I ride? No, that’s foolhardy in these streets. I’ll have more control on foot. Easier to get to miscreants at their level.

The robbers are not pleased to see me: one swears, one cries. The “political” says nothing, and just stands there. Is he too dazed to know what is going on? His face and back are certainly streaked with blood and bruising. Let’s see when I order them to shoulder the cross-bars. Hmm… he’s looking around him, like he’s examining the guards who will accompany him to Calvary. He knows what’s going on. More than that: he thinks he’s in control. He’ll learn soon enough.

The streets are tumultuous, but there doesn’t seem to be any resistance. In fact, the crowds are out to jeer at the prisoners. That’s unusual. Jews don’t normally take against the subjects of Roman justice like this. A man could be a rapist and a murderer, but if he was being killed by Roman law, then he immediately turns into a hero for the crowds. But I know enough Aramaic to recognise an insult when I hear one. Ugh! And the air is filled with curses and spit. “Watch it, you! Improve your aim if you don’t want to end up on a cross!”. Better keep a close eye on the political. No reaction. He’s staggering under the weight of the cross bar, banging its outstretched ends into walls and corners and people. But he’s not answering back. His eyes are focussed on the man ahead of him. Sometimes he’s looking into the crowd, like he’s looking for someone in particular. He’s not going to find them, not in this mob. They are always disappointed. No rescue crew coming. He still hasn’t said a word, though. Nice quiet prisoner.

There’s space to breathe outside the city walls, and the air is fresher. Fresh enough for a rain storm? Dammit. I wish I’d brought my long winter cloak. I’m going to get soaked through on this exposed hill waiting for the prisoners to die. I’m going to get a brazier and break their legs after four hours if they aren’t dead by then. No point in prolonging my inconvenience.

Strip the prisoners naked, throw them to the ground, lay them upon their cross bars in front of the uprights we’ve already fixed into the ground. Arms stretched out. Legionaries! Get those nails in! Hope the cross-bars haven’t been used too many times before. Sometimes it’s hard for the nails to grip in stained and splintered wood as they go through the prisoners’ wrists. Two of the three cry out. Ah! A grimace of pain from the political! Still alive then, and not drugged out his suffering by some friendly supporter. Thread the ropes through the hooks on the back of the cross bars and over more hooks on the tops of the stake. Drag the prisoners upright. Pull them to the tops of the stakes. No, I don’t care if their bodies dangle in the air for a bit whilst you get things sorted, legionary! You’ve made sure their arms are tied to the cross bar as well? I don’t want them dying of suffocation too quickly. That always happens if it’s just nails. The people need to see Roman justice, and that takes time.

All three prisoners make it to the cross alive. Practice and professionalism! Final nails into the feet! Push their legs up into a crouch. Just enough purchase to lift their bodies up when they feel their lungs being crushed. Longer to die, and longer to bring the message home to the people about Roman justice.

One last job for the political. Get me a ladder against the political’s cross. Climbing up, I can see the crowds, a decent, and safe distance away. Hand me the titulus. No, that wooden board. A last nail to fix it above the political’s head. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. So that’s his name. Some Jewish VIPs shout at me as I climb down the ladder: “You can’t put that up there!” “Speak to Pilate.” “But, he’s not our king!” “Speak to Pilate.” “Put ‘He said he was king of the Jews’”. “Speak to Pilate. And don’t speak to me again.” This last with my hand on my sword. They shut up.

Not for long though. They turn their attention to the political. Abuse and curses and religious language, I suppose, though I have no idea what most of it means. They must really hate him. The political says nothing for a long while. The screaming continues until one of the robbers joins in as well. Even on a cross you can find someone worse off than yourself. Eventually the political opens his mouth. Finally! “Father, forgive”! In barely a whisper. It stops the abuse for the moment. Everyone looks slightly bemused, as if surprised to find themselves where they are, in a boneyard, screaming at dying men.

The sky’s clouded over. The storm is coming. Good job I ordered that brazier. Three of the lads are playing dice in its warmth. The crowds have thinned now, sensibly enough. The political isn’t going anywhere. Two people remain, standing as close to the cordon of soldiers as they dare. The political is speaking to them, a man and an older woman. Something about looking after each other. You should’ve thought about your will before you got into trouble, sonny.

One of the robbers has already died. The other is close to it. A hour inside my timetable. Good job too, because it’s now as dark as pitch, and the rain is lashing down. Only the political is still going, pushing himself up on his nailed feet, stretching towards the heavens. “I have finished…” (true enough, sonny). “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” And then the political shudders, and dies.

That’s odd. What’s was that all about? Have I missed something in all the events of the day. Perhaps, all in all, this man really was righteous? Even so, righteous or not, he’s dead.

Thank the gods that was over. Mopping up successfully accomplished. Time to get the body down before sunset. Let the relatives have him, and then we can forget all about him. I wonder if the water is hot in the barrack bath house?

Does it mean nothing to you? 1

I bloody hate holidays, me. Everyone asks, every year, “what you doing for Passover?” “Celebrating passover with anyone nice this year?” “Who’s hosting your passover meal for you this year?” “The usual”; “No”; “Me” are my standard answers. Passover doesn’t mean holidays for innkeepers. Passover means extra work, ungrateful clients, absent servants, inflated prices that I can’t pass on to the ungrateful customers, and crowds, crowds, crowds.

I mean, look at what happened yesterday. She had gone again. Whatsherface? Tabitha. Takes off every high day and holy day, and leaves me to do the women’s work, the servant’s work. If we’re going to hire the rooms for the provincials’ passover parties then the rooms need to be cleaned. Even Galileans can tell when a room hasn’t been swept, and Galileans especially would take that as a reason for a discount. So rooms need to be cleaned, and brooms need to be used and water needs to be fetched. Women’s work, servant’s work. And then Tabitha disappears again, and I have to go to the well to fetch the water. Honestly, if I hadn’t got all those bookings, I wouldn’t have bothered. The grief I get from the neighbours! “Here comes the dancing girl!” “Give us a drink, love!”. I’ll give you a bloody drink!

So there I am, on the third trip back from well, with that enormous jar under my arms (how do women manage them on their heads),when up comes creeping two of the Galileans, all cloak and dagger, like, as if they were on some secret mission. And they were pathetically obvious. Provincials, with their scruffy clothes and worse accents.

“The Teacher says…”, they start. “Teacher? What teacher?” says I, knowing full well that it’s the Galilean rabbi who made the booking three days ago. (Rabbi? Another nutter, more like). But they have to go through the whole “on his majesty’s imperial secret service” routine. “The teacher wishes to know where is the guest room.” “Oh”, says I, thinking to have some fun. “And the screech owl hoots in the valley of the tombs,” and gesture to them to give the pass-code. The look on their faces! Pure panic!“Don’t worry, legates. I know who the teacher is, and I know where his booking is. Come with me. Lovely room, freshly swept, ideal for intimate Passovers for family and friends. Good times guaranteed. When Elijah comes, these are the rooms he’ll use for his Passover”. Honestly, like shooting fish in a barrel. No sense of humour, Galileans.

So along they come, and sniff out the room, like they’ve ever seen anything better, mutter things about “the teacher’s place at table” and “away from the scribes”, still playing the frumentarii secret service nonsense. And then they hang around, getting under my feet, all afternoon, as I boil the eggs, and lay out the plates and cups, and roast the lamb, and pour the wine in the jars around the room. “We’ll need more wine”, they say. “More?” says I. “How many cups of the Passover do you propose to drink tonight? The usual twenty-three?” “There are only four cups of the Passover,” says the big one, a lumpen fool if I ever saw one. “But there will be thirteen or more of us for the meal”. More wine it is then.

And then, as it gets dark, the rest of them turn up, more frumentarii secret service nonsense. This time literally cloak and daggers: some are packing ironmongery under their travelling cloaks and I think to myself, “Great. Legions every where and no weapons in the city, and I’ve got the Maccabees Brothers’ reunion Passover happening in my rooms!” The Teacher turns up, and then I remember why I didn’t like him when I took the booking earlier in the week. It’s the same bloke who encouraged all that fuss the day after the Sabbath: donkeys, colts, branches and shouting. The holidays are bad enough without adding street theatre to it as well. People’s tempers are short enough without angering the Temple guards and the Roman soldiers. Typical drippy Galilean rabbi: all sweet smiles until something annoys him, and then its cursing fig trees and condemning pigs. Thank God Passover is over in a night; at least I haven’t got them for a week of Tabernacles.So in comes drippy rabbi, and he immediately starts changing things and ordering people around. I’m standing there, holding the water and the towel (and biting my tongue in best servile manner), and he nicks them off me and starts washing his guests’ feet. It’s that kind of inverted snobbery I can’t stand. I’m the most important person in this room, and to make sure you all know it, I’m going to take the servant’s job from him and ostentatiously do the foot-washing.
Big-Lump objects, and at first I think he’s brighter than he looks. You’re being called out on your inverted snobbery, Rabbi, thinks I, but then I realise that Big-Lump just doesn’t get it either. Big-Lump thinks he should be doing the washing. What about the servants! I want to shout. If we don’t wash you, we don’t get the tips. Are you planning to roast the lamb as well. Don’t suppose you’ll get into a fight about the washing-up, will you?

So they get the foot-washing sorted out, and there’s a sort of embarrass pause as they all realise what the Boss has done, and then they’re back into squabbling mode, trying to get a cushion closest to the boss at the top table. Handsome  wins, and sits at Boss’s right hand. The rest settle themselves discontentedly. As they are doing so, one of the guests, the one with the money satchel, catches my eye. He raises an eyebrow and gives me a quick grin. Yeah, you’re a sharp cookie, thinks I. You know what’s going on.

So the meal starts and carries on in the usual way, and I’m rushed off my feet serving wine, because these Galileans are thirsty chaps, and they drink the four cups of Passover, and five or six cups of greed between. I’m going to have to change my pricing scheme for next year: I can’t afford all-inclusive rates. And as I rushing in I realise that the Rabbi is doing his own version of Passover. It’s not just good old Moses stuff, but he’s giving his own commentary, his own explanations. Worse than that, he’s inserting himself into the stories: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”; “this is my blood of the covenant”; “Do this in remembrance of me.” I don’t know about you, but I happen to thing that if it was good enough for Moses then it was good enough for me. I don’t hold with new-fangled mucking with the Passover.

And then the wine started to have its effect, and the Boss started getting testy with his guests. Something about “betrayal” and “hands raised against me”. Ah, thinks I, divide and conquer. And, of course, an argument breaks out, with Big-Lump denying stuff and Handsome whispering questions and Boss handing out bits of bread and making pointed remarks. Honestly, people forget that servants are there, and that we hear everything.

So Boss hands a bit of bread to the wry guest I shared a grin with earlier, and mutters something to him, and wry guest grabs his satchel and stumbles his way to the door. Most of the rest of them are too bleary-eyed to notice, but I do. I go to the door just as Wry Guest gets there. I decide to be helpful, as he was the only one of the whole lot I liked. “Can I get you, anything Master?” He looks distracted, and fiddles inside his satchel, before looking up at me. “Um.. No.. Thanks. No, I’ve just got to.. Do an errand or something.” “Well let me get the door for you, in any case.” And I open the door, helpfully, for him, and let him out in the night air. My goodness, but it’s dark. As if Jerusalem has never heard of lanterns. He stumbles off into the darkness, and I shout, cheerily after him “Thank you for your custom! See you again, I hope!” And he waves a hand as he disappears.

It’s what I call the “destruction of the temple” stage of the evening. Everything is eaten, and most everything is drunk. The story (with additions!) has been told, and there’s not much left to do but sleep it all off, and wait for the quiet of the Sabbath the next day. But Boss-Rabbi is hassling his guests once more, and they are all looking for sandals and cloaks (and the swords they have hidden in them).

“Are you going anywhere, Master?” I politely ask, without a bit of irritation. “We wish to continue our worship elsewhere,” he replies. “We don’t wish to disturb you or your neighbours. Or be disturbed. We will leave. Did Judas settle the account?” “Judas?” I ask. “The disciple who left.” “No. Not yet. But I trust him. He can pay me in the morning. He looks like a reliable man with money.” Just a harrumph from the Boss. I don’t know why I bother trying to compliment anyone.I open the door, and they all sweep out, most unsteadily, into the night, Boss, Big-Lump and Handsome in the lead. The others launch, a bit uncertainly, into a hymn as they go. A rather wobbly hymn, to be honest. It would be better once they sober up a bit.

“Good night! Good night! Happy Passover! A peaceful Sabbath to you all! And perhaps next year in Galilee!” (I added that last bit under my breath– I don’t want them back, but I don’t want to lose the custom).

Eventually, before midnight, they’re gone. What a relief. I can’t tell you how glad I am, and I hope I don’t see them again. I have no idea why that nice man Judas hangs around with them. Perhaps I’ll be able to share a cup of wine with him when he pays the bill in the morning.

In the meantime, without Tabitha, the clearing up is left to me. That’s the worst thing about holidays.