Most healers I have heard of wander from place to place, healing as they go, accepting offers of food and drink and sometimes small sums of money from the grateful people they have cured. Ananias isn’t like that; he puts on a show.
We were among the first to arrive and found the entourage clearing an area at the foot of a hill so that people could sit or stand on the slope and see what was going on. They were setting up torches which could be lit later when the sun went down, and they were sorting out piles of collection plates and bundles of papyrus sheets. Cyrus had told me to watch everything critically and not take everything at face value, but so far all I could see was a well-organised group of people.
One of the helpers asked us what we had come for. Cyrus, who still had his hood around his face despite the sun being low in the sky, said ‘just to watch’, but then I remembered a niggling pain I’d had for some time.
“I’ve had this pain in my lower abdomen for some months now and it’s getting worse,” I said. There’s a bit of a swelling there too.” Cyrus gave me a look but I thought I might as well join in if I was to get the most out of the experience.
The helper suddenly became very attentive and asked me my name and where I came from. Cyrus had warned me not to give my identity away for fear it could jeopardise my own mission, so I said I was Mark from Magdala. The helper led us over to a roped-off area near the bottom of the slope, down at the front, and told us not to move away.
More and more people arrived, and after being questioned were either shepherded attentively into our pen or directed further up the hill behind us. I thought we must be the ones who would be singled out for healing, but some quite ill or deformed looking people were directed to the hill. I saw a young child, twisted by polio, ushered out of the way. He moved nimbly enough on his crutches but he looked disappointed that he would not be near the front. Cyrus chatted to the man next to me, who I could see was blind.
As the slope filled up and the sun set, word spread that Ananias was on his way. Some more people arrived at the last minute and were ushered into our area. Cyrus and a few others who had not been identified as requiring healing were asked to leave to make room. I wondered how Cyrus would be able to find a place on the slope where he could see, it was so crowded, but he merged into the throng easily enough and I soon forgot about him, there was so much happening. A couple of the newcomers were asked to lie on stretchers at the front of our pen and, considering the alternative was to stand at the back and struggle to see anything at all, they accepted readily.
The torches were lit and a full moon hung like a giant lantern in a clear black sky. After a big build up, Ananias finally arrived. He looked splendid in purple robes with gold trimmings. They must have cost a fortune. He exhorted the crowd to join him in prayer and ask God to be with us. His helpers mingled with the crowd and encouraged them to praise God, or Ananias, or both, loudly, building up the atmosphere.
Then the healing started. The man next to me was called out early on. Ananias somehow even knew the man’s name. Ananias looked at him and asked him if he was blind. The man said yes. Ananias laid hands on the man’s eyes, then announced that a healing had taken place.
“Can you see my hand?” asked Ananias, holding up his arm.
“Yes,” said the man. The crowd cheered loudly.
“You have been healed! The man was blind and can see! How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Um, three or four; I can’t quite see,” said the man quietly.
“Three, you idiot,” hissed Ananias in a low voice, “and shout out the answer clearly.”
“Four!” shouted the man.
“Correct!” announced Ananias, moving on to me.
“Mark, from Magdala – lovely place by the way – you have bad pains in your abdomen. Am I right?”
“Yes!” I shouted, amazed that he knew my name and condition too.
“I can sense a cancer or perhaps appendicitis,” shouted Ananias. “Yes, it’s definitely appendicitis.” He put his hands on my shoulders and shut his eyes. “Be healed!”
He then pushed me so hard I fell to the floor, just managing to avoid banging my head.
“See how the power of the spirit takes him!” he shouted to the crowd.
I was overcome by the whole experience, and my friend the healed blind man gave me a look that showed he shared my amazement. Then the helpers came round with the collecting plates and we found ourselves rummaging in our purses for what money we could find.
And so it went on, the crowd getting more and more enthusiastic with each cure. As a finale, the people on the stretchers were carried to the front. Ananias lifted each one to their feet in turn, told them to walk, and gave praise when they did so. Then he disappeared suddenly and the collecting plates came round again. The little boy with polio had by now succeeded in struggling to the front, but had still been ignored by the helpers and had been unable to get Ananias to look in his direction. Tears of disappointment ran down his face.
I scanned the crowd to find Cyrus, and eventually saw him chatting to one of the helpers.
“Wow! What did you think of that?” I shouted to him.
Unfortunately he was unable to answer me. Two bad-tempered Roman soldiers turned up and started yelling at everyone to disperse and go home. When they didn’t get an instant response, one of them started beating people with the handle of his spear. Everyone suddenly started moving more quickly and speaking much more quietly. Roman soldiers are like wasps: they don’t generally bother you, but they always seem to turn up when you organise a picnic, and if you annoy them they will sting you without mercy.
An old man fell over in the stampede and the other solder decided to show he could dish it out too, beating the man on the back and making it impossible for him to get up.
“Leave him alone,” I suddenly said to the soldier, who was nearly as surprised as I was at my outburst. The soldier turned on me, giving some bystanders an opportunity to drag the old man away out of reach.
“Hit me instead of him,” I said, standing as tall as I could, arms at my side, defenceless, doing my best to hide my terror. I had no chance of taking on a professional from the best and most merciless army in the world in a fight, so standing there was all I could do. His face crimson and contorted with fury, he raised his spear and I knew I was going to die. Then he stopped himself.
“Piss off home, scum,” growled the soldier. “You got away with it this time, but I never forget a face. Don’t ever try that one again or you will die very slowly and painfully. Do I make myself clear?”
I nodded quickly, or maybe my head trembled, and I felt Cyrus’s strong hand in the crook of my elbow as he dragged me away before the soldier changed his mind.
By now there were only a few stragglers left. We set off for Magdala as fast as we could without running, not looking back, grateful for the full moon illuminating our way. All the things we would have talked about, all our impressions of the evening, went unsaid.