It was a beautiful day for a wedding, surely the harbinger of a happy feast. More like June than February, the sun was bright and warm, and the blue of the sky was deepened by just enough billowy clouds marching past to make it seem as if we were moving.
Malchus’s happy greeting put me instantly at ease, and made me glad to have answered Mama’s wake-up call. He offered to let me try my hand at drawing the water up to the roof, and I eagerly grasped the ropes. His clever rigging made the task so easy, and I was enjoying myself so much, that it seemed like no time at all before he was telling me to stop, that it was enough. We secured the buckets and as we followed the flow down from the roof, through his maze of irrigation channels, and, ultimately, to the courtyard pool, he delighted in introducing me to his prized rarities as if each were a favored child. He fondled the delicate blooms to show me their symmetries, and his deep reverence for nature’s genius was both clear and contagious. In that one short lesson, Old Malthus forever transformed my own fascination with the boundless variety of our Creator’s generous splendor, so often encountered when we least expect it, and always a surprise.
[For convenience, first nine chapters have been combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1 ]
By the time we returned to the table, Aunt Martha’s bountiful breakfast was waiting and, suddenly aware that I was famished, I wasted no time eating my fill.
Mama was already gathering up the considerable collection of wedding paraphernalia she had brought for just this moment, and soon took her leave. Though some guests would likely arrive early in the day, the wedding proper wasn’t set to begin until noon, when the bride and her entourage would proceed from her house – the house of Abner – to that of Trader Nathan, where the groom, Johab, would be waiting to receive her. With crowds already gathering, we were grateful that those back gates would allow us to avoid the crush along the processional route, and planned to delay our arrival until just before Naomi and her attendants, including Mama, would be making their appearance.
With Mama gone, Aunt Martha and Johanna were soon deep into their own conversation, while Papa, Uncle Jonathan and Malchus turned their attention to discussing business affairs. This left me, as usual, to my own devices, but that was exactly as I had hoped the morning would develop since I was impatient to get out and see things for myself.
Earlier, even from the roof garden, Malchus and I had heard the rumble of many voices in the distance. He said he’d lived there his whole life but had never heard such a sound. It reminded me a lot of Jerusalem at Passover, when the local population grows tenfold, but this was Cana, of all places, and the juxtaposition was startling. I was itching to investigate, and Papa hardly looked up when I asked his permission, so I quickly headed out the front gate to follow the noise.
Mercifully, though the properties were near enough when going the back way, their main entrances were really quite far apart since the parallel streets they faced were only connected by a crossing lane several minutes away. I say mercifully because, once I finally reached the crossroad and turned to my left, the full extent of the gathering up ahead became clear. I was astounded. There were far more people than I had expected; far more than had been there the day before. They seemed to be entirely concentrated in the one street where Nathan lived, and when I reached it, I discovered a great and varied collection of the curious that ranged as far as I could see in either direction: left, toward the wedding, or right, still arriving through the city gates.
I slipped into the crowd as inconspicuously as possible, only to find that it was even more densely packed than I had anticipated, and the gentle but insistent flow of the uninvited guests was soon moving me inexorably forward.
“What do you think he will do?” I heard a woman behind me ask.
“They say he is going to announce himself,” someone off to the right responded.
“At last! the Throne of David shall be torn from its usurpers!” said another.
“Our Deliverer is at hand! Woe befall our enemies!” pronounced a large man with a sturdy voice that brooked no disagreement. “He will rid us of the Roman blasphemers forever!”
“Hurrah!” several male voices intoned in unison.
“Shhhh!” whispered the tiny woman next to the large man. “Be hushed, Levi!”
It turned out that my comparison to Jerusalem at Passover had been inadequate, and the closer we came to the house of Nathan, the more uncomfortable the crush became, so I began working backwards and sideways until I had eased myself out of the flow. My curiosity had turned to concern and, as I headed back, I found myself praying that no harm would come to any of them. They were pilgrims on a quest, after all, not intending to impose or hinder, but driven forward – impelled, really – by sincere, even desperate, hope, however improbable their expectations might be. They were seekers after something, anything, that would set their world aright, and their yearning was palpable.
By the time I returned to the house, everyone was busy getting dressed, so I donned the fancy new wedding clothes Mama had laid out for me, and, without much success, did my best to smooth my unruly hair before giving in and allowing Aunt Martha to do it. As we looked each other over and traded compliments, Johanna lamented the warm day, of all things, since it prevented her wearing her newest wrap trimmed in lion’s-mane, but the rest of us were more than grateful. Though the wedding feast would be served indoors, the courtyard was to be the heart of the day’s activity. If it had been cold or, worse yet, rainy, the entire affair would have been much diminished.
Finally, all dressed, slicked-down and adjusted, we gathered by the little pond and were just turning to go when Mama came thrusting through the back gate. “You won’t believe it!” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”
“What?” we all asked in unison, though, having seen the crowds for myself, I had a good idea about what was coming.
“Well, I have to tell you, this is a double-edged sword, this whole Deliverer thing,” she said. “To begin with, there are just far too many people! Nathan seems thrilled enough to have Jesus as a wedding guest, but I’m afraid it is going to cost him a fortune, and that is not the worst of it. I feel just terrible for Naomi.”
“Why?” Papa asked.
“Because, husband, she’s supposed to be the bride in this wedding. This is her day, but Joshua ben Joseph is the only person anybody seems to care about. To hear the talk, you wouldn’t even know it was a wedding. Everyone is clamoring to get near him, and when Abner went over to see if everything was ready for the procession, he couldn’t believe it. He reckoned there were nearly a thousand people in and around Nathan’s courtyard. People can hardly move.”
“He’s already there?” I asked excitedly, keen to see him, myself.
“He arrived late this morning with most of his family and all six of his new disciples, apostles, whatever they are,” she said. “At least they are all invited guests. As far as I can tell, most of these people don’t even know so much as a single soul in Cana. It’s a shame, really. I just hope it doesn’t ruin Naomi’s big day.”
“Now, Mary, I wouldn’t be too worried.” Malchus said. “Nathan is a good man and he would do anything for those children. I’m sure he can see which way the wind is blowing, and I expect he’s already bringing in more food and wine. It’s a blessing it happened to him and not some others hereabout. At least, he can afford it.”
“The procession is about to start,” Mama said. “I have to get back, but I wanted to make sure you were all taken care of. John Mark, you look downright handsome. You are going to make some lucky girl very happy, yourself, one of these days.”
With that, she turned on her heels and was back through the gate. We all exited just behind her, but she hurried to the right and went down the way to Abner’s house, while we moved straight across to where our secret door was waiting.
Given the report we had just received, I was getting more excited with every step. I had been trying to picture the Joshua I remembered from the boatshop. It had been two years since I had seen him, and ever since we had heard Aunt Tabaitha’s tale, I had been chastising myself for not having gotten to know him better when my grandparents were still alive. After all, talking to just about anybody was one of my specialties, but he had always seemed so preoccupied. At least, now I knew why he had looked so serious. Deliverers, by definition, I decided, have a lot on their minds.
A few steps and we had crossed the divide. Running between long parallel walls on either side, the empty space, perhaps forty paces across, functioned as a drain-way in rainy weather but was dry that day. The slope down to the center and back up the other side was barely discernible and the ditch was easily crossed. As we passed, Malchus pointed out the clay pipe he had installed to carry run-off into his underground cisterns. “Every little bit helps,” he said, “and in a good downpour, it fills them right up to the top every time.”
Malchus held the gate open and the adults all entered first while I took a long slow breath to calm myself, but it was a completely anticlimactic arrival. Though we had entered an enormous outdoor room with fountains playing, palm trees swaying, and a marble floor laid in a fancy geometric pattern – indeed, one of the grandest private courtyards I had ever seen – it was practically empty.
We soon learned the reason for this from one of Nathan’s stewards. Just before we had arrived, Joshua was given the honor of leading the procession and had gone up the street to Abner’s house to take his place, at which point, many of those who had already arrived turned back around and followed him right out again like so many ducklings.
Malchus pointed out Nathan and Johab, standing not far away. The groom’s head of thick, curly black hair was bound by a wreath of myrtle, and his eyes were fixed on the open doors in the center of the high front wall across from where we stood. He looked overwhelmed, to be honest; as nervous as a fieldmouse in a falconcote.
They were waiting with the rabbi beneath a small palm grove that shaded the back corner of the garden, in position to welcome the bride and her attendants when they arrived. But, with no procession in sight – or even, yet, within hearing – Malchus took advantage of our opportunity to say a quick hello. As I was the only one among us whom he did not know, Papa introduced me to Nathan and then, grinning, said to him, “I see you have become the most popular man in Galilee!”
“I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but it has to be good for business, right?” Nathan’s response was unexpectedly cheerful. “I don’t know if, as you say, I’m the most popular man in Galilee, but I think I am already better known today than yesterday. It is all to the good, you know, and, in any case,” he put his hand on his son’s shoulder, “I can’t disappoint these young ones. Naomi and Johab are going to have a happy wedding if I have anything to say about it and, by all that’s holy, this is one time I do have a say!” He laughed heartily at his own determination, and immediately dispelled any remaining concerns we may have had.
With a nod toward the roiling crowd outside, Malchus asked his friend if there was anything we could do to help, but Nathan was impressively calm. He said he was thrilled to host such an illustrious guest as the “new wonder,” as he called him. “I mean, can you imagine if what they say is true? Can you imagine if the Messiah, himself, were to bless this house, this wedding? What is there to fear? This is a day of rejoicing and we shall rejoice mightily!”
He assured Malchus that more provisions were already on the way and he was confident he would be able to handle the surfeit of people.
As we talked, the noises coming from the front gate began to multiply, and when I looked around I saw that the number of people in the courtyard had more than doubled since our arrival. We moved off to the side, back near where we had entered, and watched with not a little awe as more and more guests pressed in. I was pleased to notice that those who came into the courtyard had at least made some effort to clean up and dress for the occasion, though many who remained outside the gates still wore the dust they had gathered the day before.
The courtyard was such a lovely space that only a few concessions had been required to set it right for the wedding. In the corner opposite the entry and against the side wall, a small canvas roof had been erected over a temporary altar to serve as a symbolic “shelter of Abraham” where the vows would be exchanged. Beyond that, upon a low ledge running the length of the side wall, stood six enormous stone jars, each one large enough for a child to hide inside. Prepared ahead of time, these had been filled with water, and their contents blessed, in readiness for the purification ceremony that would conclude the rites.
Within minutes, the once nearly-empty courtyard was so completely filled with people that there was only just enough room for the procession to make its way from the gates to the altar where Nathan and Johab were waiting. Coming in through the back had put us in an ideal spot to watch and, as Hadassah joined her husband and anxious son under the palms, the talking died down and all eyes turned toward the entryway to watch for the bride – or for Joshua, depending upon who you were and why you were there.
Mama’s fears about getting from one house to the other proved to be unfounded as, under the direction of Nathan’s efficient stewards, the guests had left a narrow passage for Naomi and her attendants that proceeded all the way from her front gate, up the street to Nathan’s house, and, finally, on a diagonal across the vast courtyard to the place where Johab was waiting for his life to change.
Almost as soon as the way was completely cleared, the first of the little children enlisted to pave the bridal path with palm fronds came through the opening and into view. The sight of so many people watching almost stopped them in their tracks, but sympathetic urgings kept them moving forward through the parted sea of humanity until they had laid a welcoming carpet of greenery from the gates right up to Johab and the rabbi. “Thank you, children,” the rabbi said, and they giggled as they ran to hide their faces in the folds of their mothers’ clothes.
Even as we wished them forward with our smiles and eyes, we had heard the first strains of music – finger cymbals, hand drums and shepherds’ flutes – telling us the procession was nearing. As it grew louder, the residual talk around us fell away until not a word was spoken, and every eager eye in the place was glued to those open gates.
The brightness dimmed as one of the slow-marching clouds put us in its shadow, but before it could dampen the mood, the vibrantly attired and gaily dancing musicians, whirling and tingling and playing their tunes, were passing through the opening. Unlike the children, they moved with purpose but – enjoying their moment before such an unexpectedly grand audience –they took their time reaching their standing positions by the water jars. Once in place, one flute continued playing a joyful song to symbolically “lure the bride inside,” and, for the third time, an expectant hush overtook the courtyard as all our eyes returned to the front.
And, it was in that remarkable, memorable instant – so overflowing with anticipation – that the Father, Himself, drew heaven’s drapes and the sun broke bright upon the stunning sight of a dark, tall man wearing starkest white, a crisp linen tunic and woolen cloak that almost blinded in the sudden light. It was so perfectly dramatic that gasps of wonder could be heard all around me, and even I was stirred to the very bottom of my soul; permanently stirred.
My eyes adjusted as he came inside and if I hadn’t already been aware of him, I don’t think I would have known him. His transformation was total. The private, somewhat sullen, prince of a man I remembered was now a king. His smile was broad and his face was interested and open. His wavy hair reached just to his shoulders and his jet black beard was trimmed close. Long brows extended down on either side of his large, liquid eyes, lined with thick black lashes and set deep into his angular, perfectly symmetrical face. He had always been handsome, and now he was something infinitely more: beautiful; transcendently human in a way that I am still at a loss to describe. If I had ever seen this man in the boatshop, I would have rushed to his side long before. The attraction was immediate and irresistible. The impression was goodness and truth and strength and something indescribably greater. He was all men and every man and, yet, only himself. No finite language nor artistry of any human hand can ever hope to truly paint the depth and intensity of this improbable person, but there he stood. We breathed the same air. That, alone, was a miracle.
Everything that had seemed insensible for the last several days – the unquestioning confidence of Uncle Andrew, the tale of the voice in the river, the story of Gabriel’s visits – suddenly made perfect sense; suddenly seemed so right. My previous thoughts, based upon the stories we had heard, were that John, the baptizer, who had built such a following so quickly, was surely a prophet, and that Joshua was most likely just an upstart pretender who saw an opportunity to share some of his cousin’s glory. But, in that instant, such notions were forever washed out of my head.
As he moved through the people toward the groom and his parents, he spoke to some, nodded to others, and seemed to appreciate the attention he was getting, but I thought he also seemed appropriately self-conscious about taking too much of the focus away from the bride who entered just behind him. As soon as he reached the place where Johab and his parents were waiting, he moved quickly off to the side where his family was standing near the wall. It was only then that I recognized Ruth. She was there with her mother and brothers, James and Jude, but the rest of his family was not in view.
And if, like us, your reason for being there was more matrimonial than Messianic, the entrancing vision that floated into the room behind Jesus did not disappoint, either. Naomi’s many-layered wedding robes had been died in the brightest possible reds, yellows and blues and made a vivid display as she walked over the freshly laid foliage in the brilliant sun. The only exception to this colorful vision was her quietly beautiful head covering. Sewn of the very finest, nearly translucent, white linen, it had been carefully folded over so that both halves fell in gentle waves down her back and was held in place by a circlet of delicate blossoms chosen to match the colors of her brilliant skirts.
“I gave her the flowers,” Malchus whispered in my ear.
As she came nearer, I could see that the sheer fabric had been stitched all around with artfully placed red roses, and I gasped with delight when I realized it was the very same piece Mama had been embroidering on the afternoon in Jerusalem when she first mentioned the wedding. It was meticulously done and clearly a labor of love, but she had never said a single word about it. I hadn’t even seen her pack it for the trip.
That moment of recognition put a big grin on my face, and I turned to look at Mama, walking closely behind the bride, only to discover that she was already watching me to see if I would notice her artful gift. I threw her a wink of appreciation and we smiled a great, embracing, mutual smile.
Naomi finally reached her position next to the groom and, in the warm sun, her blushing cheeks were nearly as red as those embroidered roses. She, too, was smiling from ear to ear.
Her four attendants, including Mama, trailed Naomi into the courtyard and slowly made it to their assigned spots, followed by Naomi’s parents, Abner and Rebecca, who dutifully took their places near the rabbi. The last to come through the gates were six impressively sturdy men who had been enlisted at the last minute to serve as a sort of rear guard and ensure the wedding celebrants would not be overrun by the hordes of extra guests on their short journey from one house to the other.
I immediately recognized my two uncles among them, then James and Johnnie Zebedee, and realized that they were actually the six new Apostles of Joshua, already called into service. Looking sheeplishly out of place and perhaps a bit embarrassed by all the attention, as soon as they were through the gates they swiftly moved to join their new leader and his family. All except, that is, for my two uncles, who stopped short, embraced us silently so as not to interrupt the proceedings, and stood with us for the ceremony.
© 2015, George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.