CHAPTER XXII. A SINNER
So infamous debauchery degenerated, on the part of the rich, into atrocious cruelty, and on the part of the poor into frightful brutishness.
"The gods have indeed deserted us," cried some of the elders, terrified at the scenes which were taking place around them. For since the world's imperial city had given welcome to the gods of every nation, the people no longer believed in any. If they paid them homage it was more as a flimsy excuse for immodest festivals, disgusting saturnalias—proving, by a rigorous logic, tested by every age, to what the abolition of belief infallibly leads.
The women also—those Roman women who had for so long a time given examples of virtues the most rigid—threw off restraint. They paraded the most frightful depravity, imitating and surpassing that which Greece had first shown to the world. Corruption the most barefaced reached its climax in this sex upon which rests the hope of every nation, to whom nature and nature's laws prescribe modesty and chastity.
This dreadful pestilence of evil gained ground more and more, and threatened to spread itself into Judea —since this unfortunate country had been subjected to foreign kings, the crowned slaves of wealth whose eyes were ever fastened on the imperial city in order, by a servile imitation of the master, to set the pace for their own evil conduct.
Cruelty and corruption reigned in the palace of Herod Antipas, effeminate successor of Herod the Great. Encircled by a set of dissolute Roman youths, every luxury, every pleasure, was enjoyed* imitating, at a distance, the expensive caprices of Rome. He endeavored to gain the affection of the people by enervating feasts, so that, little by little, the ancient manners of the cities of the kings of Judea disappeared, and the flood of evil threatened to swamp even the believers in the true God.
The hatred which many nourished for the Tetrarch was their safeguard against the vices he strove to introduce, and the expectation of the coming God was the secret hope of many others. At the court of the governor alone the giddy mass of the people, the strangers without a country, the haughty and pampered crowd which abounds always in great cities, gave themselves to those dangerous pleasures which religion and right living forbid. Intoxicating feasts, scenic games, all that might excite the senses, had but lately been introduced into Jerusalem. Extreme civilization and extreme depravity are akin—they reach the same point by opposite roads, but their end is pleasure and carnal enjoyment. Herodias and Salome, her daughter, surnamed the Dancer, had introduced the manners of the Roman court into the ancient palace of David, polluting it. And some women of Jerusalem, forgetting the Lord and His Laws, as well as His promises, had deserted the touching ceremonies of the worship of the Hebrews. Their feet were set in the path of the wicked, and they lived in the midst of these disorders, drinking iniquity like water, and exulting in their sins.
One day, however, the most sought after and most beautiful of these women, who was surrounded by the profound homage of the court of the Tetrarch, abandoned these feasts, these mad joys and tumultuous pleasures, and retired into Galilee, near the Lake of Tiberias, upon whose verdant shores she possessed a delightful villa called Magdala.
It may have been caprice, or disgust, or ennui. For she was beautiful, of illustrious birth, and the possessor of great wealth. She had never married, nor would she, knowing no other master than her own whim. She had great intelligence; her knowledge of the arts, and her poetical talent—so rare in those days—equaled her physical charms.
Naturally, a crowd of idle young gallants followed her into Galilee, and here she led a luxurious life, far different from that of the other daughters of Israel. The strangers, especially the Romans, made her a sort of goddess, because she alone in this land, where manners were still chaste and humble, recalled to their minds the luxury, the light and elegant customs of their own city.
But all were alike unfortunate. For whether she listened to their flatteries or spurned them, whether she accepted or repulsed them, no one found a moment's peace in her society. Her caprice and her inconstancy gave them no rest. She had adopted, all believed, the sect of Epicurus, represented in Judea by that of the Sadducees. Often she would exclaim:
"Life is short! Life is uncertain! Let us make life as happy as we can."
So she spent her days in seeking new pleasures, in inventing new sports. And none reached the satisfaction she had planned. She was tired too soon. Fatigue, ennui, disquietude, shattered her enjoyment. Obstacles, difficulties, unattainable desires rose before her, attracting her by their remoteness. No matter what she obtained, no matter at what cost, the charm which distance had lent was lost, and so she ever craved something new.
This vague and mysterious unrest, this purposeless agitation, this disease of the soul, had disgusted her with the palace of Herod. Even license had become monotonous, therefore had she fled.
Now, under the lovely heaven of Galilee, in a garden of delight, whose beauties were reflected in the silvery waves that caressed the shores, she rested, amid followers who were obedient to her every nod. She had gathered all that might flatter the senses or charm the mind, and yet . . . she was not satisfied.
Stretched on soft cushions, clothed in light tissues of silk and gold, with arms, head, and neck ornamented in the Roman style, she sang to those who were her slaves and courtiers, accompanied by the sweet strain of the seven-stringed lyre but recently introduced from Greece. Or at evening she rendered the dances of Ionia, with a languishing softness that ravished the eyes. Those who beheld her in these exquisite poses acclaimed her loudly, praising her, and declaring her to be the most beautiful and charming of all women. Without doubt they believed her to be so, and thought her happy. Perhaps there were many who really envied her.
Yet, letting fall the sistrum, the lyre, and the sambuca, despising the joys that had just delighted her, disgusted with the vain applause of these flatterers, she hastily broke from them, and whole days elapsed before she again appeared, tormented anew by her desire for the unattainable, for pleasure, joy, satisfaction.
Nothing light or frivolous would then please her. She would seek out the most austere men, and begin, and keep up, a discussion, serious and intelligent, to which even profound minds would listen with attention. Thus were her charms so varied and so capable of attracting people of every age that she was actually worshiped. All adored her, all desired to be loved by her.
But she formed no attachments. At one time she was gay, even foolish; at others sedate, even melancholy. Her desires were immense, and nothing could satisfy them. Her soul sought everything and found everything void. She might have loved, indeed, had she found a being that could hold her interest. But of those whom she met none understood her heart—a heart which she did not understand herself. Man wishes to find life in that which he loves. This woman, drawn into the turmoil of a corrupt world, found death and death only in these degraded souls.
Seeking the happiness that fled from her, she plunged into the excesses of the Roman women. These Romans feigned to honor Venus and her impure mysteries. They could invoke this deceitful apology for all their lewdness, but this woman of Magdala had no such excuse. She believed in nothing. She lived without any God. She jeered at fate.
"Everything is false. Men are false. Women are false. Heaven is empty. Life is empty. So with my heart. It, too, is false and empty."
Thus lived Mary of Magdala, the most beautiful woman of her times. Thus was she when she first heard of Jesus.
His rigid morality, His virtues, His superhuman beauty, His sublime knowledge—all were topics broached to interest this tired creature. Report had it that in His infancy He had confounded the Doctors by His wisdom, and that the people were following Him from afar to hear His words. Those who told her were young men, who laughed at the severity of His morals, and who endeavored to turn them into ridicule.
But Mary of Magdala did not laugh with them. This singular virtue impressed her. An innate taste for the sublime, which all her immoralities could not efface, compelled her to admire that which she could not understand.
She listened to the story of His solitary life, His unrivaled beauty, His unalterable mildness, His gentle indulgence, His supreme kindness, His tender compassion for the sufferings of humanity. Several - of His wonderful sayings were repeated to her. They touched her to tears.
"If virtue exists upon this earth there must be a God in heaven, for only He can be its recompense," she said.
"And I ... I have believed in nothing," she went on, with disdain that dried the tears. "It is of no consequence. But I must see this Man. I must meet Him who seems, out of all the world, the only One who understands that Life needs consolation."
Those to whom she spoke were accustomed to her vagaries. That she should desire to see Jesus did not surprise them.
"But in what way can you become acquainted with the Nazarene?" they asked. "He lives in the desert, surrounded by poor, obscure people. How can you reach Him?"
The flush of impatience rose to Magdalen's cheek. Obstacles irritated her, opposition rendered her Stubborn. After a moment of silence she held up the ivory lyre, an exquisite and costly instrument, across which her fingers had been idly wandering.
"This lyre, which you have praised so greatly, shall be the reward of him who procures for me the means of seeing this Man."
They endeavored to dissuade her. Servilius, a young Roman, the one of all her admirers who loved her with the greatest ardor, endeavored to win her away from this madness. In his secret heart he dreaded the result.
But nothing availed. She must see this wonderful Man, whose language seemed so different from that of other men, whose morals were so pure; to whom every woman was either a mother or a sister. It was absolutely necessary. It was a new sensation, and as such possessed her heart. She was tormented by it night and day. It had to be realized. She must see Jesus of Nazareth. Those who listened to her did not understand, or put it down to passing fancy. Uneasiness had seized upon her soul—an uneasiness that could not be satisfied save in listening to the words of the Prophet from His own lips.
Ah, Mary of Magdala! What hidden means God employs to bring a soul to Himself! The longing which this spoiled beauty felt was the grace of heaven knocking at her heart. In the pursuit of evil she had heard the voice that called her from the pleasures of this world. God wanted her for Himself — and this God, whose very name caused her to tremble, was the Master to whom her soul was turning even then as the heliotrope turns to the sun. Soon would that soul be penetrated with new and wonderful and imperishable joys!
Angel of Heaven
Come, brethren, let us rejoice. The Lord will arise and manifest His power. Behold Him as a giant who cometh from his repose. His career hath begun.
Angel of Earth
Let us rejoice. Christ the Lord is about to display His might, to show forth His grandeur. The earth is in expectation. The sun, the water, the flowers, the heart of man, so often rebellious, listen in silence and will obey—for to Him and to Him only belong the sun, the water, the flowers, and man's heart. In His hand He turns them as He pleases. Whatsoever He would change is changed forthwith, for He is God the Almighty.
Angel of Heaven
O love! O bounty! O mercy! How can we sufficiently adore Thee! What are we, to offer praises worthy of Thee! The human race, redeemed by its God, may in the future offer Thee homage worthy of Thy greatness. For it will have cost the blood of a God! And the greatness of that ransom will give the praise of men inestimable value. Happy human race! The Redemption raises thee even to the throne of Jehovah, and the angels hide themselves in their wings, and sing the destinies of man, restored to a higher place than was his before the Fall.
Angel of Earth
Silence! Peace! The earth salutes its Saviour. He advances into the solitudes, and the solitudes bound with joy. He is beautiful as the day-dawn; the stars tremble to see Him pass, clothed in mortal flesh which can not conceal His divinity.
Let us adore Him!
And the angels followed afar the steps of the Saviour.