This is the fifth entry from my upcoming booklet, “Our Darkness, His Light”.
Miriam awoke from a restless sleep to the voice of her mother calling. She quickly arose from the small pallet in the corner of the one-roomed hovel that she called home. Across the dim room she saw her mother’s figure huddled in the far corner on her own pallet. Early morning sunlight streamed through the slats of the wooden window and one pale beam cast its rays across her mother’s hair.
Miriam hurried across the room and knelt beside her mother. Her mother lay on her side, her face turned away from the center of the room. Miriam reached out to touch her face.
“Mother, you’re hot.” Her tiny voice echoed in the room. Her mother lay back and Miriam saw the beads of sweat that covered her face. She saw the stains where the sweat had soaked through the armpits.
“Miriam.” Her mother’s voice was weak. “I am ill. It is the fever. You must go and work for us today.”
Miriam shook her tiny head and pressed her hands to her lips. “Mother, I can’t. I can’t work without you. Besides, who will take care of you? Should I go get the healer?”
Miriam’s mother shook her head and her eyes moved back into the ray of sunshine coming through the window. “My dear daughter, I will survive. Do not be concerned about me. Do be concerned about our job. If you do not show up today to represent us, we may die in debtor’s prison.”
Miriam stood shakily, her heart pounding in fear. She was only eleven years old. What her mother asked was impossible. There was no way she could do the job that both of them had done for the last year while they had tried to stay out of debtor’s prison.
“Mother, I shall go and summon the healer and then I shall go and work for us today.” Her voice sounded very tiny and the fear in her was very great. But as she stood there and watched her mother lying on the pallet she knew that she had no choice. This was the legacy that her father had left them both. At his death he had left her mother strapped with an incredible debt from which they were only now recovering. He had left Miriam with a robbed childhood, forced to mature far quicker than she would have ordinarily done.
Miriam gathered the water in a basin and sat it before her mother. The basin was an old wooden bowl that her father had carved in the days before the fever had taken him. Then she hurried from the room, and down the dusty streets, to the home of the healer.
After the healer agreed to go and check on her mother, she set off toward the distant palace where she was to work for her mother today. As always, the immensity of Pilate’s palace awed her. It’s great arching rooflines and immense rooms swallowed her and made her feel as small as a camel’s flea. She hurried through the back entrance of the palace and passed the guards who allowed her by without any question. She reached the slave quarters and prepared for her daily duties. Roma awaited her.
“Well, you little wench, just where have you been? You’re over an hour late for your daily duties. And where is that sorry excuse of a mother of yours?”
Miriam drew a deep breath and felt her heart once again pound within her chest and it threatened to explode through her skin. She shook and she trembled as she swallowed back the fear. “Mistress Roma, you must forgive me for being late. My mother is quite ill this morning and I had to attend to her needs.”
“Your mother is ill?” Roma’s voice dripped with disdain. “And just who will tend to your duties today?”
Miriam stood a little taller and looked the woman straight in the eyes. “I will.”
Roma’s laughter echoed through the darkness of the slave quarters. “We shall see, little flea.” Roma chuckled. “You had best rinse yourself off in one of the baths and then get dressed. You’re fortunate today. Pilate is late for his morning audience due to some very troublesome political matters that came up during the night. He hasn’t missed you. Yet. But I suggest that you hurry. And remember this one thing.” Roma bent over until her beady eyes rested only a few inches from Miriam’s nose. “I’ll be watching you. One slip up and it’s off to debtor’s prison for you and your mother.”
Roma stood stiffly in her white tunic and turned and left the room. Miriam fought back tears and her lip quivered as she threatened to cry. She looked heavenward, her eyes peering toward the ceiling.
“Heavenly Father, please help Mom feel better today and help me with this job.”
She hurried into the depths of the slave quarters where a small bath filled with tepid water stood. She stripped and cleansed her body until her skin shown with a nice pink color. She towel-dried her hair and then slipped on the golden and white raiment that her and her mother wore as servants of Pilate.
When her mother had taken on the job in the slave quarters, she had marveled at the beauty of the clothing. She had gazed at the golden thread interwoven through the white fabric with envy and anticipation. Whenever she donned the outfit, she felt very important, very aristocratic, very Roman.
But as the days passed she watched the endless parade of pilgrims begging for the mercy of the Roman state. All of them had been denied and Pilate’s anger and wrath knew no end. A day had come when she no longer wanted to wear the clothing of the Roman slaves. But until the debt was paid, they had no choice.
Miriam heard the clapping of hands and knew that Roma was waiting her. She hurried through the hanging golden beadwork that led into Pilate’s audience room. Roma stood severely near the back of the room and motioned to her with a crooked finger. The room was empty and near the center of the room, sat a small golden throne. Miriam hurried across the room and stood stiffly next to Roma.
“Now you had better be on your best behavior today little girl. If you mess up one time, just remember what kind of lingering death awaits you and your mother in debtor’s prison.”
Miriam tried not to look up at the woman and her piercing black eyes and crooked nose. Roma suddenly stiffened and Miriam’s eyes came to rest on the far doorway as Pontius Pilate entered the room. He was followed by two Roman soldiers, one of whom was most likely a Roman centurion. Both of them were arguing among themselves and Pontius Pilate had the world weary look upon his face that she had seen settle in during the months she had worked for him. Pilate collapsed in the golden throne with a sigh and a look of exasperation. He snapped the fingers of his right hand three times.
Miriam bolted into action and hurried across to a small, low table near the wall. She retrieved a golden pitcher filled with wine and a goblet. She brought the goblet and the pitcher across the room and placed the goblet in Pontius Pilate’s outstretched hand.
Carefully, she lifted the heavy golden pitcher and poured wine into the goblet, proud of the fact that she was not wavering. However, at the last second her strength seemed to give and a small trickle of wine spilled over the edge of the goblet onto Pilate’s hand. Only then did Pilate glance over at her, a look of utter hatred and disgust in his face.
“Be careful, you little wretch. Just what do you think you’re doing? Wait. You’re the little girl. Where is your mother?”
Miriam cast her eyes downward to the floor as she had learned to do.
“My mother could not work today. I am taking her place.”
Pilate exchanged the goblet from his right hand to his left and shook the right hand until the fine droplets of wine splattered onto Miriam’s face.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a dolt. Go and get me a towel and my basin.”
Miriam turned and hurried through the golden beaded doorway into the darkness of the slave quarters. She retrieved a white cloth lined with gold thread from a nearby table. In the far corner sat Pilate’s basin. When she had first seen it, it had filled her mind with images of far away lands and exotic places. She dreamed of one day being a princess sitting upon a throne with the fruit filled basin nestled in her lap.
The basin itself was as wide as her shoulders and made from gleaming polished gold. Around its upper edge were jewel upon jewel; rubies, sapphires, emeralds. Even in the dimness of the slave quarters the jewels winked at her with bright glistening light. She lifted the heavy basin and stumbled slightly under the weight. Hurrying through the doorway she went once again to the table at the side of the room. She took another clay pitcher filled with water and poured in into the basin.
Pontius Pilate was arguing heatedly with the Roman centurion and the soldier when Miriam arrived. She held the basin out and without looking, Pontius dipped his right hand into it and rinsed the wine from his skin.
Miriam backed away and sat the basin on a table behind Pilate’s throne. Taking the white cloth, she carefully dried the man’s skin. She took the towel, draped it on her arm, and stepped away into the shadows behind the throne.
Miriam had done a good job but she did not expect any words of thanks. The mere fact that she would escape any notice was reward enough.
Pilate suddenly stood from his throne and motioned to the outer doorway and Miriam began to focus on the words that were passing between he and the Roman centurion. They were rapidly speaking Latin, a language that she did not even begin to understand. However, her months spent in Pilate’s palace had acquainted her with some of the more familiar phrases. Pilate was instructing the Roman soldiers to bring someone before him.
A figure suddenly eclipsed the brightness of the doorway leading into Pilate’s room. The Roman soldiers marched across to the doorway and motioned for the figure to come into the room. Miriam had a hard time seeing the man’s face backlit by the bright sunlight. She could tell that he was almost nude, wearing only a loincloth. Something bristling and wooden wrapped itself around his forehead. As he stepped closer, she began to see the blood that streaked his shoulders. Blood streamed from the crown of thorns around his forehead.
Miriam winced, her hands coming to her lips and she glanced over at Roma standing in the shadows. For an odd moment, Roma’s face seemed to soften. There within the lined features of that harsh caricature of a woman, Miriam saw a flicker of compassion.
“So you say that you are the King of the Jews?” Miriam heard Pontius speak almost flawless Hebrew.
The man stood there quietly, hands at his side, blood dripping down his face. His eyes were filled with bright fire. Miriam could not tell if it was the pain he felt or if it was utter madness. He stood silently before Pilate, as Pilate circled him once, twice; his eyes never leaving the man’s face.
“I asked you a question. Are you the King of the Jews?”
The man studied Pilate’s face and then glanced once in her direction. When their eye’s met, Miriam felt a shiver travel over her body. This man did not deserve this kind of treatment. The look in his eyes was filled with love and compassion and more importantly, understanding. How could Pilate treat him that way? She had to grit her teeth to keep from crying out. The man looked back at Pilate.
“Is that your own idea,” he asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Like this pitiful child? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Miriam studied the man’s blood streaked face. His gaze rested on her for a moment and she felt reassurance. His gaze shifted back to Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“Aha! You are a king, then!” Pilate said.
The man grew very still. Miriam felt the air thicken as if a storm brewed on the horizon. The hair on her skin bristled and she felt cold all over. Power entered the man’s voice as he said, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Pilate sat forward. Blood dripped from the man’s fingers onto the perfect tiles of Pilate’s floor. “Then answer me this one question. What is truth?”
Before the man could speak Pilate clapped his hands. “We shall let your own people decide what is to be done with you. That will be the truth!”
Pilate motioned to the Roman soldiers. They shoved the man across the room, through the bright shaft of sunlight and out onto Pilate’s porch. Pilate motioned to Miriam and she tore her eyes away from the receding figure. She followed Pilate as he strode out onto the porch where she stood in the shadows.
The courtyard in front of Pilate’s palace was filled with a mob of people unlike any she had ever seen. Faces bobbed and weaved like an ocean of humanity. Pilate stood quietly at the edge of the porch, the man to his right. The crowd fell silent and Pilate paused as he regarded them.
“This man has done no evil that I can discern. He is an innocent man. What would you have that I do with him?” Pilate’s voice echoed across the open courtyard. For a second there was stony silence and then far in the back of the crowd a lone voice yelled.
It was the beginning point for a wave that passed over the crown until it broke against the front of Pontius Pilate’s porch with a ferocity that threatened to throw Miriam back against the stone. Voice after voice joined in high chorus, screaming and shouting “Crucify him!”
Pilate turned away from the crowd and looked at the man to his left. Then, his eyes passed over Miriam for a flicker of a second. He turned to the Roman centurion.
“Isn’t there some Jewish tradition that on the Passover one prisoner may be released?” The soldier shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure sir.”
Miriam heard the words and sensed the intent in Pilate’s voice. She stepped timidly forward out of the shadows. “Excuse me, your Excellency. Among my people there is such a tradition.”
Pilate’s head snapped in her direction and for a second he looked at her as if she were an insect. His features softened as he listened to her.
“Are you sure, little girl?” He asked.
Once again Miriam’s heart beat against the skin of her chest and her eyes went once again to the man standing on the edge of the porch. He had his back to her and she saw the stripes that were there, the blood and the flayed skin hanging from the open wounds. Perhaps this was his only chance for redemption.
“Yes, your Excellency. I am sure.”
Pilate had bent over slightly to look at her and he stood suddenly. “Bring up Barrabus.”
The Roman centurion marched stiffly across the porch to Pilate. “Barrabus? He’s a rebel rouser. He’s a murderer. Even his own people hate him. Do you think that they’ll let him go?”
Pilate’s eyebrows raised and he smiled. “If not, then I’m giving them a difficult decision.”
Barrabus appeared through the far archway, urged on by the Roman soldier. He was shoved out into the bright sunlight at the edge of the porch. Pilate cast one glance at Miriam, their eyes meeting. “I hope you’re right about this little girl or you’ll pay.”
He walked to the front of the porch and gazed over the crowd. Like a hungry beast stalking its prey, it fell silent in anticipation. “As is your tradition, I bring before you two condemned prisoners. To honor your own traditions I will release one of them to you. Who shall it be, Jesus of Nazareth or Barrabus?”
Miriam held her breath, her clenched fists suddenly coming up to her chest. The crowd began to mumble and suddenly it once again erupted with one loud voice.
“Give us Barrabus and crucify Jesus.” The sound carried over and over, like waves lapping on the edge of a shore. Miriam slumped back against the cold stone and she felt the tears roll down her cheeks. Pilate turned abruptly and strode into the shadows near the back of the porch, rubbing his jaw.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all. But it’s not my decision. They’ve made their choice.” He glanced at Miriam angrily and then clapped his hands together. “Child, bring me my basin.”
Miriam seemed frozen for a second, pressed against the cold stone of the rock by the man’s harsh glare. Then her eyes traveled from Pilate’s face to the man standing at the edge of the porch. He had turned so that his back was to the crowd. The look on his face told her everything she needed to know. She did not understand what was happening or why. She saw acceptance in the man’s features, a peace about what was to happen.
Miriam hurried through the open archway into Pilate’s room. Roma stood in the shadows, motionless, having not moved from where she was before. Miriam stepped past her and retrieved the basin and the white cloth. She paused as something caught her eye and she glanced up at Roma’s face. Were those tears on her cheeks? She hurried out onto the porch and Pilate stood at the very edge in front of the crowd. He clapped his hands and motioned to her. She stepped out into the bright sunlight. She stood poised on the edge of the porch, as if on a great chasm and the crowd threatened to swallow her whole. Pilate dipped his hands into the basin. The moment his fingers touched the clear water, blood leaked into the water. Pilate’s eyes widened in amazement. Where had the blood come from? Pilate had never touched the flogged man.
“Bring me fresh water!” He hissed.
Miriam lurched with the basin back through the curtain into the darkness. She rested the bowl on the table behind Pilate’s throne. But, when she looked at the water, it was clear. No blood. She poured more fresh water from the pitcher and returned to the porch. Pilated dipped his hands in again. Once again, drops of blood ran from his fingertips. He gasped and left his hands in the water. The blood disappeared.
“My towel!” He said.
Miriam placed the basin on a pedestal nearby and dried Pilate’s hands. The water stained the fresh, white cloth pink. Pilate looked at his hands. He examined his fingertips.
“Again! My basin!”
She hurried over and brought the heavy bowl to him. He dipped his hands into the water slowly, gingerly. This time, there was no blood. He sighed and washed his hands, wringing them together in the water until it splashed into Miriam’s face.
“My towel.” Before she could move, he snatched the towel from her arm and dried his hands. “You people have made your decision and I wash my hands of this affair, do you understand?”
He threw the white cloth into the water of the basin and turned his back on the crowd, striding into the darkness of his office. Miriam stood on the edge of the porch, confused, as the Roman centurion retrieved the man to her right and led him from the porch. The crowd began to disperse and still she stood. The crowd disappeared and she was left alone on the porch. A shadow fell over her and she looked up to see Roma standing in the sunlight beside her.
“I think it’s time for you to go, little girl. Pilate doesn’t want to see your face again. And you can take the basin with you. He never wants to see it again. Maybe you can trade it in for some money to pay off your debt to keep you out of prison.”
Miriam looked up at Roma, her eyes filled with tears, her lip trembling. “I don’t understand what happened here today.”
Roma’s eyes traveled over the empty courtyard and came back to rest on Miriam’s face. “Neither do I. Somehow that man bought your freedom from slavery. Now take the basin and go to your mother and don’t ever come back to this palace again.”
“Freedom?” Miriam said to the empty air around her. Was this the truth of which the man spoke? She looked down in to the pink stained water of the basin soaked into the white cloth rimmed in gold thread. The wet cloth would be perfect for her mother’s forehead.
Miriam emptied the rest of the water onto the floor and watched as it mixed with the blood that had trickled there from the man’s back. She clutched the basin and the soaked cloth underneath her arm and ran as fast as she could for home.
Matt. 27:24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.