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Saturday, October 31, 2015

95 Theses, #48-49: Healings and Disease

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction

(Painting: "Christ Healing the Blind," by El Greco, 1570s, oil on canvas)

48.) Healings in Jesus’ Ministry - Christ’s miracles of healing were a very prominent part of his ministry. It is evident, through Christ’s example, that God’s intent for humanity is a condition in which we are not ultimately bound to suffering and decay. God clearly cares about our suffering as a result of natural evils and wishes (ultimately) to free us from that suffering. Classically within Christian theology, natural evils like disease have been thought of as part of the effect of humanity’s Fall. However, given the history of the natural world as we now know it, it becomes clear that the natural world was full of pain and suffering as an integral part of the freedom-in-development allowed to it by its Creator; and, further, this suffering seems to be a core element of the nature of the created order—it is part of the soul-making, value-adding process of God's developmental creation. The bacterial and viral vectors of disease are themselves a “good” part of creation, having developed through participation in the freedom given to all created things to choose their own way. Diseases also serve as part of the matrix that allows us to develop the virtues of patience, compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, and endurance, which simply would not be possible without suffering. However, even though the suffering caused by such things does seem to be integral to this stage of our creaturely development, the Gospels make it clear that that is not God's ultimate goal for his creation: Christ’s healings marked the Kingdom as a place of compassion and deliverance, and through the ministry of mercy, the invention of hospitals, and the pursuit of better cures, Christian civilization has followed in its Savior’s footsteps in seeking to make a world free of the suffering of disease.

49.) Case Study: A Theodicy of Disease - One particular historical example of disease, though, has always vexed me: why would God have allowed the course of history to progress in such a way that contact between the Old World and New World civilizations—contact that would have been necessitated by the fulfillment of the Christian mission—why should this contact, which occurred at the turn of the 16th century, have destroyed around 90% of the New World population through devastating plagues? Why should the completion of God’s own mission necessarily wreak such terrible pain? There are no full answers to such a question. But it occurs to me that several things can be said, even if they can’t completely address the issue in all its devastating force: first, we don’t know that God wouldn’t have intervened to halt just such a plague if the Old World contacts had been primarily made as part of the Christian mission (as it happened, Christian mission was more of a tagalong to a wave of economic exploitation); second, the same problem is not unknown in other areas of the world, including, of course, Christian Europe in the Middle Ages; in fact, the same scenario occurs in reverse in Africa, where the vast majority of American and European missionaries succumbed to disease very quickly (but at least they had made the volitional choice towards self-sacrifice); third, the historical circumstances of the Old World invading the New may actually have made the plagues a mercy—it is almost without doubt that the Old World civilizations, with a higher level of combat technology, would have mercilessly and systematically purged the New World of its native peoples in unbelievable bloodshed over the course of several centuries—the plagues, while tragic, brought the story of many of these people to completion while still in possession of their lands, culture, and dignity, and prevented a multitude of additional sins from accruing on the heads of the wayward Old World invaders (though of course they already carried a multitude nonetheless); fourth, that this evil too, though unbearably tragic in its scope from our present vantage, will one day be made well in the restoration of all things.

Friday, October 30, 2015

How to Celebrate Halloween as an Act of Christian Discipleship

Last week, I published a post suggesting that the debate among evangelical Christian families as to whether or not it's appropriate to celebrate Halloween is an issue best left to individual conscience--an example of the "disputed matters" of Romans 14. However, I also noted that I'm in the camp of those who feel that Halloween can indeed be appropriate for Christian practice. In this week's post, I'll give some specific theological reflections and suggestions as to how this might be.

1.) The Universal Church

The Church Triumphant and the Church Militant
In our evangelical heritage, most denominations will profess belief, in some form or another, in what is called "the universal church"--that is, that the Church, the Body of Christ, is composed of all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are mystically united to them, in faith and love, as members of one body, regardless of the separations of denomination, distance, and time. However, unlike in other traditions of Christianity, evangelicals do a rather poor job at giving ourselves places to remember the last part of that description: that we are mystically united to them, regardless of the separations of time. Most evangelical theologians would hold that those Christians who have already died are nevertheless still alive in a spiritual state, and that they too are part of the Church universal, to whom we are intimately connected as members of one body. In old theological terms, these two sides of the Body of Christ were portrayed as "the Church triumphant" (in heaven) and "the Church militant" (on earth). A few evangelical theologians have even suggested, as seems reasonable, that the departed saints, now in the presence of the Lord, are sharing with him the ministry of intercession and prayer for we who are still on earth--that is to say, they are connected to us, perhaps in very intimate and active ways. But we never talk about this fact in evangelical churches, and almost none of our practices remind us of it--we have chosen a rootless and homeless existence, willfully cutting ourselves off from the grounding treasures of Christian history and of learning from and celebrating our spiritual family, the ones with whom we will share eternity. 

Halloween, when practiced as a traditional Christian holiday, helps to fill this gap. In its practice throughout the older Christian traditions of Europe, church services are held on Halloween, with prayers and hymns that praise God for the faith and example of those who have gone before us (here's one of my favorites: a new version of the old hymn "For All the Saints"). Halloween, together with All Saints Day, provides believers an opportunity to tell the stories of those who've gone before and to use the tradition of costuming to teach our children about some of the great heroes of the faith. (Incidentally, if you're interested in hearing some of those stories, I have an archive of "Heroes of the Faith" studies on my church website as audio podcasts from our Sunday evening services, mostly from 2011-2012.) One traditional practice on Halloween is for believers to go to the cemetery and light candles by the graves of departed Christians--in some countries where this is done, the effect is so impressive that these lighted cemeteries are given their own hauntingly poetic name--"seas of light." That strikes me as a beautiful way to remind ourselves of the great truths to which we hold: that death is not the end, that Christ has conquered the grave and brought light to the darkness, and that those who have gone before us are living even now in the presence of the great shekinah glory of the Lord.

2.) Meditating on Death

Halloween can also provide a useful reminder to us of one of the most important but least-practiced Christian spiritual disciplines: meditating on death. One of the most famous lines of Christian liturgy, spoken by many denominations every Ash Wednesday, is taken from the words of God to the first humans: "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (from Gen. 3:19). If you read the early church fathers, and particularly the desert fathers, it is hard to find a more consistently-given piece of spiritual advice: "Keep the thought of death always before you." In the tradition of Western religious painting, the conventional way to paint a great saint or religious person at prayer was to include a human skull in the picture, often being touched by the person as an object of reflective contemplation. 

Why all this focus on death? Well, it's a necessary reminder to us of some of the basic facts of human nature, facts that cut against the grain of our inborn tendencies toward prideful self-absorption. Death reminds us that, aside from the gracious choice of God to offer the gift of eternal life, we would simply be nothing more than the physical elements that fill up our flesh. Our bodies will return to dust, our headstones will grow old and faded, and 99.9% of all people who come after us will not even be aware that we ever existed. The world will go on without us, just as it always has. We will be forgotten, and, a generation or two hence, we will not be missed. 

I'm not just saying these things to be depressingly macabre; I'm saying them because they're true, and we need to hear them. We make so much of our own lives, our own petty little issues here and now, that seem so huge to us in the present moment, but, when compared to the "big picture" that death forces us to focus on, really don't matter much at all. The bitter pill of meditating on death packs a powerful dose of humility, and humility is the Christian virtue par excellence, the antidote to pride and the gateway that enables us to leave our inward-focused obsessions and actually be able to fulfill the command to love God and love others. It cuts through our delusions of self-importance, and assists us on focusing on those things that truly matter, things that last beyond the grave: faith, hope, and love; expanding the Kingdom of God in our hearts and in the world.

But we evangelicals tend not to think much about death. We take "everlasting life" for granted, as the natural outcome of some imagined eternal quality natural to the human spirit (rather than contingent on God's eternality), so that death is merely a passage. No, death is the universe's actual appraisal of our value as creatures--we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It is only by the unimaginable grace of God that we have something beyond death to hope toward, and we have too often taken that grace for granted. Death reminds us of our creatureliness, of our status as contingent beings, wholly dependent on God. 

So Halloween's focus on death need not be construed as something unhealthy, macabre, or anti-Christian. Skulls and headstones are among the most ancient and revered symbols of one of the greatest practices of personal devotion, a practice that evangelicals probably ought to recover. One of these days, instead of doing your quiet time at home, take a thoughtful prayerwalk through a cemetery--it can be a great aid to virtue.

3.)  Making a Spectacle of the Powers

One of the most troubling aspects of Halloween to many thoughtful Christians is the way that it seems to make play of things that are associated with evil: witches, devils, vampires, etc. I'll agree that I'm not wild about that part of it--while we let our kids enjoy the celebration of Halloween, we prefer to have them in costumes that are positive and innocuous. 

However, it's worth reflecting on the fact that we live in a culture in which, thanks largely to our Christian heritage, the very real powers of evil in the world today have lost much of their out-in-the-open mastery over people's lives. Allow me to explain what I mean: there's a very real difference between what we Americans do at Halloween, taking on the dress of witches and devils as something playful, something void of all power to terrify because we know they don't really have a hold over us, in contrast to the practices of many animistic (and pre-Christian pagan) cultures around the world, who also have rituals in which people dress up as witches or devils--but in those instances, the power of evil is very real, noticeably present, and inflamed by deep-rooted fear in the lives of those people. As a missionary kid who has lived and worked in countries with significant animistic-culture backgrounds, I can testify to the chilling power of that fear. Witches and devils are paraded about in animistic cultures because the powers of evil are openly active in their world in a way that is hard for us Westerners to imagine (we in the West, of course, do still have to deal with the activity of demonic powers, but not in quite the same out-in-the-open way of bondage and fear). Animist societies feel that those powers must be placated; they must be acknowledged and their anger expiated, or else death and disease and curses and black magic will begin destroying lives in the most terrifying ways. 

In the Christian worldview, however, of which remnants still remain in our culture's practice of Halloween, those evil powers have been utterly shattered by Christ. They have been voided of power. They no longer have the ability to truly terrify, because their hold on us is gone, thanks to the victory of Christ. Witches and devils have been reduced to playthings, making mockery of their delusions of power--they are made a "spectacle" because of what Christ has done (Col. 2:15). When Jesus took on the evil powers of sin, Satan, and Hades, he didn't do it by simply engulfing them in a beautiful flash of the endless, blissful light of the love of God--no, he took them down on their own terms, he drank down their symbols of horror and abuse; in the words of the ancient liturgical proclamation, he trampled down death by death

So, unless you're actually invoking demonic spirits or intending to pursue a new career in black magic, even the Halloween costumes that relate to those things need not necessarily be objectionable to the Christian mind: they are signs that Christ has conquered, that he has taken what were once very real powers of evil that kept human cultures in terrifying bondage, and has so voided them of strength that they have become mere playthings, items of mockery and jest. Halloween, which parades those shattered remnants of old spiritual bondage and smothers them in showers of neighborly goodwill and generosity, can bring very little consolation, I would think, to Satan and his powers.

4.) Love Thy Neighbor

This is the easiest aspect of Christian-Halloween practice for us to wrap our minds around. One of the great commandments of Christ to us is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Well, Halloween is a holiday that gives us occasion to love our neighbors, to interact with our fellow citizens, to bless them with generosity and kindness. Shutting our doors on Halloween, on the other hand, especially if our neighbors know that we are Christians, will do more to bring reproach to our faith than to magnify its holiness. Depending on the expectations of your local community, you may be seen, even if that is not your intent, as being intentionally unneighborly and overly legalistic. But, as I've written before, there are also good reasons that Christians might have for deciding not to celebrate Halloween; and if your conscience directs you in that way, I would simply encourage you to be intentionally active in other ways to make your love of neighbor known to those around you, so that your disassociation from your community on this holiday won't lead to your faith being judged as unneighborly. 

(Images - Point #1, inset left: "The Way of Salvation," or "The Church Militant and Triumphant," by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1367, fresco; Point #1, inset right: photo of candles and cross in a cemetery in Helsinki, by Pöllö, 24 December 2007, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; Point #2, inset left: "Mary Magdalene," by Jan Boeckhorst or Jan Cossiers, c.1650, oil on panel; Point #2, inset right: "San Jerónimo," by José de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas; Point #3, inset left: "Mitigat Accensam Divini Numinis Iram Post Varios esu Casus de Morte Resurges," by Steffan Kreutzer, et al, 1585, copper engraving on paper.)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 10



 (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)

~10~

           “You don’t understand, Sir Thomas—I must return,” the Sheriff’s face was flushed as he faced the captain of the Newcastle guard.  “There are matters that must be attended to.”
Thomas’ eyes narrowed with suspicion, never breaking his locked gaze with the Sheriff.   
 “Aye, sir,” he said slowly, inflecting clearly so that the officer would have no trouble catching the disapproval that clung to each syllable.
The Sheriff frowned, tugging at his gray beard.  “I don’t believe we have much chance of catching these men.  The best we can hope for is to drive them far enough away so they don’t try to return and plague us again.  So I’ll leave you in command of six of the men.  Your choice.”
“Yes, sir,” he breathed through gritted teeth.
The Sheriff sighed and stretched before mounting his gray charger.  “If my troop rides quickly, we can be back at last night’s campsite before all the light goes on us.  Pick your men.”
Thomas nodded and quickly selected his six, the best men of the guard, then bid the Sheriff farewell. As the troop galloped out of sight on the eastbound path,  he shook his head and turned to the others. 
“All right, I suppose we’d better make camp here and wait until morning to go after them again.  Unless they rode through the rain, we can’t be too far behind.  But Raymond, you’d better go out scouting again just to make sure.  If you find them tonight, we may even have a chance of finishing this by dawn.”
Raymond nodded and turned, stepping quietly out into a low, bushy growth and disappearing from their view.
~ ~ ~
Michael grimaced, looking down with contempt from where he sat astride his black horse.  The young man gazed back up at him with fear-filled eyes.
“Please, my lord.  That’s all I know.”
“Indeed?” Michael leaned forward, searching the boy’s eyes with his icy gaze.  “And that’s all you told the others?”
“Others, sir?”
“The knights, boy.  The ones with the white cloaks—they did talk to you, did they not?”
“Oh, aye,” he nodded, his terrified eyes still fixed on the dark-cloaked figure before him.  “The ones with the cross on their tunics?  Yes, they asked me the same questions.”
“Hmm,” Michael mused, glancing thoughtfully at the rain-soaked land around him.  A crow hovered high overhead, croaking its harsh call to the heavens.  “And did you discover any of their names?  Where they were from?”
He shook his head slowly.  “They said that they were the Poor Knights of Christ.”
Michael smiled wryly, nodding as he turned his horse in a tight circle around the frightened youth.  “And you know nothing about these Poor Knights?”
Again, he shook his head, tears now filling his eyes.  “Please, master, I know nothing.  Can’t I go yet?”
“You were the last one to see that knight before he disappeared nearly two years ago,” he said, his voice grave.  “Many seek the knowledge of what happened to that man.”
“But my lord, he returned to York afterward—surely others saw him there.”
“Aye,” Michael nodded, scanning the trees and the empty countryside.  “But we are more concerned with what he left here—he didn’t stay in York for long, and now no one seems to know what has become of him.  What he did here holds the key to that secret.  Listen, boy, if these Poor Knights ever come to you again, I don’t want you to tell them anything more—deceive them if you have to.  Especially if they come from York—the Poor Knights there seem to be far too interested in this matter for their own good.  They are the enemies of everything that is good in England.  Do you hear me, boy?”
“I won’t say anything about it, sir.  I swear it.  Please, can I go home now?”
“Go on, then,” he growled menacingly.  “Away with you!”
The boy needed no further incentive, and immediately bolted, running as fast as his legs could carry him.  He never looked back, but sprinted with all his might away from his interrogator.
Michael watched him race away, a twisted grin on his face.  “Still nothing,” he breathed softly.  “The trail has been cold too long.”  He glanced up at the sun, now setting toward the distant western horizon.  “And now, to Newcastle,” he said, driving his heels into the ribs of his steed, “and may your God protect you, dear Sheriff.”
~ ~ ~
Edward crouched down behind a low bush, hoping desperately that he wasn’t visible.  His heart pounded hard in his chest, so hard that he thought the men of Newcastle might be able to hear it.  Why didn’t I just stay in Melrose?  He sighed, quickly scanning the little glade before him.  Six.  Six knights, all making camp.  With a shake of his head, he drew a deep breath and began to crawl carefully back the way he had come.  He made his way slowly, cautiously through the dry underbrush until he was well out of earshot of the soldiers’ camp.  Then standing up, he began jogging back over the two miles toward the caves in the riverbank, praying that he would find them still there.  The sun was setting in the west, though, and he knew they had most likely moved on without him.
It took nearly half an hour before he ran up to their camp, only a mile or so beyond the caves they had rested in earlier.  He burst into the middle of a ring of five brigands, glancing around breathlessly.  The five outlaws gazed back at him, their expressions revealing silent, mocking laughter. 
"Where’s Hannah?” he gasped, whirling to face Jonathan.
The one-eyed brigand scowled at him, spitting at his feet.  “Why should we care what becomes of a Jewess?”
Edward’s fists clenched and he had to restrain himself from lashing out at the man.  
        He closed his eyes and exhaled before responding.  “All right, Jonathan.  Please tell me where she is.  Is Alfred with her?”
He nodded, winking maliciously.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he grinned.  “Alfred seems to have an eye for your wife—went down together to the riverbank a while ago.  They’re down there now—all alone.”
Without stopping to think, he bolted, sprinting full-tilt toward the south, hoping to find them along the stretch of the benighted riverbank.  “God, protect her,” he breathed as he ducked under a low branch, dashing toward where the shimmering waters danced along beneath a gentle moon.
~ ~ ~
She bowed her head, not even looking him in the eye.    “What is it you want from me?”
Alfred flashed a cocky smile.  “Besides the obvious, you mean?” he laughed as she drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders.  “Fear not, Jewess. If I were to do that, my brother would quickly leave behind all charades of peace and kill me where I stood.”
“And I would willingly help him,” she whispered.
He laughed again, reaching out to run a hand along her dark hair.  She shoved him away.  “Perhaps I should warn you," he said, "that all of Edward’s romances tend to end in tragedy.”
She shrugged, wondering if she would be able to outrun him.  “I assure you, then—this one will not.  Unless by tragedy you mean that we will have to kill you and your men.”
“You are a very bitter woman, did you know that?”
“There are some things that are worth holding grudges against,” she replied quietly.
“Well, anyway,” he brushed aside the comment.  “Yes.  Actually, I didn’t even know the poor boy loved the girl until after we had killed her.  After that, he decided to run away,” he sighed, “and so forfeit a place in our glorious re-conquest of England.”
She clucked her tongue sarcastically.  “It seems to me you have a long way to go yet before you ever see the crown in Saxon hands again.”
He frowned and grasped her arm, noticing that she had begun to inch away from him.  “Perhaps,” he growled.  “But if we find success in our mission here, I will see it within a few short years.  That is a promise.”
“And one that I hope you will break,” she said, glaring hard at him.
“What were you doing down by that cave?” he asked, cutting directly to his interrogation.  “Surely you knew the cave was there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“A Jewish girl, sitting just outside the cave of a Jewish usurer?  It seemed more than coincidence to me.”
“What does it matter?” she asked coldly.
“Allow me to explain, my slow-witted friend,” he replied.  “A few weeks ago, my men raided the house of a minor nobleman in Northampton.  We killed the men and began using the manor as a base of operations.  It was only a few days later, as I was going through the noble’s letters and forms, that I found some very intriguing correspondence that had taken place between him and the usurer in this very town.  The letters point to something of great value that was hidden here, which the noble was preparing to buy.  The cave we found you near contained the other half of that set of letters.  So all I need to know is—where is the priceless object of which they speak?”
She looked at him in silence, trying as best she could to put on a carefully neutral expression.  “This is all very interesting, but I’m afraid…”
“You know nothing of this?” he pressed, his eyes intense.
She shook her head slowly.  “In all candor, I think you’re insane.”
“That’s beside the point,” he growled, and kept his gaze hard toward her.  “I don’t believe you,” he whispered after a moment.
“What?”
“I don’t believe you,” he repeated.  “You know more than you’re telling me.  Perhaps even the location of what we seek.  And do not be fooled.”  His voice drew low, deep with warning.  “We will find it.”
She sighed, rolling her eyes.  “I still say you’re insane.  Of course there’s bound to be something of great value in a usurer’s stash!  What is so special about that?”
He leaned forward with interest.  “And yet we scoured the cave and found nothing.  Which says to me that someone has removed it.”
She tried to remain calm, but a flicker of fear passed over her features, and Alfred nodded, sensing he was drawing near to the truth of the matter.
“Yes…you took it, didn’t you?”
“Took what?” she feigned ignorance.
“A robe—a very old robe that you just might have.”
Hannah was silent, staring at him without expression.
“So where could this thing be?” he wondered aloud.  “I’ve already searched your saddlebag, without finding anything.  In my mind, there is only one other possibility.”
She stared at him evenly.
“Tell me,” he smiled slowly, “would you be wearing it?”  So saying, he reached out and ripped the thin cloak from her shoulders.  She screamed and began beating him with her fists. But his iron grip held her firm, and a grubby hand clamped over her mouth.
~ ~ ~
          Edward froze, listening to the frightened scream ring out over the bank.  “Hannah?” he shouted, his feet beginning to fly again over the rough terrain.  His heart was beating fast; a red haze of fury descended over his vision.  Raging, he burst from the brush to find Hannah struggling in his brother’s arms, her riding cloak torn and lying around her ankles.
Roaring incomprehensibly, he launched himself at his startled brother.  His fists pounded against Alfred’s face, driving all the impetus of his charge in the huge man’s broad chest.  Alfred was caught off guard by the flurry of blows from his brother.  But soon he was able to regain control, using his brute force to restrain Edward’s attack.  Hannah was weeping, her tear-streaked face buried in her hands, her legs curled beneath her as she sank to the wet ground.
Edward scowled in utter fury, shaking himself in an attempt to break free from Alfred’s grip.  “What were you doing to her?” he screamed at him. 
Alfred released his brother momentarily, but as soon as he did, the ready fists began pummeling him again.  With a great heave, the brigand sent the smaller man flying back against the rocks.  Edward lay there for a moment, bruised and aching.
Alfred snorted contemptuously and walked back up the camp without replying to the incensed query.  As he watched him go, Edward’s mind began to clear, and he immediately turned to where Hannah was sitting, pouring out her tears onto the rocks.
“Hannah,” he gasped, running up to where she was sitting, “I should not have left you with him.”
He sat there for a long moment, letting her cry onto his shoulder.  Darkness descended around them and the stars had all come out by the time she looked back up at him.  He held her gently, afraid she would crumble in his arms.  All of her strength of will had fled in the terror of the moment, and the memories of the pain of the past weeks rose back up in that instant to haunt her once again.  She prayed desperately for the strength to compose herself again, but it didn’t come, and she remained there, weeping in Edward’s soothing embrace.
After a few minutes, she sat up on her own strength and shrugged her riding cloak back over her shoulders, drying her tear-stained cheeks with the sleeve.  “I’m sorry, Edward,” she apologized, her breath still coming in the rhythm of dry sobs.
“Shh,” he said, laying a comforting hand on her arm.  “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Hannah.  I’m only sorry I couldn’t have returned sooner.”
She closed her eyes, nodding slightly.  “You came just in time.  An answer to prayer.  It’s just that…” tears sprang into her eyes again.  “When he attacked me like that, it reminded me of what happened in London.”
He sat quietly, willing to listen as she began to pour out her heart about the events of the past few weeks.  Through her tears, she explained about the loss of her father and the imprisonment of her uncle and the long, lonely ride home in a final effort to regain some hope for the future.  “I just don’t understand it, Edward,” she said softly as tears began to spring into her eyes anew.  “Why?”
He wanted to look away, to bury his fears, his doubts, to show her a side of him that he wished existed: a part of him that could stand up for her and heal her pain, a part of him that could give her the answers.
“I don’t know,” he rasped.  “I don’t know.”
She shook her head.  “You weren’t there at London,” she said softly, allowing the sobs to rise up to wrack her chest again.  “You don’t know what it was like.  They slaughtered us like—like animals.  Why?”
Edward shook his head, trying to hold back his own tears.  “Only God knows, Hannah,” he said softly. 
She was silent, but her eyes were cold.  “My father believed in God,” she gasped out, then shook her head. "I'm not sure that I do."
Edward stood and faced her.  “We don’t always understand the way He works, Hannah.  But I know this much: His love never fails.”
She shook her head.  “His love has failed His chosen people,” she replied, her voice hollow.  Edward knew it would do nothing to press the point while she was still angry and confused, so he let it pass.
They sat together on the bank in silence, trying to make sense of the pain.  
“So anyway, that’s why I have to return to London,” she explained in a whisper, drying her eyes again.
He nodded, looking deep into her dark, red-rimmed eyes.  “I’m so sorry, Hannah,” he breathed.  “Sorry that you had to be dragged into this business with my brother.  But I know we can make it out.”
“Tonight,” she nodded, regaining some of the strong timbre in her voice.  “I’m not going back up there,” she pointed in the direction of the camp.
“I agree,” he said.  “But first—I still don’t understand what Alfred wanted with you down here.  My brother is a terrible person, but he is not such a base man that he would try to…”
She shook her head.  “No.  He was looking for something—a priceless object he thought I might be hiding from him.”
“The king I serve has left his train in a new castle on the Tyne,” Edward whispered.
“What?”
“It’s from the letter that Alfred sent to lure me down here.  At first I thought he might be speaking about a relic of sorts that he thought he had found, but I still have no idea.”
“You’re right,” she said quietly, glancing around to make certain that no one was eavesdropping on the conversation.  “It’s a relic.  A knight from York gave it to my father nearly two years ago, bidding him to protect it.  We never heard from him again, except in a single letter that told us what the relic was, so my father made preparations to sell it to a nobleman from Northampton named David.  But apparently your brother and his men killed David and found my father’s letters, and now have come to take this thing for themselves.”
Edward’s eyes narrowed with concentration.  “What exactly is this relic?”
“A robe—a very ancient robe that the knight bore back from the Holy Land.  Apparently he was being chased by someone else who sought it, so he left it with us.  From his letter, it is the robe that your Christ wore before his death—a robe given to him by a king.”
“Herod’s robe,” he breathed, nodding slowly.  “If it is true, this would be one of the greatest treasures in all Christendom.”
She glanced at him.  “You don’t believe it’s genuine?”
“There’s a good chance it’s not,” he admitted.  “Most likely there are a dozen other robes all over Europe with the same claim.  With all the pieces of the True Cross that have come back from the Holy Land, one could build an entire fortress.  But the claim alone might make it great enough to bring the bearer into great power—or great danger, I suppose.  And you know where this is?”
She nodded, but didn’t specify anything.
“Did Alfred find out that you know about it?”
“No,” she replied.  “But he suspects it.”
Edward nodded.  “Then he will not easily let you go.  We’ll have to be careful.”
“He’ll probably expect us to take the river back toward the city,” she said.  “Perhaps we should strike north and break out of the woods before turning back east.”
“Or we could go and surrender ourselves to the protection of the men of Newcastle,” he offered.
She frowned.  “I’d rather not.  For all they know, we’re part of the band of brigands.  I don’t want to trust my life to them if they wouldn’t even come to the protection of the Jews when we were being raided."
“All right,” he sighed, rising and offering a hand to pull her to her feet as well.  “Then we’d better begin before Alfred returns.  North, then east.”
They walked slowly back up the bank, the shadows of the woods adding a cloak of secrecy around them.  They avoided the brigand’s camp, walking instead past it, and on through the forest, towards the open moors of Northumbria.
~ ~ ~
Raymond crouched silently beside a wide expanse of bracken.  Dawn was coming within the hour, and he had only located the brigand’s camp a little while earlier. He was only beginning to grow weary, since he had slept much of the afternoon during the rain.  But as the dim shadows of dawn began to seep into the forest growth, he could feel the gentle urges of his body pulling him toward sleep.  As soon as his ears caught the sound of careful footsteps, though, his focus snapped back instantly.
He listened, peering into the gloom.  There it was again, the sound of several pairs of feet quietly treading the forest floor.  Every so often he would hear a twig snap or a rustling of leaves, and each time the sounds drew nearer.  Trying to breathe softly, he watched intently as two shadowy forms passed by him quickly, walking north through the woods.  As they passed within a few paces of him, a single ray of moonlight fell on their faces, and he recognized them as having been with the brigands.
He waited until they had passed by, then began to trail them.  It was best to know what the adversary was up to at all times.  He might be able to overpower them, but he could also alert the brigands to his presence by doing so.  He frowned, turning to see a dim, graying horizon through the trees.  He would have to try to be back to the camp by dawn in order for the early raid to commence against the brigands’ camp.
~ ~ ~
Alfred yawned and rose, scanning the campground in the dim light of pre-dawn.  His eye fell on the empty spaces where Edward and Hannah had laid their gear.  He stood there for a moment uncomprehendingly, still fighting off the last holds of sleep from his mind.  The chill of the river mists made him shiver violently, as he walked over to their vacant spots, his mind still dull.
Alfred swore and pulled his men to their feet.  “Jonathan,” he barked in the brigand’s face.  “Edward and his cur are gone!  Take two men and follow the river back to Newcastle.  I’ll take the other two and circle north.  We have to find them before they can reach the city!”
Jonathan nodded and sleepily motioned two of the others to follow him.  In a matter of minutes, the brigands were mounted and riding noisily through the forest, their wearied eyes peering into the early morning gloom.