Zealot: A Christmas Story – Last Chapter: Luke

Chapter Five can be found here.

“Let us pause,” said Luke. “My fingers ache.”

“This was your idea,” said his companion, leaning back and gazing out over the city. From their vantage point upon the housetop, Rome gleamed in the morning light. Armor and chariots flashed as a military procession passed in the distance. The sun turned iron to silver and bronze to gold. It was a splendid sight.

Luke’s companion scratched his nose, evidently unimpressed.

“My dear Luke, you have only yourself to blame if your fingers ache. You insisted on taking notes.”

“A foolish decision,” said Luke. “This may come as a surprise, Paul, but other people are not always as wise as you. Not everyone can be as wise as Paul, whose writings are renowned in Rome and Jerusalem and all the provinces in between.”

“Do you think you are the only one ever to have suffered the pain of aching fingers?” asked Paul. “Every time I wrote a letter I asked, ‘O Lord, how long until you provide your servant with a scribe?’ My life has been difficult here in Rome, you know, but I have one great consolation: our brothers from the synagogue write my letters as I dictate.”

Luke nodded with mock seriousness. “It is certainly a blessing for the churches, which are no longer burdened with the difficulty of deciphering your handwriting. Your letters are hard enough to understand when they are written clearly.”

A moment passed as Luke flexed his fingers and loaded his quill with ink. “I am ready,” he announced. “Where were we? Ah, I remember. We left you dangling from the wall of Damascus in a basket. Paul, would you kindly pay attention? I will never finish my book unless you stay focused.”

“I apologize,” said Paul, rubbing his jaw. “I have a toothache.”

Luke laughed. “A toothache? I thought you were meditating.”

“I was thinking of someone I once knew,” said Paul. “I have thought of him often in past weeks.”

“Tell me.”

“Before my conversion, you know, I went from house to house in Jerusalem arresting all who professed faith in Jesus of Nazareth. One afternoon I raided a home where some of the Lord’s disciples were meeting. There were about a dozen men with me. The moment we entered the house, an old man jumped up and said to the others, ‘We are discovered. Run!’ Then he charged at us.”

Paul chuckled. “Since I was the first to go down, I do not remember exactly what happened. I was later informed our attacker knocked out five of us before he was arrested. The strange thing was that he stopped fighting once the other disciples had escaped. After his arrest, we learned the man’s name was Jehu. He had been a notorious assassin before becoming a disciple of the Messiah.”

“What happened to the man?” asked Luke.

Paul made a chopping motion across his neck. “There was no trial,” he added. “Jehu reminded me of Stephen. Neither was afraid to die. Jehu’s execution made quite an impression.”

“Besides the one he had already made upon your face, I suppose.”

Paul smiled gingerly. “My jaw hurt for weeks. Since then, I think of Jehu every time my teeth ache. You know, there is one thing I shall never forget about him.”

“What?”

“His eyes.”

“What about them?”

“They were the calmest and kindest I have ever seen.”


Author’s Note:

I enjoy telling a story from multiple perspectives. The Infinity Manuscript, a novella I posted as a serial on this blog, delivered each chapter from a different character’s point of view. As a writer, I like bouncing from one character to another as I tell a story. (I really hope it doesn’t annoy my readers.) This story is another victim of my favorite narrative trick, and it’s been fun for me to describe Jehu’s journey through the eyes of six different characters.

I like to imagine solemn historical figures having a lighter side. We don’t really get to see Luke, Paul or anyone in the New Testament being anything but serious. (Paul occasionally betrays a hint of humor, but not often.) I wonder what kind of things made men like Luke and Paul laugh. I mean, P.G. Wodehouse wasn’t born until 1881. What was funny before Wodehouse?

Thanks for reading!

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Five: Judas

Chapter Four can be found here.

A vast crowd sat in silence. Apart from the words of the rabbi, the only sounds to be heard were the distant twittering of birds and the occasional grunt as someone shifted position on the warm grass.

“There,” said Simon, poking Judas in the ribs. “The man with gray hair.”

Judas glanced at the stranger. “That fossil? You are joking, Simon.”

Simon nudged Judas again. “I am sure. He has aged, but I could never forget those eyes. He looks like a man who has gazed upon all the sorrows of the world.”

Judas watched the stranger for a minute before tugging on Simon’s sleeve. “You are mistaken, Simon. You may pretend to be a zealot, but you cannot pretend that frail old man is Jehu. I grew up hearing stories of an invisible assassin before whom Romans fell like wheat before the scythe. He is not that man.”

The stranger knelt in the grass, his head bowed, listening with half-closed eyes as the rabbi spoke of God’s mysteries. Once the old man glanced toward Judas.

“Is he drunk?” whispered Judas. “There is no life in his eyes.”

Simon stifled a chuckle. “What did you expect? Jehu has killed more men than any Roman legion has ever done. For more than thirty years, Rome has sought him in vain.”

The rabbi lifted up his voice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

Judas watched the stranger, overcome by morbid curiosity, wondering how he respond to such mild, peaceful words. The stranger neither moved nor spoke.

Time passed. As listeners came and went, the stranger knelt like a weathered statue, listening. The sun moved slowly overhead.

Beads of sweat ran down Judas’s face. “Is he almost done?” he muttered, glaring at the rabbi. “We are all hungry. He often speaks of spiritual bread, but he never seems to remember that we also need the worldly kind. My body is about to perish of hunger and leave my spirit homeless.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said the rabbi.

“That sounds good,” grumbled Judas.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

“What about our bodies?” whispered Judas. “Will we find rest for them?”

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

At that moment, Simon gave Judas such a jab in the side that he gasped in pain.

“Simon,” hissed Judas. “You may think you are a zealot, but I refuse to be your target practice.”

“Look at Jehu!” said Simon.

Judas looked. There, kneeling alone in the grass, the most vicious criminal in Judea, the man at whose name Romans cursed and Jews turned pale, wept openly.

Chapter Six can be found here.


Author’s Note:

I am reminded once again that grumpy, snarky characters are much more fun to write than solemn, serious ones. Judas may be kind of a jerk, but I think anyone who has sat through a really long sermon at church can sympathize with his impatience.

Jesus had twelve close disciples, and they were quite an odd bunch. Simon the Zealot presumably hated Rome. Matthew, also called Levi, was a tax collector who probably worked for the Roman authorities. The Gospels tell us the disciples of Jesus sometimes bickered, and I can believe it!

Peter was originally the star of this particular chapter. When he turned out to be such a complainer, I decided Judas Iscariot was a much better fit. After all, disillusionment with the long-awaited Jewish Messiah may have been Judas Iscariot’s motive for betraying Jesus to be executed.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Four: Baraz

Chapter Three can be found here.

“I despise this filthy city.”

Having declared his opinion of Jerusalem, the City of God, Baraz coughed into a linen cloth and peered through the window lattice at the dusty streets.

“What misfortune to be struck with fever! As the others meet with King Herod, I am confined to this detestable hovel. The finest inn in all Jerusalem? Bah! A foul place. Are all the powers of heaven conspiring against me?”

Baraz’s servant chose that unfortunate moment to kick open the door and announce, “There is a visitor to see you, Master. He says he wishes to speak with you about the king of the Jews.”

A paroxysm of coughing overtook Baraz’s mocking laughter. As soon as he could speak again, he growled, “Kindly knock before entering. Are you my servant or a savage? I expect such behavior of a Scythian, but not of you.”

“Master, the king of the Jews—”

“I have no wish to speak with anyone about Herod,” grumbled Baraz. “We may seek his advice, but that does not mean we approve of him.”

“Not Herod, Master,” said the servant, fidgeting. “The king of the Jews.”

Baraz sat bolt upright. “Another king? Could it—bid our guest enter. Quickly! Do not stand there catching flies with your mouth, you simpleton! Bring in the visitor.”

The servant ushered in a man in a dark cloak. After one glance at the visitor, Baraz quietly rose from his stool and sidled behind a table.

“I am not here to hurt you,” said the stranger. “Be thankful, old man.”

Baraz instantly forgot his fear. “I am Baraz, a learned scholar of Persia,” he exclaiming, shaking a finger. “How dare you address me so impudently! Who are you to act with such brazen disrespect?”

“I am an armed man, and I will address you however I please.” Steel gleamed on the stranger’s arm as he pulled up a sleeve.

“Perhaps I spoke in haste,” said Baraz. He motioned toward a dining couch across the room. “You may recline. Do you care for wine or figs?”

Baraz studied the visitor as he filled a goblet with wine and sat upright on the couch. He had the grim, gaunt look of one to whom hardship was no stranger. More peculiar was his listless manner. The visitor’s tone was not menacing as he spoke of sicae. He sounded bored, as though threats were merely a formality.

“My servant tells me you have news of the king of the Jews,” said Baraz.

The man sipped his wine. “All Jerusalem buzzes with rumors of the wise men from the East. They follow the brightest star in the heavens, or so the tale goes. That star has perplexed all Herod’s wise men. It appeared suddenly, burning in the sky over Bethlehem.”

“What of the star?” inquired Baraz, feigning ignorance. “It is one star: a bright one, perhaps, but one of many.”

“It is not wise to bait me, old man,” said the visitor, setting down his goblet.

Baraz retreated a little farther behind the table. “I am not baiting you,” he said. “I merely inquire. Of what interest is the star to… a man in your line of work?”

“Freedom is my line of work,” said the stranger. “My name is Jehu, and I am a zealot.”

“I am unfamiliar with the word.”

“A zealot is either a revolutionary or a criminal. It depends upon whom you ask. I fight to free Israel from her oppressors. I am no rabbi, but even I have heard the prophecies about Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Messiah who will bring peace to Israel. When a sign appears in heaven over such a place, I am very much interested.”

Baraz gazed in puzzlement across the table at the visitor. “Why have you come to me? I am Persian. Forgive me—and kindly keep your weapon in your sleeve—but the peace of Israel is hardly my concern.”

“We both seek the Messiah, the true king of the Jews,” said the visitor. “Herod is a brute. The throne of Israel belongs to the Messiah of God. What I do not understand is why you are concerned.”

In spite of his nervousness, Baraz smiled. “Truth is always my concern. Ours is an ignorant world, is it not? Look out the window at the crowds kicking up dust like cattle. Everyone is a fool. You are a fool, Jehu. I am a fool. We are all fools stumbling in the dark. My companions and I are looking for truth, and we hope it may be found in this king of the Jews.”

“I once met a group of shepherds,” said Jehu, and finished his wine.

“Shepherds,” said Baraz, baffled.

“Shepherds,” repeated Jehu. “About two years ago in Bethlehem. They told me angels had proclaimed the birth of the Messiah: a baby in a manger. It was insanity, but there is something I have never forgotten.”

“What is that?”

“There was a baby in a manger that night. I saw him.”

Baraz could restrain himself no longer. “Jehu, why have you come? Is it upon this baby you have set your hopes? Do you wish for me to find this child, this boy in Bethlehem, to see whether he is the Messiah?”

It was at that moment Baraz saw tears on Jehu’s cheeks.

“I stab and slit and strangle,” said Jehu. “To what end? Rome still grinds Israel into the dust. My efforts are of no use. I am a man trying to hold back the tide of the sea. My soul is stained with blood, old man.”

“Dare I suggest taking up another profession?”

“God forgive me, I cannot stop. I must fight until Israel is free, but I cannot free her. Only the Messiah can save Israel. You are searching for him, and I have come today with one purpose.”

Baraz leaned forward. “Yes?”

“Go to Bethlehem, old man. Find the child in the manger. Help him, so that he can someday rescue Israel. As long as Israel is a slave, so am I.”

“We will find him,” said Baraz.

Without a word, Jehu set down his goblet and left.

Baraz coughed into his cloth and folded it meditatively. “We are nearing the end of our journey, I think,” he murmured. “I do not know whether the Messiah awaits us in Bethlehem, but any place is better than this vile Jerusalem!”

Chapter Five can be found here.


Author’s Note:

Not much is known about the Wise Men, so there’s lots of speculation. They fascinate me. The biblical narrative of Christ’s birth moves along smoothly, and then mysterious men arrive from “the East” in search of a king destined to rule a nation that no longer exists. In the end they deliver their gifts to Jesus, apparently oblivious to the fact that the king of the Jews is the child of peasants. Am I the only one who thinks that’s kind of weird?

Incidentally, grumpy old men are really fun to write. (I’m not much good at serious dialogue; I prefer characters with a sense of humor.) I think Baraz is my favorite character so far.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Three: Caleb

Chapter Two can be found here.

Caleb ran down the street, jostling the others, yelling and whooping and laughing. The night was dark, but the dark did not matter. They had found a light, a light to illuminate Bethlehem and Judea and all the world, a light from which all shadows must flee.

“Halt, you rabble,” called a voice. Caleb stopped and looked around. His companions did the same. They saw no one. The streets, lined with dim buildings, were lit only by faint, flickering threads of lamplight leaking through window lattices. The sky above was a black abyss, untouched by gleam of moon or star.

“Who speaks?” asked Caleb, beaming. “Come, there is no need to be shy.”

“Get inside, you fools,” said the voice, and a man emerged from the gloom. “You must be mad or drunk or possessed by devils. I neither know nor care. However, as a fellow Jew, I give you this advice: get indoors and stay there.”

“We cannot,” said Caleb, and his companions murmured their assent. “We have seen him, and we must spread the news!”

“Seen whom?” demanded the stranger. “What news?”

“The Messiah!” cried one of Caleb’s companions.

The stranger reeled.

“Come, friend, and we will tell everything,” said Caleb, advancing upon the stranger and holding out his hand. “Come with us! We will show you.”

The stranger pulled a sword from beneath his cloak.

Caleb withdrew his hand and backed away. Then, unable to contain his mirth, he burst into a laugh. “Come, come, put it away,” he gasped. “No need for weapons. We mean no harm, friend.”

“Keep your distance,” said the stranger. He pointed the blade at Caleb, but his hand shook. “The Messiah? What in God’s name do you mean?”

“The Messiah,” repeated Caleb. “I cannot make it clearer. The Messiah of God has come to Bethlehem.”

The stranger lowered his sword. “Where is he?” he demanded. “This Messiah—where is he? If God, after so many centuries of silence, has finally given us his chosen leader, I will pledge myself to his service.”

“What is your name, friend?” inquired Caleb.

The question seemed to surprise the stranger. “Jehu the zealot,” he replied.

“I am Caleb the shepherd. These are my fellow shepherds: loyal sons of Jacob. Now that we know each other, let us take you to the Messiah.”

Jehu’s hands stopped shaking, and he wrinkled his nose. “Shepherds,” he muttered. “What a fool I am to be shaken by the gossip of shepherds. I ought to have known you by your smell.”

“Are you coming with us?” inquired Caleb.

“Go to your Messiah,” said Jehu. “If you ask politely, he may give you golden scepters and linen robes to replace your crooks and filthy rags.”

“He is sleeping in a manger,” said one of Caleb’s companions, and Jehu froze.

“What?” he whispered.

“Angels appeared to us as we watched our flocks,” explained Caleb, gesturing toward the fields lost in the darkness somewhere far beyond Bethlehem.

Caleb’s companions broke the silence.

“Brighter than the heart of a furnace!”

“White robes—whiter than I have ever seen—whiter than the clouds of heaven.”

“Like bolts of lightning frozen in the sky!”

“There was one angel,” said Caleb. “Then there were many. They told us of the Messiah, the Christ, the child wrapped in cloths and lying a manger somewhere in the town of David. We found him with his parents in a cave outside Bethlehem.”

“You are fools,” said Jehu. “What of your flocks?”

“Ah, I suppose they are out there somewhere,” said Caleb vaguely. “They no longer matter.”

“They are wiser than you,” said Jehu, and sheathed his sword. “They are witless and wandering, but even your sheep have more sense than to invent stories of angels and a Messiah in a manger. Farewell, and God forgive your insanity.”

Jehu vanished into the darkness. Caleb and his companions stood for a moment, watching. Then someone laughed, and they all laughed, and into the night they ran, ready to tell Bethlehem and Judea and all the world that the Messiah had come.

Chapter Four can be found here.


Author’s Note:

At the time of the Nativity, being a shepherd was not exactly a glorious career. It was a hard, cold, lonely job with few benefits. Shepherds were pretty much the lowest of the low. That’s why it was frankly weird for Christ’s birth to have been announced to shepherds. Angels gave the good news not to kings or priests or philosophers, but to shepherds. Why shepherds? I’m not sure. Christ spent much of his time ministering to lowly people—beggars, lepers and prostitutes, among others—so perhaps it’s not so strange that shepherds were the first to hear the news of his arrival.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Two: Judith

Chapter One can be found here.

Judith peered through the window and saw nothing. Moon and stars had been obscured by a blanket of clouds. Bethlehem had been plunged into darkness.

“When will Papa get home?” asked Rachel, tugging on Judith’s sleeve.

“Soon,” said Judith, and began to pray silently that her husband came home alive.

The Roman census had made Bethlehem a dangerous place. Bandits multiplied, eager to make a profit from the travelers flooding the roads. Hungry and desperate, many travelers were not above stealing anything they could to survive. It was a time for citizens of Bethlehem to bar their doors, wait and pray for God to guard them.

Judith had spent the day preparing for her husband’s homecoming: baking, cooking, cleaning and not daring to lapse into idleness. Idleness meant worry. Judith kept busy.

Someone hammered on the door, and Rachel flew to open it.

“Wait, child,” said Judith, and called, “Who knocks?”

“It is I, Benjamin, your one and only husband,” called a voice she knew. “Kindly open the door.”

Rachel threw open the door, cried “Papa!” and leapt into Benjamin’s arms. He tottered a few steps backward.

“My dear child,” he said, stroking her hair. “Judith, my love, I am home.”

“You are very late,” said Judith, and grinned. It was hard to be upset with Benjamin.

Benjamin carried Rachel inside. “We have a guest, my love.”

“Any guest is welcome,” said Judith.

Jehu stepped inside.

For an instant, Judith’s face betrayed disgust and fear. Then, speaking in a strained, quiet voice, she said, “Any guest but this one. He must go.”

Benjamin sat down on a cushion with Rachel on his lap. “My love, Jehu has come all the way from Jerusalem. We cannot turn him out into the cold.”

“Yes, we can,” said Judith.

“The night is dark, my love. The clouds covered the lights of heaven as we came into Bethlehem. I cannot leave my cousin to sleep in the streets on a night as gloomy as this.”

“I cannot allow a member of the Sicarii in my house,” said Judith. “He must go.”

Rachel looked up at Benjamin. “Papa, what does Sicarii mean?”

“You need not know,” replied Benjamin, biting his lip. “It is not a matter for children.”

“Tell her, my husband,” said Judith. “Rachel deserves to know what sort of man you have brought into her home tonight.”

Judith may not have been the head of the household, but she always had her way in arguments. Benjamin sighed, as usual, and submitted to his wife’s decision.

“You may sit, Jehu,” he said, making an effort to delay the inevitable. “There is no need for you to stand lifeless in the corner like an idol. For the moment, you are welcome here. Make yourself comfortable.”

Judith glanced fiercely at Benjamin. He held his daughter close and said, “Rachel, do you remember the stories of Joshua and David and the other great warriors of Israel?”

Rachel nodded.

“A Sicarii is a warrior who fights in secret. That is all, my daughter.”

Judith smiled. “I love you, my husband, for making the best of an ugly truth. Rachel, my child, the Sicarii are the dagger-men, murderers with sicae up their sleeves—secret blades to steal the lives of their enemies.”

Rachel stared at Jehu. “He has sicae in his sleeves?” she whispered.

“Well, Jehu?” said Judith. “She asks. Answer my daughter.”

Jehu reached up his right sleeve and withdrew a curved blade. “Just one,” he said. “One is all I need.”

Rachel gazed at Jehu, the grim stranger with a sword at his waist and a knife up his sleeve. “Papa, please let me go,” she whispered.

“My child,” said Benjamin, but stopped as his daughter squirmed in his arms.

“Please let me go,” she whimpered.

Benjamin released his daughter, and Rachel scuttled into a back room.

“Even children fear you, Jehu,” said Judith.

He scowled. “Your daughter fears the dark, dreadful dagger-men of your imagination. You frightened Rachel, not I.”

“Why have you come?” demanded Judith. “What brings you to Bethlehem?”

Jehu smiled, but his smile was darker than his scowl. “The Roman census, of course. Everyone is here for the census.”

“Do not lie to me,” snapped Judith.

“Your husband seemed an easy prey to bandits,” said Jehu. “I could not allow my cousin to travel alone.”

“Closer to the truth, yet no less a lie,” said Judith.

“Is this how you receive guests in Bethlehem, old man?” inquired Jehu. “Your child flees, your wife pries and you sit blinking like a drunkard.”

“Quiet,” said Benjamin, and a shadow of fear came over Judith. She had never heard such anguish in his voice.

“Josiah the priest was murdered yesterday,” continued Benjamin, speaking as though in pain. “A servant of the Most High, stabbed and left to die in the streets. Jerusalem erupted. Riots broke out. By the time the uproar had been quelled, the assassin had vanished. I know now where he has gone.”

“We both know Josiah was the governor’s puppet,” said Jehu, not looking at anyone. “A servant of the Most High? No, old man. A servant of Rome.”

“You killed a priest of God!” cried Benjamin, springing to his feet. He stood a moment, breathing heavily, and then sat down again on his cushion.

“I eliminated a traitor.”

There was a long silence. Judith opened her mouth to speak, but remained silent at a look from her husband. Benjamin, a soft man, seldom asserted his authority. When he did, Judith obeyed. Glaring at Jehu, she said nothing.

When Benjamin spoke, the anger had gone out of his voice. He sounded tired. “Jehu, what have you become? My cousin was not a man with blood on his hands. He was a good lad with bright eyes. Your eyes have become dull, Jehu. They are a drunkard’s eyes. You are intoxicated with blood, and it makes me sad.”

“I fight for our freedom,” protested Jehu. “I fight because I must. Rome grinds Israel into the dust. We must retaliate! What else can we do?”

“We can survive,” said Benjamin. “As we have done for hundreds of years, we can endure. It is not for us to overthrow empires. That is God’s business. We must await the Messiah who will set us free.”

“Will he come?” asked Jehu.

“What are you saying?” demanded Judith. She could not remain silent any longer.

“Will the Messiah come? We have waited hundreds of years. There are no more prophets. There are no more prophecies. The teachers of the law stoop to petty legalism, and God’s own temple is rebuilt as a political maneuver by a pagan king.”

“Do you plan to deliver Israel by murdering her priests?” asked Judith.

Jehu made no reply.

“It is best if you leave,” said Benjamin. “I am sorry, Jehu, but this is no place for you. God’s grace go with you, and may he lead you to a life of peace.”

“Get out,” said Judith.

Jehu opened the door and faded into the night. The lights of heaven had not rekindled, and the darkness was absolute.

Chapter Three can be found here.


Author’s Note:

When my old man told me about the Sicarii, the Jewish dagger-men who murdered their enemies in broad daylight and disappeared into the crowd, I was fascinated. Never mind Assassin’s Creed—this is history!

According to my old man, the Sicarii actually carried concealed blades. They would sidle up to their target in a crowd, slip the blade between the ribs, puncture the heart, withdraw the blade and slip away before anyone noticed them.

My tale of zealots and daggers may seem a bit grim for a Christmas story, but I don’t think it is. The Nativity is depicted as a bright, joyous event, but it came at a dark, dreary time in Jewish history. That’s partly why people were so excited about the Messiah. He would make everything right! He would restore Israel! In the meantime, the Sicarii and the zealots fought back. Everyone else endured, and waited, and hoped.

Nothing defines Christmas more than hope, I think.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter One: Benjamin

A stout man and a thin man walked the road to Bethlehem in silence. Above them, a full moon shone and stars blazed across the sky. Around them, dusty slopes stretched up into the night, gray in the moonlight, broken by trees and rocks and tufts of grass.

The stout man paused to gaze upward. “Turn your eyes to the stars, Jehu,” he said, puffing and wiping his brow. “Their beauty tonight is beyond compare.”

“To gehenna with the stars,” replied the thin man, looking resolutely downward. “We have no time for them. Keep moving, Benjamin.”

Panting, Benjamin spared enough breath to gasp in indignation. “You must not malign the works of the Most High. The heavens declare the glory of God, as it is written in the psalms. The skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech—”

“Not unlike a fat old man of my acquaintance,” said Jehu, scowling at his companion. “I have heard enough of your prattle. We are near Bethlehem, and I beg you to hold your tongue until we get there.”

They walked on. Wind swished the grass and made branches creak. From over the hills came the faint noise of sheep bleating and men chatting, the sounds of a shepherd’s camp. As Jehu and Benjamin plodded along, their shadows stretched out before them, sharply black in the moonlight.

Jehu brought forth a sword from under his cloak and began to twirl it. Benjamin took a few steps back. “Do not fear me,” said Jehu. He smiled, which Benjamin did not find comforting. “Whom you must fear, Benjamin, are the bandits. Like the accursed Romans, they prey upon the weak and helpless.”

“Are we in danger?” whispered Benjamin.

“You are, perhaps,” said Jehu. “Fortunately for you, I am neither weak nor helpless. Stay close to me and you may live to see the lights of Bethlehem.”

Keeping a wary eye on the sword flashing in the moonlight, Benjamin moved a little closer to Jehu.

At last, as they came over the crest of a hill, they saw the lamps and fires of Bethlehem twinkling like golden stars far ahead. Still gasping for breath, Benjamin mumbled, “God be praised.”

Jehu said nothing and did not put away his sword.

“I am not a nervous man,” said Benjamin nervously. “Nevertheless, I admit to feeling perhaps just an echo of fear on this dark, dangerous road. It is good to see lights ahead. They speak to me of food and fire and wine—God preserve us, what is that?”

Jehu held his sword before him and peered into the darkness. “Benjamin, what do you see?”

“I see a cross. Some poor fool has been crucified.”

Jehu sighed and sheathed his sword. “Your eyes deceive you, old man. It is nothing but a pillar and crossbeam of wood. There is a cave in the rock. Someone must use it for a stable or storehouse. The cross you see is a support to keep the mouth of the cave from crumbling.”

“It is an omen,” said Benjamin, clutching Jehu’s sleeve. “The Almighty gives you this sign, Jehu. Your plans are folly. Turn away from them! Abandon your dreams of revolution, or a cross will become your future.”

“That is not a cross,” said Jehu, tearing his sleeve out of Benjamin’s grip. “That is a pillar and crossbeam. Only a fool—or a poet, which is no different—can look upon it and see an instrument of death. Gather your wits and stop babbling.”

Benjamin rubbed his face, wiping away sweat and tears. “I am concerned for you, Jehu. You were once my cousin, before you forsook all ties to family. You may not value your life, but I do.”

“We have wasted time enough,” said Jehu. “Bethlehem awaits.”

As they passed the mouth of the cave, they were startled by a cry from within.

“Is that the sound of a child?” whispered Benjamin.

Jehu’s face was grim. “There,” he said, pointing.

Moonlight poured into the cave, illuminating all but the farthest corners. The pillar and crossbeam supporting the ceiling cast the ruthless black shadow of a cross. A manger stood in the shadow. A woman knelt beside the manger. A man stood nearby, holding out a lamp that flickered uselessly in the moonlight.

“By Joseph’s bones,” murmured Benjamin. “A baby in a manger. In such dangerous times as these, what spirit of madness possessed these fools to take refuge in a filthy cave?”

“The Roman census,” said Jehu. “These fools left their home and dragged themselves across the country for this, a stable reeking of manure, because Rome told them to. Why does this child have no better bed than a cattle trough? The answer is simple. Rome felt it necessary to know exactly how many people are left in this country for her to grind beneath her heel.”

“You should not say such things, Jehu.”

“Why should I be silent? Look at that child. He lies in the shadow of a cross. He will live in the shadow of a cross. Unless we rise against Rome, we too shall live in the shadow of a cross, that bloody emblem of Roman brutality.”

Having regained his breath, Benjamin heaved a long, sad sigh. “You sound more like a zealot every day, Jehu. You have certainly mastered the rhetoric of the revolutionary. No, I do not wish to hear more,” he added as Jehu opened his mouth to reply. “I do not want to be told of Rome’s cruelties or your plans to repay them. I want safety and supper and a warm bed. I want to go home to my wife and daughter. Let us leave.”

They left the cave.

Chapter Two can be found here.


Author’s Note:

I wrote Zealot: A Christmas Story about a year ago because there are not enough Christmas stories about assassins.

When we think of the first Christmas, a stable and shepherds and wise men are usually the first things to come to our minds. In our imaginations, the Nativity exists in its own little bubble. As I wrote this story, I had great fun giving the Nativity its historical context, from the predictions of ancient prophets to the struggles of brave revolutionaries. At the heart of this story lies one man, a zealot, whose life of blood and secrecy begins to change when he meets a child born in the shadow of a cross.

Zealot: A Christmas Story will be posted in short chapters, one each Wednesday, until early January. Regular TMTF posts will continue to be posted on Mondays and Fridays.

Thanks for reading!

229. A Christmas Story (with Assassins)

I’ve decided to share one of my old stories on TMTF this month, because recycling is good for the environment.

I wrote “Zealot: A Christmas Story” because there are not enough Christmas stories about assassins. It’s the tale of Jehu, a Jewish revolutionary bent on driving the Roman Empire out of Palestine. His life of hatred and bloodshed is interrupted by an astonishing series of people: a cowardly traveler, some crazy shepherds, a grouchy scholar and a rabbi whose teachings would transform the world.

The story of the Nativity is a familiar one. We all remember the stable, the manger, the angels and the shepherds. What we forget is the historical context. For centuries, the Jews had been subjugated by powerful empires. Ancient prophecies of the Messiah, a hero chosen by God to restore Israel, must have seemed empty and distant.

Jesus was born in an era of hopelessness and disillusionment. Since God seemed to be doing nothing to rescue Israel from Rome, a number of Jews decided to take matters into their own hands. They became zealots: revolutionaries fighting a hopeless battle, struggling to survive and awaiting the Messiah whom God had promised.

In the end, the Messiah came. He lived and died not to rescue Israel from Rome, but to free humankind from death.

“Zealot: A Christmas Story” is the tale of a revolutionary, and how he witnessed the beginning of a revolution infinitely greater than any he could imagine.

Throughout December and early January, chapters of this story will be published on TMTF on Wednesdays, replacing my weekly ramblings about geeky things. Never fear! Geeky Wednesdays will return next month.

I hope you enjoy “Zealot: A Christmas Story.” Have a bright, beautiful December!

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Last Chapter: Luke

Chapter Five can be found here.

“Let us pause,” said Luke. “My fingers ache.”

“This was your idea,” said his companion, leaning back and gazing out over the city. From their vantage point upon the housetop, Rome gleamed in the morning light. Armor and chariots flashed as a military procession passed in the distance. The sun turned iron to silver and bronze to gold. It was a splendid sight.

Luke’s companion scratched his nose, evidently unimpressed.

“My dear Luke, you have only yourself to blame if your fingers ache. You insisted on taking notes.”

“A foolish decision,” said Luke. “This may come as a surprise, Paul, but other people are not always as wise as you. Not everyone can be as wise as Paul, whose writings are renowned in Rome and Jerusalem and all the provinces in between.”

“Do you think you are the only one ever to have suffered the pain of aching fingers?” asked Paul. “Every time I wrote a letter I asked, ‘O Lord, how long until you provide your servant with a scribe?’ My life has been difficult here in Rome, you know, but I have one great consolation: our brothers from the synagogue write my letters as I dictate.”

Luke nodded with mock seriousness. “It is certainly a blessing for the churches, which are no longer burdened with the difficulty of deciphering your handwriting. Your letters are hard enough to understand when they are written clearly.”

A moment passed as Luke flexed his fingers and loaded his quill with ink. “I am ready,” he announced. “Where were we? Ah, I remember. We left you dangling from the wall of Damascus in a basket. Paul, would you kindly pay attention? I will never finish my book unless you stay focused.”

“I apologize,” said Paul, rubbing his jaw. “I have a toothache.”

Luke laughed. “A toothache? I thought you were meditating.”

“I was thinking of someone I once knew,” said Paul. “I have thought of him often in past weeks.”

“Tell me.”

“Before my conversion, you know, I went from house to house in Jerusalem arresting all who professed faith in Jesus of Nazareth. One afternoon I raided a home where some of the Lord’s disciples were meeting. There were about a dozen men with me. The moment we entered the house, an old man jumped up and said to the others, ‘We are discovered. Run!’ Then he charged at us.”

Paul chuckled. “Since I was the first to go down, I do not remember exactly what happened. I was later informed our attacker knocked out five of us before he was arrested. The strange thing was that he stopped fighting once the other disciples had escaped. After his arrest, we learned the man’s name was Jehu. He had been a notorious assassin before becoming a disciple of the Messiah.”

“What happened to the man?” asked Luke.

Paul made a chopping motion across his neck. “There was no trial,” he added. “Jehu reminded me of Stephen. Neither was afraid to die. Jehu’s execution made quite an impression.”

“Besides the one he had already made upon your face, I suppose.”

Paul smiled gingerly. “My jaw hurt for weeks. Since then, I think of Jehu every time my teeth ache. You know, there is one thing I shall never forget about him.”

“What?”

“His eyes.”

“What about them?”

“They were the calmest and kindest I have ever seen.”


Author’s Note:

I enjoy telling a story from multiple perspectives. The Infinity Manuscript, a novella I posted as a serial on this blog, delivered each chapter from a different character’s point of view. As a writer, I like bouncing from one character to another as I tell a story. (I really hope it doesn’t annoy my readers.) This story is another victim of my favorite narrative trick, and it’s been fun for me to describe Jehu’s journey through the eyes of six different characters.

This story is also a victim of rushed rewrites and revisions. I’d like to expand, fix and polish it someday. Maybe next Christmas.

I like to imagine solemn historical figures having a lighter side. We don’t really get to see Luke, Paul or anyone in the New Testament being anything but serious. (Paul occasionally betrays a hint of humor, but not often.) I wonder what kind of things made men like Luke and Paul laugh. I mean, P.G. Wodehouse wasn’t born until 1881. What was funny before Wodehouse?

Thanks for reading!

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Five: Judas

Chapter Four can be found here.

A vast crowd sat in silence. Apart from the words of the rabbi, the only sounds to be heard were the distant twittering of birds and the occasional grunt as someone shifted position on the warm grass.

“There,” said Simon, poking Judas in the ribs. “The man with gray hair.”

Judas glanced at the stranger. “That fossil? You are joking, Simon.”

Simon nudged Judas again. “I am sure. He has aged, but I could never forget those eyes. He looks like a man who has gazed upon all the sorrows of the world.”

Judas watched the stranger for a minute before tugging on Simon’s sleeve. “You are mistaken, Simon. You may pretend to be a zealot, but you cannot pretend that frail old man is Jehu. I grew up hearing stories of an invisible assassin before whom Romans fell like wheat before the scythe. He is not that man.”

The stranger knelt in the grass, his head bowed, listening with half-closed eyes as the rabbi spoke of God’s mysteries. Once the old man glanced toward Judas.

“Is he drunk?” whispered Judas. “There is no life in his eyes.”

Simon stifled a chuckle. “What did you expect? Jehu has killed more men than any Roman legion has ever done. For more than thirty years, Rome has sought him in vain.”

The rabbi lifted up his voice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

Judas watched the stranger, overcome by morbid curiosity, wondering how he respond to such mild, peaceful words. The stranger neither moved nor spoke.

Time passed. As listeners came and went, the stranger knelt like a weathered statue, listening. The sun moved slowly overhead.

Beads of sweat ran down Judas’s face. “Is he almost done?” he muttered, glaring at the rabbi. “We are all hungry. He often speaks of spiritual bread, but he never seems to remember that we also need the worldly kind. My body is about to perish of hunger and leave my spirit homeless.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said the rabbi.

“That sounds good,” grumbled Judas.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

“What about our bodies?” whispered Judas. “Will we find rest for them?”

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

At that moment, Simon gave Judas such a jab in the side that he gasped in pain.

“Simon,” hissed Judas. “You may think you are a zealot, but I refuse to be your target practice.”

“Look at Jehu!” said Simon.

Judas looked. There, kneeling alone in the grass, the most vicious criminal in Judea, the man at whose name Romans cursed and Jews turned pale, wept openly.

Chapter Six can be found here.


Author’s Note:

I am reminded once again that grumpy, snarky characters are much more fun to write than solemn, serious ones. Judas may be kind of a jerk, but I think anyone who has sat through a really long sermon at church can sympathize with his impatience.

Jesus had twelve close disciples, and they were quite an odd bunch. Simon the Zealot presumably hated Rome. Matthew, also called Levi, was a tax collector who probably worked for the Roman authorities. The Gospels tell us the disciples of Jesus sometimes bickered, and I can believe it!

Peter was originally the star of this particular chapter. When he turned out to be such a complainer, I decided Judas Iscariot was a much better fit. After all, disillusionment with the long-awaited Jewish Messiah may have been Judas Iscariot’s motive for betraying Jesus to be executed.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Four: Baraz

Chapter Three can be found here.

“I despise this filthy city.”

Having declared his opinion of Jerusalem, the City of God, Baraz coughed into a linen cloth and peered through the window lattice at the dusty streets.

“What misfortune to be struck with fever! As the others meet with King Herod, I am confined to this detestable hovel. The finest inn in all Jerusalem? Bah! A foul place. Are all the powers of heaven conspiring against me?”

Baraz’s servant chose that unfortunate moment to kick open the door and announce, “There is a visitor to see you, Master. He says he wishes to speak with you about the king of the Jews.”

A paroxysm of coughing overtook Baraz’s mocking laughter. As soon as he could speak again, he growled, “Kindly knock before entering. Are you my servant or a savage? I expect such behavior of a Scythian, but not of you.”

“Master, the king of the Jews—”

“I have no wish to speak with anyone about Herod,” grumbled Baraz. “We may seek his advice, but that does not mean we approve of him.”

“Not Herod, Master,” said the servant, fidgeting. “The king of the Jews.”

Baraz sat bolt upright. “Another king? Could it—bid our guest enter. Quickly! Do not stand there catching flies with your mouth, you simpleton! Bring in the visitor.”

The servant ushered in a man in a dark cloak. After one glance at the visitor, Baraz quietly rose from his stool and sidled behind a table.

“I am not here to hurt you,” said the stranger. “Be thankful, old man.”

Baraz instantly forgot his fear. “I am Baraz, a learned scholar of Persia,” he exclaiming, shaking a finger. “How dare you address me so impudently! Who are you to act with such brazen disrespect?”

“I am an armed man, and I will address you however I please.” Steel gleamed on the stranger’s arm as he pulled up a sleeve.

“Perhaps I spoke in haste,” said Baraz. He motioned toward a dining couch across the room. “You may recline. Do you care for wine or figs?”

Baraz studied the visitor as he filled a goblet with wine and sat upright on the couch. He had the grim, gaunt look of one to whom hardship was no stranger. More peculiar was his listless manner. The visitor’s tone was not menacing as he spoke of sicae. He sounded bored, as though threats were merely a formality.

“My servant tells me you have news of the king of the Jews,” said Baraz.

The man sipped his wine. “All Jerusalem buzzes with rumors of the wise men from the East. They follow the brightest star in the heavens, or so the tale goes. That star has perplexed all Herod’s wise men. It appeared suddenly, burning in the sky over Bethlehem.”

“What of the star?” inquired Baraz, feigning ignorance. “It is one star: a bright one, perhaps, but one of many.”

“It is not wise to bait me, old man,” said the visitor, setting down his goblet.

Baraz retreated a little farther behind the table. “I am not baiting you,” he said. “I merely inquire. Of what interest is the star to… a man in your line of work?”

“Freedom is my line of work,” said the stranger. “My name is Jehu, and I am a zealot.”

“I am unfamiliar with the word.”

“A zealot is either a revolutionary or a criminal. It depends upon whom you ask. I fight to free Israel from her oppressors. I am no rabbi, but even I have heard the prophecies about Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Messiah who will bring peace to Israel. When a sign appears in heaven over such a place, I am very much interested.”

Baraz gazed in puzzlement across the table at the visitor. “Why have you come to me? I am Persian. Forgive me—and kindly keep your weapon in your sleeve—but the peace of Israel is hardly my concern.”

“We both seek the Messiah, the true king of the Jews,” said the visitor. “Herod is a brute. The throne of Israel belongs to the Messiah of God. What I do not understand is why you are concerned.”

In spite of his nervousness, Baraz smiled. “Truth is always my concern. Ours is an ignorant world, is it not? Look out the window at the crowds kicking up dust like cattle. Everyone is a fool. You are a fool, Jehu. I am a fool. We are all fools stumbling in the dark. My companions and I are looking for truth, and we hope it may be found in this king of the Jews.”

“I once met a group of shepherds,” said Jehu, and finished his wine.

“Shepherds,” said Baraz, baffled.

“Shepherds,” repeated Jehu. “About two years ago in Bethlehem. They told me angels had proclaimed the birth of the Messiah: a baby in a manger. It was insanity, but there is something I have never forgotten.”

“What is that?”

“There was a baby in a manger that night. I saw him.”

Baraz could restrain himself no longer. “Jehu, why have you come? Is it upon this baby you have set your hopes? Do you wish for me to find this child, this boy in Bethlehem, to see whether he is the Messiah?”

It was at that moment Baraz saw tears on Jehu’s cheeks.

“I stab and slit and strangle,” said Jehu. “To what end? Rome still grinds Israel into the dust. My efforts are of no use. I am a man trying to hold back the tide of the sea. My soul is stained with blood, old man.”

“Dare I suggest taking up another profession?”

“God forgive me, I cannot stop. I must fight until Israel is free, but I cannot free her. Only the Messiah can save Israel. You are searching for him, and I have come today with one purpose.”

Baraz leaned forward. “Yes?”

“Go to Bethlehem, old man. Find the child in the manger. Help him, so that he can someday rescue Israel. As long as Israel is a slave, so am I.”

“We will find him,” said Baraz.

Without a word, Jehu set down his goblet and left.

Baraz coughed into his cloth and folded it meditatively. “We are nearing the end of our journey, I think,” he murmured. “I do not know whether the Messiah awaits us in Bethlehem, but any place is better than this vile Jerusalem!”

Chapter Five can be found here.


Author’s Note:

Posting this story on TMTF seemed like a good idea at the time. “A Christmas story gathering dust (or whatever virtual debris are gathered by computer files) in an archive of old writing? I can post it on TMTF!” Only after I’d committed to posting this story did I realize it was sort of awful. I’ve had to do some very hasty revisions and rewrites. While I’m still not satisfied with the result, Zealot: A Christmas Story is at least better than it was before. I guess that’s a step forward.

Not much is known about the Wise Men, so there’s lots of speculation. They fascinate me. The biblical narrative of Christ’s birth moves along smoothly, and then mysterious men arrive from “the East” in search of a king destined to rule a nation that no longer exists. In the end they deliver their gifts to Jesus, apparently oblivious to the fact that the king of the Jews is the child of peasants. Am I the only one who thinks that’s kind of weird?

Incidentally, grumpy old men are really fun to write. (I’m not much good at serious dialogue; I prefer characters with a sense of humor.) I think Baraz is my favorite character so far.