“What do you read?”
The reverie was broken. Nicodemus blinked. The piercing brightness of the desert valley became the cool brightness of the morning through the colonnade. The written word–which had translated seamlessly from the scroll in his hand to the image in his mind–became the spoken word. The voice of the Lord became the voice of the boy standing before him.
Nicodemus returned to the world where the people of the Lord were yet dead. They lay in tombs of exhausted hope, the earth in which they were buried cracked for lack of living water.
The Temple, though high and broad, was filled with the motion of the people. For many days, however, it had seemed still and airless to him. He couldn’t even bring himself to come every day anymore. Tears gathered in his eyes. He pressed his lips together and breathed in the lifelessness.
The boy smiled. He asked again, more softly. “What do you read, Teacher?”
Nicodemus studied him. He could not be more than twelve, this interrupting boy, but he was striking. The smile affected his mouth and eyes; it demanded an answer. So young. Still a spring of hope flowed in his heart.
Nicodemus returned the smile, though he supposed his own eyes were still sad. “I read the Prophet Ezekiel, child.”
“The son of man?”
Nicodemus raised his eyebrows. “Yes. That is how the Lord calls him.”
“And what part do you read?” The boy came forward a step, then sank to the ground at his feet, an uninvited student. An unexpected eager one. “Will you read it to me?”
The man’s eyes returned to the scroll, and he translated the Hebrew. “‘Therefore, prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.’”
“We are dead? Like the bones in the valley?”
Nicodemus nodded. “Here the Lord explains the meaning of the dry bones.”
“Dead because we cannot live with hearts of stone?”
Nicodemus paused. Rather than correct, he followed the child’s questioning tone. “Why do you say hearts of stone?”
“Is it not a few passages before where the Lord promises, ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’?”
Nicodemus’s eyes widened and skipped up a few lines. He found that it was so.
“Here already, brother?” Jacob’s hand squeezed Nicodemus’s shoulder as he lowered his bulk onto the bench. “And you, little one? Have you returned for another day?”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “Do you have more to hear? Then I have more to hear.”
Nicodemus turned to Jacob. “Who is he?”
“Oh, yes,” Jacob said. “You were not here yesterday. The boy was found alone here two days ago. He said he was the son of Joseph, so we took him to Joseph the Arimathean, although he has no children. I believe the boy has been staying with him until his parents can be found.”
“And yesterday he came with Joseph to listen to the teaching.” Jacob chuckled, his wrinkled eyes twinkling at the boy. “But he asked more questions than there were answers, didn’t you?”
The son of Joseph looked grave. “Why do you believe that some questions have no answers? It is the Truth you seek, and the Truth is without end.”
Jacob shook his head. “Already another question.” Then he looked at the scroll in Nicodemus’s hands. “What do you read?”
Nicodemus shifted; he almost wanted to hide the words. “The Prophet Ezekiel and the dry bones.”
“Ah, yes. And the promise of flesh and the land. Rebirth and a kingdom.”
Nicodemus paused. Did he dare question the old man?
The boy did not pause. “What about the breath? The bones get flesh and sinews and skin, but they do not live without the breath.”
Jacob laughed. “How like a boy, eh? Remembers all the gruesome details. But they are alive, and life is life.”
“The Lord says, ‘I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live,’” the boy continued. “The son of man must prophesy to the breath that they might live. This is the spirit of hope that the dead people needs. The bones are dry. The Lord says, ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness.’ Only then can the Lord provide a new heart and a new spirit.”
Jacob laughed again. “So much surety for one so young!”
The boy frowned. “Unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
“Water and spirit? Born? Can old men be born, child?”
“Can bones rise and live again? And I tell you this: the Lord can draw water from a stone with a word. But do not let it be your heart that He must strike.”
Jacob’s eyes widened. He turned to Nicodemus, his eyebrows raised, his chest rumbling with laughter. “Did you hear his words? Did you hear them?”
“Son of Joseph?” The young Arimethean strode in among the gathered teachers. “Pardon, masters, but the child’s parents have returned.”
The eyes of all fell on the couple standing not far off. The father’s eyes were closed, his hands open in prayer. The woman’s eyes did not leave her son, though they filled with tears of joy.
The boy raised himself from the paving stones and smiled once more at Nicodemus. He bowed to all the teachers, but his words seemed to be for Nicodemus. “Until next time.”
He whirled around, his clothes flapping. A little breath of wind stirred Nicodemus’s beard. He smiled; the Temple again seemed brighter.
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