Tuesday, May 26, 2020

One Body, Many Parts

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the official birthday of the Church. Fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, giving them the power and the courage to preach the Good News to all the world.

Before they received the Holy Spirit, the disciples were timid and fearful, hiding behind locked doors. (Kind of like we’ve been doing the past two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

But at Pentecost the Spirit transformed them into fearless and powerful witnesses of the Gospel. They changed from Sheldon Coopers into Jason Bournes overnight. In the blink of an eye they went from wimps to warriors, from chickens to champions.
 
A lot of folks think that only a few specially-chosen people can be filled with the Holy Spirit and do great deeds for the Kingdom of God. However, the fact is, EVERYONE has a special gift and is called to use it to promote the Gospel. The job of promoting the Kingdom of God is not only for people like the two most amazing religious figures during my lifetime, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. This important job is for everybody.

There is one Holy Spirit who empowers believers to do God’s will. But this one Spirit gives different gifts to different people. Some, like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, were blessed with the tenderness and tenacity to draw millions of people into a closer relationship with Jesus. Others, like Larry Luggnut and Shirley Schlepp, are only able to offer smiles to anxious strangers who decided to attend church for the first time in years.

Some were international celebrities, while others are complete unknowns. In God’s eyes they are all equal since they each used the particular gift given to them by the Spirit.
 
This highlights one of the interesting (and liberating) aspects of God: He doesn’t judge by human standards. We humans love to do side-by-side, quantitative comparisons, to determine who is “more successful.” But God doesn’t do it that way. He is more concerned about whether we are fully utilizing whatever spiritual gifts we have been given.

In God’s eyes, if Larry Luggnuts or Shirley Schlepps are only capable of making strangers feel welcome with a sincere smile, and consistently do it each Sunday, then they are more successful than other folks who possess great talents but only use them occasionally.

St. Paul compared God’s church with a human body. “As a body is one though it has many parts,” he wrote, “and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
The body of Christ is made up of all its members, not just famous clergy and nuns and best-selling authors. Every member is vitally important and is meant to serve an important function.

With our bodies, some parts are more celebrated and noticeable—the face, the brain, the hands. Other parts toil in anonymity—the ankles, the liver, the large intestine. But if the ankles, liver, or large intestine suddenly stopped working, the whole body would be in a heap of trouble.
 
Within the body of Christ, some members are more celebrated and noticeable. Most other members of the body of Christ, however, must toil in virtual secrecy. All the unknown Larry Luggnuts and Shirley Schlepps will never have future generations demand they be canonized as saints. But we are all key parts of the body of Christ. If we don’t do our job, the whole body is in trouble.

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently go forth and do what we are called to do, and in the process, we’ll be filled with love and joy and peace.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

This Guy Is a Sharp Cookie

I’m pretty sure everyone on Planet Earth is sick of the protracted lockdown, quarantine, hide-under-your-bed lifestyle we’ve endured since early March, except maybe for the creator of the Zoom video conferencing software, who is now a gazillionaire. And yes, there are a few “Karens” in their glory right now, getting a thrill out of snitching on their neighbors who forgot to wear masks when checking the mailbox — and I include some state governors here. But other than that, I’m pretty sure most people are fed up with this situation.

Being unable to hug loved ones, travel, or eat inside a restaurant is extremely frustrating. And don’t even get me started on sports. I realize not everyone is a sports fan, but just think of how unprecedented it is that the following events were cancelled this spring: March Madness, baseball’s Opening Day, the Boston Marathon, the Masters golf tournament, the NBA & NHL playoffs, and the Kentucky Derby. And as everyone heard on various news reports, the world’s most prestigious international sports competition will not take place this summer. I am referring, of course, to the Eddie Bruciati Backyard Barbecue & Bocce Tournament in Madison, CT. (I won the coveted golden hotdog trophy two years ago.)
 
However, the news is not all bad. Something occurred recently that never would’ve happened without the COVID-19 pandemic: I actually baked cookies. That’s right, for the first time in my six-plus decades of being alive, I baked cookies. This is not to be confused with me eating cookies. From the time my mother added a crumbled Snickerdoodle into my formula when I was one month old, I’ve been a cookie connoisseur. During my lifetime, the number of cookies I’ve eaten has at least matched the number of lies uttered by members of Congress. (But not quite the number of times Sen. Blumenthal has knocked people down racing to get in front of a TV camera.)

Typically, we travel on the weekends visiting relatives and friends. Before the pandemic hit, the last time we stayed home for an entire weekend was during a blizzard a couple of years ago. But now that we’ve been home every weekend since early March, we have lots more free time. A couple of weeks ago, on yet another listless Saturday afternoon, my wife suggested we bake some cookies. I said, “By ‘we,’ do you mean our usual system: you bake ‘em, I eat ‘em? Or do you mean we both bake them?”

She smiled and said, “I’ll teach you.”
 
I understand in the culinary world there is a feisty debate about the terms “homemade” and “from scratch.” Some folks insist that many separate ingredients, including flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, butter, and a contraption called a sifter, are required for cookies to be truly homemade from scratch. However, in my view, if the cookies were not sitting on a store shelf with the word “Oreos” on the package, and if the oven in your kitchen was used, then the cookies definitely should be considered “homemade” and “from scratch.”

We used a Betty Crocker mix in a pouch. Since I had to crack an egg and measure some oil, and then do a fair amount of stirring with a wooden spoon, there’s no doubt in my mind the procedure was homemade, no matter what the purists say. By the way, the cookies came out perfect.
You may think that bragging about baking cookies for the first time in my life is quite ridiculous. Well, you’re right. But just remember, before we know it, the Christmas season will arrive. You won’t be saying it’s ridiculous when the newly crowned Kookie King delivers a few dozen Snickerdoodles to your house.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Will Absence Make Our Hearts Grow Fonder?

Have you ever noticed the minute something is forbidden, our desire for that certain something skyrockets? For example, a few years ago I decided to give up donuts for Lent. The moment I woke up on Ash Wednesday morning, I didn’t simply think a donut would be a nice addition to my breakfast of Cheerios and a banana. Instead I had a craving for an entire box of 12 donuts, with very specific choices required. (Buttercrunch, chocolate-frosted chocolate, and blueberry glaze were at the top of the list.)

I suppose there is a psychological explanation of why our desire for something increases when it is not available anymore. Maybe that old expression explains it: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
 
Hopefully, Catholics are feeling exactly this way during the COVID-19 pandemic. (No, I don’t mean a craving for donuts. That’s not a very healthy desire, regardless of a person’s religion.)

What I’m referring to is the fact it’s been quite a while now that we have been unable to gather as parish communities in our churches for Mass and receive the Eucharist. I hope there are some Catholics who may have been going through the motions for many years, taking Sunday Mass and the Eucharist for granted, and now that this crucial act of worship is forbidden, they have developed a strong urge to gather with fellow believers and receive the true Body and Blood of Christ.

Wouldn’t it be great if a byproduct of this health crisis is a revival in Eucharistic devotion? Wouldn’t it be great if an absence of Communion truly makes our hearts grow fonder to partake of the sacraments?

I sincerely hope that is the case. However, I am a little concerned about one aspect of our response to the coronavirus emergency. When all public gatherings were prohibited by government officials, and social distancing measures were employed, our bishops wisely suspended public Masses. After all, this nasty respiratory illness is very contagious, and the virus can be transmitted by people doing normal breathing within four or five feet of each other. A church building packed with Easter Sunday worshippers would be the ideal scenario for the disease to spread like wildfire.
 
The bishops clearly explained that in times of emergency, when the sacraments are not available, if people sincerely desire to receive the graces conferred by the Eucharist, Confession, and the Anointing of the Sick, they in fact will receive those graces. After all, God is much more concerned about mercy and compassion than He is about exact liturgical procedures.

But here’s my concern: when some parishioners asked if it was possible to receive the Eucharist and go to Confession, as long as careful hygienic and social distancing practices were followed, the bishops flat-out said no. Maybe they were concerned that if they made exceptions, some people would not follow careful health practices and end up getting infected.

The thing is, places such as Walmart and liquor stores are open for business, and as long as customers wear masks and keep their distance from each other, they can purchase, for example, tube socks and vodka. But churches are not open for business, and faithful Catholics cannot partake of the Sacraments, no matter how careful they are. Some people conclude this means tube socks and vodka are more important than the Body of Christ.
 
I fear that some Catholics, rather than have the absence of the Eucharist make their hearts grow fonder for Christ, will interpret this situation to mean Mass attendance and the Eucharist are not a big deal after all. I hope this is not the case.

When churches finally re-open, and we can worship with our parish family and received the Eucharist again, let’s pray that absence has indeed made our hearts grow fonder. And let’s demonstrate by our actions that the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, is much more important than tube socks, vodka, or even a box of 12 luscious donuts.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is He a Hoarder or a Prepper?

Recently I was involved in a discussion about hoarders vs. preppers. Certain people have accused me of having hoarder tendencies because I like to have at least a month’s worth of food stored in the basement.

By the way, I didn’t start thinking this way because of the current COVID-19 crisis, with all those bare shelves in supermarkets and frequent news reports about disruptions to the food supply chains. I’ve felt this way for many years. It’s not “hoarding.” It’s the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”
 
During an emergency — caused by weather or war or pandemic — I’d much rather live off of the cans of baked beans and Spaghetti-Os in my basement than be in the middle of a food riot behind a National Guard truck, where soldiers are trying to distribute Army surplus rations to a mob of desperate citizens.

That scenario might be a tad paranoid, but it’s not a hoarder’s mentality. I looked up the definition of “hoarding,” and it is a psychological disorder that compels a person to collect items that are not very valuable or useful, such as every edition of the New York Times since 1977, or every pair of shoes the person has ever owned since the 4th grade.

To the hoarder, the items are valuable, even though to the rest of the world it’s a pile of junk. Hoarding is usually quite disorganized and creates a dirty and unhealthy environment. The hoarder has no intent of ever sharing his “treasure” with anyone else.

Preppers, on the other hand, stockpile items that are useful during an emergency. Of course, eating baked beans and Spaghetti-Os every day during, say, an ice storm that paralyzes the state for weeks, is not much fun. But it’s a whole lot better than starving. And to certain people who can’t stand canned food, let me remind you of an undeniable fact of life: when a person is famished, EVERYTHING tastes great.
 
Unlike a hoarder, a prepper’s supply is usually very organized and clean. And most importantly, preppers often make plans to share their goods with other people if an emergency situation happens. In my case, if a food crisis ever occurs, my neighbors are more than welcome to help me enjoy a cold can of Hormel chili and some warm root beer.

Now, it’s important to make a few observations. First, there certainly are preppers who go way overboard. Stockpiling ten year’s worth of food and fuel, plus enough firearms and ammunition to storm the beaches at Normandy, might be overdoing it a bit. (Some folks will note this behavior is obviously paranoid, right up until the moment a major crisis occurs. Then the behavior is brilliant.)

Also, I don’t deny having mild hoarding tendencies when it comes to ballpoint pens and baseball hats. I like to think of them as “my special collections,” and if that’s a somewhat delusional view, at least they don’t take up as much space as a four-decade pile of New York Times.
 
Finally, making preparations for an emergency has to be done before the emergency occurs. A lot of people decided to become preppers back in March and April, AFTER the supermarket supplies were low. Keep this in mind when things return to normal (whatever the new “normal” turns out to be).

In the hoarders vs. preppers discussion, there is one item that is useful and has no expiration date, but if people stockpile a lot of it, they are definitely hoarders. That item is toilet paper. Even though I never thought to stock up on toilet paper until the store shelves were bare, I’m not worried. I can always use my large pile of New York Times.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Missing My Fellow Parishioners

Well, it’s been about two months since we’ve been unable to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments. For the first couple of weeks, it was an interesting adventure, as my wife and I set up the living room on Sunday morning to participate in the Mass on TV. We arranged a couple of chairs and got some foam padding to kneel on. I had the Scripture readings on my iPad so we could read along, and receiving the graces of a spiritual communion was a fairly positive experience.

Then Holy Week and Easter Sunday arrived, and participating in the services and liturgies via the television stopped being an interesting adventure. It turned into what this entire coronavirus crisis has become: a completely frustrating and infuriating ordeal with no end in sight.
 
When Holy Week arrived, and the truth of this situation really set in, I shook my head and muttered, “Be careful what you wish for, pal.” You see, my wife and I are members of our parish choir, and Holy Week is the most grueling part of the entire year. We have extra and more intense rehearsals leading up to Holy Week, and then we sing in church on Holy Thursday night, Good Friday afternoon, Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, and finally Easter Sunday morning Mass. By the time we stagger out of church on Sunday morning after the 9:30 Mass, all I want to do is go home and sleep for four days, since my brain and my throat are completely fried.

So, back in the winter, when we started working on Easter music about 20 minutes after the Christmas season ended, I thought to myself, “This is such a grind. Maybe I should take a leave of absence from the choir and skip Easter this year.”

Guess what? I got my wish. I haven’t had to sing a single note for three months now. This calls to mind my copywritten observation: “Silence is never off key,” which is kind of the way I approach those notes that are not in my three-quarters of an octave range. I figure lip-synching is much more preferred to screeching or growling the wrong note.
 
On Easter Sunday morning, while watching Mass on TV in my living room, my eyes welled up with tears. At that moment I would’ve given anything to be crammed into the choir loft, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other sweaty songsters, and joyously belting out “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” in four-part harmony. (Or if I forget which note I’m supposed to sing, five-part cacophony.)

I’m not a particularly touchy-feely, huggy-huggy kind of guy. But this social distancing thing is getting to me. I am really craving the opportunity to hug my daughters and sons-in-law, along with all my other relatives. And I really long to see my fellow choir members and parishioners, and yes, even give them a hug, too.

As soon as “Mass on TV only” became the new normal, I felt a deep desire for the Eucharist. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized I also miss being in the presence of other people in the parish.

This situation reminds me of the words of one of my favorite Old Testament prophets, Joni Mitchell, who said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
 
I like to think that I haven’t taken the Mass for granted for many years. After all, I wrote a small book called “Is the Real Presence Really Real?” and I’ve given parish talks on the subject. However, if I’m honest with myself, I definitely have taken Mass for granted. And now after many weeks of no Mass (with who knows how many more weeks or months to go), Joni Mitchell’s words ring true: I never understood how much the Eucharistic celebration and my fellow parishioners meant to me until it was all taken away.

Surely the day will come when we can return to normal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch Mass on TV and miss my friends. But don’t worry, once we can go to Mass again, I won’t sing any Joni Mitchell songs. Her voice is way too high and out of my range.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Will Hand-Shaking Be the New Smoking?

Well, what should we talk about this week? I know! How about a topic we haven’t addressed in quite a while (except for every single week since mid-March): the COVID-19 crisis? Better known as the “I-want-my-old-life-back” crisis.

As this surreal situation drags on and on, to the point where we’re now saying, “Only 5 million people filed for unemployment last week? Hey, we’re flattening the curve!” it’s hard not to talk about the coronavirus health emergency, since it has impacted every facet of our lives.

I was thinking about the effect of this situation the other day while watching some old movies. The first movie was “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart, playing the role of a New Yorker who opens a saloon in Morocco during World War II, after numerous adventures, especially in Paris. The other movie was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” starring Audrey Hepburn, playing the role of a Texas farm girl who becomes a New York City socialite in the early 1960s, after numerous adventures, presumably at finishing school in London. (Or maybe that’s how people from Texas actually speak?)
 
Anyway, while watching these movies, I noticed that everyone — including the parrot and the cat — smoked cigarettes incessantly. I mean, they were lighting up all the time. Our culture has changed drastically regarding smoking since then. Of course, many people these days still smoke, but it’s not as widespread as it was when those films were made. When we see that kind of behavior in old movies, we’re shocked — shocked! — that smoking was so ubiquitous. (Almost as shocked as seeing an Engineering Sales guy use the word “ubiquitous” correctly in a sentence.)

After enjoying those films, I watched a replay of an old Red Sox game. It was opening day, 2005, and since they won the World Series the previous fall, before the game started, all the players came out of the dugout, one by one, to receive their championship rings. After getting the ring, each player proceeded to shake hands with and hug every single other guy who was on the field. The ubiquitosity of the hand-shaking and hugging was unbelievable. (Yeah, that’s more like it, Mr. Engineering Sales fella.)

While watching this, I said to myself, “I’m shocked — shocked! — that our society once condoned so much personal touching.”
 
Back in the 1960s, the tide against smoking turned when the Surgeon General required warning labels on every pack of cigarettes. I expect the Surgeon General soon will required the back of everyone’s right hand to be tattooed with a black rectangular box. Inside will be written this message: “WARNING: Hand Shaking May Cause Death.”

A few weeks ago, I asked this question in one of my columns: “Who will you hug first when the ‘all clear’ is sounded?” For some reason, I envisioned this COVID-19 crisis as having a specific end date, where one day we’ll be hunkering behind closed doors, and then the next morning a horn will blare and we’ll stream into the streets and start partying, like those iconic photos of Times Square when World War II ended. (And everyone was smoking.)
 
It’s not going to happen that way. There will be a long, gradual and tentative resumption of normal activities. During this time, most people still will wear face masks, and there will be very little hand-shaking and hugging. Partying in Times Square is definitely out of the question.

I think for a very long time, probably years into the future, when we see people shake hands and hug, we’re going to cringe, the way we would if we saw someone light up a cigarette on an airplane. To be honest, this makes me sad. I need a hug.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Scandal of Exclusivity

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus makes this stunning statement: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This declaration causes many people to become angry, especially folks who embrace the modern philosophy of relativism. (Or as Pope Benedict rightfully called it, the “Dictatorship of relativism.”)

The heart of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the true source of salvation. This claim of exclusivity makes people livid in our modern society. “How dare you say your religion is the absolute truth?!” people demand of Christians. “That’s so arrogant. That’s so, so… INTOLERANT!”

In the modern, relativistic view, there is no such thing as absolute truth. Truth is subjective, nothing more than personal opinion. Relativists insist it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. (Which should be the first hint that relativism has some logical holes you could drive a truck through.)
 
The fact is, truth is NOT relative. There is only one correct answer to the question, “How much is two plus two?” And there is only one correct answer to the question, “Did Jesus physically rise from the dead?” Just because the second question is more difficult to determine does not mean there is no correct answer.

There are two important points to keep in mind. First, Christians did not decide that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus Himself said it. If the idea really bothers people, they need to take it up with Him, not us.

Second, Jesus’ teachings may not be quite as offensive and intolerant as some people think. Jesus said that He is the only Way. But He did not say a particular religious system is the only Way.

At this point, I’ll let an expert take over. Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. In his book Every Thing You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven, he asks the question, “What subjective relationship must one have with Jesus in order to be on the right Way? Are there ‘anonymous Christians’? Are Hindus, Buddhists…and atheists saved too?”
 
Kreeft goes on the explain that although we cannot know for sure, the answer seems to be yes, indicated by New Testament passages such as “Saint Paul’s sermon to the Athenians about the Unknown God they were already worshiping, and his affirmation in Romans of a universal natural knowledge of God from nature and conscience.”

Before you conclude that Kreeft is a mushy “whatever feels right is right” kind of theologian, he also says, “Jesus as the ‘One Way’ is not sectarian human invention, but clear divine revelation. If ‘One Way’ is bigotry, then it is Jesus Who is the bigot. He smacks us full in the face with the stark either-or of acceptance or rejection. No side roads….But we do not know whether this One Way is or is not present anonymously where He is not named and known clearly.”

Dr. Kreeft is not trying to evade the issue, nor is he trying to define Truth so broadly it loses all meaning. He is simply “thinking outside the box” (something Jesus did constantly in the Gospels).
 
Maybe someone who seeks the Truth is really seeking Jesus, although He is temporarily anonymous. Kreeft finds nothing wrong in saying, “Saint Socrates pray for us,” since the ancient Greek philosopher (who lived before the time of Christ) doggedly sought the Truth.

This surely won’t please the relativists among us (hardly anything does), but it may give us a better understanding of how Jesus can be so exclusive, and at the same time so inclusive that He offers salvation to the whole world.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Thank the Truck Drivers, Too

The coronavirus emergency we’ve endured since early March has demonstrated a couple of interesting things. First, the people who are often put on a pedestal and declared to be extremely important to our culture — Hollywood celebrities, political pundits, and sociology professors — actually are fairly worthless during a crisis. Second, the folks who are usually ignored or mocked by our sophisticated culture —farmers, factory workers, and truck drivers — are quite essential in maintaining our modern way of life, with or without a crisis.

If we didn’t already know it, we’ve discovered that first responders and health care workers are absolutely necessary, and right now they’re doing heroic work. They are rightly being singled out for praise, and that is terrific.
 
However, I’d like to discuss an occupation that is both crucial and heroic, but has not been getting much notice: truck driver. Personally, I’ve never driven a truck, unless you count a Datsun pickup that weighed less than my gas grille. I’m referring to commercial tractor trailer drivers and the local delivery drivers who somehow can back a large truck down a narrow alley without hitting anything (most of the time).

If you think about it, everything you own has spent time on a delivery truck. Look around your house. The furniture, fridge, and Fritos; the bananas, bagels, and baseball hats; the shoelaces, shaving cream, and shower curtains all were on a truck at one point in time. The only items in your house that were not delivered by a truck are your children. (And I know some folks who would like to hire a moving truck to get their kids out of the house.)

I mentioned this idea to someone a while ago, and he replied, “Oh, but if someone owns sheep, and shears the wool from the sheep and then knits a sweater, that sweater never rode on a truck.”

In reply, I said, “Great point. Exactly how many people have done that in recent years in Torrington or Waterbury?”

Anyway, do-it-yourself sheep shearers notwithstanding, everything in your house spent time on a truck. Without truck drivers, our modern economy, and therefore our entire way of life, would cease to exist.
 
The largest vehicle I’ve ever driven was a 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which was about twice the size of my Datsun pickup. That Olds was pretty big, but nothing like a tractor trailer. I’m amazed at how well the drivers deftly maneuver those big rigs, both on the highways and while backing up to a loading dock.

The company I work for sells HVAC equipment, so every single item we’ve ever sold over the years had to travel by truck. Most of the time, the drivers are extremely competent and reliable.

There was one time about 25 years ago, when a crucial shipment from the Midwest was due to be in Connecticut first thing Monday morning, but the truck never showed up. After countless frantic phone calls (this was before the days of onboard GPS tracking devices), we finally found out on Tuesday afternoon that the driver was having some personal problems and had decided to detour off Route 80 in central Pennsylvania and go to his mom’s house in someplace like Mifflinburg or Schuylkill Haven. He left the truck in a nearby church parking lot and spend a few days enjoying home cooking and motherly pep talks.
 
If you’re interested in a career that is not very glamorous, but is essential to our modern American way of life, consider becoming a truck driver. You won’t get rich, like a Hollywood celebrity political pundit sociologist, but you’ll be providing a much more important service to your fellow citizens. In the meantime, thank a trucker.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In Times of Fear, ‘Be of Good Cheer’

Wow, who saw this coming? Two months ago, my biggest concern was the Red Sox’ lack of starting pitching. It was looking like a long, painful season at Fenway.

Now, it’s looking like a long, painful season on Earth. The coronavirus pandemic is killing people in bunches, supplies are running low, and the world economy is deflating like a punctured beach ball. Fear and anxiety are at record levels, at least for this current generation. About eight decades ago, a previous generation had to deal with something even more destructive, known as World War II.
 
Many people are referring to the coronavirus emergency as World War III. But at least with a real war you can DO something, such as join the Marines, or go to a factory and build tanks, or organize scrap metal drives in your neighborhood, like Jimmy Stewart did in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Now, the only thing we can DO is hide behind closed doors, wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, and wait to get sick. The inactivity is making us even more anxious and fearful.

More than ever, we now need to turn to the words of Our Savior. On the night Jesus was betrayed, right after the Last Supper, He gave a series of important teachings to his disciples. At the end of theses teachings, Jesus offered the most important three-part declaration in the entire Bible. He said, “In this world you will have tribulation.” In reply to this, most of us will say something like, “Yeah, you got that right, Lord. Life is hard, and this world is filled with pain and suffering.” Well, that’s what we might have replied two months ago. Now, with this world-wide health crisis, we’re more likely to say, “Ahhhhhh! We’re doooomed!!”

Then Jesus offered the second part of His declaration: “But be of good cheer.” Whoa, wait a minute. That makes no sense. Jesus first gets it exactly right, describing our situation in life as tribulation. But then He tells us to “be of good cheer”? Does Jesus really want us to look around at all the tragedy in the world and just laugh at it? Isn’t that the behavior of a psychotic person?

Yes, it makes no sense until Jesus offered the third and final section of His declaration. He said, “For I have overcome the world.”
 
You see, that’s the key. Jesus has overcome the world, including the aspects of this world that are the most frightening: suffering and death.

For many of us, way too young to know anything about World War II except what we see on History Channel documentaries, this coronavirus pandemic is our first ever experience of a genuine tribulation. That’s right, your favorite baseball team’s lack of starting pitching is NOT, in fact, a real crisis.

When you boil it down, the things that cause us the most anxiety and fear are the things mankind has struggled with since Adam and Eve: suffering and death.

Those are the things that Jesus conquered. When He died on the cross and then rose from the dead three days later, He defeated death once and for all. And the best part is, He promised that if we put our faith in Him and follow His teachings, we too can defeat death and live forever in Heaven.

In these frightening times, when people are genuinely terrified for the first time in their lives, we need to cling to Jesus’ awesome three-part declaration. Yes, this world has tribulation; always has, always will. Despite this, we must be of good cheer. How? By knowing that Jesus has overcome the world. In the end, it will all work out. Jesus is stronger than death, and He promised that He would never leave us nor forsake us.
 
Many, many decades from now, when we’re in Heaven, we can hang out with folks who lived during the 1940s and share war stories. But when a Marine veteran says, “I fought at Guadalcanal,” it may not sound so impressive when we reply, “Oh yeah, well I washed my hands every 20 minutes!”

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

‘The Corona Chronicles’ – Day 39

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that people should take a break from all the coronavirus hysteria on the TV news, and instead start a journal. The journal should be address to your kids or grandkids 30 years from now, and it should describe your concerns and anxieties while in the midst of this unprecedented health emergency.

Your personal journal or diary could be called “The Corona Chronicles.” If you begin writing one in a notebook or on your computer, it will accomplish three positive things: first, it will take you away from the TV, which is never bad. Second, it will reduce your stress and anxiety levels, partly because you’re not watching the daily Panic Report on the boob tube, and partly because you’ll be actively doing something rather than sitting around worrying.
 
Finally, writing a journal will be a nice gift to leave for your descendants, much better than a bunch of goofy selfies on your phone. (Which they probably will never see anyway, since most cell phone photos get lost forever when your computer’s hard drive crashes. Yeah, my iCloud storage maxed out years ago, too. For posterity’s sake, you still can’t beat the ol’ shoe box filled with snapshots.)

After that column appeared in the newspaper, a few people sent me emails and asked what I would write in my Corona Chronicles, particularly concerning the suggested topics I mentioned.

OK, I suppose I should practice what I preach. The first item I mentioned was, “Put your thoughts and fears into words.” Well, I certainly have a lot of fears about this pandemic, primarily the fear of the unknown. How long will it last? Will I lose my job? Will the economy recover so unemployed folks can get back to work? Will toilet paper ever be available again in my lifetime?
 
Then, of course, there is the biggest fear of all: will I contract the virus and get really sick? Will I die? I’m actually not all that worried about dying (thank you, Jesus!), but the idea of going many days gasping for air and feeling like someone is holding my head underwater is simply terrifying. My worst nightmare scenario is suffocating to death.

My next journal suggestion was this: “Explain what you miss most about being stuck at home all day.” Actually, when I wrote that, I expected to start working from home soon. But it turned out the construction industry was classified as essential, so I’ve been going to my office in East Hartford every day. I can only go by what people have told me. The biggest issue seems to be when you set up your computer on the kitchen table as your new “home office,” the refrigerator is only a few paces away. One person told me, “I swear my fridge just said to me, ‘What the hell do you want now?!’”

My last writing prompt was, “Who will you hug first when the ‘all clear’ is finally sounded?” For me, that question is easy. First, I’ll hug my two daughters. (And in no particular order, because I love them both equally.) Next, I want to hug my mom. Then I’ll hug my two sons-in-law. (Also in no particular order.) After them, I look forward to hugging my brothers and sister and their families.
 
When Holy Week and Easter came and went, experienced by my wife and me in the solitude of our living room, I developed the desire to hug many parishioners, especially fellow members of the choir. And I’m really not a touchy-feely huggy type of person. But this social distancing thing is maddening, even for me.

There, I shared my journal thoughts. Now it’s your turn.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Can’t Have Christianity Without the Old Testament

In this week’s Scripture readings at Mass, many of the Jewish roots of Christianity are highlighted. Roots which are, for some strange reason, ignored by many modern-day Christians. Today we seem to take the view that Christianity is a religion based on the New Testament of the Bible, while Judaism is a completely different religion based on the Old Testament.

Jesus didn’t think so. For one thing, He was Jewish. Jesus taught that He came to fulfill the Jewish law, not to abolish it.

If you ever get the chance, read Edith Shaeffer’s excellent book, “Christianity Is Jewish.” She does a wonderful job of explaining how the Old and New Testaments are a seamless chronicle of God’s relationship with mankind, not two, totally separate stories. And she does it in a loving and compassionate way.
 
(I admit this is a delicate subject, and I’m probably too much of a blockhead to write about it without offending people. But I’m not trying to malign Jews or Judaism. I’m convinced “God’s chosen people” have a wonderful role in God’s overall plan regardless of what they believe about Jesus at the present moment. Why? Because God said so, and He doesn’t break His promises. Instead of trying to ram Jesus down the throats of our Jewish neighbors—as some do—we ought simply to apologize for the way Christians have treated Jews during the last 20 centuries and then witness by our actions rather than our words.)

The very first messianic prophesy is found in the first book of the Jewish Torah, Genesis 3:15. God cursed Satan for tempting Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, while you strike at his heel.”

The history of God’s dealings with mankind can be summarized quite succinctly: God created mankind to live in fellowship with Him. But mankind sinned and became separated from God. God set apart a special people, Israel, through whom redemption was to come. Israel produced the Messiah, Jesus, who gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for mankind’s sins (Satan striking at his heel). Then Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin and death once and for all (the offspring of the woman crushing Satan’s head).

In the Gospel reading this week, we hear about the fascinating events on the road to Emmaus. Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, down-hearted because Jesus had recently been killed. Jesus Himself drew near and began walking with them, but they did not recognize Him.
 
After they explained why they were so sad, Jesus replied, “How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

At that point, Jesus gave them a crash course in Old Testament theology. We read, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.”

Wow, that must’ve been quite a lecture, to have the Incarnate Word of God interpret and explain the written Word of God.

You really can’t understand Christianity without understanding Judaism and the history of Israel. Jesus proved He really was who He claimed to be by pointing repeatedly to the Old Testament.

So, why is it that Jews and Christians have been so divided and at each other’s throats over the years? I don’t know. Probably due to the sins of pride and selfishness. (Our sinful nature has yet to be eradicated; it’s just been forgiven.)

We have to take it on faith that St. Paul (another faithful Jew) knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Paul also wrote, “All Israel will be saved.”
 
God Almighty has a wonderful plan for the world and those who love Him. This plan especially includes our Jewish brethren.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The ‘New Normal’ Feels Pretty Abnormal

More thoughts about our “new normal”:
  • My personal motto has always been: “I can handle any surprise, as long as I know about it in advance.” In other words, I’m not very fond of uncertainty. To give you an idea, I love going on vacation to the same place twice, because the second time around I can relax since everything is no longer stressfully unfamiliar. Obviously, I’m not bragging. I really wish I could relax and enjoy the adventure of not knowing what will happen. But the fact is, uncertainty makes me a stress-mess. So, not surprisingly, this coronavirus crisis is causing me to lose a lot of sleep. Also, when I’m nervous I engage in mindless eating.
     
  • Since the pandemic altered our way of life in early March, my first thought upon waking up each morning has been, “Is this real, or did I just have a weird dream?” A moment later, I realize it’s no dream. And then I reach for some Pop Tarts.
 
  • I’m also hoping some new social norms will develop when this crisis is over. Now that I’ve reached the Felix Unger level of paranoia regarding hand-shaking, I don’t want to do that anymore, even when this particular virus is gone. Fist bumping is too casual and elbow bumping is awkward. I think we should go with the Japanese bow. That would be a cool way to greet people and avoid touching their germ-infested paws. Also, if we dial back the relentless hugging, that would be nice.
     
  • I’m seeing a lot of skunks. That is, folks who haven’t been able to get their hair colored because the hair salons were some of the first businesses to be closed. Now those gray roots are really noticeable, even at “social distancing” distances. Besides protective face masks, baseball hats have become the latest fashion trend.
 
  • There’s a fear of having a non-corona medical situation, because we don’t want to go anywhere near a hospital or doctor’s office right now, because that’s where all the germs hang out. My sister broke her ankle in early April, and my first thought was not about the broken bone in her leg, it was instead, “Oh no, she has to go to a hospital. I hope she can hold her breath for a few hours.” I’ve got a tooth that’s been bothering me for the past few weeks, but I refuse to make an appointment with the dentist. Luckily, I’ve got some Sears Craftsman pliers in the basement.
     
  • No one wants to be a “senior” these days. That goes for we senior citizens, because the virus hits us much harder, and it also goes for young seniors, those students in their senior year of high school or college. They don’t get to enjoy their final semester at school and no graduation ceremonies. If I were a senior in college, I would not graduate “online” and instead would choose to go back to school for one more year. Of course, this would require my Fairy Godmother to drop a duffel bag full of hundred-dollar bills into my lap. But the way the government is reacting to this crisis by spending money faster than they can print it (which I’m sure will work out well in the long run), maybe some “Senior Do-over Financial Aid” will be available.
 
  • It’s an odd feeling to drive on I-84 in Hartford at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, and be traveling at 65 mph. Normally, it’s more like 6.5 mph. But now the highway is a ghost town. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I long for the good ol’ days of traffic jams.
God bless, and be safe. And cut back on the Pop Tarts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Humility Is Not Humiliation

Our modern culture is really missing the boat about a very important Christian concept. We have decided that humility is a bad thing. Even though the Bible implores believers to be humble, our society has mistakenly defined the word humble to mean the same as humiliation.

No one enjoys being humiliated. I’m sure every one of us can think back to a humiliating moment in our lives. When it comes to embarrassing situations, I know I can quickly think of one or two or twenty. Maybe we got caught doing something really bad, and as a result, our parents or teachers were very angry and disappointed. Maybe we misunderstood a situation and then said something completely inappropriate and very embarrassing. Maybe we flunked out of school, or dropped a routine fly ball to lose a game, or had one drink too many at the office Christmas party and threw up on the CEO’s expensive new shoes. (Or threw up on the CEO’s expensive new wife.)
 
Whatever our personal moment(s) of humiliation might be, one thing is certain: even decades later, the emotional pain and feelings of embarrassment are still vivid in our minds. We do not ever want to experience those feelings again. An aspect of wisdom and maturity that comes with the aging process is simply knowing how to avoid humiliating situations.

So, if the definition of the word humble is the same as humiliation, then of course we do not consider it a good thing.

On top of this misunderstanding, our culture also thinks that being humble is the same as having low self-esteem and no self-confidence. As most of us know, our society these days is obsessed with self-esteem. We are now the “everyone gets a trophy” culture, which, if you ask me (and I know you didn’t ask), actually reduces a person’s self-esteem. If children never have to face failure or criticism while growing up, they’re in for a very rude awakening when they become adults. The business world is rife with examples of young college graduates who simply melt down the first time a supervisor points out that they are making some mistakes. In many cases, it’s the first time in their lives they’ve ever been criticized. OK, I’ll stop with the editorial opinion.

Anyway, being humiliated and having no self-esteem are bad things. However, that is not what the word humble actual means. Humble is simply the opposite of arrogance and pride. A humble person is not obsessed with comparing himself to other people and trying to be superior.
 
The best definition of humility was written by one of the most brilliant Christian writers of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis. He wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

A humble person is not someone who is feeling an acute sense of embarrassment and shame, nor thinks of himself as worthless and unable to do anything right. A humble person doesn’t think about himself very much at all. He’s not constantly “blowing his own horn,” or angling to make sure everyone else notices how wonderful and successful he is. A humble person is just going about his business, trying to do the right thing and treat others with respect.

And without a doubt, a truly humble person does not get caught up in the insanely narcissistic world of social media. (OK, one more editorial comment: nothing has done more to crush humility than the “selfie.” Just sayin’.)
 
Humility is a very important Christian virtue. Ironically, when we focus on loving God and loving our neighbors, instead of focusing on ourselves all the time, we become happier and more self-confident. We often end up being more successful and have a lot more friends. Being humble should be a way of life for Christians.

OK, let’s close with a little joke about humility. Did you hear about the schoolboy who won a medal for being the most humble student in the class? But they took the medal away when he insisted on wearing it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court - Part 4

SUNDAY MORNING
     Jerry Francis had hoped to arrive at Jesus’ the tomb before sunrise. But it took two full hours of begging and pleading to convince Mordecai to join him, which in Jerry’s mind wasn’t so bad compared to the eight hours he had to plead with Mordecai on the previous day, Saturday, to remain in Jerusalem.
     After witnessing Jesus’ death by crucifixion on Friday, and then stumbling into Judas Iscariot’s dead body, hanging from a tree limb on a hill just outside the walls of the city, Mordecai was convinced the Romans were rounding up all the Zealots, the Jewish patriots who wished to drive the hated Roman occupation forces out of Israel. Mordecai insisted that leaving Jerusalem right away and hiding in a rural village would be the best way to avoid being arrested.
     Being unfamiliar with the cultural and political dynamics, not to mention being very rusty on his knowledge of biblical events, Jerry had struggled to keep Mordecai in their squalid room in the run-down boarding house. Multiple times Mordecai had declared, “That’s it! I’m leaving. You can come if you want, or stay here. I don’t care!”
     Jerry pleaded each time for Mordecai to stay. It’s not that Jerry had firm plans about what they should do. He still had no idea about how or why he had been transported twenty centuries into the past. If he was destined to spend the rest of his life trapped in ancient Israel, he figured his best bet would be to stick close to the one man who treated him as a comrade. But he really had no clue about what they ought to do in the coming days and weeks. There was only one specific plan he felt very strongly about: he desperately wanted to see Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning.
     Jerry wasn’t sure anymore about what he believed regarding Jesus. The agnostic, secular mindset that Jerry held his entire adult life was being tested. He always figured if Jesus actually existed, he must have been a nice, caring guy who was tragically murdered at a young age, and then long after he was dead and gone other people had added miraculous fairy tale stories to his legend. But now Jerry wasn’t too sure what to believe. He had seen for himself that Jesus truly was an historical person. He had heard Judas claim to be a witness to genuine miracles, which didn’t necessarily make them true, but it did mean those stories were not invented decades later. Most of all, Jerry had looked directly into the eyes of Jesus as he dragged his heavy cross, and heard Jesus speak to him, “Jeremiah, believe in me.”
     So Roman soldiers or not, Mordecai’s paranoia or not, Jerry was determined to re-visit the tomb on Sunday morning to see for himself if the central claim of Christianity for 2,000 years did indeed occur.
     Jerry was able to detain Mordecai for a while on Saturday by reminding him that it was the Sabbath, and very few people would be out on the streets. If the Roman were looking to arrest Zealots—something Jerry emphasized was probably not the case—it would be hard for Mordecai to blend in with the crowds, as there would be no crowds.
     Still, by mid-afternoon on Saturday, Mordecai insisted he really was going to leave this time. Just as he finished bundling up his few possessions, someone knocked on the door. “It’s me, Simon,” a voice said.
     They opened the door and Simon the Zealot rushed in. Mordecai embraced the man and at the same time unleashed a barrage of questions. “What’s going on?” “Where are the other Zealots?” “Where should we go?” “What are our plans now?”
     Simon waved his hand in Mordecai’s face, trying to get him to be quiet. “We’re not sure exactly what’s going on,” Simon said. “So far, no one else has been arrested. We’re all just laying low for now. I’ve been hiding in the house where we had the Passover meal the other night. But I decided to go out for a while to gather information and to get away from the big fisherman.”
     “Fisherman?” Mordecai said. “You mean Peter?”
     “Yes, he’s hysterical,” Simon said shaking his head. “He’s been wailing and moaning non-stop, saying that he’s a worthless worm for denying the Lord. I think he might go and do to himself what the Iscariot did.”
     Mordecai unbundled his belongings and flopped onto the floor with his back against the wall. “So, we just sit here and wait,” he said with a frustrated voice. Then he turned his head and spit across the room for emphasis. Simon waved good-bye and slipped out the door. Jerry said a silent prayer of relief, thanking Simon for coming and convincing Mordecai to stay.
*    *    *
     Now it was Sunday morning. Jerry and Mordecai went out the city gate and scrambled down the rocky hills toward the cemetery. As they traveled Mordecai grumbled that he couldn’t believe he was doing something so stupid—and dangerous. “You are as annoying as my brother!” Mordecai said to Jerry.
     “What? What did you say?” Jerry asked.
     “Never mind,” Mordecai muttered, as the two men continued their journey.
     When they reached the massive rock where they had discovered Judas’ hanging body, the corpse was no longer there. The low hanging branch had broken away from its tree trunk. The two men carefully stepped toward a nearby ledge and peered down. About a hundred feet below they saw a body dashed against rocks, its neck still connected by a rope to a tree branch. Scavenger birds feasted on the bloody remains splattered on the rocks.
     The men winced and then moved on. When they finally reached the cemetery, Jerry scanned the landmarks to make sure it was the correct gravesite. It was definitely the same place, but things were much different than the last time they had been there. The huge stone had been rolled back up the incline. “Ten men would be needed to move it uphill,” Mordecai said, his annoyance about being dragged to a graveyard now replaced by curiosity.
     Scattered on the ground in front of the tomb were various articles of equipment abandoned by the Roman soldiers. “They must’ve left in a big hurry,” Mordecai noted as he picked up and admired the finest sword he had ever held.
     Suddenly, they heard the sound of hurried footsteps behind them. “Someone’s coming,” they said in unison and quickly hid behind a row of thick shrubs. They saw a man run up to the open tomb and peer inside. A minute later, another man staggered along, barely able to catch his breath. This man moved past the first man and ducked inside the tomb. After hesitating a moment, the first man also went inside. They both emerged finally, with looks of sheer astonishment on their faces.
     “I bet the big guy is the fisherman,” Jerry whispered. He stepped out from behind the shrubs before Mordecai could stop him.
     “Excuse me, are you Peter?” Jerry called out. The two men were startled by his voice. Then they stepped backward in fear when Mordecai appeared clutching the Roman sword.
     “No, don’t be afraid,” Jerry said quickly, waving his hands. “We’re not soldiers. We’re friends, really! We’re just trying to find out what happened to Jesus.” Jerry paused then added, to his own surprise, “Our Lord.”
     The tall man who had struggled to catch his breath tentatively stepped forward and said, “I’m Peter.”
     “Where’s Jesus?” Jerry asked excitedly. “What have you heard?”
     Peter glanced at his companion, then said to Jerry, “Well, some of the women came to us a little while ago with an incredible story. They said—”
     “That Jesus is alive!” Jerry interrupted.
     “Yes,” Peter said. “How did you know?”
     “Just a hunch,” Jerry replied, as a feeling of excitement and amazement welled up in his chest. “Have you seen him yet?” he asked.
     Peter shook his head. “That’s why we came here. But his body is gone.”
     Jerry walked toward the men and stuck out his hand. “I’m Jerry, uh, Jeremiah. And that’s my friend, Mordecai.” The men cautiously shook hands. Jerry learned the other man was named John.
     “You’ve never met me,” Jerry said, “but I’ve recently become interested in finding out about Jesus. Do you mind if we hang out with you for a while?”
     “Hang out?” John asked with a puzzled look on his face.
     “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just an expression,” Jerry said. “What I mean is, can we spend some time with you? Can we talk for a while? Can we talk about Jesus?”
     Peter and John hesitated, but then agreed. The four men left the cemetery and headed for the house where the other followers of Jesus waited anxiously.
     As they walked, Jerry turned to John and said, “John, huh? So, I bet you’re planning to write about all of this someday?”
     “Um, I never thought about that,” John answered.
     “Well, trust me, you will,” Jerry said matter-of-factly. “And when you do,” he continued, “please do me a favor: don’t mention that we were here, OK? I’d hate for Sister Mary Margaret to have to redo her lesson plans.”

SUNDAY EVENING
     Jerry Francis was trying hard to be a gracious guest. The followers of Jesus had reluctantly agreed to let Jerry and his friend Mordecai visit their secret lodging place in the city. Simon the Zealot was quite surprised when Peter and John arrived and introduced the two visitors. Simon had always downplayed his revolutionary activities when in the presence of the other disciples.
     As the afternoon wore on, each time Jerry asked a sincere question about Jesus, Mordecai would roll his eyes and exclaim, “Who cares about a dead man? Don’t you remember? We saw him crucified three days ago! He’s dead!” Some of the disciples in the room, especially Simon, agreed with Mordecai.
     “Yeah, I know, he WAS dead,” Jerry would reply. “But I think, I think maybe something miraculous occurred today.”
     Ever since he woke up a week earlier and found himself living in first century Palestine—some kind of bizarre miracle in itself—his feelings toward the possibility of miracles had softened. And now, after being an eye-witness to the Palm Sunday procession, the crucifixion, the burial, and the empty tomb, Jerry had to see for himself if the most important part of the story was true: did Jesus really rise from the dead?
     Late in the afternoon a woman named Mary Magdalene arrived breathlessly, and as soon as the door was locked behind her, she exclaimed, “I have seen the Lord!” She went on the relate the details of a conversation she had with Jesus in the cemetery garden.
     Mary’s news sparked another round of passionate discussions, with some in the group, including Jerry, clinging to the hope that Mary’s story was true, while others, including Mordecai and Simon, arguing that it was time to face facts, make plans to leave the city, and avoid being arrested.
     As they talked, though the door never opened, suddenly, Jesus stood among them. Every person in the room gasped in complete shock. Jesus smiled and said, “Peace be with you.”
     Jerry’s heart was racing. He looked closely at Jesus’ face, trying to determine if it was indeed the same man who had been nailed to the cross a few days earlier. Jesus displayed his gruesome wounds to the group. He then turned and looked straight at Jerry. For the third time, a cold chill ran down Jerry’s spine as that gentle gaze seemed to penetrate his soul.
     “Oh my, it really is you,” Jerry whispered with trembling lips.
     “Yes, Jeremiah,” Jesus said. “Greet Brenda for me. She has strong faith.”
     The quiet tension in the room was shattered when Mordecai yelled, “You ARE alive!” He fell to his knees in front of Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
     Jesus smiled and said, “You look familiar. Do you have a brother?”
     “Yes,” Mordecai answered, “My twin brother, Thomas, but I haven’t seen him in a long time. We no longer speak to each other.”
     The other men in the room laughed. “I thought I recognized that face,” Peter said. “Not to mention that stubbornness!”
     Jerry turned to John and said softly, “Remember what I said: when you write about this someday, leave us out of it.”
     Jesus proceeded to breathe on each person in the room and say, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When he breathed on Jerry, a warm glow enveloped Jerry’s body. He walked slowly to the side of the room and laid down on a cushion. The warm feeling wasn’t just physical, though his body felt wonderful. The sensation of peace and joy which filled his heart far outweighed the physical comfort. Jerry closed his eyes and basked in the love of God. He started to drift off in slumber.
*    *    *
     A few minutes later Jerry heard the voices of children shouting, “Daddy’s awake!” Before he could open his eyes, he felt small hands pawing at his right arm and chest.
     Then he heard a woman’s voice say, “Michael! Jennifer! Leave your father alone!”
     Jerry slowly opened his eyes. Bright, sterile white light made him squint. Everything was blurry. He felt a dull, pounding headache in the back of his skull. The woman’s voice now whispered from just a few inches away, “Jerry, can you hear me, honey? Are you awake?”
     “Um, yeah,” Jerry said in a weak and raspy voice. “I’m awake. Where am I?”
     “Yale-New Haven Hospital. You’ve been here for a week, ever since your car crash,” the woman’s trembling voice said.
     Jerry eyes finally were able to focus. “Brenda!” he exclaimed. “Is it really you?!” He sat up halfway in his hospital bed as he said this, and Brenda leaned over and put her head on his shoulder and wrapped her right arm around him in an awkward hug, trying not to disturb the intravenous tube connected to the back of Jerry’s left hand.
     “Oh, thank God,” she said through tears. “Oh Jerry, for a while there we thought we were going to lose you!”
     The two children who had stepped away from the bed at their mother’s command, now rushed forward to join in the group hug. As the young boy reached his arm around his dad, two plastic eggs fell out of his hand and rolled into Jerry’s lap.
     “Mikey! Jenny!” Jerry said joyfully. For the next few minutes all four people cried and laughed simultaneously.
     Brenda asked Jerry how he felt. Jerry ignored the question and said, “Brenda, you’ll never guess what happened to me!”
     “You mean the car accident?” Brenda asked.
     “No, after the accident,” Jerry said. “Where I went, and who I saw.”
     “What are you talking about?” Brenda said.
     Just then two doctors in white coats and another man hurried into the room. One of the doctors said, “I hear Sleeping Beauty finally woke up.”
     Jerry recognized the other man. “Vinny!” he said. “What are you doing here?”
     The man reached past one of the doctors and grabbed Jerry’s forearm. “Just keeping watch with your family, old buddy,” he said as his lower lip quivered. “Nice to have you back among the living.”
     The doctors methodically examined Jerry, and then proclaimed that he was doing terrific. After another day or two in the hospital for observation, they said, he should be able to go home.
     When the doctors left, Brenda said, “Oh honey, I’m so glad you woke up when you did. We were just about to go downstairs to the chapel. We would’ve missed you waking up.”
     “The chapel? What for?” Jerry asked.
     “Well, today is Easter,” she answered. “And the hospital chaplain is doing an Easter prayer service.” She glanced at the clock and said, “It started about a half hour ago.”
     Vinny said, “Well, I know something that’s going to start in about five minutes.” He picked up the remote on the table by Jerry’s bed and turned the TV on. “Bronx Bombers, baby!” he said. “Sunday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium. Too bad the hospital cafeteria doesn’t serve beer.”
     Jerry smiled at Vinny, who scrolled through the TV stations looking for the Yankees game. One of the channels was showing a replay of Easter Mass from the Vatican.
     “Go back, Vin,” Jerry said. “Go back to the church channel.”
     Vinny paused in confusion, then started clicking the remote. When he got to the channel showing the Easter Mass, he said, “This one?”
     Jerry answered, “Yeah, leave it there for a while.”
     Vinny shrugged and whispered to himself, “Man, he really did get hit in the head.”
     Jerry turned to Brenda and said, “Do you think that chaplain can visit me later?”
     “Well, I’m sure he will,” Brenda said. “I’ll call him after he’s done in the chapel.” Then Brenda stared at Jerry for a few moments and said tentatively, “Why do you want to talk to him, Jerry?”
     Jerry smiled at Brenda and said matter-of-factly, “Because it’s Easter. And because it’s true.”
     “What’s true?” Brenda asked cautiously.
     Jerry replied, “Jesus is true. He really did rise from the dead.”
     Brenda was speechless. Her eyes welled up with tears. Finally, she asked, “When did you find out it’s true?”
     “It’s a long story,” Jerry said with a laugh. “I’ll tell you when the chaplain’s here.” He reached out his arms and Brenda leaned forward. They embraced in a tight, passionate hug. Tears of joy trickled down each of their faces.
     Jerry whispered into her ear, “I met a friend of yours recently, who told me to greet you.”
     “A friend? Who?” Brenda asked as she stood up.
     Jerry gave her a mischievous smile, and said, “When the chaplain’s here, I’ll tell you that, too.”
THE END

(And if anyone has friends in Hollywood, I easily could turn this short story into a screenplay. Just sayin'.)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court - Part 3

THURSDAY
     Jerry Francis and his companions had done very little so far this day. They mostly sat around the cramped, smelly room in the boarding house and discussed recent events. They mostly discussed Jesus.
     At first Simon the Zealot was angry at Jesus, while Mordecai was confused. As the day went on and the discussions intensified, Simon’s anger abated. “Well, I’ll just ask him face-to-face tonight at the Passover,” he said. “Then we’ll know whether we should look to another to lead us in our revolt against Rome.”
     However, during the day Mordecai’s confusion gave way to firm conviction. He decided that Jesus was definitely a fraud. He felt betrayed that Jesus had raised their hopes about a new Jewish kingdom, only to dash them with his strange behavior and apparent appeasement toward Rome. He told Simon, “Don’t waste your breath. Jesus is NOT the one.”
     All the while Jerry listened to the discussions with rapt attention. Jerry knew that Jesus had no intention of leading a military revolt against Rome. If that were so, he surely would’ve remembered it from his catechism classes. No, Jesus was obviously a gifted speaker and leader, but his message was love and forgiveness, compassion and service toward others. When Jerry thought about the miracles Judas claimed to have witnessed, along with the Resurrection and Son-of-God-stories his wife Brenda believed, he shrugged his shoulders in confusion. I bet those fables were added on many years later, Jerry thought. I mean, that stuff can’t possibly be true.
     As Jerry continued to listen and think, he felt sad that Jesus was about to die on a cross. He could do so much more good for people if he has the chance to keep preaching and teaching, he thought. Then Jerry had another thought. But what if he doesn’t die on Friday? What if the crucifixion never occurs? Jerry smiled. If Jesus lives to be an old man, he’ll be able to preach his full message. And other people won’t be tempted to add miracle stories onto his legend just because he was a martyr. If I can stop him from being killed, I could change history—and for the better. If Jesus doesn’t die tomorrow the world will know his true message without all the fairy tales added on.
     Deep in thought, Jerry lost track of the conversation around him. His ears perked up when he heard Mordecai say, “Too bad our friend Barabbas is in prison. He would’ve made a fine leader. At least he fights. At least he kills Romans.”
     Barabbas? Jerry thought. That name rings a bell. Jerry wracked his brain to remember some details. He could only recall that the crucifixion takes place on Friday afternoon and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus causes it to happen. I need to get to Judas, Jerry said to himself. He’s the key. If I can convince him not to betray Jesus, then Jesus will live.
     Simon stood up and said, “I’ve got to get going. I’m supposed to meet the fisherman Peter near the east gate, and he’ll take me to the secret room where Jesus will celebrate the Passover.” Then Simon said to Mordecai, “And you have to get going, too. You need to buy the unleavened bread for your Passover.”
     “That’s right,” Mordecai exclaimed as he slapped his forehead. “Come Jeremiah, we’re late. We need to leave right now.”
     “Hey, uh, Simon,” Jerry said nervously, “you’re going to see Judas tonight, right?”
     “That’s correct,” Simon answered.
     “Well, I need to talk to him,” Jerry said. “Tell him to meet me here early tomorrow morning, OK?”
     Simon looked at Jerry suspiciously. “Well, all right,” he said. “I’ll tell him.”
     “Thank you,” Jerry said. Then he thought to himself, Good, that will give me time to stop Judas before he betrays Jesus.
     As the sun moved lower and lower in the sky, Jerry and Mordecai walked quickly down one of old Jerusalem’s countless narrow streets. They purchased unleavened bread and herbs from a curbside vendor. The bread reminded Jerry of a small New Haven-style pizza without any sauce or toppings. Mordecai looked up and saw that the sun had dropped out of sight, hidden behind the two-story buildings that lined the street. The shadows were growing longer. “Come!” he said urgently to Jerry, “It’s almost sunset.” Then he broke into a trot. Jerry struggled to keep up. Man, I’m in lousy shape, he thought. I should’ve played more sports rather than watch them on TV all the time. As he huffed and puffed, he added, And these stupid sandals are painful. I wish I had my Nikes.
     Soon throughout all of Israel the Passover meal would be celebrated. As he jogged behind Mordecai, Jerry realized he never attended a Passover before. If Jerry knew little about the Catholic faith in which he had been raised, then he knew even less about the Jewish faith. I hope I’m not called on to say or do anything as part of the ceremony, he thought. I’ll be clueless.
     The Passover meal was held in the back room of an old home at the end of a desolate street. Jerry recognized a few of the other zealots he had seen in recent days. A couple of women and five children also were in attendance. Jerry thought the ritualistic aspects and the prayers of the ceremony were interesting, although mostly incomprehensible. He recognized references to Moses and the Exodus, but since his knowledge of the Old Testament was even less than his meager knowledge of the New Testament, it was all a blur. There were some solemn moments during the evening, but also much laughter. Jerry was relieved that no one asked him to say or do anything.
     Jerry was delighted with the food. The roasted lamb and fresh bread tasted fabulous, especially compared to the dried fish and stale bread he had survived on since being transported into this strange world. The food portions still were tiny, but everyone seemed genuinely grateful. Jerry thought about all the abundant material goods he had enjoyed back in Connecticut, even though he considered his family to be barely middle-class. There was always plenty of food, to the point where Jerry and Brenda worried about getting fat. They had closets full of clothes. Their house was modest by Connecticut standards, but they had a finished basement with a hi-definition flat screen TV, a sizeable yard, and the children had their own bedrooms.
     As he looked at the smiling faces around the room, despite being in the midst of what his former world would label as abject poverty, Jerry felt guilty. These people are really happy, he thought. And they’re so thankful for the little things. Jerry then thought about a recent argument he had with Brenda. Jerry wanted to get a bigger big-screen TV, having decided their 42-inch screen was woefully too small to watch the Yankees games. Brenda wanted instead to use the money to get braces for Jennifer’s teeth. That’s why Jerry went to Vinny’s house that fateful night. Vinny’s new TV was a full 60 inches. Jerry shook his head and thought, What a jerk I am. If I ever get back home…
     Jerry paused then shook his head again. His eyes got misty. What are the chances that will happen? he asked himself sadly. I’m stuck here.
     After the meal, and after a few more cups of wine, Mordecai said, “Jeremiah, it’s time to go.” They said their goodbyes and left the house. The streets were quiet and dark. The wine had put Mordecai in a good mood. The wine also had made Jerry feel better, until he began to think about his family back in Connecticut.
     They returned to the boarding house room, and had just laid down to sleep, when a frantic knocking at the door startled them. “It’s me, Simon,” they heard in a loud whisper. “Open up!”
     Mordecai lit a small oil lamp, then motioned for Jerry to unlock the door. When he did, Simon the Zealot ducked in and quickly shut the door behind him.
     “What’s the matter?” Mordecai asked. “Why are you here at this hour?” Then Mordecai and Jerry noticed that Simon was clutching a dagger. He looked terrified.
     “I don’t know if I was followed,” Simon gasped, as he struggled to catch his breath. “There must have been at least 50 Roman soldiers. And Temple guards, too.”
     “Where? What are you talking about?” Mordecai asked.
     “In the garden. In Gethsemane,” Simon said. “Jesus took us there after the Passover meal. But then we all dozed off, and suddenly the place was filled with soldiers. The fisherman Peter started to fight. He cut off a man’s ear with his knife. But the rest of us ran. The soldiers were too many. They would’ve slaughtered us if we stayed and fought.”
     “Why were soldiers there?” Mordecai said.
     “To arrest him,” Simon answered. “To arrest Jesus.”
     Jerry’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. “Oh no,” he mumbled out loud. “Now I remember. He gets arrested the night before, in a garden, not during the day on Friday. I’m too late!”
     The other two men looked at Jerry in confusion. Then Mordecai turned back toward Simon and said, “How did they know you were there?”
     “The Iscariot!” Simon said with a sneer. “That coward Judas brought the soldiers to us. He almost got us all killed!”
     After a pause, Mordecai asked, “So now what happens?”
     Simon shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”
     Jerry said, “I know.” The two men looked at him again. “Jesus will be crucified tomorrow afternoon,” Jerry said matter-of-factly.
     “Crucified?” Simon said. “And so soon? How do you know this?”
     “It’s a long story,” Jerry whispered as he sat on his bed of straw with his back against the wall. He no longer was sleepy, and he no longer had any idea what he would do next.

FRIDAY
     Jerry Francis stood nervously in the middle of the large and agitated crowd. The Roman governor appeared at the top of a large stone platform and spoke. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” he shouted.
     The crowd replied, “Give us Barabbas!”
     Looking uncomfortable, the governor said, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”
     “Crucify him!” the multitude thundered. Jerry cringed. Then he noticed that Mordecai, his companion these past five days, was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Crucify!!”
     “Morty!” Jerry said, grabbing Mordecai’s arm, “Please don’t say that! Just a few days ago you were willing to follow Jesus anywhere!”
     “Yeah, but that was when I thought he was going to lead us in a violent revolt against the Romans,” Mordecai sneered. “Instead he turned out to be just another deranged religious dreamer.”
     Then Jerry heard the governor say, “Who shall I release to you?”
     The crowd, including Mordecai yelled, “Give us Barabbas!”
     Mordecai turned to Jerry and said, “Barabbas is a fighter! He can be our leader. Who needs Jesus?”
     When the governor asked the crowd, “What should I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” the entire mob, including Mordecai, screamed, “Crucify him!!”
     Jerry hung his head in sadness. Despite the fact he never paid much attention during his youthful catechism classes, he knew what was going to happen. It was futile at this point; Jesus was going to be crucified.
     The sound of the crowd increased to a steady roar. Over the din Jerry heard the rhythmic crack of a whip. A few minutes later the crowd shifted as a squad of soldiers emerged from the gate, escorting a frail prisoner who struggled under the weight of a large wooden beam. “C’mon, Morty, let’s follow,” Jerry said.
     “Why?” Mordecai asked in confusion. “There are too many soldiers. Let’s go find Barabbas instead.”
     “They have their victim,” Jerry said. “The soldiers aren’t going to bother us. C’mon, please. I want to see what happens.”
     There is no doubt that Jerry Francis desperately longed to be home, back in his comfortable middle-class house in Hamden, Connecticut, in the 21st century, with his wife Brenda and children Michael and Jennifer. For five consecutive days Jerry woke up in the morning expecting to smell fresh Dunkin Donuts brand coffee brewing in his kitchen. But for five consecutive days the first things Jerry’s nostrils detected in the morning were the smells of hay, urine, and body odor. Then in an instant all the sights and sounds and fears flooded back into his brain. Oh no, Palestine. Ancient Jerusalem. He was still stuck in his unexplainable nightmare. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Jerry asked himself those questions a couple times each hour, far less frequently compared to earlier in the week. If he was destined to be stuck “here,” in the middle of an historic time and place, he was determined not to miss it. He wanted to see each event—events he had suspected for most of his adult life were nothing more than folk legends—with his own eyes.
     Jerry and Mordecai followed the slow death march, careful to blend in with curious bystanders and not arouse the soldier’s suspicion. At one point, Jesus came within 15 feet of them. With the wood pressing down on his shoulder, Jesus turned his bloody head and looked straight at Jerry. A cold chill ran down Jerry’s spine as that gentle gaze once again seemed to penetrate his soul. Jesus paused for a moment, then said, “Jeremiah, believe in me.”
     The breath was sucked completely out of Jerry’s lungs. He stood there in shock as Jesus began to walk again. Mordecai turned to Jerry and said quietly, “Was he talking to you?”
     “I, uh, I don’t know,” Jerry stammered. “I, I think so. Maybe.”
     They continued to observe from a distance. The procession went out one of the city gates and followed a winding path down a steady incline and then upward to a small rocky hill. Jesus and two other men were stripped of their robes and nailed to their crosses. When Jesus’ cross was raised up into the air, Mordecai said flatly, “He’s as good a dead now. No one ever survives a Roman crucifixion.” Jerry could not remember feeling as sad as he did at that moment.
     As each torturous hour passed, Jerry was amazed that events were occurring just as his childhood catechism classes had described, and just as his wife Brenda had tried to explain on many occasions. Jerry cringed at the thought of how rudely and sarcastically he always responded whenever his wife tried to talk about her faith. All the while Mordecai fidgeted incessantly, baffled as to why Jerry wanted to stay and watch.
     Finally, when Jesus’ body was being taken down from the cross, dark clouds moved in and the wind picked up. Mordecai said, “OK, it’s over. Can we go now?”
     “Please, Morty,” Jerry replied, “I want to see exactly where they bury him.”
     “What in the world for?!” Mordecai said.
     “Just a hunch,” Jerry said quietly. “I’ll let you know for sure in a few days.”
     Careful to keep their distance, Jerry and Mordecai followed a small band of people to a nearby cemetery. The group consisted of an elderly, well-dressed man who led the way; two young men, apparently servants, who carried Jesus’ body; and about a half-dozen weeping women.
     The body was wrapped in strips of cloth and then placed inside a sizable hole dug into the side of a hill. Jerry looked around intently, noting various landmarks. Then the two servants struggled to roll a huge stone down a slight incline. The stone settled into place, completely blocking the opening. When a squad of Roman soldiers appeared, sent to seal and guard the gravesite, Mordecai grabbed Jerry’s arm. “That’s it,” he said. “We are leaving…now!”
     Daylight was fading fast. The two men walked away briskly, hoping to get back inside the city walls and reach the squalid boarding house before dark. Mordecai suggested a short cut. They would have to climb up some steep hills and rocks, but they could get to the gate much more quickly than following the meandering path. Jerry agreed and they set out.
     Short, gnarly trees poked out of the steep hill. Jerry and Mordecai grabbed the trunks and branches of these trees to assist their climb, especially when their sandals slipped on the loose dirt and gravel. When they were within 50 yards of the city gate, they climbed up to a small plateau and then walked around a massive boulder. Just as they reach the back side of the boulder, Jerry and Mordecai flinched and stopped short. They had almost walked directly into an unexpected object swaying gently in front of them. It was almost sundown and everything was in shadows. The two men stepped back and looked up to try and figure out what was in their path.
     Jerry blurted out, “It’s a man! Hanging from that tree!” The lifeless form was connected by a short rope, with one end around a low branch and the other end around his neck. The man’s feet dangled about four feet off the ground.
     Mordecai peered closely at the corpse and said, “It’s the Iscariot! It’s Simon’s friend Judas.”
     Jerry felt as if he was about to vomit. Except for wakes and funerals, he had never seen an actual dead body before. Now in the past few hours he had seen four, two of whom he felt like he had known personally.
     “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Mordecai said forcefully. The two men began to jog the final distance to the city gate. Jerry’s mind raced with a million thoughts. Yeah, that’s right, he thought, Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus. Now I remember. The sadness he felt after watching Jesus die was now compounded by the sadness of finding Judas dead. Jerry also felt guilty. He had wanted to stop Judas from betraying Jesus, but because he didn’t know the details of that historic week, he had been too late. They both would be alive if I had gotten to Judas in time, he thought. The next 2,000 years of history could’ve been so much different if I had stopped all this from happening.
     Once inside the city gate they hurried to the run-down boarding house. The city was pitch black and eerily silent. None of the other zealots were in the room. Mordecai wondered where everyone was. He became agitated at Jerry for making them spend the whole afternoon watching Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. “Maybe they all left the city,” Mordecai said. “Maybe the Romans have decided to arrest all the Zealots. Maybe they want to crucify all of us, too! Maybe we missed our chance to get out of here safely with Simon and the others. Jeremiah, you have put us in grave danger!”
     “No, wait a minute,” Jerry said defensively. “I don’t think the Romans want to arrest anyone else.”
     “How do you know?” Mordecai demanded.
     Jerry paused. How do I know? he thought to himself. He strained to remember any details. “Well,” he finally said, “It wasn’t really the Romans, it was the high priest and the other religious leaders. They only wanted to get Jesus. And now I think, um, I think they’re satisfied.”
     “I hope you’re right,” Mordecai grumbled as he laid down on his straw bed. He blew out the oil lamp and the room went dark. “But I know one thing,” Mordecai added. “We have to get out of this city as soon as possible. We have to meet up with Simon and Barabbas and the others and plan our next move. And we have to do it away from Jerusalem. This place is too dangerous.”
     Jerry laid on his straw bed staring straight up at the ceiling. He felt exhausted, but the events of the day continued to race through his mind. He kept seeing Jesus’ penetrating eyes and hearing his voice say, “Jeremiah, believe in me.” Jerry didn’t feel like he would ever fall asleep. But he knew he needed to rest up for the next day, which would be a very challenging day. And Jerry’s biggest challenge would be how to convince Mordecai to stay in Jerusalem for yet another night and then return to the same cemetery on Sunday morning.
To be continued.....