Friday, May 31, 2013

Marcus Meets Peter

Somewhere a cock crowed in the dim light. The sound penetrated Marcus' dream. He chased the bird, but no matter what he did, he could not silence it. Suddenly he was awake, rubbing his eyes as he took in the confines of his small room. Shaking off the remnants of sleep with a jerk he flung himself out of bed and thrust himself into his tunic. He hurtled out of his room down the short corridor to the tiny kitchen where his mother was already preparing breakfast. He grabbed a beaker of water and drank it down with a gulp.

'No good morning kiss?' said his mother with a smile. He slammed the beaker back onto the table, threw his arms around her in a tight squeeze, gave her a peck on the cheek, snatched a piece of break from the pile on the table, and headed for the door.
'Where are you going?' cried his mother.
'Peter is coming today,' Marcus replied, his voice indistinct around his chewing. 'I thought I'd find Claudia and meet him in the square.'
'And isn't tomorrow soon enough,' said his mother, a worried look on her face, 'when he comes to the church?'
'No!' exclaimed the half-grown boy. 'How could I wait? He walked with the Christ by Galilee. I want to see him now!'
'Well, be careful out there. You know the soldiers have been grabbing Christians. Ever since that fire, they've been spreading strange stories about us.'
'Pah!' said the boy. 'I'm not afraid.' And he was gone. His mother sighed. He was nearly as tall as his father, she thought as she went back to cutting bread. But sometimes he seemed to have no more sense than on the day he was born.

***

Marcus hurried through the narrow streets, eating as he went. Though it was nearly full dark, they were already crowded. Rome never slept and the bustle of people going about their business was a constant background noise in the great city. Marcus squeezed his way through, ducking carts full of goods, avoiding rich men being carried on litters by their slaves, and jostling and being jostled by the stream of humanity going in all directions. Finally he was in the little square not far from his insula, the apartment block he lived in. The crowd was thinner there and he perched on the edge of a fountain, fed with cool, clean water by one of the many aqueducts supplying the vast amount of water needed by the Eternal City. Over a million people, thought Marcus. He couldn't imagine such a number, even though he was part of it. He splashed some water on his face and ran his wet hands threw his hair, finger combing it.

'It still looks like a bush,' said a voice from behind.
'Hello Claudia,' he said, not turning round, as he used the surface of one of the small basins that edged the fountain as a mirror. He didn't turn until he had his cap of short black curls in some semblance of order. He smiled at Claudia.
'You look nice,' he said. She was wearing what looked like her best dress and her hair was done up in the many-braided style that was the fashion of the moment. 'You must have been up for hours.'
'Thanks,' said Claudia. 'I didn't want to meet Peter looking like someone who lives under a bridge. Unlike some.'
'Hey!' protested Marcus. 'I washed my face.' Claudia laughed. Linking arms with him, she pulled him towards the other side of the square.
'I saw Timothy over there a few minutes ago,' she said. 'I'm sure that he's the one meeting Peter.' Marcus craned his neck. Sure enough, there was the tall, slightly stooped man he knew so well. He was slightly in awe of the serious faced man whose hair was shot with streaks of grey. He had been with Paul on many of his journeys throughout the Empire and he had met several of the Apostles. A cart pulled up before him. From the back a strongly built man hopped out lightly, for all that from his white hair he must have been at least sixty. Timothy took his hands, then they flung their arms around each other and embraced. 

Marcus and Claudia stopped short. They were silent. This was surely Peter, they thought. The man who had been chosen by Christ himself to be the first of all the Apostles and to be the leader of his Church after he was gone. They were so close they could have touched him, but they didn't dare. They didn't even know what to say. What could one say to man who had walked on water with Christ; who had seen him die on the cross and then return to life; who had seen him rise up to heaven to be with his Father?
From over Peter's shoulder Timothy spotted them standing there awkwardly. He smiled.
'Claudia; Marcus! Have you come to meet the great man?' he said, teasingly. Marcus reddened and stared at his feet. But Claudia said, gushingly:
'Oh, yes!' 
Timothy laughed heartily. So did Peter, who had turned to face them.
'Two of Christ's?' he said, in thickly accented Latin.
'Yes, Peter. They're part of the group you'll be laying hands on tomorrow.'
'But perhaps we could shake hands today?' he said with a twinkle in his eye. Claudia took the pro-offered hand eagerly and pumped it enthusiastically. Marcus took it slowly, mumbling something as he did so. It struck him that Peter's hand was large, hard, and very strong; a working-man's hand; a hand that still had the strength of a fisherman.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity from the other side of the square. People were moving out of the way fast. Marcus heard the crash of metal on stone, the unique sound of nailed sandals striking the stone paving, the sound of approaching soldiers.
'There, there,' a man was shouting, pointing in their direction. 'He's the one you want.' Marcus recognised him. Gradaius, a fallen away brother. He had tried to take over the small group of Christians to which Marcus now belonged some years before, but no one would listen to him because he seemed to be making his teaching up largely out of his own head, rather than what Jesus had taught his Apostles. Another Judas, thought Marcus. 
'Go,' said Timothy urgently to the children. Claudia was pulling Marcus back into the crowd. The soldiers were closer now; he could hear the jangle as metal struck metal on their armour as they marched. Marcus turned panicked eyes back to Timothy and Peter. But they were gone, almost as if they had melted away into the stones of the building they had been standing in front of. Gradaius and the soldiers stopped. Gradaius looked about wildly.
'Where are they,' he cried out angrily. Someone in the crowd chuckled. Gradaius glared at him.
'Do you want to be arrested instead?' he said threateningly. The man laughed in his face.
'Don't be a fool. The soldiers are here for the Christians, not to dance to your tune. I know you, Gradaius – always trying to be a big man in whatever group you belong to. Why don't you arrest him, Centurion? He's one of the Christians himself – or used to be, until they kicked him out for trying to run the show!'
Everyone in the crowd laughed this time, even the soldiers. Gradaius glared at them all. Suddenly he spotted Marcus and Claudia almost at the edge of the square.
'Those two!' he shouted. They were with him – seize them!' Marcus and Claudia bolted into an alley. The crowd behind them exploded into shouting. A hand reached out and almost caught Marcus by the shoulder, but he twisted away. The mob surged forward, but the sudden push caused those at the front to stumble and fall, and a tangle of bodies blocked the entrance to the alley. Those precious moments gave the children a head-start and they were around a corner before anyone could begin to give chase.

As they ran, Marcus could hear the shouts and the sounds of running feet being channelled down the alley and he knew the mob was still coming. He and Claudia held hands as they ran. She was slower, her dress hampering her legs. He fought back the urge to leave her. He spotted the open door of an insula to his right.
'This way,' he hissed. He dragged Claudia through the door way and up the narrow stairs. A fat woman carrying a bundle of laundry was coming down. They pushed passed her. 
'Mind what you're doing, you little urchins,' she called after them angrily. Heedless, the two continued to pound upwards. As they rounded the bend to the third level, they heard shouting below. Marcus paused and looked down. Part of the mob had poured in after them. They tried to get past the woman, but she lost her balance as they shoved and the whole lot slid down the stairs in a tangle of limbs and laundry, the fat woman on top. 

Marcus and Claudia fled and didn't pause until they reached the roof. They were blinded for a moment by the light. Then Marcus had his bearings. He grabbed Claudia's arm and rushed toward the edge. A plank formed a rickety bridge across the alley to the next building. They were across in a flash.

'Stop,' said Claudia. She paused, pulling at the board. Realising what she was doing, Marcus helped her pull the plank across after them. No one could follow them now. They fled onwards across the roofs, fearless of the dangers as they crossed from one roof to another – not only because the danger of being caught was worse than that of falling, but because they were children of the city and the roof-tops had been their playground almost since they were able to walk. When they were on their fourth roof, they heard shouting behind. They looked to see a group of men, shaking their fists angrily after them, but powerless to follow with the plank gone and too cowardly to attempt the jump.
The two children carried on across the roofs until the men were lost to view, and they they descended back to the street again and made their way to Marcus' home. His mother met them at the door.
'You're safe,' she said, grabbing him and nearly squeezing the breath out of him in a tight hug. 'And you also,' she said, seizing Claudia into her embrace. 'I was so worried. I told you to be careful!'
Over her shoulder, Marcus could see Timothy and Peter, sitting at the small table. That answered the question as to how she knew they had been in trouble. 
'We were worried also,' said Timothy, rising to his feet. 'Thank the Lord that you escaped.'
'It was Gradaius' fault,' said Claudia. 'He pointed us out to the soldiers.'
'I hope that Judas burns in hell for his sins,' cried out Marcus' mother. But Peter shook his head.
'Never hope for such a thing,' he said. 'Pray for him instead, that he turns from his error and is saved.' His mother blushed.
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I know I shouldn't think such a thing.' Peter smiled.
'Your anger is understandable. The man tried to have your son killed. I felt the same way when Judas betrayed our Lord. It took me a long while to put the anger out of my heart.' He sighed. 'And sometimes it is still there. There are times when I wonder if it will ever fully be gone.'

The grown-ups fell to talking about forgiveness and how hard it was sometimes. Claudia, sitting quietly in a corner, listened, fascinated. Marcus slipped away to his little room. It was dark and cool and when the door was closed he began to cry. Hot tears of shame ran down his cheeks, seeming to burn his skin.
'What is wrong, my young friend?' Marcus jumped. He hadn't heard the door open. Standing there was Peter. 'Why the tears?'
Marcus gulped and wiped his face with his sleeve.
'I ran,' he said. Peter frowned.
'We all ran,' he said. 'Better to run from the soldiers than to stand and die. You can't spread the Good News when you are dead.'
'That's not why I ran. I ran because I was afraid. I ran because I didn't want to die.'
'But why would you wish to die?'
'I didn't run because I didn't want to die – well, yes, I did – but the real reason I ran is because I'm afraid to die. Because my faith isn't strong enough. I'm no better than that Judas Gradaius!'
'Aren't you?' Peter looked at him shrewdly. 'I bet a fit young man like you can run pretty fast. A lot faster than a girl like Claudia. But you didn't leave her behind, did you?'
'I thought about it,' said Marcus, hanging his head.
'But you didn't,' insisted Peter. 'And that's what counts.'
'I wish I could be brave like you!' blurted out Marcus. 'You showed no fear when the soldiers came. And you've been going all over the world ever since Jesus went back heaven, no matter what the risk. Nothing ever scares you!'
'Not true!' laughed Peter. 'Surely you've heard the stories? About how I ran away and abandoned the Lord when the soldiers came for him in the Garden? How I denied I even knew him, not once but three times, after he was arrested? How I hid and cowered in a room with the rest of the disciples even after we knew he was risen from the dead? Oh, young Marcus, I know what it means to be afraid for my life and to run away, of that I assure you!'

Marcus stared at him.
'You were afraid, even after you had seen the Lord risen from the dead?'
Peter nodded.
'Even after I had seen him rise up from the earth and return to heaven. I saw him raise the dead, cast out demons, walk on water, calm storms, look into men's hearts and know their very thoughts, take a few small pieces of bread and feed thousands … and still I was afraid. You have nothing to be ashamed of.'
'But what changed? You're not still afraid, are you?'
Peter shook his head.
'No. Oh don't get me wrong. I still worry about things, like anyone else. About where my next meal is coming from, about whether it's going to rain when I'm walking along a dusty road miles from anywhere, about how grey my beard is even though I still feel like a young man.' They both laughed. 'But fear, real fear? No. Jesus himself told me that I would die for the faith, by Galilee one day not long before he returned to heaven. And I'm getting on in years, so I suppose it can't before long before that day comes. And I worry about the pain and the suffering … but I worry more that I won't die strong in the faith … that I might lose hope at the last minute and deny the Christ as I denied him before … and not only lose what I've worked so hard for all these years but cause others to lose their hope by my lack of faith. Pray for me that when that day comes, I'll remain strong.'
Marcus nodded. 
'But you still haven't told me what changed things for you – why you stopped being afraid?'
Peter nodded.

'True. It was that day in Jerusalem, not long after Jesus left us. We were in the upper room, the same room where he had celebrated the Last Supper with us and commanded us to offer bread and wine that it might come his body and blood. I'm sure you've heard others talk of that day?'
Marcus nodded.
'Pentecost.'
'Aye, Pentecost. Our Lord had promised us that he would send his Holy Spirit after he was gone, but to be honest we had no idea what that meant. Why would we have? We didn't understand him when he said he had to suffer and die for our sins; we surely didn't understand him when he said he would rise from the dead – we were all completely amazed on Easter morning when the women came rushing back from the Empty Tomb! So we really had no idea what he was talking about when he said he would send us the Holy Spirit. So when it came … at first we thought it was an earthquake and were terrified! And then the room was filled with the noise of a rushing wind … and then it seemed like their were tongues of fire over everyone's heads … and then … well, then everything was different! We weren't afraid any more. We knew what we had to do, and we just went out there and did it! And we're still doing it all these years later. There's not many left from that room … most have been killed for the faith; but still we go on.'
Marcus swallowed.
'What happens when you're all gone? Will the Church be finished? Will Christ come back then, as he said he would?'
Peter smiled at him.
'We can't know when he'll come back. It could be tomorrow; it might not be for a thousand years … maybe not for ten thousand or even longer. There's no knowing. He said that no one could know the day or the hour … so don't you listen to anyone who says that they do! But his Church won't end with those alive today. He gave his Apostles his teaching and we've passed it on to others. And the power we received from the Holy Spirit that day, we pass on to others also … remember that laying on of hands that I'm here for?'
'Yes Peter.'
'Well when I, or any other apostle, or any one whom the Church has appointed, with God's guidance, to be next in line to the Apostles, lay hands on someone, then the Holy Spirit comes on them too. And so it will be until the end of time until Jesus does come again … whenever that is!'
'So after tomorrow I'll never be afraid again?' said Marcus eagerly. Peter shook his head.
'I didn't say that. That's not quite how it works. But it will begin something in you that if you allow it to grow will someday help you understand that we truly have nothing to fear from this life … that we may live in this world, but we are children of God and heaven is our real home. And now is time that we go back to the others.'

***

The next day Peter laid his hands on Marcus and Claudia and others from the small group of Christians. It was a lovely occasion, but as Peter said, he didn't feel much different. 

Not long after that, Peter was taken by the Romans, and as he had told Marcus he would be, he was killed for the faith. Marcus thought about that, down through the years, as he himself lived his life according to the faith and passed it on to others. He remembered that Peter had said to him that the time would come when he understood that there was nothing in this world for him to fear. 

Many years later, he heard the crash of iron-shod sandals in the street outside his house, just as he had heard in the square that day when he was a boy. When the soldiers began pounding on his door, his heart jumped. It was his time - they had come for him. But then he realised something strange, something wonderful: it was as Peter had promised him … he wasn't afraid. He wasn't afraid of anything.










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