Thomas, Thursday May 4
Woke up early to the sound of the doves cooing in their cage. Jesus and Joseph were used to them and carried on sleeping, and Hannah was overdue for a lie in. I went for a wash and filled our water bottles in the Jordan. I went as far upstream as I could, as I’d seen what people were doing in the river. There were proper designated toilet areas well away from where everyone was gathering but some people just can’t resist a nice inviting river.
It was already crowded and more people were arriving all the time. It was going to be a long day. Still no sign of Dad. I hoped he hadn’t been on the booze again or forgotten where he was going. The others were awake when I got back, so we shared a small loaf of bread for breakfast and waited.
After a while someone stood up and started prophesying and began to draw a small audience. John wasn’t due on for a while and this was a great opportunity to get yourself in front of a decent crowd. Jesus and Hannah were enthralled. To be honest, the guy didn’t have a lot to say but I liked his general style. Despite a pretty unoriginal message, his timing and passion and engagement with the audience were impressive. If I could get Jesus to behave like that as well as making all his clever points, he could really stand out from the crowd. Eventually I grew bored and wandered off again.
A couple of large, rough-looking men had started a fire and were grilling fish and selling them. Their misspelt sign left a bit to be desired but they had an excellent patter going and were selling the fish as fast as they could cook them. Nearby some people had set up small stalls, offering horoscopes, palm reading and the like. One was selling medicinal herbs. Another was selling a potion to help expel demons during exorcism. At the end of the row a bedraggled, smelly old man with a knotted beard was waving his arms and shouting, getting some attention and the odd coin from passers by.
“Dad!” I called out. “I was beginning to worry about you.”
“Who are you?”
“Tom, your only son, the one you were always so pleased to have after nine daughters. Remember?” I hoped he hadn’t been drinking so early in the day. More likely the strange surroundings and the crowds of people had unsettled him, and his spells of dementia were starting to become more frequent. Or he was letting in more demons, if you believe what people say.
“Ah yes. My only son. Very pleased indeed. Well pleased. What did you say your name was? I’m a soothsayer, you know. I hear voices. I can read signs. Like those clouds. They might mean rain. It could be Noah’s flood all over again. Build an ark everyone, before it’s too late!”
“Come with me, Dad.” I put an arm around him and steered him towards the grilled fish stall. “I’ll get you something to eat and drink. Then you can come and sit with us where I can keep an eye on you. I may need your help later.”
I used some of the change he’d accumulated to buy him a fish in a bread roll, which he devoured voraciously. The men were called Simon and Andrew and were fishermen. They said they could make more money in a day selling cooked fish than they normally made in a week with the raw variety. I chatted to Simon for a couple of minutes and then headed back with my father to find the others.
We arrived to find Jesus arguing over a point of interpretation of the law with the man who had been prophesying. I was tempted to tell him not to waste his breath, but it was good to see how fired up he was and I left him to it. After all, whatever isn’t positively bad for the cause is likely as not good for it. Hmm, could probably use that line sometime if I could make it a bit snappier.
Some men started clearing an area around a raised mound by the river bank, and a few people began to move in their direction. We decided this could be where John was going to preach from and we picked our stuff up and moved nearer to get a good spot. A man came and started declaiming from the mound and some people in the crowd grew excited, but it turned out not to be John, although he was a much better preacher than the one we had been listening to earlier. He was describing the Kingdom of Heaven using simple imagery, another useful trick, and was getting an increasingly enthusiastic response from the crowd. Maybe John would be on soon.
At last a group of men approached, pushing through the crowd. In the middle of an entourage of heavily-built agricultural types was a small wiry man who looked almost as bedraggled as my father, yet had an air that marked him out as someone special. It had to be John. The crowd, now thoroughly warmed up, started whooping and cheering. John made his way to the mound, held up his hands for quiet, and started preaching.
He was amazing. It wasn’t just what he said, which was all about repentance and preparing for the coming of the new age, but the way he said it and the way his face and his eyes shone. He probably held us under his spell for over an hour, but it went by in no time. Then he said he was going to start baptising, and ended the preaching by announcing that someone would come after him whose feet he was not worthy to wash, or something like that. It was a great way to finish and got the crowd even more worked up.
Hannah pushed to be in the first batch to be baptised, but I held Jesus back. There was plenty of time yet. After a while Hannah came back, soaked but glowing and praising God. The sun was starting to penetrate the clouds and I pulled my hood up so I wouldn’t get sunburnt. Then there was a lull, and I told Jesus and Joseph to get to the front of the next group. They asked me to join them but I had other plans and made my excuses. Apart from anything else I can’t swim and hate being in water. I didn’t want to panic at the point of being plunged to purge my sins. They went off while Hannah, my father and I pushed right to front of the onlookers.
As John started baptising again I opened the door of the doves’ cage, grabbed the birds in turn and launched them into the air, where they swooped and circled to celebrate their unexpected freedom. This was the risky bit. I didn’t want them to fly away completely. Joseph was next to be baptised, then it was Jesus’ turn. As he broke the surface the sun burst through the clouds and lit up the flying droplets and the shimmering river in a dazzling blaze. The timing could not have been better. As Jesus stood there bathed in light, the doves, swooping lower, seemed to recognise him and his father and flew down to them. They hadn’t let me down.
“It’s a sign!” I yelled in my loudest voice. The crowd fell silent.
“A visitation from doves is a great portent,” I shouted. “Is there a soothsayer who can interpret the actions of birds? Is this a message from above?”
Dad didn’t let me down either, for maybe the first time in his life. He was as fired up as anyone and wasn’t going to miss his big chance.
“I’m a soothsayer,” he bellowed, staggering forward and making sure he had everyone’s attention, “and this is God’s message. God’s message is…his message is…”
“Come on Dad, say something good. Do it for me, your only son,” I hissed. Something connected inside him and he started to remember again. He looked at me, then at Jesus, then spread his arms and bellowed to the crowd:
“This is my son, my only begotten son, who I am well pleased with! I can’t tell you how pleased I am!”
It took some time for things to settle down after that. John looked a bit taken aback at being upstaged, and in the general mayhem I moved our group further back, away from the epicentre. A buzz was going through the crowd. Was this the one John had spoken of? Was this the promised one? Could it even be the Messiah, or maybe the Son of Man? Wasn’t it the Bastard from Nazareth? Fortunately there was only a small group from Nazareth saying that and they were soon shouted down.
I had asked my dad to be ready to give some sort of message to the crowd, any message he could come up with, but I wasn’t quite expecting that. It couldn’t have gone better. It really felt like there was someone up there looking out for us. Jesus was so exhilarated he wanted to get up and start preaching there and then, but I suggested we slip away while we were ahead.