I wrote this piece almost 37 years ago, as a young missionary priest working in East Africa. It is a creative encounter with Satan and Christ.
On the lips of bronzed old-timers back from the dust of the battle it had a tropical intriguing mystique; in books it sounded exhilarating – a heady, inspiring challenge to a young seminarian with a heart full of ideals and precious little experience. But now Lord that I have tasted it myself, I am aware only of the pain of it, the empty uncertain agony of being alone, lonely and celibate. Tomorrow Lord I will be 33 years old. By then you were ready to lay down your life. But tonight, Sunday night, I am still only 32.
I have been celebrating Mass and preaching from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on an empty belly. The nearest priest is 30 miles away and my heart is aching for someone to talk to. Only the flickering Sanctuary lamp indicates a presence who will listen. So listen Lord! Answer me honestly. I don’t want sweet words, I want the Truth.
Have you never felt the weakness and the vulnerability of yourself listlessly soaking away the energy of you? Have you never agonized on whether or not you can remain faithful forever to the vocation the Father has given you? FOREVER is a lot of days Lord. FOREVER is longer than History!
Have you never craved to gather in a manly embrace a living, throbbing, loving woman? If you haven’t Lord then we are completely different – and I don’t believe you ever became a man.
And when you spoke of RESURRECTION did you have some special knowledge or were you also operating, as I am, only on Faith?
The wind rattled the corrugated-iron roofing on the little church and then was still; the endless chirping of the crickets stopped suddenly and there was a loud pulsating silence. And HE was there in the middle of it and HE was speaking.
“Come with me into the Garden.
Over there lie Peter, John and James – sleeping.
Leave them be, I want YOU to watch with me.
Judas is in town making final arrangements.
And the Prince of this world is armed for the battle.
Now I want YOU to listen!”
He threw himself full-length upon the ground. It reminded me of an Ordination scene. And a great oppressive heaviness came upon him. I could feel it myself – the lonely searing agony of Temptation draining joy and life. There was a sinister chuckle and I was aware of the presence of the Tempter. He began to interrogate Jesus and this was their conversation:
“One more day Emmanuel
– correction: 20 more hours.
How does the Hero feel?
You’ll make a lovely corpse
– thorn-pricked, whip-lashed, nail- studded
and oh so very, very DEAD?
And for whom?
No! Not for Peter. Not for that garrulous buffoon
who’ll swear in his awful Galilean accent
that he never even heard of you.
For Judas perhaps?
Aha yes: ‘This corpse is dedicated in Love
to my good friend Judas the Iscariot.’
Yes indeed my son Judas.
Caught you all napping did Judas.
Yes, I’m proud of him.
Or perhaps it’s for John?
Aaahh, John is special to you.
Rosy-cheeked, beardless, innocent, little John.
He’ll remember you alright
– for a year or two anyway!
But TIME is a great healer.
Time is my greatest ally;
So time will cure John. He’ll go back to his boat.
He’ll get himself a nice comforting little wife
and later on he’ll tell his grandchildren
about a long-forgotten legend called:
Come on man – think.
33 years old
and what have you done?”
Jesus groaned and in a very little voice replied,
almost to himself:
“I have healed the Blind, the Lame and the Leprous.
They at least will remember”.
The Tempter sat on a rock near the still prostrate form and sarcastically rejoined:
“Very good, excellent!
So you healed two or perhaps three hundred people
in a tiny corner of a despised country
at a microscopic moment of history.
What about the millions who are still blind
and lame and leprous?
Reflect oh gentle, sensitive, loving one
on the billions of people still to be born
who will curse their infirmities and heap vitriol
on the day of their birth.
No. Cut the crap!
Don’t tell me about healing;
tell me about a REAL accomplishment”
Jesus stammered: “I have brought joy and freedom
to Magdalene, Zaccheus, Levi and many others”.
The Tempter scoffed: “Magdalene is a fool
– a softhearted, easily swayed fool.
She loves passionately and forgets quickly.
Let me tell you what will become of your
precious little Magdalene of the dark seductive eyes.
She’ll fall in love with Judas!
‘Mr. and Mrs. Simon Iscariot announce the wedding
of their eldest son JUDAS
to Miss Mary Magdalene.
He for the second time, she for the first.
Reception to be held in the Upper Room.
Turbans and Evening Gowns, please.’
Won’t it be nice.
And – wait for it
– they’ll call their first-born son
Sorry you’ll have to do better than that.
Come on you’re 33. You must have achieved something!”
Jesus was sobbing brokenly by now. Large beads of blood-tinged, salt-flavored sweat trickled into his eyes and the corners of his mouth. In a barely audible whisper he ventured:
“I raised the Widow’s son, the little girl of Jairus
and my friend Lazarus to Life”.
“NOW THAT WAS DRAMATIC. I admit it!
Lazarus, stinking to high heaven,
shuffling cloth-coiled out of the cavern
to the delight of the voyeurs
and the swooning of the more sensitive souls.
Standing ghoulishly swathed in fetid bandages
and covered in flies and ants.
Swaying slightly in the sultry mid-day
with one hand on her nose,
unwrapped the putrid linen-strips.
No wonder the religious leaders wanted to kill you.
I have never in my life witnessed
a more disgusting spectacle.
And you realize of course
that I’ll catch up with them all again,
when you have gone through with your
thinly-disguised savior-scented suicide.
What about making it a Double Event?
Say, Martha and Lazarus to die on the same day?
Yes I like it!
‘Lazarus and Martha.
At their home in Bethany.
He for the second time; she for the first.
Deeply regretted by their loving sister, Mary.’
You did a great disservice there, I’m afraid.
Dying is bad enough but having to do it twice
– that’s heartless.
And speaking of Resurrection
– are you sure you’re going to rise yourself?
What guarantee have you got?
None my friend.
Except a stupidly childish belief in the Father.
What the hell has the Father ever done for you up to now?
He has failed you – failed you miserably.
The Elders despise you, the Priests detest you
and the few who WERE willing to follow you
were turned off by the
Face up to it man: you’re a dead loss.
My advice is this – run from this city,
flee this country.
19 hours left now – it could be 19 years
or 59 years
if you do it my way.
Get up, GET UP off the bloody ground
and DO SOMETHING!!
Jesus struggled to his knees and hoarsely shouted:
“Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT!! I can’t take anymore, I . . . .”
The Tempter shoved his face grotesquely to within an inch of Jesus’ sweat-streaked, straggly-bearded countenance and spat out the words:
“Stop it yourself for Christ’s sake!
YOU stop it!
You Head-in-the-clouds, blind buffoon!
You pitiable laughing-stock, you. . . .”
I jumped up and caught the Tempter by the shoulder and pulled him away. With all the venom I could command I roared:
Begone you destroyer of mankind,
you Author of lies, of hatred and dissension.
Leave this dying savior to make his peace
with his Father!”
And he left, sneering at the sobbing form. Jesus lifted his eyes piteously to the twinkling stars and begged:
“Father, Father, why have you abandoned me?
Take this awful black uncertainty from me.
Let me KNOW again why I am to do
what I am to do.
Abba please HELP me.
Explain it to me again
I knelt at his side. He looked exhaustedly through tear-matted lashes and I knew that he needed an answer. I said:
“Lord it was good for me to be here.
Now I know that you are Real.
I have seen that you are a man,
Now Lord, I can try to follow you.”