That first year Adrianus spent in Israel he realized that he had never before met with such hatred. He had grown up in a country that had almost forgotten the ignominy of conquest. His father still farmed the same land that his ancestors had worked and life had not changed much for the common people under Roman rule. When he had joined the army he had enjoyed the pride of being a member of the strongest army in the world. Life had been hard for him in those days but he had been lucky in having a just superior who whilst severe on indiscipline had kept a paternal eye on the men under his command. He had marched, and built roads, and fought battles, and erected battlements. He had tasted the thrill of victory and had not thought too much about the peoples whom they had conquered.
As the years passed, valor, good fortune and increasing wisdom had given him promotions, and nearly five years ago he had been raised to the rank of centurion and posted to this out of the way little country, teeming with zealots eager to see the back of the Roman occupation. The little town of Capernaum to which he and his century were sent was insignificant. Despite being on the Via Maris, the highway between the Mediterranean coast and Damascus, it was a small fishing village with hardly a thousand people, and yet of these he felt there must be well more than the usual proportion who would stick a knife into an unarmed Roman. He was well aware that many spat in his path after he had passed and he became used to the scowls of the tradesmen who must do business with him.
It was not for nothing that Adrianus had been made a centurion. A good soldier, he had also learned to look around him and to understand the men under his authority and with them men in general. Whereas as a young man he had given little thought to the feelings of the vanquished, rejoicing only in the might of the Roman Empire, in recent years he had begun to perceive what it would mean to a man to see his native land taken over. Sometimes he thought back to the faraway family farm and felt a pang that he might not see it again and then he understood what made a man a patriot. Given that his role in Capernaum was to keep the peace he started to give thought to what he could do to build trust among the restless populace of the town.
He knew that many Romans well merited the hatred they received. Despised by the populace they were not slow to return the show of contempt, so bridges were never built between the two sides. Adrianus wondered what would happen if he tried to show respect. It was revolutionary – his colleagues would say insane – but the maxim his mother had taught him many years before echoed in the back of his mind making him think it was worth trying.
“Adrianus,” she had said, “you should love other people as you love yourself.” She had been very strict about the way he and his brothers treated each other and had insisted that they extend the principle to other people too. It meant that they had learned to think how their actions affected those around them. As nobody else he knew lived by that rule Adrianus had often wondered where the idea had originated but faced with hatred he had cast his mind back often to his mother’s teaching.
It was hard for a man of his standing to humble himself to these poor yokels with their impossible patriotism. It was particularly hard because he suspected that meekness would be seen as weakness and he could not bear to be perceived by them as weak. Nevertheless he armed himself with the pride that he knew his mother would feel in him as he started to treat them with courtesy. The words he said were not difficult.
“Excuse me, but my horse has cast a shoe. Would you have time to re-shoe it for me?” The first time he had approached the blacksmith with those words the man had regarded him as an idiot. It was well known that Roman soldiers did not ask, they commanded, and it was also well known that the Israelites responded by being slow and reluctant as far as they dared – which with the might of Rome breathing down their necks was not far. The blacksmith’s response to Adrianus’ politely worded request was audacious.
“I might – and I might not.” Adrianus had been tempted to show him who was the master but he had restrained himself for his mother’s sake and sat down to wait. Out of prudence the man had not been rash enough to keep him waiting long and Adrianus had paid him well and thanked him for his work. However, the anger he felt at the way he had been treated almost made him give up the experiment and once again he was only saved by thinking of his mother.
Kept by her protective spirit he had continued with this, the hardest campaign of his military experience, and gradually he had seen attitudes towards him change. Hatred is a draining emotion and the people of Capernaum were becoming tired of it. Like Adrianus they too had been taught to love their neighbours as themselves, although most of them did not consider that the Romans were included in the term ‘neighbour’. However, there were some who had been softened by the courtesy with which they were treated. The blacksmith no longer pretended to be busy when he brought his horse for a new shoe. He even gave a gruff, “Shalom”, when Adrianus walked in, which Adrianus recognized as a subtle and limited form of acceptance.
One morning as Adrianus waited by the forge for his horse to be ready, two boys came running down the street towards him. Alike as two nails, apart from their size, it was obvious that they were brothers, the older one a few paces ahead of the younger, who struggled to keep up. As Adrianus watched them he remembered the years when he and his brothers had chased each other down the street, he always a little behind the older two. Suddenly the uneven surface proved hazardous and the younger child fell at full length almost at Adrianus’ feet. Winded for a minute he lay still and then as he realized that his hands and knees had suffered from the fall he was about to let out a howl of outrage against the brother who had run on without noticing when he found himself lifted up by strong arms and set gently on his feet. His howl stopped in his mouth and he stared at the large man squatted beside him whose face was thus on a level with his own. With one hand on the boy’s shoulder Adrianus felt in the pouch on his belt with the other. He liked the taste of dried figs and kept a supply available. He pulled one out and gave it to the child whose look of wonder turned to one of delight as he took the fruit and bit into its sun-warmed sweetness.
By this time the older boy had realized that his brother was no longer behind him and had returned to find him. Seeing Adrianus he hesitated, unsure of what to make of the situation. Talk he had overheard from his elders had made him afraid of the uniform that Adrianus wore but the treat in his brother’s hand and the friendly smile that Adrianus turned on him belied the fears he had been taught. Adrianus felt for a second fig and presented it to him.
“Your brother can’t keep up when you run so fast,” he advised. “I could never keep up with my big brothers either.”
“Where are your brothers, sir?” asked the boy.
“They’re a long way from here. I haven’t seen them for a long time.” Adrianus said. “Now, take your brother home, and don’t forget to go slower.”
“I won’t forget sir, and thank you for the figs. Shalom.”
“Shalom,” Adrianus replied but he sighed as the boys ran off together. He had not given much thought to his home recently but the short encounter had reminded him forcefully of life back there. As he stood in the sun waiting for the blacksmith he closed his eyes and leaned against the wall of the forge. He was back home, watching his mother washing clothes in the river, kneeling on the flat rock on the bank and leaning far over into the stream kneading, squeezing and wringing the heavy garments, occasionally sitting back on her heels to rest and rubbing the stiff places on her shoulders. He knew from experience that field work was hard but for the first time he realized that women also worked hard, and often much longer than men. The first person he had seen every morning had been his mother, up before daybreak to prepare breakfast for the men before they went to the fields, and the sound of her turning the mill to grind flour for breakfast was the song which had lulled him to sleep at night. He thought of her work-roughened hands that could still sooth a fevered head, and her gentle song to the cows as she laid her weathered cheek against their warm red sides and milked them.
From his mother his mind wandered to his father, strong sinewy shoulders pulling at the plough. This was the man who had taught him about planting and reaping seasons, about the merits of different pastures for grazing the sheep and cows, and, through constant example, the value of hard work. Suddenly unbidden there appeared in his mind the picture of his father kneeling beside his grandfather’s bier with tears rolling down his hard leathery face. Adrianus had been a small child at the time and had not clearly understood but he remembered the bitter words his father had uttered: “He never saw the return to freedom he longed for.”
Yes, although his father and grandfather had accepted the conquest and made the best of it, they had still mourned for the freedom of their beloved land. These Jews were exactly the same and he represented the hated conquerors, even though he himself had not been of the conquering force. His daily presence was a jarring reminder that they were not free. The memories of the tears on his father’s face and the warm young body of the boy beneath his hand became goads steering him towards a clearer vision of what his mother’s adage meant. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ These men and women amongst whom he lived were his neighbours even though they held for him only a righteous hatred borne of their love of their own land. He opened his eyes to find the blacksmith regarding him quizzically.
“Are you alright…? Sir?” he added as an afterthought.
“Just thinking of home,” Adrianus told him, surprised into an admission he had not expected to make.
The blacksmith regarded him with more fellow feeling than he had shown before. “Your horse is ready,” was all he said, and led it out of the forge.
“Thank you,” Adrianus told him, paying well. He mounted and walked the beast slowly up the street paying careful attention to the city and its people and musing on the revelations of the past hour.
Over the next few days he gave much thought to what he could do to further the accord between himself and the town. It was on the morning of the Sabbath that he noticed the synagogue of men meeting in the market place. Of course there was no market on the Sabbath so the men met together to recite the Shema – ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our Lord is one Lord’ – and the prayers, and to read from the Law and the Prophets. The morning was chilly and inclined to be rainy and Adrianus noticed that some of the older men stood shivering.
Early next morning he knocked at the door of the ruler of the synagogue. It was part of his job to know who the dignitaries of the town were but he had never spoken to this man before. He experienced an unaccustomed fear as he stood waiting for admittance to the house. He did not know how his advances would be viewed and he realized that he was afraid of rejection and humiliation.
A startled maid invited him into the courtyard and asked him to wait. The wait was a long one. He was not surprised. However, when the ruler appeared he apologized courteously for the delay and ask Adrianus to sit whilst calling for refreshments. The same young woman appeared shortly with a skin of goat’s milk and some date and honey cakes.
Adrianus had rehearsed his speech many times but even so it was hard to begin. He took a bite of cake and complimented the cook and then drawing a deep breath he started.
“I am aware that my visit is unexpected and unwelcome,” he began. His auditor neither confirmed nor denied the comment but merely bowed his head. “I am sure you are wondering what brings me here and may I assure you that it is not with any hostile intent, but rather quite the opposite. You may say that this visit is long overdue and I crave the pardon of age for the foolish blindness of a young man.” Again the ruler nodded.
These were formalities and as such were easier to say but now Adrianus must make the suggestion that he had come for and he was aware how presumptuous it might appear.
“As I passed through the market yesterday morning I noticed that your religious observances must be made in the open-air and in sometimes inclement weather.”
“Well, and if they are, what is that to you who do not know the one true God? We would worship him though the sea should swallow the whole land, for he is the Creator of all,” chided the man.
“Forgive me,” Adrianus said. “I did not mean to offend. It only occurred to me that I should like to do something to benefit the people of Capernaum and when I saw reverend old men who reminded me of my grandfather, shivering in the cold, I wanted to offer to build a house for your place of worship.”
“Young man,” said his host, “our God inhabits the heavens and the heaven of heavens. He does not inhabit houses made by men.”
“No sir,” said Adrianus. He dropped his eyes from the stern gaze before him and sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades.
“But it was well thought of,” the ruler added in a lighter voice and Adrianus, lifting his eyes saw that there was a look of joy in the ancient face before him. “You may think you go to and fro unnoticed by the people of this town but we have noted that you have a peaceable and courteous demeanor and our yoke is not so heavy as it was before you arrived,” and he smiled.
Adrianus smiled back. “I thank you, Sir,” he replied. “I try to remember the teaching of my mother that I should love my neighbours as myself.”
The ruler looked startled. “Your mother taught you that?” he asked. “Those words are written in our Torah and were delivered to our earliest law-giver, Moses, by God himself. How did she hear them?”
“I don’t know, Sir,” adding impulsively, “Have I done them well?”
“My son, you have done them most well.” He lifted his hand, as though to bless him Adrianus thought, and then lowered it without saying anything. Maybe Jehovah, the God of the Jews, could not bless a Gentile. The ruler bade Adrianus farewell.
“Come and see me again,” he said as Adrianus saluted and left.
The centurion made his way back to the barracks. He wondered how he felt about the encounter. He had most certainly failed but his ears rang with the praise of the man he had just seen. “My son, you have done most well.” He could not build a house for the synagogue but he could continue has he had been doing. He could visit the ruler again. He could even find out about the God of the Jews whose words had in some mysterious way been known to his mother.
He took to spending more time in the town, until the people became used to his presence in their streets. He was generous to the beggars, of whom there were plenty, and one morning when he saw an elderly woman struggling along under the weight of a heavy grain sack he lifted the burden off her bent shoulders and swung it onto his own as though it had been no heavier than a workman’s lunch. When she saw who her rescuer was terror was apparent in her eyes for just one moment, but she was an unusually astute old woman and she read the hungry plea for acceptance in Adrianus’ own eyes.
“Thank you, Sir,” she told him and tottered along beside him whilst he matched his strides to hers. When she stopped before the entrance of her poor house Adrianus lowered the sack to the ground and she stretched out her hand to lay it on his still-bent head.
“Shalom. May the God of Israel bless you, my son,” she said and as when he had left the ruler of the synagogue, the words rang in his ears because he realized that she had spoken to him as though he was one of her own people not a hated foreigner.
He returned the next morning with a gift of three new-laid eggs from the bantams in the barracks and knocked, with some trepidation, but he need not have worried because when she saw him a smile lit up her face.
“Shalom,” he greeted her.
“Shalom, my child,” she returned, and then as he hesitated, holding out the eggs in their nest of fresh leaves, “Well come in, Child.”
Adrianus stooped his head to enter the low doorway. The room inside was dark, with only one window. Only the rich could afford windows because they could afford the extra fuel to light fires in the winter and had the leisure in summer to sit still and rest. For the poor, the best defense against both cold and heat was thick walls and few windows, keeping out both the blaze of the sun and the strength of the wind. It reminded him of his own home and in some ways this woman reminded him of his grandmother.
“Please sit down,” she said pointing to a mat and it was only when he was sitting that she finally took the eggs that he proffered. She disappeared into an inner room with them and returned carrying a bowl of goat’s milk which she handed to him. He took it with both hands and drank reluctantly understanding that she was giving him her portion. She watched him with satisfaction until the milk was all gone.
“I thank you, Mother,” he said. “And now I wonder if you can tell me more about your God, whose blessing you asked for me yesterday. It seems that my mother taught me some of his words but I don’t know any more about him.”
“What words did your mother teach you?” she asked.
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
“That is the second great word,” she told him. “The first one is that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. He is the God who brought our people out of slavery and made us into a nation, but He has promised even more than that. He has promised to bring salvation for all the nations. About fifteen years ago my father died having held in his arms the child whom God has sent to bring that salvation.”
“Where is he?” said Adrianus, strangely moved.
“I do not know,” she told him, “but we can be sure that at the right time he will be revealed. Meanwhile we continue to wait, seeking to love God and his people. Many of my people believe that he is coming only for the Jews but my father said that he would be a light to lighten the Gentiles too – so that includes you. And that is why I blessed you in his name.”
Adrianus nodded and left soon after to return and meditate on the words he had heard. After that day he visited her often and also kept his promise to go back and see the ruler of the synagogue. Each time he visited them he learned more about the God they worshiped. The old woman, Aliza, taught him the history of the Jewish people and how God had cared for them from the days of their father Abraham, through the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the years in the wilderness when he formed them into a nation. He heard of the years of the great kings David and Solomon and how the nation had abandoned God and been exiled to Assyria and Babylon, and yet through all their unfaithfulness God remained faithful to them.
From the ruler of the synagogue, Rabbi Gamliel, Adrianus learned about the laws that God had given to his people. He saw that unlike the laws of his own land these were attributed to God himself. Obedience was required because God’s people were to be holy like himself, and this, he concluded was the reason behind the teaching that his mother had heard. They must love their neighbours as they loved themselves because God loved and valued people.
As Adrianus heard the history from Aliza and the laws from the rabbi he began to understand more about the God of the Jews, whose laws revealed him as the One who was wholly separate in nature from his people but whose account of history showed that he was faithful to his people even when they were not faithful to him.
“I understand now why no mere building is sufficient to house your God,” he told Gamliel one morning, “but what I do not understand is that you Jews have a large temple in Jerusalem. Surely that is a house of God.”
“You are right,” Gamliel answered. “Our original temple was built by our great king Solomon under God’s command. At its completion God promised that he would consecrate it and that his name would be there forever if our people kept his laws. However, our ancestors were disobedient and God allowed it to be destroyed. It has been rebuilt since but it has never returned to its previous glory.” He was quiet for a while, leaning on the head of his staff and gazing down at a patch on the floor. “Our people have not been as faithful as He deserves,” he sighed at last.
He looked up at Adrianus. “But my son, I have been giving much consideration to your generous offer which I ungraciously refused.”
Adrianus shook his head but the rabbi continued. “You were not offering a house for God but a shelter for our people as they worshipped. I said at the time that it was a good thought and the more thought I have given to it the more I believe that it would be wrong in me to refuse your kind gift if you are still of a mind to give it. It is obvious to me that you have the wellbeing of our people at heart and that you also hold our God in reverence. I only ask your forgiveness if I spoke unkindly on that other occasion.”
“You did not, Sir,” Adrianus assured him. “I knew little of your people and less of your God at that time and maybe the offer was only made to ingratiate myself to the town, but now I give it most gladly, thankful for what you have taught me.”
Adrianus knew that if his project was to succeed he needed a builder who was respected for both his work and his godliness. The rabbi recommended a man named Joseph from the town of Nazareth. Adrianus arranged a meeting with him and he agreed to begin work the following week. Eager that there should be no antagonism to this building Adrianus kept out of the planning stage, merely assuring Gamliel that he would provide enough money for the synagogue to have every refinement that he felt was necessary. However, when building had been in progress for a couple of weeks he asked Gamliel’s permission to visit the site.
The rays of the sun were still low on the horizon as he made his way down the street to the market square. With the sun in his eyes the workers appeared like black beetles as they each bent to their task, but as he came closer he could see Joseph directing them in an orderly manner. When he saw Adrianus he came over to where he stood and pointed out what each man was doing. As yet the building was a mere floor plan, with embryo walls arising from the foundation but Joseph instructed him in the use for each room. When he had finished he invited Adrianus to stay and watch for as long as he wanted to.
Used to army discipline Adrianus was interested that the same order existed here. The men did as their foreman told them to and the work continued without delays as each worker fulfilled his role in the drama. Adrianus found himself concentrating particularly on one young man. He was squat, swarthy from daily work in the sun, with arms and legs strong and hardened by the practice of his trade. This did not differentiate him from his peers but the ready smile on his face, and the willingness to help others caused Adrianus to look often in his direction. He was deferential in his dealings with all the older workers and quick to obey the foreman. Adrianus could not help thinking what a good soldier he would make. He understood the authority structure.
Joseph stopped by again and saw where Adrianus’ eyes were turned.
“My son, Jesus,” he said. “He’s a responsible lad. When I’m gone this business will be in good hands.” He signaled to the lad who came over to where they stood and greeted Adrianus politely, meeting Adrianus’ gaze with piercing brown eyes that seemed to see further than other people’s.
Interested to know him better the centurion said, “You’re a good worker. I have been watching you.”
“Thank you, sir. It is a privilege to work on a house for the worship of my Father.”
“Your father?” Adrianus asked.
“My heavenly Father, God.”
“Ah, yes.” Adrianus paused. “The rabbi has taught me about the laws of your God and Aliza has taught me about your history. My mother taught me from his law that I should love my neighbour as I love myself. I do not yet know your God but I am learning about him.”
“Sir, I see that you are not far from the kingdom of God. Excuse me now. I must return to my work lest the others have more to do because I am not there,” and he left leaving Adrianus with the impression that he, not the boy, had been in the presence of a superior.
“Truly, a young man to watch,” he thought.
With the completion of the synagogue Adrianus discovered that he had won the respect of many more in the town. When they saw him coming down the street they now greeted him, and the goodwill made his job easier. Sometimes he thought that there was no need for the garrison to remain stationed in the town.
His major role now was to ensure that his soldiers behaved well, so they left the townspeople with no reason to rebel. This was not always an easy task. A few bullies who delighted in domineering had to be castigated to show that he would not tolerate their attitude. This had the advantage of speaking loudly to the whole century and they soon followed his lead when they discovered that being welcomed in the town made life much more pleasant for them. His only concern was that his men should not grow soft, in case the situation ever changed.
With the passing of years Adrianus saw subtle changes. Amongst the black hairs of his head, he found grey ones lurking. When a new recruit joined the garrison he now felt a fatherly interest in them, remembering his own homesickness, his aspirations, and his undeveloped comprehension of the politics of this tiny but active nation. The men under his charge knew that he not only valued them as efficient soldiers but as individuals. His greatest joy was that his understanding about the God of Israel had grown and he now acknowledged him as the one true God and worshipped him in the best way he could considering that he was still not allowed into their synagogue as a worshipper. This gave him no rancor as his friend Aliza had reassured him constantly that God was the God of the Gentiles as much as of the Jews.
“But there are many of them that just don’t know it yet, Adrianus,” she would tell him, shaking her grey head. Then she would reach out to draw his head towards her and kiss his forehead gently.
‘My mother in Israel,’ he called her and his grief at her death had been multiplied by the superstitious thought that this loss was paralleled by the loss of his own mother so far away.
He never forgot what she had told him about the baby who was born to bring salvation and he often wondered what had become of him. By his calculations he would be about thirty years old now. Surely by now he must have begun to make his name known – and then for a minute he would doubt, but his faith in Aliza was too great to allow him to be seriously turned away from the hope.
The following spring Adrianus was, for a while, distracted from affairs in the town. His favourite slave, a lad who had been born in Britannia within a few miles of Adrianus’ own home, fell ill. One by one Adrianus called for the help of all the physicians in the surrounding district but as the days passed he knew that this was one battle that he was losing. Never before had he understood the comfort of prayer and never before had he used the practice with more fervour, but as each new morning brought a worse report from the sick room his faith began to waver. After all, the Jews said that Gentiles had no part in their God and the truth of this was being daily confirmed.
Many nights he was unable to sleep and he took to visiting the room where the lad lay, feverish and delirious. There he would send the nurse to lie down whilst he spent the night watching and praying. One morning she crept back just as the sky began to flush red.
“They say Jesus is in town,” she whispered.
“Jesus? Should I know him?” He scrolled through his mind to see whether the name was familiar.
“Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter. Haven’t you heard of him?”
Instantly he saw a pair of piercing brown eyes seeing deep inside him. “Ye-es, I know him…” Why did his heart leap as though he was about to make the most important discovery of his whole life?
“Some people say he is the promised Messiah. I don’t know about that but he is a healer. There are blind people who see and deaf who hear and lame who walk at his word. You must ask him to come and see our Cullen.”
Messiah! This was the term Aliza and Gamliel had often used. Aliza believed that the baby that her father had held was the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth, a young man who had told him he was not far from the kingdom of God!
“Where?” His voice had difficulty getting past his throat. The room seemed unbearably stuffy, although a moment before he had drawn his cloak tighter around him, conscious that the coldest hour of the day is just before dawn.
“At the house of Simon Peter, the fisherman.”
“Not worthy,” he mumbled. “Can’t go,” and a sob wrenched out of him. He was only a Gentile. Nothing must jeopardize the life of the young man. He needed someone with influence. Gamliel! Yes, Gamliel! That was it!
He strode out of the room gathering his cloak around him as he went, and set off from the barracks forgetting his dignity and almost running across the marketplace. Fortunately his friend was available and agreed to perform the service for him and he returned home to pace beside Cullen’s bed.
How soon could he expect the teacher to be there? Cullen’s breathing was rapid and rasping. Surely it could not be that the request would come too late! Suddenly, his rapid thoughts were arrested by the memory of those eyes. He had known that as a Gentile he was not worthy but in an instant he knew that it was worse than that. All his petty arrogances, all his jealousies, all his self-centeredness was spread before him. He could not have this man come to his house. All those years before he had recognized that the young man understood an authority structure and had thought that he would make a good soldier but now Adrianus bowed his head aware that before that man he himself stood under authority.
“Blind people see, deaf people hear and lame walk at his word,” the nurse had said.
“Norbanus,” he called from the room. His steward appeared. “Go find the master, Jesus. Tell him that I say that am not worthy for him to come to my house. If he just says the word my servant will be well. I understand authority and I know he has that power.”
Norbanus left and Adrianus returned to the room placing himself beside the bed and watching Cullen’s tortured body. How long would it be before Norbanus could deliver the message? How soon could he expect any change?
With eyes that ached from the effort not to miss anything he saw the parched lips and sweat-bedewed brow. He blinked. The cheek before him was smooth and untroubled and Cullen’s eyes opened slowly like a child who has woken from a refreshing night of sleep.
“Oh sir,” he said. “What are you doing here? I’ve had such a long troubling dream and then the light woke me.” He stopped, searching for something that was missing. “But it’s dark in here. Where is the light? Sir? What’s wrong Sir?”
He sat up and put out his hand as if to touch Adrianus then remembering his position he withdrew it. However Adrianus seized the hand and covered it with kisses and Cullen could feel the warm tears on his master’s face.
“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe,” Adrianus murmured and looking up he saw Jesus, who had entered silently.
“Blessed are you, son, for your great faith,” the Master replied.