Her son was restless, had been for some time, she realised. Oh, he was still diligent, still working each day, providing for her and their family; But mothers see these things, sometimes they even see them before their sons. But they keep silent. Watching, waiting, wondering. She had built up so many memories, treasures she called them, twenty-nine years of treasures. Some of them tangible, most of them memories of moments that seared themselves into her heart, until sometimes she felt as though she would burst.
She watched him now, standing on a hillside just above their village home. The setting sun sinking, casting shadows that lengthened as they stretched and merged towards their home, where she sat on the rooftop, her hands busy with activities she had long forgotten she was doing. The shadows stretched across her heart as she sighed from the depth of her soul. She had known this day was coming, had sensed it, had been warned of it many times, but as her soul prepared itself to be pierced yet again, she realised how unprepared she actually was. She watched him, tall and hesitant, his eyes drawn south, his heart pulled back to here. It was ever the way of mothers, to let go, another wrenching from the womb, but Mary hesitated, she knew she would see him again, but she knew what was here and now would soon be changed forever, she accepted and dreaded in equal measure. But he was her son, he needed her to let him go. It was time.
She felt her legs aching as she climbed the hill: age was not gentle in its approach, but there was added weight on her heart as she joined him, the setting sun sharpening his profile as he stared south. She knew he daren’t speak, words would bring sorrow too deep for both of them, they had once shared a heartbeat, and so now as they stood, silent in the darkening gloom, they didn’t need words. They both understood – it was time. Voices had spoken of it ages past, words had warned of it, but now the moment was here – it was time – she hesitated to speak, to shatter the silence, and to break the bond, but it was time – ‘why don’t you find John’ she said, her eyes fixed on a dimming horizon. A slight nod, almost missed, and without a word, he started to walk, not to their home, nor to their village, but south. It was time.
The line was long, and lengthening: Simon watched it grow. Every day, more came, seeking, searching, as the line inched to the riverside a silence would fall, the people would listen to the Voice, clearer now as they drew nearer. Stronger too as it echoed across the flowing water. It always surprised Simon how so many of those who stood waiting were so finely dressed. They were unused to waiting, their needs were normally met immediately. But here it was different. Everybody waited their turn. Peter smiled to himself as he remembered the foolish few who had tried to push their way to the front, a deafening silence would be followed by a roaring challenge ‘ who warned you, you brood of vipers…’ They would scurry back, faces burning with shame and embarrassment, they would melt into the crowd but they would come back, humbler now, chastened and compelled by the Voice. The words could cut, and heal, in equal measure. As the Baptiser dipped and dropped each one, he would continue to call out. To warn, to cajole, to encourage. Those who re-emerged from the water, muddy and cold, would stand for a moment, slightly bewildered. ‘Was that it?’ Days spent waiting for this. And yet as the water returned in lessening droplets to the river below they stood in, a change would begin. Simon was always fascinated by this change, hidden at first, but soon physically visible, as a deep conviction took hold. He had felt it himself, the mixture of expectation, and disappointment. The Voice, roaring on, as he stood there, wondering, and then, from deep within, a change, a confidence, a certainty, something fitting into place, like it was always meant to. Long after the Baptiser had moved on to those wating at the water’s edge, Simon had stood there, marvelling at the change taking place within him. His brother Andrew had finally led him to the river’s edge, a knowing smile on his lips. They had sat and waited, and as the evening sun had sent the crowds to their campsites and their firesides, he and Andrew had listened and wondered, was this skins-covered baptiser ‘the One’; was he the one expected; could it be? As Simon watched him crunching locusts and berries between broken teeth, he wondered and he stayed.
Simon’s thoughts were broken by a change in the mood of the crowd. He noticed the usurper walking steadily past the waiting crowd. Some muttered, most watched, looking forward to the rollicking this newcomer would receive. But, for once the Voice faltered, Peter looked again at the newly arrived, taller than most, but nothing else that marked him as different, or special. And yet there was something else that drew Simon closer to John as the visitor stood stock still on the riverside. It wasn’t arrogance, but there was a confidence, a certainty that most, like Simon, had experienced after surrendering to the water, but this one seemed to have it already, his eyes locked on John’s. John stared silently, a slow look of recognition emerging, a growing smile, that froze as John seemed to suddenly put the pieces together. His voice trembled ‘Do you come to me to be baptised? Surely it is I who should be baptised by you!’ The visitor smiled softly, waded into the water to embrace John as a long-lost brother. Simon had to lean closer to hear what he whispered into John’s ears ‘Let it be done so now – these things must be done right – to fulfil the words of life’. John nodded and without warning upended the visitor and held him under the water. As John lifted the visitor up again, water cascading back to its source, Simon felt as if time was standing still. The voices of the multitude were silent, drawn to the encounter, watching in wary wonder. A fluttering wing drew Simon’s eye from the man’s face, already drying in the searing sun. A dove, unusual in this place, began to fly down, hovering above the visitor’s head. From clear blue skies, a deep thunder began to rumble, people cried out and fell back in shock, but Simon could hear words ring clear from a deep, deep Voice – that seemed to say ‘This is my beloved Son, in him is my delight – listen to him!’ Simon stared, vaguely aware that his brother stood awe struck beside him, his eyes no longer focussed on the Baptiser who seemed to slowly and reluctantly turn to the next in line to continue his labour. Simon watched the drying face of the visitor. The confidence was still there, but there was also delight, joy, peace, awe written deep into the man’s face. And then something new, a shift from certainty to question. His eyes moved from looking to the heavens to the desert beyond the river. He turned his face to look for the first time into Simon’s eyes, those eyes seemed to sear deep into Simon’s soul, as if he saw everything that Simon worked so hard to hide, Simon couldn’t hold the gaze, but before he looked away, the man twisted around and seemed to stumble across the muddy waters to the far side of the river. It was as if he was being driven, pushed to go, compelled by a Voice that no one else could hear.