It was the year following my bar mitzvah when my father decided we should go up to Jerusalem for the Passover, leaving our business in my mother’s capable hands for a couple of weeks. He wanted to go a few days beforehand, in order to spend some time with his aunt, the widow of a merchant, who was getting elderly. He had not seen her for some years, and felt it was his duty to visit her while she still lived. And now I was a man, he wanted me to see and know Jerusalem, the city of our God, and to eat the Passover there.
So we set off. It was two days journey, three days really, since we stayed in the house of one of my father’s friends for the Sabbath, and I was amazed by the steepness of the final climb. I had not realised the city was set up so high – I hadn't been there since I was a little boy. Many others were entering the city, it seemed we weren’t the only ones coming up for Passover early. But the people seemed to be moving very slowly, and I was beginning to feel impatient. We could hear shouting up ahead, and began to look at each other anxiously. Was it a riot? Even at thirteen I knew how dangerous that was, how volatile a place the Holy city was when all these extra people crowded into its narrow streets, and how swiftly and brutally the Romans would act if they thought things were getting out of control. It was something we wanted to keep well away from: if the Roman soldiers swept through with drawn swords they wouldn’t be stopping to ask first if you were just an innocent bystander. Maybe it was because of the temple, and the continual stream of sacrifices, so that the whole place smelled of blood and incense, but already in my mind I associated Jerusalem with death.
But as we drew closer the shouts didn’t sound dangerous and threatening, it was more like the sound of a great party taking place. Intrigued, we pressed forward through the hesitant, milling crowd, and, as we drew closer, the words became clearer:
“Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.”
Those were Messiah words, and I pushed forward between the people, straining to see who or what was there. My father had hung back, later I was to realise that he had seen would-be “Messiahs” before, and still read danger in the situation. But for me the excitement was wonderful – could it really be that the awaited one had arrived, right now, in front of me, to take for himself a greater kingdom than David and Solomon?
And then .. I saw Him. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps a king with a glittering entourage, perhaps an angel. What I saw was a man. A man in a simple peasant robe, seated on a young donkey. There was nothing remarkable about His face, feature by feature He could have been anyone, it was, if you can imagine such a thing, everybody’s face. But it was the expression on His face that haunted me. The crowd might have been delirious with excitement, but He wasn’t. I expected Him to be smiling, maybe waving, drumming up more response from them. Isn’t that what people in such positions usually do? But He wasn’t like that. It obviously wasn’t something He needed or desired them to do. It just was. He didn’t look exactly sad, just very solemn, perhaps like a priest who is totally absorbed in performing the sacrificial ritual.
And then, I remembered. I knew where I had seen that look before. Once before, when I was just a little boy, we had been in Jerusalem for Passover, and, just as the Law says, we had been taking our lamb, our unblemished Passover lamb, to be killed. At first the creature had been skittish, playing around, resisting the tug of the rope. But suddenly, when we were nearly there, it quieted. It was odd, almost as if it suddenly knew its fate and surrendered. When we brought it to the priest, it did not struggle, but stood there, with that calm, withdrawn look in its eyes. I did not know what it meant, it was to be another ten years before the Christians came to my town and I understood, and wept; but I stood there that day, amidst the noisy crowd, and I wondered.