The Second Coming
Paul liked serving 6:15 Mass—the church still wintry dark, the priest mumbling his Latin, always the two frocked old ladies on their knees a few pews back, working their rosaries. Sometimes, kneeling in his crisp cassock and surplice and gazing past the flickering red votives into the anything-may-happen gloom behind the altar, Paul would get an antsy feeling, as if they were all waiting for something, here in this mysterious space, dressed up like company was coming . . . The only thing missing was Jesus himself—not the one in the tabernacle, but the actual guy, who they all said was coming back, would be one of us; maybe even me, Paul’d sometimes think. The original Jesus, after all, was about his age when he’d snuck off to shoot the bull with the Pharisees, mouthing off about doing his father’s business, probably pissing off Joseph. But then, making the leap to thinking you’re God? How was that different from being a crazy person?
This morning, Father’s echoing dominus vobiscums lulled Paul into a half sleep, and as his body tilted then jerked upright, he either thought or dreamed, What if whatever it was, the thing that made Jesus know he was Jesus, happened to me today? He imagined a shiver, and a rushing sound. A wheel? A burning bush? Or a bell, he thought, reaching for the one next to him just in time and giving it a nervous shake as Father raised up the host. Father shot him an alarming look, and for a second Paul thought Oh God is it happening? then realized he was still jingling the bells and eased them down. Father intoned the mystery of the wine, sanguinis mei, then raised the cup, now containing the actual blood of Christ, if you could believe that. As Paul again lifted the bells he looked past the raised chalice to the dark wall behind the altar, at the spooky outline of the body hanging by nails from the life-size wooden cross. He couldn’t see the painted blood flowing from the hands or the side, but knew it was there. He wanted to think that the second time around things wouldn’t end so badly.
At communion the two ladies knelt at the railing, paying no attention to Paul and his crumb-catcher, and he thought, Of course, the revelation would most likely be personal and private, that he alone would know he was filling with Jesus-ness, and he could picture himself relaxed, nodding, of course I’m Jesus. No big deal. But what then? Would he have to become Jewish? What would he tell his parents? They’d be thinking, no Jesus was ever that human, before pointing out loud to his less than solid B average, which was being dragged C-ward by his failure in History to correctly order the Popes. Of course, Jesus hadn’t had any Popes to memorize, but still, there were the begats to keep straight, the tribes of Joseph and so on; Jesus would have rattled them off with a shrug, no problem, before getting onto the heavy philosophical stuff with the Temple Elders. Benedict, Leo, Pius, John Paul, Paul recited to himself, and his eyes drooped.
Then he snapped awake, struck by the frightening possibility that you could be Jesus but not even realize it. Like the original Jesus, who might have just started to worry when Pilate’s soldiers were leading him into some little room where a guy was connecting rosebush stems into a circle and laughing about how it looked like a crown, the perfect thing for the King of the Jews. No way I ever said that, Jesus might have protested, You’re totally misconstruing, I mean I come off as arrogant sometimes but mostly I’m talking about being nice to each other. But then he hears hammering outside the window, a guy walks in with a whip, and Jesus realizes too late he’s pissed off the wrong people and has that first dreadful inkling of what’s to come, abandoned by his friends, his Dad nowhere around. Of course there’s no appealing to mercy or forgiveness, because
that’s the kind of talk that got him in trouble to begin with.
Father locked up the hosts and finished off the consecrated wine, wiping his lips as if nothing had happened. Paul’s gaze drifted around the Stations of the Cross, the horrible procession up to Calvary, then to the statue of St. Francis wavering in the candlelight, a bird perched on one hand, his other open-palmed toward Paul as if to say Why not you? He examined his conscience for disqualifying sins, thinking back to his last confession, the three Hail Marys for fighting with his big sister. But if stuff like that counted, who could ever be Jesus?
Father closed the tabernacle, which clanged in the empty church like a cell door, then turned to give the Benediction, In Nomine Patre . . . Paul crossed himself then followed Father back into the dark sacristy, where they removed their vestments.
“Father, do you believe it’s true Jesus will come back again?”
“Well, Paul, I think he might be among us already.”
Paul hung up his surplice and got out of there.
Outside, the ground was frosted, and a last star hung above the reddening horizon. Paul mounted his bike, and as he pedaled out of the parking lot a chilly gust shivered up under his windbreaker and the first stab of sunlight cut through the pin oaks, almost blinding him. He cranked it up a gear, then another, standing on the pedals until he was zooming down Mission Road like Bicycle Man, wind stinging his cheeks, loose jacket flapping like a cape. He let out a huge cry and sparrows scattered from the passing trees.