The Verger by James Archer
Reuben is a verger in the temple at Jerusalem. He loves his work and is quite conservative – he values good order, and finds the hectic nature of the festival weeks difficult. In the first part, he is speaking late in the afternoon on the first Maundy Thursday; in the second part on the Friday and the third on the Saturday.
What a week! Thank God it’s nearly over. Most of the pilgrims have headed off for their Passover meals, and the temple is quiet at last. Quiet, but not at peace – not after all that has gone on here. How I long for things to get back to normal.
Passover week is always hectic. Thousands of pilgrims streaming in through the doors, demanding their rights, grumbling about the queues and the prices, filled with idealistic dreams about the perfect Promised Land and the Warrior King who frees us from the Romans, and angry that the reality falls so far short of their dreams. And this year, a new focus for their hopes and frustrations.
We’ve had trouble from Jesus of Nazareth before, but nothing like this. Whenever he comes to Jerusalem, he makes the temple courts his classroom, and there’s nothing we can do about it – unless he stirs up insurrection, which he is careful not to do. He’s had run-ins with the Pharisees for the last two years, but they haven’t managed to lay a finger on him.
No one knew if he was coming this year, but it was hardly a surprise. He turned up on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a rag-tag crowd waving palm fronds, obviously under the delusion that he was the promised Messiah and waiting for him to speak. While they sat down and waited, he wandered around the temple, watching and listening.
The next thing I know, pandemonium is breaking loose. He’s gone berserk with a whip, bawling at the money-changers like a mad man and throwing over their tables. There’s screams of terror as they grab what they can and flee, and the lambs and goats are adding to the cacophony as they make their escape. “Get out!” he cries, “Get out! This should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”
By the time the temple police got there, it was all over. He was standing there alone glaring. He puts down the whip and walks out. Word gets out to his followers, who have missed the excitement. Eventually, when it’s clear that he’s not coming back, they drift away.
He’s back the next day, and teaching quietly. There’s no trouble, but the Pharisees are watching and whispering, hatching their plots. It could only be a matter of time. After lunch they challenged his authority. He fired a question back at them, and they retreated to lick their wounds and plan their next attack. While he told parables which only the dimmest could fail to spot were challenges to their authority. I feel like I’m caught in the cross fire as I try to keep the temple open and functioning.
It was a much more serious skirmish the next day – wave after wave of questions, challenges and traps. He handled them brilliantly, didn’t put a foot wrong, got the crowd on his side, and poked fun at them. When they paused for breath, he put them on the spot, so much so that they didn’t dare ask any more questions.
He says so much that seems right, and yet – it isn’t practical. He watched a poor widow put two coppers into the collection, all that she could afford, and said it was worth more than all the gifts of the rich put together. A lovely idea, but it won’t pay my salary. And we all know how much these old buildings cost to run.
Yesterday and today, he really went too far. Time after time, he called them hypocrites in the most colourful language – barriers to God, blind guides, children of hell, camel-swallowers, whitewashed tombs, broods of vipers, murderers of the prophets – you name it, he said it. And then he foretold a day when the temple would be destroyed and spoke of a day of justice, calling on people to be ready for it. You could tell that he knew they were plotting to kill him. But he has asked for it.
Just one more day to go – I pray God that it will pass off quietly – then the Sabbath and people heading home on Sunday. I’m off home to celebrate the Passover, to remember God’s deliverance of his people. But I dread what might happen tomorrow. God, give me grace to cope.
The temple’s been quiet today. They got him overnight and strung him up on a cross, God help him. Everyone’s stunned, hardly even daring to whisper.
It’s hot and sultry, and a storm is brewing. It’s turning eerily dark – and it’s only lunchtime. What’s going on? Is God angry? Everyone’s afraid.
Crash! I’ve never heard thunder like that! The whole temple shakes! I look up, and then I see it – Aaaargh!
I’m down on the ground, prostrate with terror! O God, have mercy on me, a sinner! Woe is me, for I have looked into God’s sanctuary! Again and again I cry out, “Have mercy!”
I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I’m still alive. I keep my eyes shut, and crawl backwards to the door and out. Send for the High Priest. Tell him the curtain of the temple is torn from top to bottom and lying on the floor. God’s sanctuary, open for all to see.
I stagger home, appalled.
I spent the evening and night in shock, unable to rest, unable to think straight, unable to eat, unable to pray. What to make of it? I need someone wiser to help me, someone who will listen and not judge. But who? Levi? Too set in his ways. Samuel? He couldn’t cope with it. Nicodemus? Yes, that’s the man.
I call in the morning. I have to knock several times. Eventually he opens up. He looks as bad as I must, as if he too has been weeping all night. I go in. We sit down. A long silence. But it’s good to be with him.
Eventually, he starts. “We buried him, Joseph and I. It was the least we could do for him. But too little and too late.”
I look at him, puzzled. Then I twig – perhaps? Surely not. “You mean, Jesus of Nazareth?” He nods. Another long pause. “How come?” I ask.
“I visited him secretly last year. He troubled me. I knew in my heart he was a good man. I needed to know more.”
“What did he say?”
“’You must be born again’, he said, ‘born of the Spirit.’ I’ve been thinking about it ever since, thinking about him, trying to understand. I was sure he was the One to redeem Israel. And now he’s gone.”
“I’ve been watching and listening all week,” I replied. “No one could have dealt with those questions unless God was with him. He ran rings around them. And yet – it was almost as if he wanted them to act against him. He pushed them beyond what they could endure.”
“’Suddenly the Lord will come to his temple. And he will purify the sons of Levi.’ Malachi.”
“Yesterday, on the cross, he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Psalm 22. Messianic.”
“He claimed to be Messiah?”
“’He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities’. Isaiah 53.”
“But that goes on. ‘After he has suffered, he will see the light of life.’ It doesn’t stack up.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve been crying.”
“When did he die?”
“Just before that huge clap of thunder. It was as if God was angry. Everyone thought so.”
“You haven’t heard. The temple.”
“At that very moment. The curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. God’s sanctuary open for all to see.” It was his turn to gawp. “There’s more to this than meets the eye,” I continued. “Let’s keep in touch.”
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