The Cyrenian Cycle: Rufina
The synagogue of Freedmen in
Jerusalem, for years had been
A place of passion for the law
Of Moses. There they held in awe
The Temple and the holy priests,
The sacrifices, and the feasts.
For these were men who'd known
The flog and fetter, and the groan
Of separation from the land
Of promise. They had known the hand
Of persecution, and the pain
Of loving what they could not gain.
But now these former slaves were free,
And formed a synagogue to be
A place of passion for the creed
Of Israel, a burning breed
Of zealots for the altar, where
The priests of God bow down and bear
The sins of Israel before
The face of God Most High. They swore
That they would die (if it must be),
To save the sacred ministry
Of law, and priest, and sacrifice.
What's more, each year, they paid the price
To bring some Jewish exiles home
From places far away as Rome,
Cilicia, Cyrene and
The coast of Egypt, all the land
Of Asia and beyond. It was
A way of saying, "What God does,
We too will do. He made our dream
Come true; and now we would redeem
Diaspora, and, if but for
A trice, unbar the sev'ring door
That keeps our kindred locked outside
The Promised Land and all the pride
Of Temple, sacrifice and priest."
And so each year, up to the feast
Of Pentecost, the Freedmen brought
A band of exiles back, and sought
To give them in the Feast of Weeks
A taste of Paradise. And so
It came to pass, as one might know,
Within the providence and grace
Of God, Rufina found her place
Among the pilgrim band, and came
Up to Jerusalem to claim
That year a foretaste of her share
And legacy. She thought, "O there
To die would feast!" For her, it meant
A great return on what she'd spent
In prayer for twenty years. And deep
Inside, she felt, "Here I would sleep
With Hannah, Deborah and Ruth,
And make my aging flesh, in truth,
To mingle with the sacred dust
Of Israel. And I do trust,
Like them, to see, before I die,
The goal of prayer and God's reply."
Rufina felt expectant when
She came from Caesarea ten
Days early for the feast. At last,
Jerusalem! A city vast
With memory and hope. It seemed
To her half-heaven. Hundreds streamed
In every street, and thousands to
The Temple court. A dream come true,
Rufina thought. And as she heard
The tales of recent days, one word,
Above all others, seized her mind
And heart: "Messiah." She would find
That people scoffed and ridiculed
The stories of his death, but fueled
In her a hunger for the facts.
The more she heard about his acts
And words, the more she was assured
That everything the man endured
Was what Isaiah prophesied.
And there, a hope that almost died,
Flamed into life again. And she
Stood in the Temple court to see
If, in the people of the Way,
There might be one, or dare she pray,
There might be three, dark men.
On Pentecost she stood again
To see, but this time no one came,
Instead there was a shout and claim
That nearby at a house, men spoke
A dozen languages, and broke
The laws of nature with their lips.
For her, it was a great eclipse
Of every human sphere, and with
Three thousand others, so-called myth
Gave way to truth and prophecy.
That afternoon a company
Of Parthians and Medes, a host
Of Elamites, and from the coast
Of Egypt, Crete and Libya,
The provinces of Phrygia,
Pamphylia and far away
Like Rome, Cyrene and Puray,
A company of color, speech,
And joy, as far as eye could reach
Marched like the happy captives of
The gospel and the God of love,
Down to the River Jordan, there
To be baptized. Rufina's hair
Was silver now, and there were signs
Of weakening and age. The lines
Were deep in her dark face, and she
Was bent with years of drudgery,
And widow's work. The five hour hike
Down from Jerusalem was like
A hundred miles for her. And near
The river she collapsed. For fear
Of being left behind, she tried
To lift herself alone beside
The road, but couldn't. Women came
And knelt to see if she were lame
Or thirsty in the heat. "I'll be
All right," she said, "don't fret for me.
The promise of the Lord is true,
‘To old age I will carry you.'
I'll be all right, go on." Behind
The huddle one strong man inclined
His ear, and trembled at the sound
Of this old woman's voice. The ground
In front of her was slowly cleared,
So that the woman's face appeared.
The man stared silently, then spread
His arms out tenderly and said,
"It would be grace to me if I
Might carry you." Without reply
Or fear, she felt his arms around
Her back and knees. The sound
He made along the way was like
The breathing of a child. The strike
Of every footfall like the gait
And pace of her belovéd mate
From five and twenty years ago.
The bearded face was dark and so
Intense she felt that it might break.
And suddenly she saw. Her quake
Shot through him like a spear, and tears
That he had stored for twenty years
Began to run down on his face.
And half-believing heaven's grace
She whispered, "Simon?" It was true.
He buried his black face into
Her silver hair, and stood a long
Time by the Jordan road. A song
Of joy rose from the River where
The saints were leaving deep despair
Beneath the water and the blood.
And late that day beneath the flood,
Rufina and her eldest son
Were buried and arose as one.
That night in camps along the banks
Of Jordan, thousands lifted thanks
To Christ, and made the very stars
To dance with joy. A thousand scars
Were healed, and memories became
The kindling for a holy flame
Of pardon, in the Savior's name:
The gladness of forgiven shame.
And there, beneath the great dark sky,
Yet spangled with the starry cry
Of glory, glory in the darkest night!
Rufina asked if Simon might
Perchance know anything about
His brothers. "O what brutal doubt
I have endured," she said, "through all
These years, yet have not ceased to call,
Both day and night, on God, that all
My sons would meet Messiah, and in thrall,
Fall down, and worship at his feet."
"The youngest, Malchus, you will meet
On his return from Hazaroth
In Sinai. Malchus took an oath,
When Jesus healed his ear and heart,
That he would make a break, and start
His life brand new. He said, ‘If I
Come back, know this: I will defy
The house of Caiaphas, my lord,
And take my stand against the sword
And synagogue of Freedmen.' I
Believe that Malchus will stand by
His ev'ry word. I pray that you
Will see your youngest son made new
And filled with zeal for Christ."
Went by, and all at once the leaks
Inside the dam of silence at
The synagogue, burst like a vat
Of burning oil before the fire.
And Stephen lifted up his voice,
And, filled with God, cried out, "Rejoice
Not in these tiny temple stones
Cut out with human hands. God owns
The universe, and does not dwell
In any house, as if a cell
Could capture light, and hold the sun
A hostage for the night. The One
Who made the sky and all the lands
Cannot be served by human hands.
But he has sent his Son, and by
His death, the Temple too will die."
And then, enflamed with sacred hate,
They carried Stephen to the gate,
And stoned him there to death. The crowd
Was tense. A martyr's blood is loud,
And seldom is his message stilled
Because his fearless blood is spilled.
Rufina and her eldest son
Stood back to see what would be done
Before the soldiers came. And then,
As if the dead were raised again,
A voice cut through the icy fears:
"Uncircumcised in heart and ears!
How long will you resist the word
And Spirit of your God? Come, gird
Yourself with half of Stephen's pow'r
And answer me. This is your hour."
The man was less than twenty feet
Away from Simon in the street,
And hadn't seen his brother yet.
Rufina froze. "Did you beget
Such courage, woman, or did God?
This is your little boy, the rod
Of Malchus lifted, as he said
Against the Freedmen and the red
And bloody rocks at Stephen's head.
I think that he will soon be dead.
What do you say? Shall we go out
And die with him? I do not doubt
That there will be more blood today."
"The Christ has come. And you did slay
Him for your law. And what of all
The saints and prophets? Did they fall
By foreign swords, or by your own?"
The fiery face of Malchus shone
With light, and made the Freedmen gnash
Their teeth and take up stones to gash
His head. But suddenly they stopped,
Because an old black woman, propped
Up by the arm of Simon, stood
By Malchus' side and said, "I would
Be glad to stand beside a man
Who loves the living Christ more than
His life, and doubly glad if he's
My son. Fear not, Christ has the keys,
Of life and death, my sons. None goes
Or comes at his own time. God chose.
And Jesus will dispose." She pressed
Her hand against his ear, and blessed
Her youngest son. And suddenly,
The Freedmen rushed against the three,
And crowds against the Freedmen. All
Was chaos and a massive brawl
When Roman soldiers tried to pierce
The mob. And one, especially fierce,
Fought off the Freedmen from the old
Black woman and her sons, and told
His men to carry them behind
The trees. And then he came to find
Them, when the clamor was subdued.
The dark-skinned soldier knelt and viewed
The corpse of Malchus on the ground.
He turned to see if any sound
Came from the woman's mouth. She was
Alive, but not for long. "What does
This mean," the black centurion
Inquired? "What has this woman done?"
And Simon, kneeling, said, "I think
She prayed." "What do you mean?" "The link
Among us four here on this spot,
Was forged in heaven, and is not
The work of any man. She prayed
For us." The soldier turned and laid
His cape across her breast. Her eyes
Were barely open, but the prize
That she beheld brought strength into
Her voice. "A soldier! Lucius, you
Became a soldier, like your dreams,
When you were just a boy. It seems
Like yesterday. Where's Simon?" "Here
I am." "And Malchus? Is his ear
Grown deaf?" "I think he hears the word
Of Jesus better than he heard
It while he lived," was Simon's mild
Reply. "My precious little child.
The key unlocked for him before
It did for me." The soldier bore
These words like hammer blows. "To find,
And finding lose, seems hard, unkind,"
He said. And she replied, "Hard, yes.
But not unkind. God means to bless.
So listen while I tell you both
The happy prophecy and oath
God gave me for your lives:
First know, there will, in time, be wives.
Fret not for that. Then, take to heart
That this distress is but the start
Of persecution. Simon, Christ
Commands that all be sacrificed,
And every field you own be left
Behind this very day. Bereft
Of these you will be free indeed.
And, Lucius, Christ would have you lead
A different kind of company,
And calls you now to make you free
From ev'ry high command but one.
And in the service of God's Son
Today, the two of you are sent
To Antioch. And there, consent
To learn and grow, and you will be
Endowed with truth and prophecy,
And you will teach the church. And when
The time is full, and holy men
Are fasting in the presence of
The Lord, a mighty work of love,
A mission, will be born: first Paul
And Barnabas will go, then all
Of you. And Simon, Lucius, keep
In mind, that God intends to reap
From every people his redeemed.
And there is nothing God has deemed
More precious on the earth than zeal
For God, and that the nations feel
The beauty of a grace that's free,
And joy in his supremacy.
Now bury me beside my son,
And sing until your work is done."
The light of candle four is plain:
Not even twenty years of pain
Is pointless, when you see the end.
At night, God is not less a friend
Than in the day. And prayers that rise
Ten thousand times before the prize,
Are not because the Lord is slow,
But has a better path to show,
And in the darkness labors on
Preparing everything for dawn.