Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court - Part 3

     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.

     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.....

No comments:

Post a Comment