Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the April 24, 1987, issue of National Review.
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And he said unto them, Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in.
And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall show you a large upper room furnished: there make ready.
—Luke 22: 10–12
There is a strange agency at work here. The Scripture might be haunted. That pitcher-bearer. This goodman. They spook me. Who are they, what special order of grace do they belong to? And, elsewhere, those men who surrender the colt “whereon yet never man sat.” Nameless, equivocal shapes. “Hey,” they shout, “why loose ye the colt?” The Lord has need of it, His disciples explain. Oh, well. In that case. Why didn’t you say so? Take our expensive animal. And has their free will been taken also? It is as if a casual, weird cast of accomplices inhabited Jerusalem. Men or suchlike who know, often better than fumbling Peter or over-literal Thomas, just how to ornament the Passion.
Were they perhaps made of some angelic stuff? I don’t think so: it is the Lord’s habit, thank God, to enlist men wherever convenient. He has an economical disposition. And Man was, after all, what this grand enterprise had been about from the first. But how then did Jesus, so to speak, make His room reservation in advance? Were these men sensitized by dreams? Did the Holy Spirit, foraging like a quartermaster sergeant, requisition their possessions through sign and vision? It is possible. The Lord had been known to trouble sleep. “And being warned of God in a dream . . . ” Was there fitfulness before the Passover?
Again, I think not. God prefers, when He can, to conserve terrestrial order. He has a dramatic instinct. And His own peculiar unities. The Passion is as naturalistic as frail wrist tissue shredded by a spike. Jesus could ferment water. He could infinitely divide the loaf and the fish. But here He had need of a furnished apartment. His colt might have come about providentially, as Abraham’s ram came about, caught in some thicket. But God wanted a known colt: one that had memorable references in Jerusalem. It was His purpose to leave a clear and historical track behind — evidence that might stand up in court. The presence of transcendent power among modest instruments is more persuasive than any bullying miracle could be.
I suppose it this way, then. That these — pitcher-bearer and goodman and colt-owner, these first acolytes of the Eucharist — were men given sudden and heightened perception. An abrupt seeing Into. Spirit came upon them as Jesus came upon Matthew sitting at the receipt of custom: “Follow me. And he arose, and followed Him.” Simply that. Next Window Please. We are so habituated to reason and a precious carefulness that Christ’s people seem, well, irresponsible. But grace is first the law-breaker. It can be brutal: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Brutal and rash and unfair. Because there is no ground whatever for believing that these were righteous men. They didn’t earn their cameo roles in the Passion through good work. I suspect they were chosen rather for an openness to potential. They were, above all, ready men.
Simon of Cyrene, recruited by grace and some Roman to lug Jesus’ cross, is my paradigm in this. He had, it would seem, no previous experience for the work. No moral credentials that we hear about. Just a man “who passed by, coming out of the country.” To trade, to sightsee, to window-shop: another tourist in the Big Fig. And, all at once, he is absorbed by that rubbernecking mob. Elbow to the front — what have we here? And it’s you, yes you. Bozo, pack that wood. We know nothing about Simon, except that his children, Rufus and Alexander, became Christians. On Good Friday, Simon was what we all are, a passerby. And shanghaied by the Holy Spirit. I take comfort in this thought, whose life otherwise does not much recommend itself to God. That I may be granted, through His fierce randomness and my mere availability, a walk-on moment of redemption.
Return to the Passion now. Imagine, say, a man in his workshop room alone. For best effect, I’d fancy him preoccupied: revising some device of his craft, in thought, whatever. Suppose it hot and ordinary out. Then, all of one rush, as weather can change, there should be an importance in the air. Let that cheap pitcher interpose itself across his attention here. For this instant it should have more pitcherness. The way common objects astound and please when we are full of joy. This is, you know, not his regular time to fetch water in. But the thought of “pitcher,” the very surprising idea that it can hold water, contains aptness and fascination for him. It has been infused by grace. And he rises at a call — not from God as such, nor from any impending event — but to honor the perfect nature of one created thing. There is elevation all around.
Returning from the well he happens upon two men. After that, unaware, they will become a procession of three.
It is not through war and celebrity that God has most advanced His will. It is through the commonplace: room, colt, manger, fisherman — thunderous Easter, atrocity and miracle, are prepared for in them. Open a window. Pick up anything. Inhale. These are moments and incidents without moral import except for this: that reverence and special shining can inhere. We are admonished to be alert. And certainly we have lost just that measure of openness and heightening and expectation. This is, I suspect, what those shadowy men are about. If they didn’t know, they felt, felt at some proper instant, that even in the filling of a pitcher one might lead great strangers to magnificence.