CHAPTER XXXVI. BEFORE THE HIGH PRIEST
The night was gloomy and clouded; the stars were dimmed, even as human eyes are dimmed with tears. No sound was heard save that of the wind as it moaned through the tops of the trees, and that of the heavy steps, the blasphemies, or the coarse remarks of the rough men. No voice was raised save that of the sentinel, who, fearing surprise, challenged them sharply. Jesus experienced a great and bitter oppression of spirit, and His soul was overwhelmed at the sight of man's ingratitude, the cowardice of those He loved.
But, on approaching the Sterquilinarian gate, He perceived three women hidden in the shade of the wicket. At once He understood that Mary, His Mother, had followed thus to comfort Him.
"Oh, my Son, I suffer with Thee! My soul is indissolubly united to all Thy sorrows!"
This maternal sympathy was most precious to Him at this moment of utter dereliction. Tears of tenderness rose to His sacred eyes. Some of the peaceful hours of His infancy flashed across His mind. His Mother's caressing arms had been His cradle, her breast His pillow. The Son of Mary, the Man of sorrow, paid, in love, the love of His Mother.
The escort stopped to exchange the password, and the women approached noiselessly. Two of them knelt before Jesus, and kissed the hem of His robe. The third clasped Him in her arms for one moment—only one moment. And though this joy was bitter, there was sweetness in it for the Son and Mother separated so long.
All this passed with the rapidity of lightning. The gate was opened. The soldiers pushed Jesus forward, separating the Virgin from her Son. Yet, thanks to the obscurity, the women were able to mix with the escort, and re-enter Jerusalem in the train of the Saviour. The torches had been extinguished before filing into the streets of the city, save that carried at the head of the procession. They marched now in complete silence, without speaking a word. Presently the women felt that a stranger was close to them, and a few muttered words betrayed his identity. It was Simon Peter.
Ashamed at his cowardly desertion, he had turned back, determined to follow his Master, and to die with Him. His spirit was full of boldness—he contemplated a thousand rash projects—yet the smallest movement of the soldiers made him tremble. This was his nature—an enterprising spirit, united to a timid heart. There are many such in the world. In realizing that they exist, or that such is our own nature, God wishes us to understand our moral infirmities, in order to render us humble and forbearing.
Having perceived Mary Magdalen and Salome, Simon Peter joined them. The troop led the way to the house of Annas the Sacrificer, which was situated on the brow of the hill, near the gate of Sion. Close to its threshold grew a large olive-tree, and they bound Our Lord to this, while a guard watched Him. Then the tribune entered for further orders. The torches shone upon that sacred figure, and the holy women could contemplate His divine beauty. He had clothed Himself that morning in His festive garments, that He might celebrate the Passover, and He wore a seamless robe of the color of the hyacinth which the Virgin had spun and dyed and embroidered with her own loving hands.
For what a festival had she prepared it!
Intense sorrow, painful tenderness, filled the heart of the Mother, looking in silence on the face of her Son. She could not remove her gaze. . . . Then the tribune came forth from the house of Annas, and ordering the prisoner to be untied, they resumed the march to where Caiphas the High Priest waited— and where the Priests, Scribes, and Ancients had been assembled for some hours.
The palace was some distance away, and as the procession formed again, the Virgin and her companions followed at a distance. Once reached, the tribune knocked with the pommel of his sword. A wicket, hidden under the portico, was opened, and shut upon the troop. The Virgin and her friends were left outside in the darkness. Jesus, too, had disappeared with the soldiers.
"What will happen?" murmured Peter, after a few moments of oppressive silence. "They have seized Him at night, contrary to all our customs, and without any legal authority. All laws are violated! Yet what crime has He committed? Of what can they accuse Him?"
The Virgin said no word. She knew that hell was unchained; that it was employing the passions, each in its turn, of those who governed the city, to accomplish the death of the Just One. She understood that God was permitting all these things, in order that the expiation might be accomplished, the Sacrifice completed. And this knowledge sealed her lips, while it almost broke her heart.
As for Magdalen, the other Mary, and Salome, they wept, but hope had not died within them. The mystery had not been revealed; their faith in the power of the Saviour to turn all trials to a glorious triumph had not waned.
The door was shut upon Jesus, true, but now they supplicated Peter to penetrate into the house of Caiphas, in order to learn what was happening to their divine Master. Peter recalled to mind that he was acquainted with Obed, one of the servants of the High Priest, and placing Mary and the other women under a projecting porch opposite the palace, the depth of which would hide them from view, he left them in order to gain entrance.
Knocking gently at the door, which was opened to him at once, he inquired for Obed, and Obed, greeting him, motioned him to enter. This much the holy women saw—then the door was closed again and silence took possession of the place.
Secretly, Obed was a friend of Peter and a follower of Jesus. Now, sharing the Apostle's anxiety, he led ,him as far as the entrance of the tribunal itself and left him there with many cautions regarding silence and discretion.
The tribunal was on the ground floor, on one of the sides of the interior court. The hall was hung with purple, and appeared magnificent. It was lighted by torches set in chandeliers of massive silver. Here Caiphas was seated on an elevated throne, surrounded by the Ancients and the members of the council, and he had ordered Jesus, whose hands were still bound, to be brought before him.
Then began the most unjust trial the world has ever seen. Imagine, if one can, the furious and iniquitous joy which animated the whole council. They asked questions, but waited for no answers. Jesus replied to nothing—neither jibe nor taunt nor insult.
False witnesses, prepared beforehand, were heard. Peter listened, with indignant astonishment, to their lying depositions.
"And they found not—whereas many false witnesses had come in. And last of all there came two . . .
"And they said: This Man said I am able to destroy the temple of God, and after three days to rebuild it." (St. Matthew xxvi, 60, 61)
A triumphant joy played over the countenances of the judges. Caiphas smiled, and smote his hands upon his knees. Then rising, he said:
"Answerest Thou nothing to these things which these witness against Thee?"
But Jesus held His peace. He heard all with serene and unruffled dignity. The insults heaped upon Him left Him unmoved. The mockery flung at Him He met with majestic serenity. And this serenity at last had its effect. His very silence was casting scorn upon them.
And the High Priest said:
"I adjure Thee, BY THE LIVING GOD, that Thou tell us if Thou be the Christ, the Son of God?"
Silence once more—a silence that filled every nook of that impious court. And then in a firm, sweet, loud voice, Our Lord replied:
"Thou hast said it."
The words penetrated all hearts.
"Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven." (St. Matthew xxvi, 63, 64.)
Caiphas lifted his arms, and catching his robe at the throat, rent it, while his hands quivered with the passion that consumed him. His impious fury had sought but that pretext.
"He hath blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? Now you have heard His blasphemy—what think you?"
"He is guilty of death, He is guilty of death!" they shouted. And then ensued a scene such as had never before been witnessed in a court of inquiry or justice. Mad with fury, wild with rage and hatred, they spat upon His face. They struck Him with their open palms; with clenched fists they smote Him, each one striving to expend his frantic anger in a blow. And then, mocking and sneering, they cried:
'Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who he is that struck Thee!"
Then the soldiers led Jesus into the court where the servants and officers of the High Priest were warming themselves around a large fire. Caiphas had set them the example—they improved upon it. Outrages, injuries, scorn, violence, gross insults, fell, like the rain of the infernal regions, upon this Man, the Just among the unjust, the divine Redeemer of mankind.
O thrice-holy patience! How could a God endure and not annihilate these infernal wretches!
And Peter was there, hidden, Peter, who had declared, "Lord, I am ready to go with Thee both into prison and to death!" (St. Luke xxii, 33.) But here was prison and here was death, and Peter shrank in mortal fear from both. All courage had deserted him. He trembled and his face was ashen. He would have fled, but dared not until a favorable opportunity presented itself. He had forgotten everything. He had forgotten those words of his Master: "I say to thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day until thou thrice deniest that thou knowest Me!" (St. Luke xxii, 34.)
He was paralyzed with terror.
And at this moment a Galilean servant, passing by, observed him. From the peculiar shape of his robe she knew that he was from her native mountains.
"Thou art with Jesus of Nazareth?" she asked. "Perhaps thou art even one of His disciples?" Her voice testified the intensity of her pity. The sufferings which had been inflicted on the poor Prisoner had wounded her heart. But Peter, looking about him stealthily, fearing that these words would betray him to the cruel soldiery, exclaimed:
"I know not what thou sayest!"
He left her then. His fear gave him courage. He must make his escape. But even as he neared the door, another servant, the companion of the one who had already spoken, fixed her large dark eyes upon him.
"I have most assuredly seen thee among the disciples of Jesus" she said. "And not long since. It was the day on which we threw flowers beneath His feet. Why, I cast in His path the wedding-crown which Obed, whom thou knowest well, I am sure, had given me! How grand was that day. Who could have foreseen this?"
And the young girl turned to wipe the tears from her cheek.
"I do not know the Man," said Peter, desperately.
"Feasting and tears are bosom friends," said one standing close by, in rude accents.
"Po you not understand that some foolish people can not abide prosperity?" exclaimed another. More remarks followed, and presently, to Peter's great alarm, he saw that attention was concentrating round him. The executioners themselves began to look on with interest. One of them, still brandishing the short and cruel whip with which he had beaten the Prisoner, approached.
"Thou canst not make me believe that thou art not one of the disciples of Jesus" he said, mockingly. "Thy speech betrayeth thecf for a Galilian."
And he endeavored to imitate the thick and guttural accents which proclaimed the town of Peter's birth. The boisterous laughter of his companion^ greeted this sally. And Peter, quivering With fear, began to curse and swear in loud tones that he knew not Jesus of Nazareth.
At this very moment, a cock, roosting on the capital of one of the pillars, frightened by the noise and the brightness, began to crow and flap his wings loudly.
"And Peter remembered the words of Jesus." (St. Matthew xxvi, 75.)
At that cry, thrice repeated, he recovered from the passion of fear into which the events of this night had plunged him. Executioners, whips, cords, all faded. He was conscious only of his weakness, and of his Master's face—his Master, his beloved and loving Master, whom he had just denied! At this moment Jesus mildly turned His head and looked at the Apostle. That kind glance was full of pity and sweetness. A fearful sob burst from Peter's breast. He loved Him, his Master, so dearly! And this, this was how he had shown his love! With tears streaming down his cheeks, he rushed out into the night.
Mary was where he had left her; he fell on his knees at her feet. His bosom heaved with sighs which he could not repress. The Virgin, Mother of sorrows, let her sax! eyes rest upon the prostrate figure.
"Ah, Peter—why wilt thou not be at peace since He has pardoned thee?"
But such comfort was not for Peter yet. He buried his face in his cloak and wept. Magdalen and Salome dared not imagine what had happened. They only remembered that the Virgin knew all.
Her soul was pierced with so keen a sword of sorrow that she looked up to heaven, hoping thence to draw strength to bear the frightful hours that now stretched before her. She suffered with her Son, as only she could suffer, and prayed for the world, which God judged worthy of the immense sacrifice about to be offered.