Obsessive

Jesus rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows. He looked steadily at Judas. ‘You want it clean?’ he said, ‘You want it super squeaky clean? I am not sure you will like it better that way. But here goes.
‘There was a bloke. A trader – a specialist. He dealt in pearls. Always seeking the most beautiful, perfect pearls for his customers. And he never minded selling. There was no risk. Each pear he sold gave him more money to buy new pearls. And he never needed to cheat, as such, Judas, because he would buy with just the usual haggling, and then sell at a premium price to the super rich, because they respected his expertise and his knowledge.
‘Then it happened. He found the super pearl. Huge. Its lustre unbroken. A perfect sphere. A wonderful colour, white, pure. He knew at once he would never see another pearl like it. The trouble was, it was in the hands of another merchant.
They haggled. It was good humoured, but ruthless. The price was agreed. The pearl merchant, our honest, shining example of a pearl merchant, sold everything. He sold all his pearls, every one. He sold his house. He sold his donkey. Everything he could realise, he did. The lot. Then he handed over the money and came away with the pearl.’
Judas nodded, shining approval.
Jesus sighed. ‘Yes but look at the dilemma. He now has the perfect pearl. What is he going to do? Do you imagine he can sell it? That he can let go the one thing he has been searching for all his life?’
Jesus had this power with his stories. He sucked you in. You lived them. We were all looking horrified, and none more than Judas. No, we all knew what obsessives were like. No real person in this position could let go of that pearl.
‘He has nothing but the pearl,; said Jesus quietly, ‘and he will need to start from the bottom again if he wants to rebuild his business. Maybe he can. Maybe he has enough credit with others to borrow enough to buy little inexpensive pearls. But will his customers really want them? It is a disaster, that is what it is. Once you have the most valuable thing, you give up everything for it, and it may not be the shining easy thing to do you all seem to think.’
Then he wrapped his cloak around him, as though he was cold, and sat staring into the distance as if he was seeing something we could not see.

Treasure to cheat for

The plough jolted, stopped. The oxen strained for a brief moment, then subsided into relaxation. At that distance, there was no making out the words the ploughman spoke, but we could make a very good guess. He heaved up his arms, flapped. He went to the front of the plough, backed up the oxen, and after some grubbing around and kneeling, scrabbling, tossed out a middle sized stone. With some difficulty he shoved and heaved it to the edge of the field and left it there. He flapped over the stone again, gave it a kick, then straightened himself, and loped back to the plough.
‘Supposing it had not been a stone.’ said Jesus, lazily, ‘suppose it had been treasure?’
‘Oooh, tricky one!’ said John.
‘Suppose it was a little box of treasure. I think – I think he would bury it again. I bet that bloke ploughing does not own the land.’
A small snort came from Matthew, ‘I bet he does not either. He is the son of my cousin’s first wife’s brother. He is a hired hand.’
‘Always a little behind hand with the world?’ asked Jesus, sympathetically.
‘Always.’
‘If it was treasure,’ said Jesus, ‘he would bury it. Carefully. Then he would go and convince his wife to sell up. That would take a lot of time, that would. She would bend his ear something terrible. But he would not tell her it was treasure, would he? For utter terror she let something slip. She would be furious, but he would somehow convince her, or just do it, her ringing a peal in his ears. Sell up. But he is only half way there. He still has to get the land owner to sell, and not just some land, just that piece of land. My word, the worry that somebody would find the treasure before he convinced the land owner to sell. The arguments he would have with the farmer as to why that field. Why such a crazy scheme. He would never make a living from one field.
Then going back, knowing if the treasure had gone he had lost everything. Oh think of that.Imagine if he had not hidden it well enough. Then putting the plough in the same furrow, and yes, yes, the treasure. Opening the box. Seeing the riches. Knowing he was a made man. Oh think of the joy.’
Judas sat up, and took the grass stem he was sucking out of his mouth. ‘He ought to have checked to see if it could be identified first,’ he said, always so horribly correct, ‘He ought to have seen if it had somebody’s name in it. You know that is the law.’
‘He ought,’ said Jesus, ‘but I do not think he would. Oh, being that poor, and suddenly having riches offered you? Could you really do it? No, I think he would just buy the field – break the law,’ Jesus twinkled at Judas, ‘I do not think the law would be observed. Because the treasure would so, so transform his life – he would cheerfully cheat a bit to get all that… and that is what the Kingdom is like. Something you would cheerful lie, cheat and steal to get a hold of.’
Poor Judas looked aghast.

Skipping Stones

‘You didn’t try to comfort me.’  Mary sniffed, once she had stood up and dusted herself off. ‘You didn’t look like you wanted comfort.’ Zadkiel said, as he walked to her side.

‘You didn’t try to stop me crying.’
‘You didn’t look like you wanted to stop’.

Mary was bewildered. Zadkiel was always so meddlesome, so present, so overbearingly helpful — and then, when anyone else would have tried to help, he’d just sat there.

Was he right?  Had she wanted to stop?  Not really — though she had hoped he’d try to stop her.  She wanted him to provoke her and give her a reason to let loose her fury so that it would be done.

Zadkiel was working hard at being still.  He hated this part– not helping, not fixing, just waiting. Every feather itched. But still he stood there, watching the water in silence. Finally, he broke the tension by skimming a stone across the water.  One – two – three – four – five.

Mary watched him.  She didn’t altogether approve of skipping stones, but it did shift the mood.  She watched as the angel bent  and flicked the stone across the water. One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine.  It danced right across to the other side.

‘You will have to teach him,’ she said, ‘Joseph has never been any good at it.’ And there, it was done. She had given him a place in her son’s life.

Zadkiel smiled as he remembered God scattering first light across the oceans, Sophia dancing through the stars. ‘He’ll learn,’ Zadkiel said, amused by the absurdity of it all.

Mary sensed it too, and began to laugh. But then the tears threatened again, and she forced her own will into stillness.

‘You fear for him, don’t you?’ Zadkiel said, ‘– and I remind you of that fear?’

Mary was surprised to have it named so clearly.  ‘Yes. You remind me. It was exciting at first — seeing angels, having God’s son. Elizabeth and I sang of justice, of a world set right — but then we let ourselves dream of small hands and sleepy eyes, of first steps and children’s drawings.  I began to think of my son — like any mother — and I just want it to be normal.  But it never will be, will it?  It won’t be easy and it won’t be normal.  You remind me.’

‘It will be as normal as it can be.  You are his mother.  He is your child’.
‘Yes, but not like other mothers…’
‘Just like other mothers.  It is never easy.  And — yes — there are some parts of this that will be strange.  But not for him. For him, you are all he knows. You, and Joseph; whatever you teach him, and whatever friends he makes.’

Mary couldn’t get her head around it — ‘But Gabriel said that Sophia was tricky — that the Incarnate Word would be wise.’

‘Gabriel talks too much — and he wants your attention.  He misses Sophia, and finds it hard to understand what God is doing in holding back from her, why he must set the Word free.’

Honestly, Zadkiel couldn’t make sense of it either.  What did it mean for God to be God and not-God all at once?  What did it mean for the Word to become flesh?  Would he really be the one to teach God to skip stones? Or would Jesus just know?

‘Look, this is what you need to hold onto. Jesus is your son. Everything that God has done, everything that God is doing rests on that. You just focus on raising your boy, and let God take care of the rest.’

‘But you will be there?’
‘I will be there.’
‘Will he know?’
‘Not at first.  Not for a long time, probably, but one day I suspect he’ll realise.’
‘And then?’
‘And then, a lot of other things will make sense to him. I’ll be there to let him talk, to let him think — to say the things he dare not say to anyone else.  Everyone needs someone they can turn to — someone they are not born to — and he will have me.’

Mary thought back to her own childhood — to the old woman who lived down the lane. Mary had spent days with her — learning to make bread, sweeping the yard, trying to count the leaves. That is where she learned to speak of God. That is where she learned to say yes.

Is that what Zadkiel would be for her son?

‘You will teach him to skip stones?’ she said pointedly.
‘I will teach him to skip stones.’

‘All right then.  Let it be so.  You no longer need to hide in the rafters.’

Zadkiel laughed and brushed her with his wing.  ‘We’ll see,’ he said, ‘I need to hide somewhere, and Sophia was always fond of owls.’

Hide and seek

The women had worked all day with tight smiles, put on for an illustrious guest, and eyes averted from the stranger. Of course Jesus knew better than to engage other men’s wives directly, and he sat in the courtyard, watching quietly behind lazy lids.
It was Passover – no, not THAT Passover, but the first one that we were together. He sat, relaxed, in the shade, watching, half smiling. In the end, and a little later than the women had wanted, the hard work staggered to a conclusion. It is always like that, Passover. It is exhausting for the women, because it falls to them to ensure the house is cleaned up, spotless, and, especially, any hint of leaven is removed.
Leaven? Sour dough, I understand you call it. A fermentation which makes bread rise. Without it, you get biscuits, or crisp cakes, or maybe a soggy mess, depending on the skill of the cook. It is extraordinarily tenacious of life, leaven. So the house is swept and cleaned and polished so that before the Passover is made, there is none left.
The last ritual is for the children to search the house looking for anything unclean, and, to encourage them, the lady of the house hides a little, little piece of bread, normal bread, risen bread. When the girls find the bread, the search is over. Hiding that bread is the last act of the great clean-up, and then there is a pause before the great cook-up starts.
Jesus watched the little girls pelt around, looking under and over and around, until at last Miriam (my sister’s eldest) called out: ‘Got it!’ and came running in, laughing, with a fragment of crust carefully wrapped in a piece of linen by my wife, just in case it spilled a crumb anywhere and started all the work again.
Then there was a brief pause in the work. Water all round, and a short rest. At that point, Jesus began to teach. We, us lot, the disciples, were all sat at his feet. First he repeated a couple of his usual teachings. We half listened, and the women sat quiet, but not really listening.
Then I saw him look kind of sideways at the women. But it was to the child that he spoke. ‘Tell me, how easy is it to hide the leaven?’
Perhaps a little startled at being spoken directly to, what with her being just a kid, and a girl, Miriam threw up her head suddenly and said: ‘Hiding it is easy, Rabbi, but hiding it well is hard.’
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘yes, I see. Tell me, if you hid your bit of leaven in a barrel of flour, would you find it easily?’
‘That would make it hard, Rabbi,’ said Miriam, ‘sifting through the flour to find something so like itself.’
‘I wonder why I have never seen it hidden there?’ mused Jesus. Miriam looked at him trying to decide if he was half-witted or not. ‘Nobody wouldn’t never hide it there, sir,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ asked Jesus.
The kid was looking directly at him now and so were all the women. Everybody was trying to make up their minds why he was acting so stupid.
‘Well, sir, if you done that, all the flour would turn – it would all turn into leaven in a little.’
‘Ah, and that would matter?’ he asked.
Miriam was a bossy kind of a girl, and she told him straight, while many of the women hid amused smiles or concerned glances at her outspokenness. ‘Sir, we are trying to get all the leaven OUT of the house. Leaven is unclean, sir. We must have it all done away with for the Passover, to be pure.’
‘And if you put it in a barrel of flour it would turn all the flour?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Two barrels?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Three?’
‘Sir, give it a little time, and leaven turns everything into itself. It would make three whole barrels dirty like itself.’
‘Dirty?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘But I kind-of like ordinary bread, especially hot and spongy as it comes from off the oven.’
‘We all love it, sir,’ Miriam assured him.
‘We ALL do?’
‘Oh yes, sir.’
‘So, only dirty in some ways.’ Silence.
‘Then that is what the Kingdom is like,’ said Jesus, ‘It is something which you may be told is really a bit dirty, but it is powerful. Put a bit of it, that you can hardly see, into this big big world, and before you can blink, you will see it work its way through it all. In the end, it will make it all delicious. Like hot spongy bread.’
That night, some of the wives, gathered there, decided they too would follow Jesus. That made some stir I can tell you. It was only afterwards I saw how cleverly he done it. Drawing them in, and not scaring them too much. Not coming over like a mad man, but speaking direct words which made sense to them.

Uneasy companions

It was unsettling, not being liked.

Zadkiel kept trying.  ‘Can I help you, Mary?  You must be getting tired.  Here: let me stir the pot.’ But Mary just kept shooshing him away to the rafters.

He’d given up on being an owl. She’d seen through him, so there there seemed to be no point. But he realised — a bit late perhaps — that she still preferred him out of sight, hiding, so that she could pretend he was an owl, if need be.

Mary found him to be a troublesome companion — and this made Zadkiel very nervous. What if Jesus liked him no better than Mary did? What if God had got it wrong? Zadkiel was not really sure why God had chosen him. God said it was because he was so good with people, but surely any angel worth their wings knew how to blend in and win the earthed-ones over. Zadkiel knew that he had no special skills — and Mary seemed more than willing to prove that point.

Zadkiel tried everything.  He offered help in the kitchen.  He offered help in the barn.  He tried talking with her, and he tried keeping silent.  But nothing he did seemed to ease Mary’s mood.

For Gabriel, Mary was different. Gabriel charmed her with stories of Sophia leaping the stars, and told her conspiratorially of just how stroppy the Word of God could be. For Gabriel, Mary laughed and tossed her hair, and acted like the young girl she was. But with Zadkiel she was stern. All broom and bristle. Wishing he wasn’t there. Zadkiel tried to sooth her by hiding in the furthest corner of the house.

The next morning, she slipped off without him.  How, how, had it come to this? Zadkiel was distraught.  Her time was getting near, and he must be there when Jesus was born.  Zadkiel was not supposed to let her out of his sight.

Quickly, he jumped down and shook the night’s cloak from his feathers.  He rose on the wind, and scanned the ground till he saw her, sobbing by the stream, with the water jug broken at her feet.

Gently.  He must go gently.  But not quietly — no.  Better to be human-like and clatter through the trees than to swoop swift-winged and silent.  So Zadkiel drew in his wings and walked, down through the brush, clattering all the way to the clearing, where he let silence fall.

Mary must have heard him, but she moved not at all.  So Zadkiel sat — three wing-spans away — and waited till her sobbing ceased.

Oh yes, you long for it.

Jesus was in cracking form that day. He was bouncing with energy, sparkling with wit and with laughter. Towards evening we came near to a little village. In the fields outside we stopped to rest. At the field edge he sat down and at last fell silent.

It was getting near harvest, and we rubbed a little grain between our hands, nibbling on the seeds as they came clear of the husks, hard enough to be dislodged but still with a little damp sweetness in the core. The cool of the day was stealing on and we did not need shade to sit and relax. Anyway, the only shade here was a mustard bush, full of little Blackcap birds, searching for insects in the plant. Andrew wandered over, and helped himself to a couple of the pods, setting the seed free and crunching a mouthful of sweet corn and hot mustard.

’Cor, no wonder it is grown at the field’s edge and not in gardens,’ he commented, looking down. ‘There’s a forest of seedlings shooting up! A bit wilted-looking though. Suppose the drought will get them soon.’
‘Don’t believe it,’ said Matthew, who came from solid farming stock. ‘They will suck up the dew and be good as new in morning. They will grow and grow and only determined efforts to plough them will ever control them. As for stopping them, er, no. You can’t’ He gestured. There must have been a dozen full-grown bushes along the edge of the field, many showing determined efforts had been made to cut them back.

‘Delicious, though,’ hinted Jesus. Andrew tipped a selection of wheat and mustard seed into the Rabbi’s hand.
Jesus chewed some of it. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘You plant one big wheat seed and what do you get? How many seeds grow in the head? You would be lucky to get fifty, I would think. Perhaps one bird would perch on a stem of wheat, a little finch, maybe.

‘And look at the mustard seed. Not half the size, not a quarter. And it shoots up and you cannot stop it. Cut it back and it just bushes out more. And look, the birds! Little birds dancing through it, picking a living in it. How many seeds to the plant? Hundreds, maybe thousands. You don’t need to sow it, it does that for itself. You dare not put it in a garden, or in a couple of years your garden is all mustard.

‘It is, everybody knows, an utter pest. Yet we all kind of love it. Here is Andrew offering it to me as a little fiery treat. It makes my mouth water. It is an almost painful pleasure. But oh, yes, you long for it.’

He looked at us, and he was suddenly extra solemn, deadly grave. We all sobered up. ‘This Kingdom I tell you of? Heaven? The world where things are done as they should be?’

We were silent, nodding. We were waiting for him to tell us there would be no mustard in this kingdom, no half-dirty, half-painful pleasures. No weeds which bring us pleasure. Heaven would be a very serious, very clean business.

‘That Kingdom,’ he said, ‘That Kingdom is JUST like the mustard.’ We looked at him and if I looked as silly as Andrew, sitting there, jaw dropping, no wonder Jesus laughed out loud, tipping back his head, roaring. Once again he had sprung a trick on us. Ruefully, we began to laugh too. He sprang up, and picked himself some mustard seeds, and scattered them. We were still laughing as we reached the village.

Visitors

‘I can see you, you know. You don’t have to hide.’

Mary turned away from the angel, and continued sweeping the barn.
She was getting better at this — seeing the angels.

That first time, there had been no ambiguity.
Gabriel came crashing into the garden, ablaze with expectation. He would have been frightening, if it hadn’t been so funny. She could see him struggling with himself — knowing he must be calm, knowing he must be reasurring, but so eager to hear her ‘yes’ that he forgot all that he’d learned through the centuries. Gabriel could be terrifying — but not to her. For Mary, he was game changer, joy-bringer, laugh-maker — the one who had confirmed her hunch that God was near.

Next, it was Ramiel. It took her a while to notice him — the one who came in dreams. At first she mistook the dreams for morning sickness, till Elizabeth pointed out that she needed to be awake for that. Night after night she had felt the darkness was spinning, all creation whirling in the blackness gathering strength. Then suddenly, the dreams burst into light — stars formed, galaxies. The dreams still spun her around, but now there was order and rhythm. Still she didn’t notice Ramiel — didn’t realise that it was Sophia dreaming inside her. But slowly, as Creation unfurled, as she felt God’s love stir for every last creature, she woke to find Ramiel sketching the dragonflies that had just filled her dreams. He’d become so caught up in their beauty that he forgot himself — slipped into presence — and there he was, sitting in the old chair beside her bed.

When it really was morning sickness, Raphael came. It didn’t solve anything, but he was comforting. He assured her all was well, and gave her some rose-hip tea. Raphael had seem amused by it all, and later Ramiel confessed that God had sent Raphael in. The great Creator had finally noticed what women really go through in pregnancy, and became terribly anxious that something was wrong.

But this angel was different. He lingered longer and hid well. This one chose neither to interfere nor to go away. Day by day she took his measure. He was quiet and calm, steady and loyal. He seemed less given to drama than the rest — and perhaps a bit more human. She’d become fond of him as the months went on, and she wanted to know why he was here.

Zadkiel was annoyed that she’d found him out. He should not have trusted the shadows of hay stack. The roof was safer, and he hid now, wing-wrapped in owl’s form, perching on a beam.

Mary had felt him swoop up, but decided not to push it. She swept and she sang, and she thought about the birth of her child. But then, as she forked over the hay, a mouse ran under her skirts, and she had an idea. Quickly she bent and cupped her hands around the little creature. She turned and held it up, watched by owly eyes.

‘Will you stay for lunch?’ she asked, and Zadkiel knew he had to stop pretending.

His wings unfurled as he took human form. He jumped down, and bowed to her.

‘I am Zadkiel — your Son’s companion. He will have no gauardian – no protection. But I will be with him and will be his friend.’

Mary’s eyes went wide, and she was slow to return the angel’s bow. She was unsettled by his presence and disturbed by his words. From that moment, she resolved — always and for ever — to let owls be owls.