I like it that Mark says 'whoever is not against us is for us', while Matthew says 'whoever is not with me is against me'. (I am pretty sure that Luke says both. Luke would have to be my second favourite.) I like that Mark's Gospel is so unadorned and brisk and to the point. It is probably an accident of my environment that I find that sort of writing seems more trustworthy.
Here is a story about the Baptism of Jesus which Mum asked me to write the other year. I built it around the version from Mark, pulling in pieces from the other Gospels here and there.
Look at the sunset. My eyes are still good- G*d be praised! See how beauty is poured out on us, though we are wicked, because G*d is good.
My eyes are good, but my memory tells me the sunsets were yet more beautiful over the hills of Judaea when I was a child, in Bethany-Across-the-Jordan. Things today are not like things once were. Everything changes, everything is broken apart and scattered to the far corners of the earth. The world shakes on its foundations, as though abandoned by G*d.
Everything is speeding up, falling down, as the end times draw near. All generations are wicked- all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G*d- but as the end times draw closer so does the wickedness of those who go about on the earth grow greater. Have you heard the news from Ascalon? From Ctesiphon? Everywhere there are wars and rumours of wars, tribulations of all kinds, and men who set themselves above G*d, and mock that there is such a thing as truth. The temple is cast down, so not one stone remains on another, just as he said. But there are also those who remember that he said those words, from India to the Pillars of Hercules. They remember that he said it, and give praise to G*d, and they remember that the suffering and the wickedness of this world are but tiny things.
I was there at the beginning. I do not know what I would have done, if I had known who he would turn out to be. Nobody had ever heard the name Jesus of Nazareth. He did not look like anything special, except for his eyes. Mostly I remember his eyes. It was a long time ago, but I will tell you just how it was.
You know where it is written, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way: a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the L*rd, make straight paths for him?’’ Those who follow him say those words were written of a man named John who appeared in the desert of Judaea when I was about ten years old. He made his home by the Jordan river. He spoke like a prophet of old, calling on G*d’s people to repent their sins and turn back to Him, and many people came from Jerusalem and all the land of Judaea to hear him speak, and to repent their sins and be baptised with the waters of the Jordan, to show that they were clean in the sight of the L*rd. This John always dressed like a prophet ought to dress, in a robe of camel’s hair, and it was said that he never ate bread or meat, only locusts and wild honey, as a sign to this wicked generation. A brood of vipers, he used to call those who came to hear him speak. But most of them did not seem to mind. Some days there were hundreds of people listening to him; sometimes there were thousands; and on the third or fourth day that they came mother sent me out to them with a basket of figs. Because people need to eat, and not all people pack all the food that they will want, or like the food they have packed when they get where they are going. So every day while this John spoke I would go and sit near where he was preaching and sell figs to those who had come to hear him. I never heard anyone speak the way he did. I never got tired of it, though I got to learn some of his sermons almost by heart. His eyes seemed to shoot sparks of fire when he spoke about the glory of the L*rd, and the Messiah who was to come. He wept bitter tears when he spoke of the sins of Israel, and he closed his eyes in dread when he spoke of the judgment of the L*rd.
‘After me will come one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the breath of the L*rd, and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’
I remember wondering what the Messiah would be like, how much greater he must be than any man I had seen, a prophet and a general and a rabbi all in one, with a sorrow and a fury and a love of G*d even greater than that of John. I saw him in my eye like one of the commanders of the Romans, sitting like a King on the back of a white horse, but a Jew like me, not a Roman, with a deep black beard like our young rabbi of Jericho, and a sword at his belt shining in the sun too bright to look upon, to be used on the enemies of Judah, not on the necks of the Jews like the swords of the Romans. This Jesus of Nazareth did not look like that at all. He did not look like anyone special. Only his eyes, but I did not notice them at first. He must have been about thirty years old. He had come with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and a walking stick. One of the straps on one of his sandals had broken, and he had tied it together with a bit of rope.
‘Will you give me a fig?’ he asked me. ‘I have no money, but I am hungry, and I have walked a long way.’
Well, my mother did not send me to sit all day in the sun to give figs away for nothing, and I told him this as politely as I could. He nodded and smiled at me, and said a word of blessing, and turned away, and as he turned I saw that his eyes were like the eyes of the Messiah I had thought of. Maybe I do not remember rightly, and I only thought that later after everything else had happened, but I don’t think so. There was great mercy and kindness in those eyes, and a terrible hunger and thirst for justice, and something else that I did not understand.
You say you would have given him a fig, if you had been there? You say you would have known him as the Messiah? Do not be so certain.
John spoke that day like he always did, preaching strong words to the learned men of Jerusalem who had come to hear him. ‘How can you say you have repented, if you do not produce the fruit of repentance? The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ When he was done all the people came up to
him to be baptised, as they always did when he was finished speaking.
There was an old woman sitting next to me, almost as old as I am now, and the first thing I noticed was that she had stood up all of a sudden. Then my ears caught up with my thoughts, and told me there had been a gasp from the crowd just before, like when a man stumbles in a footrace. So I stood up, too, but I could not see anything.
‘What is it, grandmother?’ I asked the old
woman. ‘It is John,’ she said. ‘A man has come to him to be baptised, and he is bowing down before him, but John has bowed down to him.’
‘What is he saying? What is he saying?’ the old woman asked, for John had spoken while she was talking to me. A man who was standing in front of us turned and said: ‘I need to be baptised by you; why do you come to me?’
‘Who is he?’ I asked, forgetting my place.
‘It is the one he told us about. He is the Messiah,’ said the man. ‘Let me lift you up.’
He put me on his shoulders, and I saw John kneeling in the water at the edge of the river, and another man kneeling before him: it was the man I had spoken to before, who had walked so far and been hungry. John poured the waters of the Jordan over the head of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and then Jesus stood up and walked out of the river. I had imagined the Messiah coming on the back of a white horse, or standing at the gates of the Temple with a stick in his hand to break the tables of the moneylenders; but he stepped out of the river looking like a lamb that has been caught out in the rain, and lies trembling on the wet grass. The end of his robe trailed in the wet sand, and his sandals where he left them were dusty from the road. And at that moment- well, I do not have any imagination. You know that. I never saw visions when I was young, and I never
dream dreams now that I am old- but I saw this; and it is written that John saw the same thing. I saw the sky open up like the flaps of a tent might open up to show the sky. And I saw something like a bird of fire diving down from the break in the heavens, and coming down to rest on the man Jesus. As this happened I heard a voice. It was a small voice, and it sounded very close to me, and I could not tell whether it was the voice of a man or a woman. It said: ‘This is my son, who I love. I am pleased with him.’
I looked around for where the voice was coming from, but I did not see anyone. When I looked back, the sky was whole again, and the bird had gone. Jesus of Nazareth put his sandals on, and walked quickly away through the crowd.
What then? That was the beginning. I never got a chance to get close to him in the crush. He walked away very quickly, blessing the people as he went, but no one followed him. He went away into the wilderness, and when he came back he began to preach to the Jews, and to the Samaritans, and to the Romans, and made more of a stir in the land of Judaea than John ever did. So the Romans and their lapdogs killed him, just like they killed John, and you know that was not the end of it, but only the beginning, and his name is spoken now by Ethiopians and Scythians, and men in the Antipodes who walk on their hands.
I can still remember that voice, as clear as if it had just spoken. ‘This is my son, who I love.’ I wish I had given him a fig when he was hungry. But you cannot take back a thing once it is done, or do a thing that you have left undone. Remember that, child. O G*d that made this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Your saints? How long, O L*rd, how long?
The strangest thing about writing this was rediscovering an ancient metaphor. 'Okay, Jesus has just come out of the water, and I want him to look like the farthest thing possible from a great hero and leader, something really bedraggled and pathetic. Hmmm. I know, how about on a wet morning just after lambing, how pathetic the lambs look sometimes hiding under their mothers as I drive by? Yes, that'll do... Hang on...'