Jesus’ last day

Given our collective reluctance to believe anyone claiming to be the messiah, why have so many people over the last 2,000 or so years accepted the actual historical Jesus as the son of God? I decide it’s time: I have to go back and read every word Jesus said. It sounds like an enormous task. But, really it isn’t. All the dialogue he is purported to have spoken would fit in fewer than 100 pages if collected back-to-back and, by some accounts, would take a person about two hours if she were to perform it as an enormous, disjointed, and somewhat repetitive monologue. But it can’t possibly be exact quotes, can it? The words attributed to Jesus were written down 50 or more years after he died and, then, not necessarily by the original guys to whom he spoke them. After that, copies of the originals were made by hand until the printing press was invented and later the texts went through translations into modern tongues—all of which has created some distance between the source and us contemporary folks like some epic game of telephone.

I pour over the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the books of the New Testament where the bulk of the Jesus story is told. It’s amazing what I learn. Again and again, Jesus lets others draw their own conclusions about his identity. He asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and they’re the ones who say “messiah.” He asks several times, “Who say the people that I am?” When rulers call him “King of the Jews,” he says, “If you say so.” I count about a dozen variations of an exchange like this one: “And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou are the Christ.” I find it truly remarkable that I’ve gone through life thinking that Jesus went around saying, “I’m the messiah,” which has colored my impression of him despite his many good qualities. I’ve just bought what other people have said about Jesus as words he said about himself. On a few occasions he even warns against believing anyone who claims to be Christ.

I arrive at the church at noon expecting that I’ll go through the stations of the cross guiding me through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life alone because the minister mentioned that they’ll be numbered and easy to traverse. I don’t really know what to expect. I picture a Halloween haunted house with little vignettes—some frightening, some merely creepy—set up around a series of darkened rooms. Here is a ghost that pops out at you; here is a bowl of ketchup and spaghetti that feels like human brains. Are you sufficiently terrified? Why, yes, I am. Thank you.

A small group of three older women and a man plus the minister is assembled near the altar when I walk into the sanctuary. I recognize one of the women; she sat next to me at the Sunday service. She has short white hair and the cute round face of a cabbage patch kid grown old. Today when she spots me, she smiles and waves me over. “We’re just getting started,” she says putting her arm around me and giving me a squeeze. As soon as my shoulder presses against hers, I realize how relieved I am to have companionship through this strange little journey. I wrap my arm around her.

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A date with Jesus

I dab at my face with my shirt sleeve and try to quietly suck the snot back into my head because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about me. I’m not having one of those ridiculous “coming to Jesus” moments you hear about. I’m just moved, that’s all—and there’s a difference…a really big difference I will learn eventually.

The minister invites us to return later in the week to go through the “stations of the cross,” which he says he’ll be setting up throughout the sanctuary over the next couple of days. I’ve never heard of “stations of the cross” so I go home and look it up and learn that it’s a Catholic tradition in which a number (usually 14) of “shrines” are erected, each dedicated to one event in the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. The idea is for the faithful to experience step-by-step that fateful day. It’s not usually celebrated by the Methodists, but the minister says it’s something, “he’s trying out.” I’ve read that a trend is afoot in which the mainline Protestant faiths are embracing elements of Catholic tradition they once distanced themselves from and I suppose this is an example of just that. I decide to return on Good Friday, the day Jesus’ crucifixion is traditionally recognized, to walk through the stations.

I spend several days obsessing about Jesus like I need to prep for a blind date with him at the end of the week. By all accounts, he was a real man, a carpenter and a Jew who was interested and knowledgeable enough in religion to be called a rabbi. Just from the Bible snippets I’ve been hearing over these last several weeks, I know he preached love and equality, even stopping to talk with individuals considered so lowly that his friends wondered what he was doing. All of which makes me like him very much. Yet, I’ve never quite come to terms with his claims of divinity. Why is he exalted as the son of God when others making similar claims are locked away in loony bins? When my best friend Julie and I were 12, she confided in me a painful secret. We were walking home from school and I could sense something was wrong. It wasn’t like her not to tell me everything. Finally she spat it out, she said, “My dad is in the mental hospital.” I knew she was referring to her biological father, a talented artist she didn’t see very often. She called her stepdad by name.

Her face scrunched up, it looked like she was in physical pain, like the time we stepped barefoot into those cactus needles. “He went crazy. He thinks…” She couldn’t say it, whatever it was, it was too horrific.

“What? What? He thinks what?”

Her face was a map of agony. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “He thinks he’s Jesus!”

I didn’t know what to say, how to react. Judging by her face, it was about the worst thing imaginable—and I got the sense it wasn’t the crazy part that so disturbed her, it was the Jesus part. Her shame was apparent, and I wished for something to say to make it go away. She had me promise not to breathe a word to any of our school friends.

Season of Grief

So it is with a mix of skepticism and heartfelt curiosity that I approach the topic of Jesus now. It happens to be Lent. Before this, what I knew of Lent came from my elementary and middle school years, when a classmate would proudly exclaim that they were “giving something up for Lent.” It might be chocolate or video games or, if she was super hardcore, television. I thought this was a fascinating and impressive endeavor, especially as it seemed to come out of nowhere, like a little personal challenge of willpower. My secret feelings about my own worthiness lent a certain logic to the notion that a person might deny themselves something they loved: a self-inflicted punishment for whatever deep badness lay hidden inside each of us. What any of this had to do with Jesus, I remained blissfully unaware of until recently.

I’m learning that Lent is the time of year when Christians are meant to reflect on the last chapter in Jesus’ life. Sometimes called the “Season of Grief,” it stretches from late winter leading into spring and is recognized over several Sundays that culminate with Easter. Catholic clergy are more likely to formally integrate its commemoration into their services, but it seems Protestants are coming around to honoring Lent with more than a just passing mention. The sequence of events at the heart of the season is so ubiquitous that one need never step foot in church to know the basic facts: Jesus is condemned to death and nailed to a cross. So pervasive is the associated imagery, that it’s hard to actually feel anything in response. (A bloody young man hanging from planks of wood? Just Jesus.) The purpose of Lent is to move past the desensitization, to go deeper into the painful aspects of this story, to at least reach for understanding. In fact, in some cultures a decadent party is thrown before Lent to help sweeten the bitterness of what is sure to be a difficult time of sadness and sacrifice. Carnival in Brazil is an example, as is Mardi Gras in New Orleans—just think of all those partying Nones participating in the preparations for an ancient Christian ritual without even knowing it.

Last week, when I was at an Episcopalian service, the female priest acknowledged how difficult Lent is, explaining that she understood why people would rather leap frog over it and land on the happy Easter part. Today, the Methodist minister, an absent-minded professor-type with a beard and a wall-eye, leads us into the eye of the storm. He explains that when Jesus was summoned to stand trial for his crime, which was claiming to be God’s child, he was greeted by the people as a hero. They knew Jesus had never been anything but exceptionally kind to everyone he encountered, had gone around practicing the love that he preached. The people lined the streets and cheered and spread palm fronds on the ground so that the hooves of the donkey he was riding wouldn’t touch the dirt. After his conviction, the people turned on Jesus, spitting on him, kicking him, ripping at his clothes. They clapped as he was lashed and then cheered as the spikes were driven through his palms and feet.

I’m thinking about how I would have reacted if it were me that was unjustly sentenced to death. I would have been both terrified and pissed, I would have hated all those people, I would have gone down with the bitterest anger in my heart and the worst expletives spewing from my mouth. But Jesus goes willingly, with nothing but pure love for every one of those jerks. Then I think, ‘what if I were one of the crowd?’ Would I have stood up for Jesus? Doubtful. All my information would have been through the grapevine: this man claims to be divine. I wouldn’t buy such a claim now, what makes me think I would have bought it then? Even some of his most loyal followers turned their backs on him. The people who lashed out physically were caught up in a frenzy, they were not any more “bad” or “good” than any of us. We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize that in each of us exists this same capacity for cruelty. Even Jesus knew it, but loved them anyway. I think about the many public examples of greed in our culture, the CEOs who take million dollar bonuses when their businesses have just been bailed out by taxpayers struggling to make ends meet, and all the smaller versions of selfishness we perpetrate throughout any given day, and how Jesus’ actions and message were the antithesis of this kind of behavior.

I glance up at the whirring fans, hoping to blink away whatever this is I feel rising in my heart. Then it happens: tears well up in my eyes. My reaction is about more than just Jesus, I realize. It’s the bubbling up of emotions I’ve kept tamped down throughout my church visits so far. These designated places where life’s most profound subjects take center stage, all the devotion that pours out, all the people who show up on Sundays to search in their hearts, even if not everyone comes for this reason or the “right” reason, I still think most people are sincere when they walk through those doors. They want to remember the importance of love, forgiveness, kindness. If nothing else, they will lend their voices to those of their neighbors. They will hear the words expressed on these topics by wise people who have lived and died, and maybe they will be touched by their meaning. It’s such a beautiful attempt at something good.

This moment feels like a small victory, a step toward some greater wisdom I’m in desperate need of—a small step, but a step nonetheless. I can’t possibly understand the essence of Christianity unless I get Jesus. I have yet to tackle the biggest challenge: how to wrap my mind around God. But Jesus is a start.

The big Lookie Loo

Sitting there, I recall what I understood about Jesus/God back when I was a kid before I stopped overtly considering such topics. Without benefit of Bible study or Sunday school classes, I was left to piece together a portrait from the random particulates that floated into my field of vision. The first I heard of this so-called God guy, I was maybe four years old. I was at daycare and one of the adults said, “God is always watching.” It was said in passing, not even directed at me, but I latched on to the idea of being constantly spied upon. I was extremely curious about the logistics. I remember being alone in my bedroom later and thinking that God must be watching even now, although it seemed I was by myself. I decided He must be spying through the open window despite the enormous hedge blocking the view. I went to the window and studied the little spots of yard I could see beyond the leaves. God was out there, I just knew it, the big Lookie Loo.

I was not overly concerned until sometime later when the idea of “hell” entered my consciousness. How did it get there? I can imagine that the window to this notion was opened on the playground. Some kid taunted another with “you’re going to hell,” because that seemed to be the most awful thing you could say to a person at that age. I think kids hurl the worst at one another to see what riles, to gauge reactions, a sort of passive “survey of opinions.” I’m sure I pressed a friend for details. What was it? The answer: a fiery place under the ground where bad people were sent to suffer forever. It sounded horrible, but it wasn’t until my parents separated and my mom and I moved from Austin to Dallas that this notion became associated with God, specifically as a punishment that could be directed at me personally. On two occasions, I accompanied my grandparents to Sunday services at Chapel in the Woods, just a simple one-room church they belonged to with a few rows of chairs and an upright piano. I don’t know if it was from the details I picked up during the sermons or if my grandparents started to fill in the blanks for me, but it was while we were living with them that I became preoccupied with being judged by God. I had always had a twinge of guilt buried deep, a vague feeling of not being all good, and here was the proof, the specifics of why and how justice would be rendered. In my mind, my mother and I didn’t fit the mold of a God-approved family—no dad, no house, no church attendance. With our deviance, we were all but begging for one-way tickets to hell where we would be strung up side-by-side and licked by unforgiving flames for the rest of eternity—like two shish kabobs on an endless barbeque. I pictured the flesh on our faces boiling and melting off, our screams of agony as our limbs caught fire. Some nights I shook and cried at the thought of it. This underlying sense of doom stayed with me to varying degrees for the years I lived in Dallas so that by the time I turned 13 and moved permanently to Los Angeles, it was pure relief to let the ocean breeze blow those images away. Finally, I could laugh at how silly I was for once thinking of God as some big man who alternated between peeping at me and reclining on the puffiest cloud. How wonderful to know that beneath my feet was nothing but dirt and, much further down, magma.

If God got tangled in the complicated feelings of my self-worth, Jesus carried none of this weight. Jesus was God’s son and he was nice. My cousins taught me the words to “Jesus Loves All the Children” one afternoon and for hours we marched up and down the driveway of my great-grandmother’s house in Cockrell, Texas belting it out. Behind the preacher at my grandparents’ church hung a small framed illustration of Jesus. He had rosy cheeks, a gentle smile, and the same long, wavy locks grandma and grandpa hated on my dad. I didn’t understand why they approved of the look on Jesus, but thought my dad needed a haircut.

God filled me with anxiety about my essential deficiencies, but Jesus made me feel okay, good even. This changed the older I got and the more examples I saw of individuals publicly promoting Jesus: television evangelist, shouters on the news, with the too-much-makeup and mascara running down and enormous shellacked hairdos and the constant requests for money and the insisting we were doing wrong and the speaking in platitudes that seemed not only superficial but also to contradict their actions. They did not strike me as authentic humans, or even humans acting authentically. I might see one of their minions in person, standing in a crowded public walk way, yelling to passersby, spittle forming at their lips. I would give them a wide berth. That kind of fervency about anything was an illness I did not want to catch. That’s when Jesus joined God on the back shelf of my mind, filed under the heading, “stuff that makes me feel icky.” Yet, in interest of full disclosure, I must admit there have been times in my adult life when I have loudly cried out for Jesus. This has usually occurred following a night of too much alcohol, when I find myself curled up on the bathroom floor or hugging the toilet for dear life. I have misjudged my tolerance for mixed drinks and now I am violently sick and it’s my own damn fault and I just really, really, really do not want to die although death is surely imminent and, much to my surprise and that of anyone who may be within earshot, I shout, “Oh, Jesus!” or “Jesus, help me!” Which seems to indicate that some barely conscious, maybe even primal, part of me still trusts in this notion of Jesus, wants him near me, and automatically reaches for him at times of great need.

Jesus is a start II

When I arrive at the Methodist church, I am ten minutes early and greeted at the door by an elderly gentlemen in a brown corduroy blazer, his full head of white hair neatly coiffed. He welcomes me politely and hands me the day’s program, which is surprisingly brief compared to the others I have received over the course of these weeks, one 8.5 x 11 piece of paper folded in half. From the outside, this church looks like a ski chalet circa 1970, the kind where the roof reaches all the way to the ground, but inside it’s more of a cavernous barn-like space with a raised altar/stage at one end. As expected, decorations are minimal—a couple of chunky wooden candelabras on either side of the room, a big shiny silver cross hanging against a row of golden organ pipes, some plants on a ledge at the back of the altar, a funny little bowl-on-a-pedestal contraption to one side that I’m guessing is the baptismal font. Two big fans turn slowly where the ceiling reaches its most dramatic height; they’re huge like airplane propellers. Mesmerized by the long steel blades, I keep glancing upward, which I’m sure makes me seem extra pious.

A choir of about 10 strong wearing ordinary clothes, no robes, is practicing as I take a seat in a row of chairs near the back. Since starting this journey, I’ve become something of a chorus connoisseur. Personally, I am a terrible singer, musically ungifted in all ways, but I have now heard enough combinations of voices and variations in instrumental accompaniment to feel entitled to place the results somewhere on a scale from cacophony to beautifully agreeable. This one is on the good-sounding side, with only a keyboard, but several voices that soar like doves and help the more ordinary ones reach greater heights.

They are singing the day’s hymns as people file in and take seats. Two raised flat screens on either side of the altar show an image of a painting of Jesus in what appears to be a post-crucifixion moment of reflection. The cross is on the ground and he’s sitting, hunched, on top of it, naked except for a strategically-draped loin cloth. His back is a mess of ripped flesh, a full moon (or a halo?) backlights his head, gently illuminating his somber profile and the iconic twist of thorny brambles crowning him. Torture and Humiliation: Man of Sorrows, the bold heading reads. Okay then, I think, the time has arrived to face the grim aspects of this Jesus thing. So far on this journey, I have heard many times that Jesus is “our savior,” that “he died for us”—yadda, yadda…all the usual phrases one has heard even when firmly rooted in the secular environs of this largely Christian country—but the facts of how this actually all went down have been glossed over. His appearances are no more significant than the brief mentions given to God or the Holy Spirit; so far, Jesus has been an interchangeable component of the Holy Trinity. In truth, I knew almost none of the crucifixion details and perhaps it would stay that way. Is it too ugly a thing for any church to want to look at anymore?

Jesus is a start

I’m sitting in the sanctuary of the Methodist church a couple miles from my house when, for the first time, I feel it: not the presence of Jesus, but a stirring in my heart that tells me I’m beginning to sense his purpose. I’ve been at this church-going thing for several months now. So far I have attended the Sunday services of a handful of Christian denominations that include Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Unitarian—almost all of what I’ve come to understand are the “mainline” Protestant denominations whose theological roots can be traced directly to Europe—and while I have picked up bits and pieces of wisdom from each, I have not until now felt anything. On the contrary, I have maintained my stance as passive and wide-eyed observer, unable or unwilling to let any aspect of the strange concoction of music and ceremony and prayer reach the sturdy enclosure of my heart.

Why am I, an individual about as alienated from religion as they come, sitting in this church? Here’s the short answer: I realized I’m a fragment and that’s why the panic has returned.

Let me explain.

Several months earlier I moved to a small town in the Pacific Northwest. This happened because I had answered in the affirmative to a series of life-altering questions. “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” “Will you quit your job, sell your condo, and move to the middle of nowhere?” “Sure. Fine. Okay.” I had been a single professional living in Washington, D.C. when I met and fell in love with Phil. I was willing, happy even, to make these changes because it seemed like life was handing me just what I needed at just the right time. Hadn’t I been secretly longing to step off of the hamster wheel of worldly ambition I had been treading so diligently these many years? I was exhausted and mildly depressed, wondering: is this all there is to life? But I wasn’t bold enough to plan an escape route and then along came Phil: Ph.D. student, wonderful man, soon-to-be professor in a remote college town and, then, fiancé.

As I made the transition from old life to new, I felt like an archeologist brushing away layers of dirt and grime to get at some prized artifact: the “real” me. Away went the city, the bustle, and the endless distractions. I cleared the need to be at a specific location for 10 hours a day working hard at something that was not necessarily my passion, along with the paycheck that went with it. I blew; what remained was time, and a stillness to my days I had never known before. But the further down I got, the more irrelevant crud I removed, the more evident it became that what I hoped would be a complete and pristine vessel was a jagged little edge, curved just so and sitting in the earth so that it only appeared to be whole. Once I had stripped away everything, I felt truly unnerved. No tall buildings divided up the air, no city blocks organized the land, no regular job structured my day. I would find myself standing at a window, looking out on the wheat fields that surrounded my little neighborhood and wishing desperately for a crazy, active city to materialize so I could lose myself in it. I would feel the tight squeeze of panic rising in my chest and I would need to lie down and repeat a collection of little sentences—“You are okay. Everything is fine. You are not dying.”—until my brain believed them enough to send messages to my body instructing it to stop freaking out. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the direction my life had taken. I was content with my decision to get married and leave the big city behind. Even quitting my good job, while difficult, felt right in a life-is-short-so-don’t-waste-a-moment sort of way. The problem lay deeper I realized because all of these changes, while they had eased one kind of suffering, had uncovered another. Which is why this church-going project has taken on such significance: I’m on a desperate search for the bits and pieces that might make my pot whole.