THE FEAST OF DEDICATION.
NOWHERE, in all probability, did Jesus pass more restful and happy hours than in the quiet house of that little family at Bethany, which, as we are told by St. John, "He loved." The family, so far as we know, consisted only of Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. That Martha was a widowthat her husband was, or had been, Simon the Leperthat Lazarus is identical with the gentle and holy Rabbi of that name mentioned in the Talmudare conjectures that may or may not be true; but we see from the Gospels that they were a family in easy circumstances, and of sufficient dignity and position to excite considerable attention not only in their own little village of Bethany, but even in Jerusalem. The lonely little hamlet, lying among its peaceful uplands, near Jerusalem, and yet completely hidden from it by the summit of Olivet, and thus
"Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite
must always have had for the soul of Jesus an especial charm; and the more so because of the friends whose love and reverence always placed at His disposal their holy and happy home. It is there that we find Him on the eve of the Feast of the Dedication, which marked the close of that public journey designed for the full and final proclamation of His coming kingdom.
It was natural that there should be some stir in the little household at the coming of such a Guest, and Martha, the busy, eager-hearted, affectionate hostess, "on hospitable thoughts intent," hurried to and fro with excited energy to prepare for His proper entertainment. Her sister Mary, too, was anxious to receive Him fittingly, but her notions of the reverence due to Him were of a different kind. Knowing that her sister was only too happy to do all that could be done for His material comfort, she, in deep humility, sat at His feet and listened to His words.
Mary was not to blame, for her sister evidently enjoyed the task which she had chosen of providing as best she could for the claims of hospitality, and was quite able, without any assistance, to do everything that was required. Nor was Martha to blame for her active service; her sole fault was that, in this outward activity, she lost the necessary equilibrium of an inward claim. As she toiled and planned to serve Him, a little touch of jealousy disturbed her peace as she saw her quiet sister sitting"idly" she may have thoughtat the feet of their great Visitor, and leaving the trouble to fall on her. If she had taken time to think, she could not but have acknowledged that there may have been as much of consideration as of selfishness in Mary's withdrawal into the background in their domestic administration; but to be just and noble-minded is always difficult, nor is it even possible when any one meanness, such as petty jealousy, is suffered to intrude. So, in the first blush of her vexation, Martha, instead of gently asking her sister to help her, if help, indeed, were neededan appeal which, if we judge of Mary aright, she would instantly have heardshe almost impatiently, and not quite reverently, hurries in, and asks Jesus if He really did not care to see her sister sitting there with her hands before her, while she was left single-handed to do all the work. Would He not tell her (Martha could not have fairly added that common piece of ill-nature, "It is of no use for me to tell her") to go and help?
An imperfect soul, seeing what is good and great and true, but very often failing in the attempt to attain to it, is apt to be very hard in its judgments on the shortcomings of others. But a divine and sovereign soula soul that has more nearly attained to the measure of the stature of the perfect mantakes a calmer and gentler, because a larger-hearted view of those little weaknesses and indirectnesses which it cannot but daily see. And so the answer of Jesus, if it were a reproof, was at any rate an infinitely gentle and tender one, and one which would purify but would not pain the poor faithful heart of the busy, loving matron to whom it was addressed. "Martha, Martha," so He saidand as we hear that most natural address may we not imagine the half-sad, half-playful, but wholly kind and healing smile which lightened His face?"thou art anxious and bustling about many things, whereas but one thing is needful; but Mary chose for herself the good part, which shall not be taken away from her." There is none of that exaltation here of the contemplative over the active life which Roman Catholic writers have seen in the passage, and on which they are so fond of dwelling. Either may be necessary, both must be combined. Paul, as has well been said, in his most fervent activity, had yet the contemplativeness and inward calm of Mary; and John, with the most rapt spirit of contemplation, could yet practise the activity of Martha. Jesus did not mean to reprobate any amount of work undertaken in His service, but only the spirit of fret and fussthe want of all repose and calmthe ostentation of superfluous hospitalityin doing it; and still more that tendency to reprobate and interfere with others, which is so often seen in Christians who are as anxious as Martha, but have none of Mary's holy trustfulness and perfect calm.
It is likely that Bethany was the home of Jesus during His visits to Jerusalem, and from it a short and delightful walk over the Mount of Olives would take Him to the Temple. It was now winter-time, and the Feast of the Dedication was being celebrated. This feast was held on the 25th of Cisleu, and, according to Wieseler, fell this year on December 20. It was founded by Judas Maccabæus in honour of the cleansing of the Temple in the year B.C. 164, six years and a half after its fearful profanation by Antiochus Epiphanes. Like the Passover and the Tabernacles, it lasted eight days, and was kept with great rejoicing. Besides its Greek name of Encænia, it had the name of tà phôta, or the Lights, and one feature of the festivity was a general illumination to celebrate the legendary miracle of a miraculous multiplication, for eight days, of the holy oil which had been found by Judas Maccabæus in one single jar sealed with the High Priest's seal. Our Lord's presence at such a festival sanctions the right of each Church to ordain its own rites and ceremonies, and shows that He looked with no disapproval on the joyous enthusiasm of national patriotism.
The eastern porch of the Temple still retained the name of Solomon's Porch, because it was at least built of the materials which had formed part of the ancient Temple. Here, in this bright colonnade, decked for the feast with glittering trophies, Jesus was walking up and down, quietly, and apparently without companions, sometimes, perhaps, gazing across the valley of the Kidron at the whited sepulchres of the prophets, whom generations of Jews had slain, and enjoying the mild winter sunlight, when, as though by a preconcerted movement, the Pharisaic party and their leaders suddenly surrounded and began to question Him. Perhaps the very spot where He was walking, recalling as it did the memories of their ancient gloryperhaps the memories of the glad feast which they were celebrating, as the anniversary of a splendid deliverance wrought by a handful of brave men who had overthrown a colossal tyrannyinspired their ardent appeal. "How long," they impatiently inquired, "dost thou hold our souls in painful suspense? If thou really art the Messiah, tell us with confidence. Tell us here, in Solomon's Porch, now, while the sight of these shields and golden crowns, and the melody of these citherns and cymbals, recall the glory of Judas the Asmonæanwilt thou be a mightier Maccabæus, a more glorious Solomon? shall these citrons, and fair boughs, and palms, which we carry in honour of this day's victory, be carried some day for thee?" It was a strange, impetuous, impatient appeal, and is full of significance. It forms their own strong condemnation, for it shows distinctly that He had spoken words and done deeds which would have justified and substantiated such a claim had He chosen definitely to assert it. And if He had in so many words asserted itabove all, had He asserted it in the sense and with the objects which they requiredit is probable that they would have instantly welcomed Him with tumultuous acclaim. The place where they were speaking recalled the most gorgeous dreams of their ancient monarchy; the occasion was rife with the heroic memories of one of their bravest and most successful warriors; the political conditions which surrounded them were exactly such as those from which the noble Asmonæan had delivered them. One spark of that ancient flame would have kindled their inflammable spirits into such a blaze of irresistible fanaticism as might for the time have swept away both the Romans and the Herods, but whichsince the hour of their fall had already begun to strike, and the cup of their iniquity was already fullwould only have antedated by many years the total destruction which fell upon them, first when they were slain by myriads at the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, and afterwards when the false Messiah, Bar-Cochebas, and his followers were so frightfully exterminated at the capture of Bethyr.
But the day for political deliverances was past; the day for a higher, deeper, wider, more eternal deliverance had come. For the former they yearned, the latter they rejected. Passionate to claim in Jesus an exclusive temporal Messiah, they repelled Him with hatred as the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. That He was their Messiah in a sense far loftier and more spiritual than they had ever dreamed, His language had again and again implied; but the Messiah in the sense which they required He was not, and would not be. And therefore He does not mislead them by saying, "I am your Messiah," but He refers them to that repeated teaching, which showed how clearly such had been His claim, and to the works which bore witness to that claim. Had they been sheep of His flockand He here reminds them of that great discourse which He had delivered at the Feast of Tabernacles two months beforethey would have heard His voice, and then He would have given them eternal life, and they would have been safe in His keeping; for no one would then have been able to pluck them our of His Father's hand, and He added solemnly, "I and my Father are one."
His meaning was quite unmistakable. In these words He was claiming not only to be Messiah, but to be Divine. Had the oneness with the Father which He claimed been nothing more than that subjective union of faith and obedience which exists between all holy souls and their CreatorHis words could have given no more offence than many a saying of their own kings and prophets; but "ecce Judaei intellexerunt quod non intelligunt Ariani!"they saw at once that the words meant infinitely more. Instantly they stooped to seize some of the scattered heavy stones which the unfinished Temple buildings supplied to their fury, and had His hour been come, He could not have escaped the tumultuary death which afterwards befel His proto-martyr. But His undisturbed majesty disarmed them with a word: "Many good deeds did I show you from my Father: for which of these do ye mean to stone me?" "Not for any good deed," they replied, "but for blasphemy, and because thou, being a mere man, art making thyself God." The reply of Jesus is one of those broad gleams of illumination which He often sheds on the interpretation of the Scriptures: "Does it not stand written in your law," He asked them, "'I said, Ye are gods?' If he called them gods (Elohim) to whom the Word of God cameand such undeniably is the case in your own Scripturesdo ye say to Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, 'Thou blasphemest,' because I said 'I am the Son of God?'" And He appealed to His life and to His works, as undeniable proofs of His unity with the Father. If His sinlessness and His miracles were not a proof that He could not be the presumptuous blasphemer whom they wished to stonewhat further proof could be given? They, nursed in the strictest monotheism, and accustomed only to think of God as infinitely far from man, might have learnt even from the Law and from the Prophets that God is nearis in the very mouth and in the very heartof those who love Him, and even bestows upon them some indwelling brightness of His own internal glory. Might not this be a sign to them, that He who came to fulfil the Law and put a loftier Law in its placeHe to whom all the prophets had witnessedHe for whom John had prepared the wayHe who spake as never man spakeHe who did the works which none other man had ever done since the foundation of the worldHe who had ratified all His words, and given significance to all His deeds by the blameless beauty of an absolutely stainless lifewas indeed speaking the truth when He said that He was one with the Father, and that He was the Son of God?
The appeal was irresistible. They dared not stone Him; but, as He was alone and defenceless in the midst of them, they tried to seize Him. But they could not. His presence overawed them. They could only make a passage for Him, and glare their hatred upon Him as He passed from among them. But once more, here was a clear sign that all teaching among them was impossible. He could as little descend to their notions of a Messiah, as they could rise to His. To stay among them was but daily to imperil His life in vain. Judæa, therefore, was closed to him, as Galilee was closed to Him. There seemed to be one district only which was safe for Him in his native land, and that was Peræa, the district beyond the Jordan. He retired, therefore to the other Bethanythe Bethany beyond Jordan, where John had once been baptisingand there he stayed.
What were the incidents of this last stay, or the exact length of its continuance, we do not know. We see, however, that it was not exactly private, for St. John tells us that many resorted to Him there, and believed on him, and bore witness that Johnwhom they held to be a Prophet, though he had done no miraclehad borne emphatic witness to Jesus in that very place, and that all which he had witnessed was true.