On Good Friday, I take a walk on the beach, reminded, by the swiftly moving clouds that give me bright sun one minute and shadows the next, of that hour, roughly two thousand years ago when Jesus died on his cross. It is recorded that suddenly the sky grew dim as he expired, and that the heavens broke loose with fury. Or, was that just the movie version, as in Ben Hur, when the lepers, Tirzah and Miriam, are washed clean by torrential rain mixed with the blood of the cross and are miraculously restored to lovely skin?
Every time a cloud hides the sun, I look up from the sand beneath my feet and wonder again about the real Jesus, what had happened to him, and what had happened to me as an alter-Christus, now relaxed and threading my way through the careless frolicking families enjoying a day off without honoring its provider. The little children shrieking their way into the waves have no fear of God, and their watchful parents, standing with arms folded over large and exposed bellies, have greater fear of sharks than of heaven. The elderly mahogany Jewish couples deep into their retirement who daily schlep their chairs, umbrellas and books to the exact same spot on the sand. The supple collegiates diving into that sand with paired fists to keep a volley ball aloft. The lean surfers in their floral board shorts, billboarding the beauty of their apexed youth. They do not ponder the fate of Jesus. Am I the only one in this crowd and on this beach aware of the day and its unshakable meaning?
I stop occasionally, stooping to inspect and collect a bit of bleached coral more interesting than the others. This has been my approach to Jesus throughout my life. I have read everything he supposedly said, learned everything he supposedly did, and have been lectured by important theologians all about him. I have surveyed the lot of Jesus and have kept within my heart just those bits that I felt important and true of him. I have made strenuous efforts (and I think successful ones) to wipe from my eyes the Jesus presented to me by religious leaders who zealously want me to believe on him, to buy into him, to accept him and to bind myself to the rules of their clubs. Their Jesus is no different from the Hollywood celebrities presented on the couches of late night talk shows whose hosts want our fervent appreciation and hypnotic fascination to sell their product. I would not really know them unless I were to cross their paths here on this beach, unformatted and without cameras. I begin to count the great number of Jesuses I have discarded.
There is that Jesus described in the Creed recited by Roman Catholics for centuries. The one who, while dead and in the tomb, descended into hell for a few days! If an explanation for his descent into hell was ever given me, I have not retained it. Something about the need to free souls erroneously trapped there and awaiting salvation. (Passing Orpheus and Dante on the stairs? A mumbled “Don’t go there”?) A list of names. A haggling and chagrined Satan. I imagine that what actually happened was a conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples over dinner sometime after his resurrection. They ask him, “So what was it like? Being dead. Being in that tomb for a few days. What did it feel like?” Jesus takes a sip of wine, looks them in the eye, and says “You really want to know what it was like? I’ll tell you what it was like. It was hell.” His response is repeated for years to come by the disciples and among the early Christians and eventually finds its twisted way into church dogma, no longer a zinger, and far a field from its real meaning.
There is the Jesus of the morbidly underutilized penis finally revealed to friends, family and hecklers while on the cross (except in the G rated versions in which it is never revealed and is always draped by a bit of strategically floating swaddling or shroud). I never understood why we needed to believe that he was celibate. I do understand that when one is charged with the writing of advertising copy, editing the distractions is key. The writers of the major gospels and the zealots of Christian religion had bigger fish to fry, and so the sexual Jesus (the ejaculating Jesus) was kept out of the picture in favor of the godly one. Besides, he does not strike me as a kiss-and-teller. What he and his disciples did in Vegas stayed in Vegas.
There is the Jesus really and miraculously and substantially present in the bread and wine transformed into his body and blood in the course of every Roman Catholic Mass that is performed. I know it shocks you Catholic believers, but I never got this one. As often as I raised the host and chalice and proclaimed the words to you from my side of the altar, I just never felt it the way I think I was supposed to feel it. I never even felt the need to feel it. I do know that in human communion there are probably no more beautiful times than those spent eating and drinking with loved ones. Invoking the names of those who are away from us. Remembering friends who have died. Is not that enough? Would it not be sufficient to think that the words of Jesus could aptly be translated as “Whenever you all get together on a night like this, I will be there with you.” Is that sentiment less than perfect? It certainly seems to be, as expressed in the tortured pens of centuries of indignant theologians who insist on Transubstantiation. I recall a Sunday many years ago when I had just finished Mass and was taking off my vestments in the sacristy. A group of agitated pious ladies rushed in to tell me that a Down Syndrome boy returning from Communion had spat the host out onto the floor of the aisle next to his pew. A few of their group remained there, guarding it and making sure that no one stepped on it. Would I please come immediately and deal with this terrible situation? I looked over at the pastor who was preparing to say the next Mass. He hid from them the smirk that said to me “Deal with it, boy.” I followed them back into the nave of the church where they led me to a wet bit of beige paste on the tile. They formed a circle around me as I produced a kleenex and picked it up, inspecting the morsel in the palm of my hand. It was obvious that they were wondering what I would do with it. I am quite sure that some of them wanted me to reverently eat it at that very moment to prove that my love of Jesus was stronger than the yuck factor. I was thinking that what I would really like to do would be to single out one of them by name and to make her eat it herself. “Don’t worry.” I said, “Every church has a special drain called a Sacrarium leading deep into the earth for exactly this purpose.” I folded up the kleenex and left them relieved that the piece of Jesus had been protected from harm through their intercession. Back in the sacristy, other folks demanded my attention, and I entirely and unintentionally forgot about the kleenex that ended up back in my pocket. It was not until the following Sunday when I again encountered those ladies that I realized the fact that I had not flushed the remnant down that special drain. That I was no longer in possession of that kleenex. I had gone out to the local gay bar that night for the Sunday beer blast. I had spent some time later that night with a local funeral director in the back seat of his car in the parking lot of that bar. Things had gotten pleasantly messy. I wondered if perhaps he and I had shared that kleenex while we spoke of the funerals he had scheduled in my church for the upcoming week. Please understand that if I had remembered the task when I returned to the sacristy, I would have sent Jesus down the appropriate drain for sacred decomposition. Not because I believed in Transubstantiation but simply out of respect for a man I love, just as I would honor the urned ashes of a close friend should any ever end up with me.
So many fake Jesuses not to love. The pious and meek one. The DC Comics one who struggles with his quarreling divine and human natures. The demanding one.
So many real Jesuses to love. The fun-loving one who rode an ass into Jerusalem in mock procession. The intemperate one who knotted a cord and drove the money changers out of the temple. But most of all, the story-telling Jesus. Have you heard the one about the prodigal son? The boy comes home after a life of debauchery and his father, seeing him in the distance, runs out to meet him and welcomes him back with great celebration and no questions asked. That is my favorite. That is why I know that in that cloud passing overhead there is no bolt of lightening to be aimed at my head. That is why I know that nothing I can do or say on this earth will get me into or out of his embrace. No amount of running in the opposite direction will ever distance me from him. And when I climb out of this body and out of the warp of time and space, just as he did, I will find that I have been at the same table with him all along, and if, while at that table, I should shed a nostalgic tear as I recall some part of my fantastic life, he will reach into his robes with a smile and produce an old kleenex…