Friday, November 18, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 8

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Chapter 8


          They came to the village as the last glow of twilight was fading away. Above them, the stars were peeking out through the purple dome, reflected by the lamps and cooking-fires in the valley below.  
          Lucius stumbled down the last few steps of the footpath, his legs aching from their march. All four of the travelers had been plagued with doubts about their decision to press on, but by the final stretch they were simply too close to their goal to let their exhaustion win out. Even John, though they had earlier marveled at his endurance, was showing clear signs of his age. More so than any of them, John was now laboring down the final length of the trip, and Lucius understood why Justus had refused to let him go into the hills alone.

            A shout of greeting rose ahead of them, and Polycarp shouted a response. Suddenly, the village erupted into a flurry of activity, as people poured out of their houses and onto the dusty trail.
            Lucius cast a long glance over the village. It was a simple place—primitive, even, compared to what he was accustomed to in Rome and Smyrna. There was poverty aplenty in both those great cities, but it was always contrasted with the ever-present colonnades and porticos of the wealthy temples and noble houses. Here, though there was no wealth to make a contrast. The village was an egalitarian scattering of simple homes, most of them built from sun-hardened mud bricks and thatch. They were clustered against the banks of a wide pond, the outflow of one of the many highland streams that ran through the region.
            What struck Lucius more than the poverty of the place, though, was the joy of the people. They rushed toward the travelers in an exuberant wave, young men and elders and tiny toddlers, all running together and beaming smiles as they ran.
            John stood to greet them, straightening his stooped form and stretching out his arms, as if he could embrace the whole mob at once. They flooded around him, laughing, reaching out to place affectionate hands on his shoulders, his arms, his back. “Prester John! Prester John!” they shouted.
            John, for his part, threw back his head and laughed with pure delight—a laugh that was almost dangerously uncontrolled for a man of his age, full of wheezes and coughs and sputters, but so free and so jubilant that Lucius thought it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. John turned and looked at Lucius, tears gleaming in his eyes.
            “You told me you didn’t have a family anymore, Lucius Tiro,” he beamed. “Well, this is my family. And they can be yours, too.”
            The whole company turned to head back to the village, and as they went the villagers broke into song. It was a language Lucius couldn’t understand, but it was clear enough that this was a song of sheer joy. They shouted out the words through their smiles and clapped their hands, leading the four weary walkers in a triumphal procession to the center of their village.
            “What are they saying, Polycarp?” asked Elder Justus.
            “It’s a song they use to welcome fellow Christians. It says, ‘God has poured his love into our hearts, and so we pour our love into yours.’”
            Once again, Lucius found himself caught up into a strange new world, a world he never would have believed to exist. Like his experience at the worship service in Smyrna, he was hearing words—simple words, really—but possessed with a power that made his soul ache with longing.
            God has poured his love into our hearts.
He couldn’t imagine anyone singing a song like that in his former life in Rome; couldn’t imagine what a life that could write that song must feel like. But he wanted to know. He needed to know. Here again was the call of love and mercy, breaking over the threshold of visible nature, and filling his lungs with the breath of something numinous, something beyond what he had ever experienced. The world around him, slipping from twilight into night, suddenly seemed to unveil itself, to reveal a mystical, living experience of unspoken joy that he had never seen before. The stars were so clearly alive in that moment that Lucius half expected them to start dancing. The mountains, shrouded in darkness, almost seemed to be singing along, with voices so deep they couldn’t be heard by human ears.
            This reaction, unsought and unanticipated, was so strange and startling that Lucius didn’t even know what to do with it. Perhaps I’m going mad, he mused to himself, trying to regain control of his mystified senses. But then another thought coursed through him: Or perhaps this—this, right here—is what reality really feels like, and I’ve been blind to it my whole life.
            They were led into one of the larger homes in the village, where the main room was lit with four oil lamps, glowing in the corners. There John sat down with a large group of his admirers, and they began chattering happily back and forth.
            Lucius, Polycarp, and Justus stood back near the doorway of the room, but soon their hosts pulled them in, bade them take a seat, and began bringing out drinks and treats for them to eat.
            “Polycarp,” said John, “I could use your language skills here, if you don’t mind. I can only get so far with what I know, and I’m not remembering as much of it as I thought I would.”
            Polycarp dutifully took a seat beside John, and together they conversed with the villagers—John speaking in Greek, and Polycarp translating his answers into the local tongue. Lucius listened carefully. It soon became apparent that several of the young men in the group had expressed a desire to become converts to the Christian religion, and so John was slowly and graciously instructing them in the basic doctrines of the faith.
            Lucius sat beside Elder Justus and listened to the conversation. John spoke in his rambling, heavily accented way, but the story was easy enough to follow. And for the first time, Lucius heart it all, from beginning to end: the way that the one true God had adopted a nation for himself, had loved it, taught it, and walked with it through many centuries; how, just a generation ago, that same God had sent his very own Son—the eternal, divine Logos, the holy Wisdom of God that had been spoken forth from before the dawn of time—and this Logos became a human being, Iesous of Nazareth. John recounted all the stories of meeting Iesous, becoming his disciple, learning under his teaching. With laughter and tears, he spoke of the many faltering attempts that he and the other disciples had made to understand just what was going on in front of their eyes. And then Lucius heard about the crucifixion—the murder of God, the attempt of humanity and evil spiritual powers to silence the sound of eternal love—but only to hear that sound break out again, in an unthinkable symphony of joy, on Resurrection morning. John explained, with clarity and delight, how that one act of God-made-man, the ultimate sacrificial offering on the cross and the history-shattering victory of life and love at empty tomb, opened the way for all people to come to God. Now, with humanity and deity joined together in the person of Iesous Christos, with sins atoned for and God’s Holy Spirit working sanctifying grace into the limbs and sinews of the human race, now we could enter into the eternal love of the eternal God. And here was a vision of more than just a simple reception of that gift of love, though that was the first step—it was a journey of following God into the heart of his very nature, and through his love becoming love ourselves.
            Lucius had never heard anything like this before. Some of the story was shocking—that the God of the cosmos would submit to the most wrenching, bloody, dishonorable death wrought by the hands of men? It seemed unthinkable. If Lucius had read this story in a scroll, he would have been skeptical of it. It seemed too wild, too gruesome and too wonderful all at the same time, to even have a chance of being true. But Lucius wasn’t reading it from a scroll; he was reading it from the life of a man who had seen it all, and who was so obviously, so clearly, so undeniably incarnating that very transformation into divine love that he was speaking about. And, hearing the story in that way, from that man, there was no question in Lucius’ mind that it was true—every single word of it. It was radiating out from John’s life in a way that was impossible to miss.
            At the end of John’s discourse, some of the young converts began putting questions to him, and the old man would answer every one. As they talked back and forth, it became clear that some sort of religious initiation was being planned, to welcome these young men into the faith. The word bounced back and forth among them: baptismos, whereby they would signify their identification with the saving death of Iesous and the washing away of their sins.
            A sudden impulse seized Lucius. He cleared his throat and leaned over to speak softly into Elder Justus’ ear.
“Would it be possible for me to join this rite, and become a Christian?”
            Justus looked at him, a broad smile stretching across the craggy features of his face. “Of course it would!”
            He took Lucius by the hand, led him over to where John and Polycarp were sitting in the circle of villagers, and announced Lucius’ request.
            Lucius, despite a flash of embarrassment at having his private hope so publicly shared, couldn’t help but smile.
            John and Polycarp beamed at him. “Truly, brother?” asked Polycarp.
            Lucius didn’t really know what to say. So all he said was, “Yes,” and it came out with an unexpected gasp of longing.
            Polycarp stood up and embraced him, and then John stood up too and extended his ancient, wiry arms.
            “Oh, beloved son,” he said as Lucius stooped down into his embrace. “Welcome home.”
~ ~ ~
            The next morning, the whole village gathered at the edge of the pond. The sky above them was a brilliant blue, framed by the rugged hills of the Lydian highlands. Lucius stood there awkwardly beside the four young villagers who were also undergoing the rite of baptism. He had heard strange tales about the many rites of initiation among the mystery religions of the Empire—stories of being doused in cascades of blood from butchered bulls, of eating sacrificial flesh, of ecstatic dances under the influence of a spirit. He didn’t quite know what was about to happen here, but the word for the rite seemed innocent enough—baptismos, a dipping or a washing.
            John and Justus strode out into the shallows of the pond, and then turned and gestured for the first young man to come forward. Lucius watched as he went out to the two elders, answered a few quiet questions, faced the west and then the east, and was dipped down under the waves. He came up again with a cry of joy and clapped his hands.
            One by one the young men went out to Justus and John, until finally it was Lucius’ turn. The water was breathtakingly cold as he stepped out into it, but the two elders called him ever deeper. When he reached them, John took hold of his shoulders and turned him to face the west.
            “This is our rite of repentance and new birth,” he said. “Here you are about to turn your back on Satan and all evil spirits, on idolatry, and on all your old life of sin. In the name of Iesous Christos, do you renounce all these things?”
            “Yes, I do,” said Lucius.
            Then John turned him to face the east, where the risen sun was still hanging just above the rim of the horizon. “And do you accept Iesous Christos as God’s anointed one, his beloved son, existing with the Father from before all ages, and in our time having come among us as a man, flesh of flesh, to save us from sin and bring us to union with God? Do you take him as God and Lord, and pledge yourself as his follower and saint from this day forward?”
            “I do,” said Lucius again.
            “Then, beloved son, I baptize you in the name of God the Father, and of Iesous Christos his Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
            Lucius let himself drop down into the water, guided by Elder Justus’ strong hands. The cool depths of the pond surrounded him for a brief moment, and then he was pulled back up again. When he burst through the surface, the world seemed brighter than he remembered—the sun, the sky, the mountains were all awash with color and light.
            “May you be blessed, Lucius,” said Justus. “Your sins have been washed away.”
            Lucius nodded solemnly, because he felt that a moment like this ought to be marked by a touch of solemnity, but inside he felt a riotous wash of something new. Just as he had felt the dams of sorrow and pain burst in his heart when he first listened to the Christians’ service of worship, so now he felt a flood of something different, as if all the dams of heaven had suddenly been ripped apart, and the divine love that ruled the dancing spheres had all been poured out, a universe’s worth of mercy and joy, straight into his heart.
            He walked out of the water and stood on the bank with the other converts. John walked up to each one in turn, and dabbed a touch of anointing oil on their foreheads.
            “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he breathed softly to each of them.
            When the rite was over, the Christians of the village broke out into another chorus of joy. They exulted together with clapping and lifted arms and shouts of “Amen!” and “Maranatha!” Lucius found himself surrounded by the happy mob, embracing him, squeezing his shoulders, calling him their brother. This crowd of strangers had suddenly become his family, and he was a part of them.
            The celebration went on for some time, because the women of the church had prepared a special feast. Before they sat down to eat, the church shared together the rite that Lucius had witnessed in Smyrna—the sharing of the cup and the loaf, the mystery of Iesous’ sacrificial offering of blood and flesh. Lucius still didn’t quite understand all of what it meant, but for the first time, he knelt there and partook of those holy elements, receiving by faith what understanding could only yet dimly grasp.
            Then they feasted, and the celebration stretched on until midday. John and Justus sat on either side of Lucius, and they talked happily back and forth between themselves. At the end of the feast, though, John took on a serious tone.
            “My son Lucius,” he said, placing a gnarled hand on Lucius’ knee, “you should know that since I met you, the Spirit has been telling me that God will use you for a great purpose. I don’t yet know what that is, and I suspect that you don’t either. But follow Iesous with all your heart, and he will make it clear in time.”
            Lucius didn’t know how to respond, but he didn’t have to, because John immediately leaned over to speak to Justus.
“I’m returning to Ephesus when we leave here. Polycarp will accompany me for the journey. But I want you to take Lucius here and raise him as your son. Disciple him; teach him well. I’m entrusting him to your care.”
“I understand,” said Justus. “I’ll watch over him. A good pastor guards his sheep, right? He’ll be safe with me.”
“Good,” said John. “Good. Well, let’s gather the elders of the church here for a final prayer, and then we’ll be on our way.”

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