The Work of Priests
Lazarus is the Greek form of Eleazar—the Hebrew name
of the son of Aaron (the brother of Moses), a high priest.
After Lazarus twitched back to life
a week before the Passover,
synagogue leaders trembled
at the truth they desperately
tried to deny or not even see.
Their authority challenged,
placed at risk by a holy man
who some said was priest-king,
were compelled to rid all evidence
of the miracle & miracle-worker.
Only their stench would remain.
In their self-made holiness not fit
to polish their own sepulchers
filled with bones already dead
to resurrection, they’d be left
to their own weeping,
to their own gnashing of teeth.
The beaten prisoners’ manacles clank,
chains dangle in dungeon air, linking
metal bound to ankles, clinks
against the dripping stones.
The air still stinks from an exorcism done
earlier that day of a woman who worshipped
pythons that entangled her seductive body
in the same way her sibylline words writhed.
Men would sell their souls for that woman,
for her oracles of divination.
With every movement, the shackled men’s
chains snake and hiss across the cobblestone,
as if in protest to the prisoners’ praises
but their chants mute every viperous complaint.
The midnight moon in Philippi waxes
while deep prayers fill the stonewall room
and wedge themselves between the cracks—
a seismic force that rumbles the ground.
Fetters fall, iron bars break their clasp, walls
shift, dishevel—gaps swallow shafts of light
from the moon and shine on a soldier’s face.
This Roman jailor, sleeping, awakens, shivers
at the sight of empty cells. The aftershock
whispers death into his ears. He is responsible
for the prisoners, who surely must have fled
but they are still there kneeling by the rubble.
Paul and Silas, and all the prisoners, are still
there. And the guard put away his sword
from his own throat, his tears washing
their seeping wounds; baptizing him in new light.
Jungle foliage spackled the sun
in remote Mexico as dark-skinned
Indians escorted me to their tribal chief.
And when I learned their language
he told me of his dreams and visions
of pale-faced people he had never seen,
but who would come
and bring a special medicine.
He saw us coming in his dreams.
In his dream within a dream, he awakened
in the middle of an open field
just beyond the oyamel firs.
It was strewn with boar dung.
He understood its meaning:
the infirmities of his people
scattered all around him.
And when the crow-like birds
flew in from the east,
lifted the hog scat with their claws,
carried them by wing to a faraway hill,
then came back for more
until the field was cleared
of all the stench,
he knew it meant sickness had taken flight.
But leaning closer to where I could see
the deep furrows in his brow,
he looked me straight in the eye,
and said with a puzzled voice
that he did not understand
the significance of the narrow object
at the top of the hill
daggering the thin clouds there.
Behind it, the sun blazed as it rose,
crimsoning the sky,
and silhouetted the totem-like structure
where the birds would perch.
He asked me why
they would drop the dung in a huge pile
there, at the foot of that cruciform post.
I simply wept.
John C. Mannone has poems in North Dakota Quarterly, Foreign Literary Review, Poetry South, Baltimore Review, and in Christian venues [Credo Espoir, Heart of Flesh, Poems for Ephesians, Scriblerus Arts Journal, and others]. He won the Impressions of Appalachia Creative Arts Contest in poetry (2020) and the Carol Oen Memorial Fiction Prize (2020). He was awarded a Jean Ritchie Fellowship (2017) in Appalachian literature and served as the celebrity judge for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (2018). He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. A retired university physics professor, John lives near Chattanooga, Tennessee.