Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

Chapter 24


Chapter 24
I've finally finished reading these stories by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These guys make the whole thing seem like an accident, like five thousand people just showed up on a hill one morning. If that was the case, getting them all there was the miracle, let alone feeding them. We busted our asses to organize sermons like that, and sometimes we even had to put Joshua in a boat and float him offshore while he preached, just to keep him from getting mobbed. That boy was a security nightmare.
And that's not all, there were two sides to Joshua, his preaching side and his private side. The guy who stood there railing at the Pharisees was not the same guy who would sit around poking Untouchables in the arm because it cracked him up. He planned the sermons, he calculated the parables, although he may have been the only one in our group that understood any of them.
What I'm saying is that these guys, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they got some of it right, the big stuff, but they missed a lot (like thirty years, for instance). I'll try to fill it in, which is why, I guess, the angel brought me back from the dead.
And speaking of the angel, I'm about convinced that he's gone psycho. (No, psycho isn't a word I had back in my time, but enough television and I'll have a whole new vocabulary. It applies. I believe, for instance, that "psycho" was the perfect term for John the Baptist. More about him later.) Raziel took me to a place where you wash clothes today. A Laundromat. We were there all day. He wanted to make sure I knew how to wash clothes. I may not be the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but it's laundry, for Christ's sake. He quizzed me for an hour about sorting whites and colors. I may never get this story told if the angel keeps deciding to teach me life lessons. Tomorrow, miniature golf. I can only guess that Raziel is trying to prepare me to be an international spy.
Bartholomew and his stench rode one camel while Joshua and I shared the other. We rode south to Jerusalem, then east over the Mount of Olives into Bethany, where we saw a yellow-haired man sitting under a fig tree. I had never seen a yellow-haired person in Israel, other than the angel. I pointed him out to Joshua and we watched the blond man long enough to convince ourselves that he wasn't one of the heavenly host in disguise. Actually, we pretended to watch him. We were watching each other.
Bartholomew said, "Is there something wrong? You two seem nervous."
"It's just that blond kid," I said, trying to look in the courtyards of the large houses as we passed.
"Maggie lives here with her husband," Joshua said, looking at me, relieving no tension whatsoever.
"I knew that," said Bart. "He's a member of the Sanhedrin. High up, they say."
The Sanhedrin was a council of priests and Pharisees who made most of the decisions for the Jewish community, as far as the Romans would allow them, anyway. Aside from the Herods and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, they were the most powerful men in Israel.
"I was really hoping Jakan would die young."
"They have no children," Joshua said. What Josh was saying was that it was strange that Jakan hadn't divorced Maggie for being barren.
"My brother told me," I said.
"We can't go see her."
"I know," I said, although I wasn't sure why not.
We finally found John in the desert north of Jericho, preaching on the bank of the Jordan River. His hair was as wild as ever and now he had a beard that was just as out of control. He wore a rough tunic that was belted with a sash of unscraped camel skin. There was a crowd of perhaps five hundred people there, standing in sun so hot that you had to check road signs to make sure you hadn't accidentally taken the turnoff to hell.
We couldn't tell what John was talking about from a distance, but as we got closer we heard him say, "No, I'm not the one. I'm just getting things ready. There's one that's coming after me, and I'm not qualified to carry his jockstrap."
"What's a jockstrap?" Joshua asked.
"It's an Essene thing," Bartholomew answered. "They wear them on their manhood, very tightly, to control their sinful urges."
Then John spotted us over the crowd (we were on camelback). "There!" said John, pointing. "You remember me telling you that one would come. Well, there he is, right there. I'm not kidding, that's him on the camel. On the left. Behold the Lamb of God!"
The crowd looked back at Josh and me, then laughed politely as if to say, Oh right, he just happened along right when you were talking about him. What, we don't know from a shill when we see one?
Joshua glanced nervously at me, then at Bart, then at me, then he grinned sheepishly (as one might expect from a lamb) at the crowd. Between gritted teeth he asked, "So am I supposed to give John my jockstrap, or something?"
"Just wave, and say, 'Go with God,'" Bart said.
"Waving here - waving there," Josh mumbled through a grin. "Go with God. Thank you very much. Go with God. Nice to see you. Waving - waving."
"Louder, Josh. We're the only ones who can hear you."
Josh turned to us so the crowd couldn't see his face. "I didn't know I was going to need a jockstrap! Nobody told me. Jeez, you guys."
Thus did begin the ministry of Joshua bar Joseph, ish Nazareth, the Lamb of God.
"So, who's the big guy?" John asked, as we sat around the fire that evening. Night crawled across the desert sky like a black cat with phosphorus dandruff. Bartholomew rolled with his dogs down by the riverbank.
"That's Bartholomew," Joshua said. "He's a Cynic."
"And the village idiot of Nazareth for over thirty years," I added. "He gave up his position to follow Joshua."
"He's a slut, and he's the first one baptized in the morning. He stinks. More locusts, Biff?"
"No thanks, I'm full." I stared down at my bowl of roasted locusts and honey. You were supposed to dip the locusts in the honey for a sweet and nutritious treat. It was all John ate.
"So this Divine Spark, all that time away, that's what you found?"
"It's the key to the kingdom, John," Josh said. "That's what I learned in the East that I'm supposed to bring to our people, that God is in all of us. We are all brothers in the Divine Spark. I just don't know how to spread the word."
"Well, first, you can't call it the Divine Spark. The people won't understand it. This thing, it's in everyone, it's permanent, it's a part of God?"
"Not God the creator, my father, the part of God that's spirit."
"Holy Ghost," John said with a shrug. "Call it the Holy Ghost. People understand that a ghost is in you, and they understand that it goes on after you, and you'll just have to make them believe that it's God."
"That's perfect," Joshua said, smiling.
"So, this Holy Ghost," John said, biting a locust in half, "it's in every Jew, but gentiles don't have it, right? I mean what's the point, after the kingdom comes?"
"I was getting to that," said Josh.
It took John the better part of the night to deal with the fact that Joshua was going to let gentiles into the kingdom, but finally the Baptist accepted it, although he kept looking for exceptions.
"Even sluts?"
"Even sluts," Joshua said.
"Especially sluts," I said.
"You're the one who is cleansing people of their sins so they will be forgiven," Joshua added.
"I know, but gentile sluts, in the kingdom." He shook his head, assured now by the Messiah himself that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Which really shouldn't have surprised him, since that had been his message for over ten years. That, and identifying sluts. "Let me show you where you'll be staying."
Shortly after I had met him on the road to Jerusalem, John had joined the Essenes. You couldn't be born an Essene, because they were all celibate, even in marriage. They also refrained from intoxicating drink, adhered strictly to Jewish dietary law, and were absolutely maniacal about cleansing themselves, physically, of sin, which had been the big selling point for John. They had a thriving community in the desert outside of Jericho called Qumran, a small city of stone and brick homes, a scriptorium for copying scrolls, and aqueducts that ran out of the mountains to fill their ritual baths. A few of them lived in the caves above the Dead Sea where they stored the jars that held their sacred scrolls, but the most zealous of the Essenes, which included John, didn't even allow themselves the comfort of a cave. He showed us accommodations near his own.
"It's a pit!" I screamed.
Three pits, to be exact. I suppose there's something to be said for having a private pit. Bartholomew, with his many canine pals, was already settling into his new pit.
"Oh, John," Josh said, "remind me to tell you about karma."
So, for over a year, while Joshua was learning from John how to say the words that would make people follow him, I lived in a pit.
It makes sense, if you think about it. For seventeen years Joshua had spent his time either studying or sitting around being quiet, so what did he know about communicating? The last message he'd gotten from his father was two words, so he wasn't getting his speaking skills from that side of the family. On the other hand, John had been preaching for those same seventeen years, and that squirrelly bastard could preach. Standing waist deep in the Jordan, he would wave his arms and roll his eyes and stir the air with a sermon that would make you believe the clouds were going to open and the hand of God Hisownself was going to reach down, grab you by the balls, and shake you till the evil rattled out of you like loose baby teeth. An hour of John's preaching and you were not only lining up to be baptized, you'd jump right in the river and try to breathe the bottom muck just to be relieved of your own wretchedness.
Joshua watched, and listened, and learned. John was an absolute believer in who Joshua was and what he was going to do, as far as he understood, anyway, but the Baptist worried me. John was attracting the attention of Herod Antipas. Herod had married his brother Philip's wife, Herodia, without her obtaining a divorce, which was forbidden by Jewish law, an absolute outrage by the more severe laws of the Essenes, and a subject that fit well into John's pervasive "slut" theme. I was starting to notice soldiers from Herod's personal guard hovering around the edge of John's crowds when he preached.
I confronted the Baptist one evening when he came out of the wilderness in one of his evangelical rages to ambush me, Joshua, Bartholomew, and a new guy as we sat around eating our locusts.
"Slut!" John shouted with his "thunder of Elijah" voice, waving a finger under Bart's nose.
"Yeah, John, Bartholomew's been getting laid a lot," I said, evangelizing for sarcasm.
"Almost," said Bart.
"I mean with another human being, Bart."
"Oh. Sorry. Never mind."
John wheeled on the new guy, who put his hands up. "I'm new," he said.
Thus rebuked, John spun to face Joshua.
"Celibate," Joshua said. "Always have been, always will be. Not happy about it."
Finally John turned to me. "Slut!"
"John, I'm cleansed, you baptized me six times today." Joshua elbowed me in the ribs. "What? It was hot. Point is, I counted fifty soldiers in the crowd today, so ease up a little on the slut talk. You're backed up or something. You really need to rethink this no marriage, no sex, no fun, ascetic thing."
"And the honey-and-locust living-in-a pit thing," said the new guy.
"He's no different than Melchior or Gaspar," Joshua said. "They were both ascetics."
"Melchior and Gaspar weren't running around calling the provincial governor a slut in front of hundreds of people. It's a big difference, and it's going to get him killed."
"I am cleansed of sin and unafraid," said John, sitting down by the fire now, some of his verve gone.
"Yeah, are you cleansed of guilt? Because you're going to have the blood of thousands on your hands when the Romans come to get you. In case you haven't noticed, they don't just kill the leaders of a movement. There's a thousand crosses on the road to Jerusalem where Zealots died, and they weren't all leaders."
"I am unafraid." John hung his head until the ends of his hair were dipping into the honey in his bowl. "Herodia and Herod are sluts. He's as close as we have to a Jewish king, and he's a slut."
Joshua pushed his cousin's hair out of his eyes and squeezed the wild man's shoulder. "If it be so, then so be it. As the angel foretold, you were born to preach the truth."
I stood up and tossed my locusts into the fire, showering sparks over John and Joshua. "I've only met two people whose births were announced by angels, and three-quarters of them are loony." And I stormed off to my pit.
"Amen," said the new guy.
That night, as I was falling asleep, I heard Joshua scrambling in the pit next to mine, as if a bug or an idea had roused him from his bedroll. "Hey!" he said.
"What?" I replied.
"I just did the math. Three quarters of two is - "
"One and a half," said the new guy, who had moved into the pit on the other side of Josh. "So John's either all crazy and you're half crazy, or you're three-quarters crazy and John's three-quarters crazy, or - well - actually it's a constant ratio, I'd have to graph it out for you."
"So what are you saying?"
"Nothing," said the new guy. "I'm new."
The next morning Joshua leapt out of his pit, shook off the scorpions, and after a long morning whiz, kicked some dirt clods into my pit to thunk me from my slumber.
"This is it," Joshua said. "Come down to the river, I'm going to have John baptize me today."
"Which will make it different from yesterday in what way?"
"You'll see. I have a feeling." And off he went.
The new guy prairie-dogged up out of his pit. He was tall, the new guy, and the morning sun caught on his bald scalp as he looked around. He noticed some flowers growing where Joshua had just relieved himself. Lush blossoms of a half-dozen vibrant colors stood surrounded by the deadest landscape on the planet. "Hey, were those there yesterday?"
"That always happens," I said. "We don't talk about it."
"Wow," said the new guy. "Can I tag along with you guys?"
"Sure," I said.
And thus did we become four.
At the river, John preached to a small gathering as he lowered Joshua into the water. As soon as Joshua went under the water a rift opened across the desert sky, which was still pink with the dawn, and out of the rift came a bird that looked to be fashioned from pure light. And everyone on the riverbank said "ooh" and "ahh," and a big voice boomed out of the heavens, saying, "This is my son, with whom I am well pleased." And as quickly as it had come, the spirit was gone. But the gatherers at the riverbank stood with their mouths open in amazement, staring yet into the sky.
And John came to his senses then, and remembered what he was doing, and lifted Joshua out of the water. And Joshua wiped the water out of his eyes, looked at the crowd who stood stunned with mouths hanging open, and he said unto them: "What?"
"No, really, Josh, that's what the voice said, 'This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.'"
Joshua shook his head and chewed a breakfast locust. "I can't believe he couldn't wait until I came up. You're sure it was my father?"
"Sounded like him." The new guy looked at me and I shrugged. Actually it sounded like James Earl Jones, but I didn't know that back then.
"That's it," said Joshua. "I'm going into the desert like Moses did, forty days and forty nights." Joshua got up and started walking into the desert. "From here on out, I'm fasting until I hear something from my father. That was my last locust."
"I wish I could say that," said the new guy.
As soon as Joshua was out of sight I ran to my pit and packed my satchel. I was a half day getting to Bethany, and another hour asking around before someone could direct me to the house of Jakan, prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. The house was made of the golden-tinged limestone that marked all of Jerusalem, and there was a high wall around the courtyard. Jakan had done very well for himself, the prick. You could house a dozen families from Nazareth in a house this size. I paid two blind guys a shekel each to stand by the wall so I could climb on their shoulders.
"How much did he say this was?"
"He said it was a shekel."
"Doesn't feel like a shekel."
"Would you guys quit feeling your shekels and stand still, I'm going to fall."
I peeped over the top of the wall and there, sitting under the shade of an awning, working at a small loom, was Maggie. If she had changed, it was only that she'd become more radiant, more sensuous, more of a woman and less of a girl. I was stunned. I guess I expected some sort of disappointment, thinking that my time and my love might have shaped a memory that the woman could never live up to. Then I thought, perhaps the disappointment was yet to come. She was married to a rich man, a man who, when I knew him, had been a bully and a dolt. And what had always really made Maggie's memory in my mind was her spirit, her courage, and her wit. I wondered if those things could have survived all these years with Jakan. I started to shake, bad balance or fear, I don't know, but I put my hand on top of the wall to steady myself and cut myself on some broken pottery that had been set in mortar along the top.
"Ouch, dammit."
"Biff?" Maggie said, as she looked me in the eye right before I tumbled off the shoulders of the blind guys.
I had just climbed to my feet when Maggie came around the corner and hit me, full-frontal womanhood, full speed, leading with lips. She kissed me so hard that I could taste blood from my cut lips and it was glorious. She smelled the same - cinnamon and lemon and girl sweat - and felt better than memory could ever allow. When she finally relaxed her embrace and held me at arm's length, there were tears in her eyes. And mine.
"He dead?" said one of the blind men.
"Don't think so, I can hear him breathing."
"Sure smells better than he did."
"Biff, your face cleared up," Maggie said.
"You recognized me, with the beard and everything."
"I wasn't sure at first," she said, "so I was taking a risk jumping you like that, but in the midst of it all I recognized that." She pointed to where my tunic had tented out in the front. And then she grabbed that betraying rascal, shirtfront and all, and led me down the wall toward the gate by it.
"Come on in. You can't stay long, but we can catch up. Are you okay?" she said, looking over her shoulder, giving me a squeeze.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm just trying to think of a metaphor."
"He got a woman from up there," I heard one of the old blind guys say.
"Yeah, I heard her drop. Boost me up, I'll feel around."
In the courtyard, with Maggie, over wine, I said, "So you really didn't recognize me?"
"Of course I recognized you. I've never done that before. I just hope no one saw me, they still stone women for that."
"I know. Oh, Maggie, I have so much to tell you."
She took my hand. "I know." She looked into my eyes, past my eyes, her blue eyes looking for something beyond me.
"He's fine," I said, finally. "He's gone into the desert to fast and wait for a message from the Lord."
She smiled. There was a little of my blood in the corners of her mouth, or maybe that was wine. "He's come home to take his place as the Messiah then?"
"Yes. But I don't think the way people think."
"People think that John might be the Messiah."
"John is...He's..."
"He's really pissing Herod off," Maggie offered.
"I know."
"Are you and Josh going to stay with John?"
"I hope not. I want Joshua to leave. I just have to get him away from John long enough to see what's going on. Maybe this fast..."
The iron lock on the gate to the courtyard rattled, then the whole gate shook. Maggie had locked it behind us after we'd entered. A man cursed. Evidently Jakan was having trouble with his key.
Maggie stood and pulled me to my feet. "Look, I'm going to a wedding in Cana next month with my sister Martha, the week after Tabernacles. Jakan can't go, he's got some meeting of the Sanhedrin or something. Come to Cana. Bring Joshua."
"I'll try."
She ran to the closest wall and held her hand in a stirrup. "Over."
"But, Maggie..."
"Don't be a wuss. Step, hands - step, shoulders - and over. Be careful of the pottery on top."
And I ran - did exactly as she'd said: one foot in the stirrup, one on her shoulder, and over the wall before Jakan could get in the gate.
"Got one!" said one of the old blind guys as I tumbled down on top of them.
"Hold her still while I stick it in."
I was sitting on a boulder, waiting for Joshua when he came out of the desert. I held out my arms to hug him and he fell forward, letting me catch him. I lowered him to the rock where I had been sitting. He had been smart enough to coat all the exposed parts of his skin with mud, probably mixed from his own urine, to protect it from burning, but in a few spots on his forehead and hands the mud had crumbled away and the skin was gone, burned to raw flesh. His arms were as thin as a small girl's, they swam in the wide sleeves of his tunic.
"You okay?"
He nodded. I handed him a water skin I had been keeping cool in the shade. He drank in little sips, pacing himself.
"Locust?" I said, holding up one of the crispy torments between my thumb and forefinger.
At the sight of it I thought Joshua would vomit the water he had just drunk. "Just kidding," I said. I whipped open the mouth of my satchel, revealing dates, fresh figs, olives, cheese, a half-dozen flat loaves of bread, and a full wineskin. I'd sent the new guy into Jericho the day before to bring back the food.
Josh looked at the food spilling out of the satchel and grinned, then covered his mouth with his hand. "Ow. Ouch. Ow."
"What's wrong?"
"Myrrh," I said, pulling a small jar of the ointment from the satchel and handing it to him.
An hour later the Son of God was refreshed and rejuvenated, and we sat sharing the last of the wine, the first that Joshua had had since we'd come home from India over a year ago.
"So, what did you see in the desert?"
"The Devil."
"The Devil?"
"Yep. He tempted me. Power, wealth, sex, that sort of thing. I turned him down."
"What did he look like?"
"He was tall."
"Tall? The prince of darkness, the serpent of temptation, the source of all corruption and evil, and all you can say about him is he was tall?"
"Pretty tall."
"Oh, good, I'll be on the lookout then."
Joshua said, pointing at the new guy. "He's tall, too." I realized then that the Messiah might be a little tipsy.
"Not the Devil, Josh."
"Well, who is he then?"
"I'm Philip," said the new guy. "I'm going with you to Cana tomorrow."
Joshua wheeled around to me and almost fell off his rock. "We're going to Cana tomorrow?"
"Yes, Maggie's there, Josh. She's dying."