Caiaphas

Night.  From the windows of his house, Joseph Caiaphas can sense how full the city is.  His view is obstructed by the courtyard’s wall, but he knows that if he were to go up to the roof he would see the campfires and candle light flickering from every house.  But more than sight, there is the sound of the city, a continuous drone of voices.  He listens for the sound of the temple within it.  It would be easier to hear during the daylight, when the workmen are building in the outer precincts and the Court of the Gentiles is full of milling people.  He can’t hear it now, but if he closes his eyes he can sense it.  The living heart of holiness, in the holiest city in the holiest land in the world.  He alone has entered the Holy of Holies during the last fifteen years, and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.  He alone has stood at the center of the universe during all of that time.

Annas, his father-in-law, stood there once, when he was high priest, before he was dismissed from the post.  It is a link that binds them.  Annas has known the presence of God, just as he has.  He turns from the window, goes to a table, and pours a cup of wine.  Annas has waylaid his prisoner this night.  The guards have taken the Galilean carpenter to Annas’s house first.  Why? Caiaphas wonders.  What does Annas want with him.  What special question does he have to ask that he thinks he couldn’t ask in front of the council.

A servant stirs in the corner, sensing his master’s annoyance.  Caiaphas beckons to him.  “Go to the gate and see if any of our guests have arrived.”  The servant bows and leaves the room.  Caiaphas returns to the window and looks towards the temple.

Something about the mood of the night, the quiet waiting, takes him back to when he was young, and stood by a window, looking out.  He had no focus for his anticipation, then.  It was general, just the feeling that something should happen – must happen – in the world.  Those were days of excitement.  Herod the Great was dead, and the people were rising up everywhere against Rome.  He remembers his father’s anger at the uprisings, his feeling that they threatened everything that the Sadducees had worked for, the precarious peace with Rome, the safety of the temple.  But Caiaphas had been young enough to thrill at the reports of peasants who declared themselves king, particularly the shepherd, Athronges, who fought the Romans in Judea with the help of his four brothers.  Caiaphas had wanted to leave Jerusalem, to slip out under the noses of the Roman legions who patrolled the city, and go and see this shepherd for himself.  He had thought, during those glimmering days, that it might be possible to hope.  He had stood by the window and pretended to himself that a few brave shepherds could vanquish the Roman legate and his Syrian troops.

When it was over, when peace was restored and crosses dotted the countryside, his father told him not to mourn for the crucified rebels.  His father took him to the temple and led him into the Court of the Israelites.  They gazed across the low stone wall that separated it from the Court of the Priests, and Caiaphas watched the priests move about the altar, where the perpetual fire burned.  Many of the priests’ arms were splattered with blood as they slaughtered and flayed the sacrificial animals, and the smell of the blood hung thick in the air.  But the priests moved slowly, prayerfully, with decorum.  They exuded a vast sense of peace, and it mingled with the scent of seared meat from the altar fire and lifted into the temple air.

“You see what they’re doing?” his father said.  “They are giving thanks to God.  They are remembering the covenant.  They will make sure that the fields are fertile, that the seasons come and go as they should.  It’s the sacrifice that Noah made after the Ark.  It’s because of this sacrifice that God keeps the covenant, and the world isn’t destroyed.  It is because of our work that Rome exists, that Babylon exists, that all of the peoples who live along the sea exist, that the world exists.  It is because of this work that we exist.  This place, this temple, it is the most important thing in the world.  Nothing can threaten it.  Do you know, son, how close it came to being destroyed this year?  You weren’t here when the Roman troops came into the temple.  You didn’t see the priests continue their work, even as the soldiers moved through the inner courtyards.  Those soldiers, with their swords bared, they didn’t understand.  They didn’t understand that the work we do here keeps them alive, keeps Rome alive, keeps the world alive.  We must keep it from danger.  And if that means that we must let Rome rule the land outside of the temple, so be it.  It doesn’t matter who rules Palestine.  It matters that the temple is safe.”

Two years later, Caiaphas was made a priest.  Twelve years after that, he was made high priest, and went further than his father ever had, entering the Holy of Holies by himself, standing within the very heart of the sacred.  The temple draws him.  It draws his attention during every moment of every day.  It is his lover, his hope, his life.  He is its steward.  He will keep it safe no matter what.  But standing by the window, he feels a strange sense of loss.  He thinks again of Athronges the shepherd and his four brothers and remembers what it was like to hope for something more than preservation, what it was like to be young.

His guests are coming in, but the sacrifice has yet to arrive.  Annas is delaying it.  Caiaphas pours wine for his guests, these men that he knows so well, fellow priests, fellow members of the Sanhedrin.  For fifteen years they have done what he’s asked of them.  He has sat with them for long hours and made rulings.  There are a few pharisees in the Sanhedrin, but none of them are here tonight.  He has summoned only those who he knows will agree with him.  He knows, and they know, that they have no real right to sit in judgment.  If they were to try the Galilean legally, it would have to be before the whole Sanhedrin.  But it is the night before the Passover, and the men of the Sanhedrin are preparing for the feast, and some of them don’t understand the full danger.  They don’t remember Anthronges the shepherd, or if they do, they don’t understand the threat that he posed.  Not because a single man and his brothers could ever overcome the Roman legions.  The threat wasn’t in their military might.  It was in their hope, and their capacity to spread that hope.  Caiaphas glances impatiently at the door.  He wants Annas to come in, leading the Galilean.  He is sure that when he looks into the Galilean’s eyes, he will see that hope.

At last Annas enters, smugly, pompously, as is his way.  He nods at Caiaphas, believing that it is his right to make the High Priest wait.  Behind him there is a jostling in the doorway.  Some Levites, dragging the Galilean behind them.  He is bound and looking at the floor.  The priests in the room fall silent.  They glance from Caiaphas to the carpenter, waiting.

Caiaphas doesn’t say anything.  He goes to the window and looks out.  There are people in his courtyard now.  They have lit a small fire.  The night is cold.  Caiaphas lifts his head and listens for the temple.  He sniffs the air, trying to catch the scent of the perpetual fire.  He smells the charring wood of the fire in his own courtyard, and wonders if it is enough of a sign.  Behind him, he can feel Annas’s impatience.  The stars are very clear tonight.  They are numerous, but he wonders if they are as numerous as the people who have come to the city for the passover.  The people who lined the roads a few days ago, declaring that the carpenter on his donkey was their king.  The crowd is full of fools, but they are his responsibility.  He will protect them, if he can.

He turns back to the room and finds that the carpenter has lifted his face and is looking into his eyes.  It’s not hope that Caiaphas sees there, but something else.  Something startling, and he glances at Annas, to see if his father-in-law has seen it, too.  But Annas has gone to the table with the wine and poured himself a cup and is slurping it impatiently.  Caiaphas looks back at the carpenter, and it is still there.  The silence in his eyes.  The quiet, waiting peace that Caiaphas has only experienced in one place, on the Day of Atonement these past fifteen years.  How did it get there? Caiaphas wonders.  How did this man come to have the Holy of Holies in his eyes.

The men are waiting.  Everything is decided, and there is very little to say.  Caiaphas clears his throat.  “You have done several things wrong,” he says to the carpenter.  He pauses, trying to remember what they were.  “You said you were our king…”

“I didn’t,” says the carpenter.

“You said that there is a resurrection…”

“I did.  But the Pharisees say the same.”

“You broke the law of Moses.”

“I fulfilled it.”

There is a hissing breath from the assembled men.  Caiaphas can’t look away from the carpenter’s eyes.  Annas finishes slurping his wine and puts the cup down.  “He said,” Annas tells Caiaphas, “that he would destroy the temple and raise it again in three days.”

Caiaphas’s eyes jerk away from the Galilean and back to the window.  “Destroy the temple,” he mutters.  Then he turns back and addresses the room.  “We have seen this before,” he says.  “Some peasant claims that he is king, and the people believe him.  The Roman legions march, the innocent suffer and die.  Which is better, to allow an insurrection, where many will die, or to have this man executed for his blasphemy?  Isn’t it better that one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish?”  There are murmurs of agreement.  He has made this speech before.  They all agreed with him then.  Nothing has changed.  “We know what we must do,” he says.  “This man should be taken out and stoned.  But the Romans have claimed the right to perform executions.  We must send him to Pilate.”

He sleeps, after the men have left and the fire has gone out in the courtyard.  He dreams a single dream.  Nothing happens in the dream.  He is in the temple, in the Holy of Holies, in the eye of calm and peace.  He remains in it all through the night.  But when he wakes up, he is as shaken and afraid as if he had been having nightmares.

They must crucify the carpenter before sundown, before the start of the Passover feast.  Caiaphas must go to the temple, must fulfill his duties for the day.  Already his house is stirring, the servants at work preparing the feast.  But as he dresses he is stilled locked in the dream.  He is still in the Holy of Holies, and his active mind tries to shrink away from it.  For the first time he wonders what it would be like if that holiness could flow out into the entire world.  It would be too much for the world, he thinks.  It would be too dangerous.  Even now, he finds it suffocating.

A servant comes in with his breakfast.  He inquires after the Galilean and is told that Pilate has sent him to Herod, and that Herod has sent him back to Pilate, and that Pilate has condemned him.  They had a busy night, Caiaphas thinks to himself, as he washes his hands in a bowl of tepid water.  He sent members of the Sanhedrin to shadow the carpenter, to influence events when they needed influencing, to stir up the crowds and frighten Pilate if he needed frightening.  Now those same priests will be out among the crowds, whispering to them, twisting their opinions of the carpenter.

Caiaphas goes to the temple, his servants and retainers following in his train.  As he walks through the Court of the Gentiles, he can’t help glancing towards the platform where the Galilean has been sitting, these last five days.  The other platforms are filled.  There are always teachers who are anxious to claim a space, to sit and discourse to the people who settle at their feet.  But the Galilean’s platform remains empty, as if even the Pharisees are afraid of it, afraid of what’s being done now.  He glances at the position of the sun.  By now the carpenter should be on the way to Golgatha, like any common criminal.  Caiaphas brushes at a speck of dirt on his priestly robes.  He crosses the Court of the Women and is aware of a certain disease in his mind.  He can smell the sacrifice from the Court of the Priests, but he doesn’t feel the reassurance that he’s used to whenever he catches the scent of it.  Its as if something in the flavor of the smoke has changed.  He frowns and glances again at the sun, but it hasn’t moved in the sky.

The temple priests have already drawn their lots and discovered their assignments for the day.  He pauses inside the Court of the Israelites and watches them over the low wall.  All around him the temple, his temple, clicks through the mechanisms of its life.  He raises his eyes and looks past the altar, at the golden doors that lead to the Holy of Holies, the inner tabernacle.  His eyes study the woven pattern of the fine Babylonian tapestry that hangs from the door’s lintel.  He can’t shake the feeling that something is happening inside, at the heart of the universe.  He wishes that today was the Day of Atonement, and he could go inside.  He closes his eyes and tries to picture its interior, but all he can see is the Galilean’s eyes.  And he becomes suddenly and shockingly certain that the carpenter is inside the Holy of Holies, is standing there, as if he were high priest.  He shakes his head and opens his eyes and glances at the sun.  By now, surely, the man has been nailed to the cross and hoisted into the air.  He glances back at the tabernacle.  The temptation to go through its golden doors is suffocating.  He drops his gaze and watches the priests at the altar slaughter the animals.  He looks into the flames of the perpetual fire and waits, as he once waited at a window, allowing himself to indulge in hope.  But why does he need hope, now?  He is standing near the center of the universe.  He is watching men, his men, perpetuate humanity’s covenant with God.  Surely he is immersed in holiness.

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