Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Matthew 4:5-7
Jerusalem was like a river before and after a rainstorm, and at this moment the city was little more than an exposed riverbed with small streams of water passing over it. The streets were still active with people selling, singing, and talking, but it felt mostly empty. Jesus had only known these streets when they were flooded with people celebrating Passover. If you stepped in them then you could only go with the current. He remembered how the air would be heavy with the hum of people’s voices, thick with their scents. But now, the air felt light – even empty.
Lucifer navigated the city with ease, Jesus following several steps behind.
“Do you remember all those years? The battles we fought together?” Lucifer asked.
“Of course I do,” Jesus said.
“So Earth hasn’t made you forget Heaven?”
“No – I remember everything,” Jesus said. “Why? Don’t you still remember?”
“Everything,” Lucifer said.
They continued walking through the streets, passing vendors relaxed in their off season. It was peaceful – a word Jesus had never thought of for Jerusalem.
Looking ahead of them, Jesus could see they were headed toward the Temple.
“How did we get here so quickly?” Jesus asked.
“I’m resourceful,” Lucifer said. “Maybe you don’t remember as much as you think.”
They walked up several wide terraces and then passed through the towering Temple gates into the courtyard. The columns of the Temple gave the impression of reaching toward Heaven, while the white and gold walls of equally enormous dimensions and perfect geometry evoked an awe that settled on one’s senses with the weight of being in the presence of the sacred. They walked across the courtyard, then ascended a set of white, stone stairs. Entering the Temple, the tiled floor spread out before them, various patterns crisply defined by their contrasting colors – light against dark, dark against light. The frescoed walls and ornately detailed stucco inspired wonder and pride that swelled in Jesus’s chest.
“What do you think of this place?” Lucifer asked.
“Everytime I see it, its beauty takes my breath away,” Jesus said.
Lucifer turned to Jesus and grinned.
“You’re short of breath because you won’t eat, and we’ve been walking at my pace,” he said.
They walked past several worshippers. Jesus nodded down a hall.
“The Holy of Holies,” he indicated.
“I’ve heard people say God lives there,” Lucifer said.
“If His Spirit finds rest anywhere on Earth, it’s certainly there,” Jesus said, stretching his neck to look down the hall to catch a glimpse of it.
“I prefer the open air,” Lucifer said.
Uncertain exactly how, Jesus turned around and found that he and Lucifer were standing outside on top of the Temple. The wind blew past them, and Jesus appreciated the relief and freedom he felt in it. It was not oppressive and punishing like the desert.
“Look at all those people down there,” Lucifer said.
Jesus looked over the edge of the pinnacle and saw the faithful and devout coming and going.
“These are my people,” Jesus said. He lowered his voice, looking around the courtyard and remembering. “I used to come here with Joseph. My mother. My brothers and sisters. We were all here.”
“The man who married my mother. He raised me,” Jesus said, his voice low as he continued scanning the temple grounds, memories coming back, “…my father.”
“What does he think of all this? What does he think of your new name, Immanuel?” Lucifer asked.
Jesus waited several moments before answering.
“He passed away a couple years ago,” Jesus said. A wave of grief lapped at his mind. He looked around the courtyard, remembering how they all came here for Passover every year.
“I’m sorry,” Lucifer said.
Jesus nodded. He bowed his head, looking down at the stone of the pinnacle.
“I was with him when he passed. I held his right hand. My mother held his left,” he said. He remembered how thin Joseph’s arms had become. How weak Joseph’s grip had felt. He took a deep breath. “His body was so weak, but his spirit stayed strong to the end. One of the last things he told me was a joke.”
Jesus smiled, turning back toward Lucifer. “I’m grateful. Not everyone gets to say goodbye. We especially know that.”
Lucifer nodded, meeting his eyes. He looked down at the courtyard again.
“You are right about this place,” Lucifer said.
“About what?” Jesus asked.
“What you said earlier. There’s so much pain here.”
“Yes,” Jesus said. “There is.”
“You say this Temple makes you think of beauty. For me, it’s that pain.”
“What do you mean?”
“The sacrifices,” Lucifer said.
Lucifer looked toward the altars where the sacrifices were made.
“Thousands and thousands of them, sometimes in a single day,” he said.
The noise of sheep and goats bleating could be heard in the air. Jesus followed Lucifer’s eyes toward the altars.
“I’ve watched these families bring their best, their healthiest animals – young, strong and full of life.”
The noise began to rise, the bleating multiplying and becoming more desperate.
“They bring them to the priests, and the priests take them there,” Lucifer nodded toward the altars. “To sacrifice them. To sacrifice them to god. For his favor. His forgiveness.”
The bleating multiplied again, ringing in their ears.
“The priests wade knee deep in blood – taking one after another, cutting the animals open. It stains everything – not just because of the blood, but the smell of death, the sound of their fear. It sticks with you – and it’s all I think about when I am here. The pain.”
The screaming reached a peak. Jesus winced. They sounded like the screams of people. Lucifer turned to look at Jesus.
“They’re called dumb animals – but they know. They try to save themselves, they fight and struggle. They know it’s not their time. They’re not the fools here,” Lucifer continued. “But then…”
Lucifer made a quick motion, as if swinging a knife. The noise stopped. He took a breath, then turned away from Jesus to look back at the altars.
“And the people who are too poor can buy birds trapped in overstuffed cages in front of the Temple. So that they can kill those.”
“My family would buy them,” Jesus said.
They stood in silence for several moments as the wind picked up again.
“I’ve heard talk about god’s flock. He calls his people his sheep…” Lucifer said.
Lucifer looked down at a lone, elderly woman crossing the courtyard, then turned to meet Jesus’s eyes.
“The only reason you’re still alive is because of your own strength,” Lucifer said, then lowered his voice. “I’ve seen it. You’re unbreakable. Nothing can break your will – except that you give it away and serve another’s.”
Lucifer looked back down at the courtyard.
“I’ve watched so many of his people trust him, and they end up like those animals. Sacrificed. And now you’re here, already half-dead.”
“God will provide,” Jesus said. “We’re going to redeem his people. Their sacrifices will not be in vain.”
“What you mean is that he wants to conquer us for our own good.”
They stared at each other.
“But it is for good. It doesn’t have to be a battle,” Jesus said.
“Yes it does,” Lucifer said. “Because those of us that don’t die fighting, endure the slow death of living only to serve. You know I’ve made my decision about that.”
The wind blew again. Jesus held Lucifer’s gaze.
“And I’ve made mine as well. This world can be redeemed,” Jesus said.
Lucifer’s eyes flashed. Jesus could tell he was growing angry.
“How many more sacrifices will it take? Because that’s what I see the more god interferes in this world. Blood. And we’re all wading knee deep in it.”
“Is that something you’re above now?” Jesus asked, “You said you remembered heaven, but heaven remembers you too. They still talk about the devil.”
Lucifer’s face grew dark.
“Unless you’re saying you’ve changed,” Jesus said.
Lucifer took a step toward him.
“I’m bothered by how little you have,” he said.
Jesus took a deep breath.
“God the Father forgives – he wants to save this world. And you’re part of this world. He can forgive …”
The look in Lucifer’s eyes stopped him. The rage in the air was as palpable as the heat had been in the desert. Lucifer turned away.
“You call god your father now…” Lucifer shook his head. He took a few steps toward the edge of the pinnacle. “You’re going to end up like one of those sheep.”
“I trust him, even if I become one of those sacrifices,” Jesus said.
“What happened to your strength? What happened to your spirit that it’s so empty?” Lucifer asked.
He turned back toward Jesus.
“If you trust him so much, throw yourself down from here. What do your own damn scriptures say? ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Do it, let’s have them show up out of nowhere and come save you. I would love to face Gabriel again. Michael. All of them.”
Jesus shook his head again.
“We’re not supposed to test god. That’s also written.”
They stood, facing each other.
“You’re not supposed to give him an opportunity to fail you, is that it?” Lucifer said.
“God’s will and purpose are his own. I serve it,” Jesus said.
A few moments of silence passed.
“Would Joseph have let you leap to your death?” Lucifer asked.
Jesus felt his face grow hot.
“He would have obeyed God,” Jesus said.
Lucifer shook his head.
“I think you know without a shadow of doubt, Joseph wouldn’t have let you. But when it comes to god … his sheep always have to explain him. Why is there such a difference?”
They stood, bracing against another blast of wind.
“What about you? Would you have let me fall, Lucifer?” Jesus asked.
He searched Lucifer’s eyes. They were smoldering.
“Have I ever let you before?” Lucifer asked, then took several steps forward. “Where were you when I fell?”
Lucifer walked past Jesus.