The Lily Of Israel By The Abbe Gerbet. Part 27.


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's 1672 painting of Christ's first miracle

THE noon-hour feast had been prepared under the tents. The young girls, their large dark eyes sparkling, and their luxuriant dark tresses now concealing, now revealing the rosy hue of their blushing cheeks, prepared the tables, strewing them first with fresh flowers gathered from the banks of the near-by rivulet. They occupied themselves, also, in making garlands for the guests, and, in sport were trying them on their own lovely heads, when suddenly a numerous troop of travelers, mounted on camels, appeared at the extremity of the plain, on the side nearest the lake. Soon one whom the camels had until then concealed from view, advanced rapidly on a mettlesome steed.

The sports ceased at once. All eyes were fixed upon the rider. Horses were little used in Judea at that time—they were a luxury known only to the very wealthy. While the horseman was approaching, several of those who surrounded Jesus watched the graceful movements of the noble animal, and another, an elderly man, repeated, slowly, the words of Job:

"Wilt Thou give strength to the horse, or clothe his neck with neighing? Wilt Thou lift him up like the locusts? The glory of his nostrils is terror.

"He breaketh up the earth with his hoof, he pranceth boldly: he goeth forth to meet armed men. He despiseth fear, he turneth not his back to the sword.

"Above him shall the quiver rattle, the spear and ' the shield shall glitter. Chafing and raging he swalloweth the ground, neither doth he make account when the noise of the trumpet soundeth.

"When he heareth the trumpet, he saith, Ha, ha! he smelleth the battle afar off, the encouraging of the captains, and the shouting of the army." (Job xxxix, 19-25.)

The horseman continued to advance. Having come to a slight obstacle he caused his animal to clear it, and then patting its neck arrived at the first tent, and stopped. The bridegroom, Ananias, detaching himself from the group of the young men, went to meet him, saluted him according to custom, and conducted him to the elders, who were seated under the trees near by. Here, in the name of hospitality, the stranger demanded rest and refreshment for his companions, male and female, whom he indicated by a nod.

He who spoke was clothed after the Roman fashion, but his handsome patrician features presented a mixture of arrogance and disdain that displeased the old and prudent parents of the modest Rachel. Moreover, he looked too boldly at the young girls gathered under the sycamore-tree close at hand. The grandparents and elders remained silent while he cast these appraising glances about him and caressed his steed in silence. Gladly would they have refused his request, but this the laws of hospitality forbade, and they replied, in grave and serious tones:

"Thy companions, male and female, and thyself, are welcome under the tents of our people."

Servilius, for it was he, saluted the group of elders haughtily, and then, throwing himself upon his beautiful horse, he pressed its flanks, and with the speed of a dart covered the distance that intervened between him and his cavalcade, followed by the wondering, and in some cases uneasy, looks of many.

Magdalen awaited him with restless impatience.

"Your ivory lyre is mine!" exclaimed Servilius, triumphantly, as he approached her. "I wish that you could give me the art that you possess of playing it."

But Magdalen frowned.

"You are about to see Jesus," he added hastily, noting her displeasure, which he dreaded.

"You are certain He is among these people?" she asked, with eagerness.

"I am certain of it. For the last few days He has been present at a marriage festival here in Cana.

I have found this out and conducted you here because of it. They now await you in the tents. Come."

But Magdalen grew so pale, and shuddered so violently, that a secret uneasiness suddenly took possession of Servilius. He loved her ardently, and it was because of this love that his soul felt the change that was about to occur in her.

The women alighted from their litters, the men from their animals, and, forming a brilliant and striking group, they advanced toward the tents. Magdalen led the way, leaning on Servilius' arm, and followed by those of her train, men of elegant attire, women gayly costumed. Magdalen's striking beauty was heightened by the garb she wore. The daughters of Judea, especially when traveling, covered themselves with a thick veil. But Magdalen alighted from her litter with head, arms, and shoulders bare, and ornamented with priceless jewels. She wore a tunic fringed with gold; a flowing robe of silver tissue, richly embroidered, hung loosely from her, and fell in graceful folds about her body.

In astonishment and awe the young girls paid this wonderful apparition the respect due to a queen. But the elders shook their heads, and the matrons blushed as she passed. Beautiful she was, indeed, but her whole air denoted the character of her life. Loud her speech, louder her laugh; her garments and her hair shed forth an intoxicating perfume such as the women of Israel never used.

Yet her voice trembled when, approaching the elders, she said, according to custom: "Peace be with you."

"And with you wisdom," replied the grandfather, in a grave tone.

She was conducted to the tent where the table of honor was laid out, her seat not far removed from the young couple. Servilius was placed next to her, and near by all their companions.

Two young girls, the sisters of the bride, approached the strangers before the repast, and offered them water in earthen vessels, to wash their hands. The maidens performed this duty to each in turn, with a modesty that rendered them lovely and interesting. Magdalen took from her finger a ring set with costly sapphires, and presented it to them. But, blushing, they refused to accept it, and one of the old men spoke.

"Our maidens adorn themselves only to please their husbands. Nor do they accept gifts save from the hands of a friend."

The ablution of the strangers was completed in silence. Magdalen smiled cheerfully; she laughed frequently. But her heart was beating with violence in her breast. The cold welcome of the elders froze her. There was an atmosphere of modesty and sweet innocence all about her, in which she felt out of place.

"What has brought me here?" she asked herself, in vexation. "Is it to allow these men to gaze upon my beauty, who love only the women whose charms are concealed by veils? To display my riches to people whose pleasures are simple, whose tables have no ornaments other than the flowers gathered from the meadows, and who partake of their food from earthen vessels?"

She was extremely restless and timid, but overcame, as best she could, these unusual sensations.

"No matter. I have come and I will stay," she told herself, boldly.

Her eyes sought Jesus in the crowd, for she wished to single Him out in the midst of the young men who surrounded Him. He was conversing with John, whose fairness of face deceived her for a few moments, and she watched him, waiting for his words. John was too engrossed in his divine Master to observe her. He was absorbed in Jesus.

The gayety of the feast—the preceding days of which had passed so happily—was chilled by the presence of the strangers. Constraint obtruded where, until now, the utmost cordiality had reigned.

And the young couple, at the head of the table, seemed uneasy. The holy Virgin, seated near them, first perceived their embarrassment. The servant to whose care the provisions and wine had been committed came several times to his master, and now Mary overheard his words:

"I did not calculate upon this increase of guests. Master, the wine fails."

To receive strangers at one's table without being able to offer them the cup of welcome was, in those days of hospitality, a great disgrace. Trouble and shame were depicted on the countenance of Ananias. Mary well understood the nature of his plight. Addressing herself to her Son, she said, in a low voice: "They have no wine." (St. John ii, 3.)

At the voice of Mary, Jesus turned. His face shone with divine splendor, for He had just finished a long and earnest talk with John upon the things of heaven. His whole head seemed aureoled in light, as did Mount Sinai when Jehovah reposed upon it. Magdalen, beholding Him thus, drew back with a little cry and covered her face with her hands. But He addressed Himself to Mary,

"Woman, what is this to Me and to thee? My hour is not yet come." (St. John ii, 4.)

His voice vibrated through every heart, His countenance dazzled the eyes of all. Mary lowered her head. She could not look unmoved upon the splendor of her Son, but crossing her arms upon her breast, she remained silent a moment. She understood the spiritual meaning of those divine words and knew the tender sympathy of His heart. Then, turning to the waiters, she said:

"Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye." (St. John ii, 5.)

There were in the tent six large stone urns, which were used for ordinary purification, and each of these held two or three measures.

"Fill the water-pots with water/* said Jesus to the waiters, and they did as He bade them, upon which He added:

"Draw out now and carry to the chief steward of the feast."

And they carried it.

Magdalen kept her face hidden in the folds of her robe. Servilius, terrified, would have taken her away, but she had to see the end of this wonderful Man's words. It came when the steward tasted this water made wine, and not knowing its source, approached the bridegroom.

"Every man at first setteth forth good wine," he said. "But thou hast kept the good wine until now."

Terrified at this strange happening, the companions of Magdalen, both men and women, rose to depart from the tents at once; to fly and drag her with them. But she resisted. Servilius, too, implored her to leave this spot which was rendering her so unhappy.

But she shook them off. Tearing herself from their hands, she ran forward and cast herself at the feet of the Saviour, saying no word, but weeping bitter tears. He did not speak to the poor sinner at His feet, only looked down at her, gravely and mildly. All were stirred at this scene. Servilius himself was deeply moved. Perhaps, if pride had not prevented him, he, too, would have thrown himself on the ground as Magdalen did, at the feet of God. Good inspirations are not so rare as our obedience to them. We blush sooner at the good which is new to us than at the evil which we have known so long.

The holy Virgin had withdrawn. The dreaded hour was at last at hand, and now there was no doubt. She knew that with the working of His first public miracle the mission of her Son would commence.

Her soul marveled at the condescension of God; but her heart was sick with fear and sorrow for her beloved Son.