Saturday, 5 May 53
In the soft shadows of the cavern after dinner, while arguing birds nesting in the great cliff above settle in for the night, the conversation at last turns serious. “I’m sorry, Peter,” John says, shaking his now-graying ringlets, “we can’t permit you to take the pot with you to Rome. It’s far too risky.”
He gazes across the table at the basin which the Lord’s own mother once loaned him long before, a plain dish of dirty-grey pottery. On the other side, Peter looks dubious. “Huh,” the gruff old fisherman says, “so that’s why they sent you here to Antioch. If you mean to talk me out of it, old friend, it won’t work. Three times I’ve had the same dream sent by the Lord. I must go. And in that wicked city, I’ll need all the help I can get to beat Simon Magus again.”
“Peter, if you must pursue this mad obsession, fine; go with the blessing of the brethren.” The younger man leans forward. “But not with the basin. What if the ship sinks or something happens to you? You’re the one who insisted we save everything, including the bloody rags. Why risk losing this if it’s so important?”
“The pot will strengthen my hand against the fiendish sorcerer. He took it, remember; and became stinking rich off it. We, you and I, went to Samaria to get it back from him. Once I face him with it, his lies will catch up to him. Again.”
“We took down the Magus and his claims to the footbath with the word of God. Despite his showy conjuring, it depends on his will, not magic, Peter.”
“Or perhaps wishful thinking,” the old preacher says with a peculiar sour grimace. “As the Master taught us, there a strangely potent power in ideas. See for yourself.” He rolls his eyes tellingly at John as he calls loudly over his shoulder. “Sister Berenice, would you come in here, please?”
A thin old woman rises from the group sitting around the fire outside. As aged as the fisherman but unbent, she walks easily into the cave. “Yes, Peter?”
“Ah, the matron it first cured,” John says loudly, enough for her to hear. “Your fame has spread far and wide. How are your feet these days, Berenice?”
She smiles. “Fine, still fine. Would you like me to dance?” “No thanks,” John laughs. “Do you ascribe it to your former husband?”
“Simon, that old fraud? No, my lord, it was a true miracle,” she states. “I tried to save the basin by claiming it belonged to our employer, Nicodemus. But Simon only ever sought it for his own glory.”
“Like Judas,” John nods. “But our dinner was only for disciples. Neither of you were present at the Lord’s last supper. How did you come to know of it?”
“True, as Samaritans, we were given the night off. Simon let me soak my poor sore feet in the basin as we cleaned the place the next morning. I felt better instantly, but unfortunately, that evil centurion witnessed it. Wrecked the place and took us to Pilate, who washed his hands in it to mock the Teacher. You know the rest.”
“Must have been an awful mess.”
Berenice nodded. “The house? Oh yes sir, it surely was. The Romans smashed the other dishes, even Master Nicodemus’: all of them, clean and dirty. A few broken pieces had even stains of blood caked on them.”
John frowns, startled. “Really? I’m reminded, Peter, how that fool priest spilled a full bowl of blood all over our feet as our Passover lamb bled out.”
Peter shakes his head. “You said it was a bad omen, John, after he found traces on your feet the next day, but Jesus just laughed. And then the Master washed our feet himself and used it as a lesson.”
“God, the Temple was hellish, the animals screaming, trumpets blaring, blood everywhere,” John recalls. “Like a foretaste of what is to come…”
He shudders. “But I’m surprised to see you, Berenice,” he says. “I didn’t think you’d still be following this grumpy old campaigner around.”
“I look after the pot,” she says, nodding at the basin, “and tell the story to any who wish to hear. I’ve won many souls and even more pennies for the Lord’s Way, haven’t I, Peter? Wherever this blessed basin goes, I go; ever since the fateful morning it cured me. I saved it, and saw Pilate wash his hands in it, too. For its sake, I followed it even after my former husband stole away to Samaria with it, as you well know. If God wills it goes to Rome, I will accompany it.”
“Indeed, without you, we would never have gotten it back,” John says. “And you’re still so devoted you’re willing to go there with Peter though his own wife balks?” he marvels. “That’s the kind of faith you should have, Rocky.”
“Don’t ever call me that,” the old man stiffens, his tanned, wrinkled face turning hot red. “The Teacher mocked me with that once as a joke.”
“Well-deserved by your thick-headed stubbornness,” says John.
“And you, ‘Sweetie’,” Peter sneers, “as squeamish as a little girl.”
“What I’m trying to say,” John explains as he reddens, “is despite your hard-headedness, Jesus trusted you because you always came through in the end.” He pauses. “If the basin is as vital as you claim, it should not be the sole possession of anyone. I must tell you the brethren agree you should not take it. If that is not sufficient, Mother Mary lent me the pot that day, not you. Since she later joined my household, brother, it would belong to me, if anyone. Believe me, after putting up with everything, I more than deserve it.”
“The devil you say!” Peter exclaims, pounding his fist hard on the table, making the dishes rattle. They hear a sudden crack. Berenice gasps and bends over the basin, cradling it in her trembling hands.
“Oh Peter, what have you done?” she moans. A single straight black crack extends to the base. The vessel is broken.
“Now you’ve done it,” she hisses. She looks in fury at the now-pale apostle. “I first saved the Holy Tub from the Romans, it’s mine more than yours, and though you be leader of the Lord’s Way, I will never let you touch it again.”
“A sign from God,” John agrees, bowing his head. “You cannot use it now, Peter. Nor do you deserve the pot because your refusal to surrender it was selfish. It’s a memento, nothing more. Leave it here in the care of this holy woman.”
Peter weeps many tears, as he so often did. But Berenice will not accept the apostle’s profuse apologies nor blessing. Taking the basin, she leaves that night and does not see him leave the next morning. He would never see it again.
Persecution later came to Antioch, taking the virgin martyr Prunella, the first visionary of the Holy Tub; her protector, the gladiator Murexius, and others; but the Sacred Basin remained hidden. For three hundred years, throughout the Age of Martyrs, it stayed safe in the care of St. Berenice and her successors. Until at last with the triumph of Constantine and the Cross, the time finally arrived to present the Maundy Grail to the world. And as its legend grew, so would the covetousness of men.