Having been unable to write anything fresh for a couple of months (the effects of last year’s house move are still ongoing) I have delved back into past writings.
Some years ago I wrote a series of short stories with the collective name A Sideways Look Back. They were based on events in the New Testament gospels, set in the words of people present at the time but who either did not understand or perhaps did not accept what they saw. I wrote them to make myself think outside the box. L’Chaim! was not the first written, but it was the first chronologically in those unfolding events.
I watched her as she gently cajoled the little girl in a singsong voice..
Stand still child! How can I pin up your dress when you droop all the time? Just like your mother – she could never stand still for three breaths together, not as a child, nor a maid, nor a bride. I dressed her for many weddings including her own and I will dress you for yours if I’m spared, though how such a wriggly fish will stay still long enough to get married, I don’t know.
Weddings! So many! You should see as many as I have seen! Before I was your mother’s age I had seen so many! Not just our family; my friend Mary and I, we managed so many, so many.
Ah! We were important people! Not without reason little fish, My Tolmai, your grandfather, was a rich man from a good family; we have royal blood. Just two moments now – there you are! Off with it again and I will have it ready for you tomorrow. Off you go now.
There she goes! She will have the time of her life over the next few days. One day she will look back as I do at a lifetime of celebrations.
L’Chayim! To Life!
The wine and the toasts will flow. And the children, including that wriggly fish, will join in with their wine suitably watered down. So many weddings I have seen! Such joy and dancing! A wedding is a passing on of life which the whole community celebrates.
Ah! The day I learned what that really meant, I had already seen many weddings. Mary and I organised them for Yoachim the steward through the villages from Cana to Nain. I thought I knew the meaning. Every Jew did.
All weddings are celebrations of life. Wine, the blood and life of the grape, is filled with such meaning. It is a dreadful omen if it fails, but that was what set in motion the event that pains me so much.
It was Micah and Miriam’s wedding. Mary saw to the catering while I supervised the servants; a great responsibility, we were highly respected. Ah! I was such an important person! But there were problems, there are always problems at weddings, but Micah was concerned that a number of his guests were absent. One was Nathanael, my son. He and Michah had grown up together. It is a terrible thing not to go to a wedding when you are invited. It is an insult.
But Micah was not insulted, he was worried as I was. Five of them were missing: Nathanael, Philip, John, Andrew and Simon, gone to Judah nearly two weeks before, following the Baptiser, John Bar-Zechariah, carried away by his dangerous talk, and they had not returned.
Nathanael would not miss this feast unless something serious had happened. None of them had come back for the wedding and by the second day we were deeply worried. Had they fallen foul of Samaritans? or worse, had the Romans moved against John? Had they been caught in the aftermath? Judah was three days away but we should surely have heard if anything had happened.
They should have started back nearly a week ago.
The wedding feast went on; there were other guests after all, and so, so much to do. Miriam’s bride price was paid. She had been brought to the wedding with flashing and beating of tambourines and neither one nor two, but three trilling fluters; and now it was the second day. It was to be a three day feast. Food was plentiful, and the wine, more than enough for three full days.
The wine was good. Micah had not been mean with its quality or its quantity. Glasses were raised high to the wedding toast:
It rang from table to table, over and over again, and with such plentiful supply no-one was so ungrateful as to decline a glass.
And then on the last day Nathanael arrived.
He came full of apologies, embarrassed by delay and with several friends. Some were guests in their own right, and some were new to us. One we did know, but had not expected, was Mary’s eldest son, Yeshua. Village weddings were open feasts to any of the groom’s or the bride’s friends who were invited, and they could extend the invitation, generally within close family. Nathanael’s friends stretched this somewhat, but he and Micah went back many years.
Micah was so pleased to see him that all with him were instantly welcome – and they all looked so fine in wedding clothes.
If Mary was surprised to see Yeshua she did not show it. She was too busy anyway. We learned that the reason for his presence was the cause of their late arrival and of all that followed. Yeshua was a teacher, a rabbi with followers of his own, whose trade was carpentry – the roofs and supports of many homes and barns, from here to Capernaum and beyond, owe much to his workmanship. He came with them to the Jordan where John echoed Isaiah’s call to the Jews after captivity in Babylon. The Jordan waters are cleansing waters; the Jews returning to Jerusalem after fifty years of exile, purified themselves at that same crossing before the final ascent.
Go out from the midst of her, purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord.
John purified those Jews who flocked there to hear him, washing them in the ford waters of Beth-a-Bara. Much of his teaching was from the return from the captive years. Yeshua was there, which is how Nathanael had met him and waited longer so they could return together.
Something special had happened when Yeshua was baptised, and again between Yeshua and Nathanael afterwards. Nathanael saw one of the doves from the flocks that circle about the trees along the river. It flew down onto Yeshua’s head for a moment as he came up from the water. Apparently this affected John greatly. He saw Yeshua’s baptism as a spiritual event, more than a cleansing. He spoke of it afterward and later when one of Nathanael’s friends took him to meet Yeshua personally, something passed between them.
Nathanael knew of his family because of my friendship with Mary but I don’t think he had met Yeshua himself. He approached the meeting flippantly. He is my son so I can say that it was partly his lively nature and partly nerves. I have always found the more important the occasion, the more he played the buffoon, but for once he had had the wind taken out of his sails. Yeshua knew far more of him than he did of Yeshua: more than should have been possible.
So he brought him to Micah’s wedding feast along with his friends, Philip, and the brothers Andrew and Simon Bar-Jonas and James and John Bar-Zebedee and others following Yeshua himself.
So there we were, a wedding party with extra guests at the height of festivities on the last day, and what does Micah do? He extends the party to five days!
‘For Nathanael my friend who missed the first two days!’
There was food and wine enough, or should have been; Micah and Miriam’s parents had been generous. Rosy cheeked pomegranates, purple figs and grapes, and dark skinned olives, laid out on beautifully embroidered cloths; and such breads and meats! A feast to die for!
Ah! Micah had so many compliments, which of course were really due to us.
L’Chayim! To Life!
One group in the corner were beginning to confuse the wedding with the feast of Purim. Certainly they could not tell ‘Blessed be Mordecai!’ from ‘Cursed be Haram!’
All went well until the fifth day. The servants had appeared agitated the day before, and by midday I could tell something was very wrong. They came to me as the sun dipped into the afternoon. The wine in the flagons was all there was left; it would not last the afternoon. They came to me because I was in charge, but Mary was responsible for catering and I was only too glad to pass the problem on. But I was very worried that it would be a serious loss of face for Micah, and the steward Yoachim would be none too pleased either. The servants were too afraid to tell either of them.
Wine is the life and spirit of the grape, the blood of the grape, and at a wedding it is a sign of the life to come. L’Chayim! Does not only mean To Life! It celebrates spiritual life, and the blessings that come with it in a marriage.
We needed to persuade Micah to bring things to a close, after all he had been the cause of the problem by extending the festivities; but it had to be tactfully done. We needed someone with an understanding manner; someone with a good head on his shoulders. Mary approached Yeshua who was laughing with his disciples.
‘They have no wine.’ she said.
He smiled, ‘Woman, why should that worry you or me? It is not my special day.’
She looked at him as only a mother can, and obligingly he rose. She led him to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ she said, expecting him to ask to be taken to the top table. Instead he asked to be taken to the lowest table by the door and the ritual foot and hand washing bowls. There were six large purification water jars from which they were filled; beautiful stone kallals, mostly borrowed for the occasion because of the number of guests.
He directed them to fill these up. We had, of course, kept them topped up to keep their purity, but they filled them to the brim.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘draw some of it and take it to the steward.’
I shall never forget Mary’s face. She looked as though she wanted the earth to swallow her up! I would have found it funny if I was not so shocked. We had a reputation to keep up. His disciples had no such qualms and a ripple of nervous laughter spread among them – how could he dare? The servant’s face on the way to the steward was ashen. Thankfully none of the other guests knew what was going on. No more did Micah and Yoachim the steward, which troubled me in the light of what followed. In that roomful of merriment and feasting, there among the sparkling gaiety we were a dark cloud. The giggles of the disciples fell silent; those servants in the know could scarcely breath, and Mary stood with a face like thunder, dumbstruck. The servant approached Yoachim with his flagon.
He had to make several attempts to attract his attention, though I must say they seemed half hearted. Eventually the steward turned, looked at the flagon and had some poured into his cup. He raised it to his lips.
Yeshua at my side said, ‘L’Chayim!’
Don’t ask me what happened, I have never come to terms with it. The steward’s eyes widened and he seemed to freeze. Then he took another sip and frowned. He spoke to Micah and then to the servant, who backed away. We watched him return with the flagon. The steward sat motionless, then looking down the tables he caught my eye and gestured with one arm at the seated company. We were to serve it to the guests! I could not bring myself to give the order so Yeshua did it for me. Everyone drank. It was astonishing, beautiful wine.
Why did he do it? No-one knew of it except us and his giggling disciples. It stopped their giggling; from that moment their lives and those of their loved ones were never the same. The next day he took them away to Capernaum for a few days and then on to Jerusalem for Seder in the week before Pesach, the Passover feast.
It was all so many years ago now, many years, but I still find it hard to forgive. Impossible! He took my Nathanael from me. Bighearted Nathanael, so full of dreams and jokes. He is in India now and I may never see him again. Tolmai, my dear husband is long dead and in spite of my daughters and grandchildren I often feel so alone. After that Nathanael’s talk was always of water and wine in one guise or another: living water, wine and blood, wine the blood and spirit of the grape. Yeshua began teaching everywhere, even to Samaritans. One day he would be in Jerusalem saying we should be born again of water and spirit, and another in Samaria, saying he could give them living water and we need not worship in the Temple, nor they on their mountain, but simply in spirit and truth.
He went to Jerusalem once for Succoth when everyone was building tabernacles and booths in the streets to celebrate our most treasured festival. It is more sacred than the feasts of Seder when we celebrate the unleavened bread. More than Pesach, the Passover, which is for the redemption of the Jews, but the festival of Succoth when we build our tabernacles is for the whole world. It is dedicated to the four corners of the world and heaven above and earth beneath; we sacrifice a bullock for each of the seventy two nations of the world, friend and foe alike.
Oh! It is such a wonderful time! The wine flows freely, for although Succoth celebrates the wilderness years, it is the wine harvest as well. Perhaps that is why he chose it as the place to declare himself so strongly.
‘Come to me and drink.’ He shouted, ‘Out of the believer’s belly shall flow rivers of living water.’
I shut my ears and busied myself with other things. He lost a lot of his followers from his talk. He spoke about people drinking blood, his own blood. Few could stomach that; they felt it was a blasphemy. Through Moses GOD had strictly forbidden it: you shall not eat flesh with the blood in it for the blood is the life of the creature.
Ah! We saw blood and water! I was there when the gentiles killed him, and so was my Nathanael when they did the death test. I saw him staring numb-faced as they lanced him. Water and blood flowed from him certainly, but not living water; not blood with the life in it. His life was poured out.
‘There,’ I said, ‘that is the end, you can forget him now.’
Ah! Nathanael! Nathanael! His name means GOD–has-given but Yeshua has taken him away!
I could not answer. How could I tell her the news I brought, that Nathanael Bar-Tolmai was no longer in India but in Armenia and dead. In India his life had brought hope and inspired many and he travelled back towards Mesopotamia teaching as he went. He set a fire burning in mens’ hearts, but fires are dangerous things. The followers of the Way face the wrath of the world. He suffered the ultimate sacrifice for his Lord in Areban in Armenia where he met a death more more painful than crucifixion.
He was the optimist of the two of us. If the truth were known I was a little jealous of the easy way he could accept things. Faith came easier to him than to me; don’t get me wrong, I have a strong faith, or at least a strong knowledge of the truths we have seen and heard, but I have to test my knowledge.
‘Thomas,’ he would laugh, ‘if I didn’t know you better I would think that in spite of all your confident knowledge you had no faith.’
I knew what he meant. Some people lack a knowledge of the world, they are the world’s innocents, but they have a faith that I would give my right hand to share. Others, like Paul, have a staggering grasp of the world and men, and an even more powerful faith arising out of it. For me it has always been different. Like Nathanael I am well read. That is not boasting but fact. I am well read and my understanding of GOD and His world is a great blessing to me, but my faith is tested every step of the way.
But there are moments: when Yeshua offered to let me put my hand into his wounds, his hands and side, I did not. I did not need to – not because I had seen them but because there, in his presence, knowledge and understanding gave way completely to faith. At that moment I had a faith that could change the world. But since then, ah! It has not always been as easy, and this moment was one of those times.
A mother’s love can comfort, but it can also consume; and a consuming fire will find tinder where it can. If the child escapes it may be the mother who burns. She does not understand fully, perhaps she never did, but how many of us can say more? She will see her Nathanael again when we all see Yeshua again.
L’Chayim! To Life!
Nathanael, whose mother is the main speaker in this story, is recorded in the lists of apostles, sometimes as Bar-Tolmai (Bartholomew), and other times as Nathanael. There is strong evidence within the gospel narratives that Nathanael and Bartholomew are one and the same, Nathanael Bar-Tholmai, and I have kept to Nathanael as the personal name his mother would have used.
Yeshua, is one of a number of Aramaic variations of the name Jesus, all related to Ye-hoshua meaning Yahweh-is-salvation, also related to the name of Joshua, Moses’ second in command.
You may recognise the onlooker as Thomas, of doubting fame. He is not the apostle who has always been associated with Nathanael. That is Philip, but what reports we have suggest that Philip died first. Philip and Nathanael went to Hierapolis in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, near Laodicea and Colossae.
In Hierapolis they were said to have healed the Roman proconsul’s wife, who became a Christian. This angered her husband (presumably because of her conversion, not her healing) and he ordered the apostles to be crucified. Philip was crucified, but the magistrates had Nathanael taken down from the cross and released. He went to India and later to Armenia in 60 CE to join Jude (Thaddaeus) who was said to have evangelized Armenia from 43 to 66 CE. Eight years later he was martyred.
Thomas is listed in all four gospels immediately after Nathanael, and both are recorded as having gone to India. I chose him as the bearer of the news of Nathanael’s death partly for these reasons and partly for the contrast in their personalities on an ‘opposites attract’ basis.
A copy of Matthew’s Gospel said to have been owned by Nathanael was said to have been found and brought to Alexandria by a converted stoic philosopher, Pantaenus. If so it is likely that it was lost in the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria for which three major fires and scroll burnings are recorded. The first, by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, was too early, but scrolls were deliberately burned, first by Theophilus the Christian Patriarch of Alexandria in 391 CE because the building in which they were then stored was the pagan Temple of Serapis, and then by the Moslem Caliph Omar in 640 CE.
Nathanael is said to have preached in what was then known as Armenia to the south of the Caspian Sea (now Azerbaijan) and was martyred in Albanopolis, (now Derbend on the west coast) in the year 68 CE.
Ah! We were important people! Not without reason little fish – my Tolmai, your grandfather, – a rich man from a good family; we have royal blood. …
There is a long tradition that Nathanael was wealthy, and possibly had family associations with the Syrian royal family. This is not as surprising as it sounds since the Jews carefully guarded family trees; Jesus himself was recorded as having links with the royal family of David and Solomon, and his mother Mary with the priestly line of Aaron. It was a smaller world then.
There is a description of Nathanael as having white skin, large eyes and a straight nose, black curly hair covering his ears, a long grizzled beard and wearing a white robe with a purple stripe and gems at the corners. Written some five hundred years later it is hardly reliable but perhaps carries echoes of earlier descriptions. If his clothing was as rich as the description implies he at least used it frugally as he was reported as wearing it for twenty-six years without discarding it.
He has always had a reputation for cheerful good humour.