Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court - Part 4

     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.”

     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.”

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

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