The Secret of the Sanctuary
(The Jesus Diary Continues…)
It was now about a week after the birth of the child named Jesus, and most of the visitors to Bethlehem were aware of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth. Everyone knew of the young couple still hovering in a lean-to shed on the outskirts of town. Word of angels and vast celestial choruses tends to get around quickly.
Everyone had an opinion about the child and some were quite remarkable: he would be a new king and would challenge Caesar; he would be a general and command vast armies in a quest to recapture the glory of Israel; he was a new lawgiver who would rewrite the rules of life and lift the yoke of the Pharisees; some even said he would be a greater prophet than Elijah or Moses!
I didn't know what to believe.
All I knew was that Mary and Joseph were two of the finest people I had ever known and that their son would be very special, and perhaps, someday, somehow, do something great. But I didn't venture to guess what it might be.
I was enjoying the company of my friend Amnon, who offered the hospitality of his inn for as long as I wanted it. He also said the new family could use his small shed as long as Mary needed it to recover her strength.
Most of the visitors had left town. The official count had been taken, and Caesar's scribes were headed back to Rome to submit their report. Caesar would soon know the magnitude of his influence and power. I doubt he would be much concerned over a single additional new-born citizen added to the official tally.
While I was relaxing with Amnon one evening he surprised me with the comment, "You know, this Jesus child is not the only newborn who entered the world under mysterious circumstances."
I looked up from my wine, eyebrows raised.
"Yes," he said. "You know we have had visitors from all over the countryside here in Bethlehem these past few weeks. I hear a lot of their chatter. It’s mostly just idle rumor mongering, but some of it is actually interesting."
My eyebrows lifted even higher, urging him to continue.
"Some folks from the hill country near Judah talk of a son who was born just a few months ago to a mother who was over a hundred years old!" He laughed maniacally. "Can you imagine a crazier story than that?"
I knew exactly who he was talking about, so I told him.
"Her name is Elizabeth," I said calmly. "And she's not a hundred, just eighty years old. She is Mary's cousin. The story is true."
Amnon looked unconvinced, so I told him more.
"The father's name is Zachariah. He's a priest. Something happened to him while he was in the Sanctuary offering incense. He emerged from the holy place speechless. He lost his voice for some reason and couldn't even tell anyone what happened. But, almost on that very day Elizabeth announced that she was pregnant."
Amnon's raucous laugh and our excited voices aroused the interest of several other groups in the tavern. Many ears were now perked in our direction.
"That's all I know," I said. "That's all I can tell you."
"Well, I can tell you a lot more than that!" a voice announced from the other side of the room. We looked up to see a burly young man marching to our table. He sat down uninvited, looked around furtively to see if anyone was listening, which of course everyone was, and, clearly awed, whispered, "It was the most amazing thing I ever saw."
Two pairs of eyebrows were now raised as he continued in a subdued tone.
"When the time came to circumcise the child and give him his name, all the relatives gathered around and said he should be named after his father. But for some reason his mother wanted to call him John."
"'There's nobody in our family history with that name'! they shouted. But Elizabeth was unmoved. She still wanted John."
"Then it was finally decided to ask Zachariah. But he still couldn't talk. No one knew what he was thinking. He signaled for a slate to write on and, with a piece of charcoal, scribbled the name he wanted for the child."
"What was it?" we both cried.
"He wrote, 'His name is John.' And so the child has been named. But that's not all," he added. "There's more to the story."
We glared at him.
"Immediately Zachariah regained the power of speech, and told us what happened that day in the Sanctuary."
We were at the edge of our chairs. "So, what did he say!" we cried in unison.
"While offering the incense, Zachariah explained that an angel who said his name was Gabriel appeared before him and announced that Elizabeth was going to have a child; her first, in fact. When he said he didn't understand how this could happen due to her age, Gabriel rebuked him and said he would be struck dumb as punishment for questioning the power of the Lord. He wouldn't even be able to tell anyone what happened while he was in the Sanctuary. No one would know of the angel and his message and the impending pregnancy of Elizabeth."
"So, how do you know all this?" we asked.
"Because I was there," he responded quickly. "My name is Nabal. I was there when Zachariah was in the Sanctuary and saw him when he came out. I was there when he wrote that he wanted the boy to be named John. And I heard him speak for the first time since he got his voice back.
"Furthermore, I live nearby in a town called Maon in Judah. My family has lived there for centuries, mainly herding sheep. I know these people. I know their family."
"So then," I said, "These two boys, just a few months apart in age, are cousins."
"Yes," Nabal said, "and maybe they will be friends when they grow up." He stood, nodded with self-satisfaction after telling his tale, and strode back to his table.
I pondered this exciting information later that evening while in my room, where thankfully I was now the only occupant.
The past few days had been filled with angels and shepherds. Angels announced the birth of the child Jesus in beautiful choral harmony; angels spoke to both Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. And today I learned that Zachariah had also seen an angel. Gabriel has been very busy, I thought, and there must be a reason for it.
And there were shepherds: shepherds at the shed where Jesus was born, shepherds meandering throughout the town; and just now, the son of an ancient family of shepherds enlightening us with the true story of Zachariah's muteness.
But my brain still itched: Why shepherds? Why are shepherds and simple townsfolk the only ones to know about these mysterious happenings? If these are truly important events, omens of great things to come and perhaps even of the people who will make them happen, where are the elites, the princes, the scribes, the Pharisees, the priests, the rulers, the kings?
The rumors that were spreading throughout town were sure to eventually become known beyond the mere boundaries of Bethlehem and Judea. Perhaps at some point word will reach Jerusalem and Caesarea, maybe even Rome and other mighty empires. Perhaps then the princes and kings will come.
As I took one final look out my window at the town below, I could clearly make out the silhouette of the animal shelter in the distance. It seemed brightly illuminated by a surprisingly large star hovering above.