Jerry Francis gazed at the stars, twinkling brightly against the pitch black sky. How pretty, he thought. Then his attention shifted as he realized thorns were poking him in the back. A moment later his thoughts changed once again, and Jerry now wondered why he was lying in a briar patch staring at the sky, why his mind seemed to be operating in slow motion, and what in the world was that odd hissing sound?
Lifting his head slowly, Jerry looked toward the curious noise. He saw the silhouette of a car about 20 feet away, with the driver’s door flung open. Steam spewed from the spot where the crumpled front end pressed against a large maple tree. Fragments of information began to drift into Jerry’s foggy brain: he had been watching a baseball game on TV at his friend Vinny’s house. He never called home to tell his wife Brenda where he was. It was after midnight when he finally left. He was driving fast along the deserted state highway and rehearsing out loud what he hoped would be a believable excuse. And that’s all he could remember.
Jerry raised his hand and gently touched the lump on the top of his forehead. No wonder everything’s foggy, he thought. The next thought to pop into his mind was, I’ve got to get back to the road and flag down another car. He lurched into the sitting position and immediately saw more stars as the blood drained from his head. “Oh no,” he mumbled, “Don’t faint now…” But it was too late. The last sensation he felt before losing consciousness was the tingle of thorns poking him again as he flopped onto his back.
* * *
Jerry felt the bright sunshine before he actually saw it. As he emerged from his long and deep slumber, the warmth of the sun baked against his face. A few moments later, as his eyes started flickering behind closed lids, he saw vivid red colors. When he opened his eyelids ever-so-slightly, blinding white light streamed in, causing Jerry to cup his hand over his face. As he lay there, trying desperately to remember exactly where he was and exactly how he had gotten there, another curious sound filled his ears: the growing crescendo of a large group of people shouting, which reminded him of the crowd at Yankee Stadium when the bases were loaded and the cleanup hitter was striding toward the plate.
As Jerry wondered why a crowd of people would be gathered along a rural state highway in the suburbs of New Haven, a clear voice pierced the air from no more than a few feet away. “Jeremiah! Jeremiah!” the voice said. Then Jerry felt a hand grab his shoulder. “Jeremiah! Why are you sleeping?! Come on, get up. He’s almost here!”
With help from the mysterious hand, Jerry slowly sat up and carefully peeked through the fingers still covering his face. He saw the blurry form of a man kneeling beside him.
“Are you…are you the ambulance driver?” Jerry asked slowly.
“Were you drinking wine all night?” came the terse reply. As Jerry thought to himself, no, I only had a few beers at Vinny’s, the voice continued, “It’s me, Benjamin, and the man I told you about last night, Jesus of Nazareth, is here! He’s entering into Jerusalem! Can’t you hear the crowds?!”
Jerry eyes were finally adjusting to the bright sunshine, and he took a long look around at his surroundings. What he saw almost caused the blood to drain from his head again.
Yes, there was a crowd of people there, hundreds of folks lining each side of the road. But Jerry no longer wondered why a crowd was gathered on a rural state highway—despite their curious clothing—because he was too busy wondering why the road was no longer paved and how all the maple and pine trees had turned into palm trees.
The man called Benjamin helped Jerry to his feet. As he stood, Jerry looked down and noticed he was wearing a long tan robe and had sandals on his feet. “What the— Where’re my jeans? My Nikes?” he said. Jerry paused and looked at the excited crowd waving palm branches. “Toto,” he whispered to himself, “We’re not in Connecticut anymore.”
“Oh, here he comes!” Benjamin yelled.
The shouting grew louder and some people stepped forward and spread palm branches and articles of clothing in the center of the dusty road. A small procession came into view. Above the roar, Jerry heard people, including Benjamin, proclaim in unison, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
The procession came near Jerry’s spot along the road. Not exactly the Rose Bowl parade, he thought. About ten bearded men were in the lead, holding palm branches and waving to the crowd. Next was the obvious center of attention, a man riding sidesaddle on a donkey. Another eight or ten men brought up the rear, with some women and children following in their wake, and that was the entire show.
When the donkey was directly in front of Jerry, the rider looked straight at him and smiled. A cold chill ran down Jerry’s spine as the man’s gentle gaze seemed to penetrate his soul. “Whoa, wait a minute,” he said, as the last bit of fogginess vanished from his brain. “This looks just like…” his voice trailed off as he tried to recall the details of his childhood Catechism classes. “But, but it can’t be,” he said. “That was 2,000 years ago.”
For a moment, Jerry wished he had accompanied his wife and kids to church once in a while. But then he quickly remembered why he never went to church: he simply didn’t believe any of it. “Oh, I’m sure there was a guy named Jesus,” he would tell Brenda whenever she brought up the subject, “but all that stuff about miracles is a bunch of fairy tales.”
“Isn’t he wonderful?!” Benjamin shouted, interrupting Jerry’s thoughts. “Jesus will be the new king of Israel! He’s going to lead us in a violent revolt against the Romans, just like I told you last night!”
“What do you mean, ‘last night’?” Jerry asked. “Last night I was watching a Yankees game on Vinny’s big-screen TV.”
“Last night you were with me,” Benjamin replied, “at the secret meeting of the Zealots. You pledged your life to help us overthrow the Romans.” As Benjamin spoke, he carefully opened the front of his cloak and revealed two sharp daggers hanging from his belt. “And here’s the weapon I promised to give you.”
Benjamin carefully passed one of the 12-inch blades to Jerry, who held it by the handle between thumb and forefinger as if it were a dead mouse. “Ohh-kaaay,” Jerry said slowly. “Someday you’ll have to fill me in on the details of what I did last night.”
“Hide it in your cloak,” Benjamin ordered urgently. “You know we’re not allowed to have weapons. We’ll be arrested if they catch us!”
Jerry nervously fumbled with the dagger and concealed it in his robes, relieved that no blood was drawn in the process.
“Now, come on,” Benjamin said. “Let’s follow Jesus and meet up with our brother revolutionaries. Maybe the battle against the Romans will begin today!”
“Wait a minute, Benny,” Jerry stammered as he grabbed Benjamin’s arm, “I, uh, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here, but I think I have an idea who this Jesus is, and you gotta trust me, it’s not gonna happen that way.”
“What do you mean?” Benjamin asked.
“I, I don’t think Jesus is going to lead an army and drive out the Romans,” Jerry replied. “At least—if I understand what Sister Mary Margaret taught me twenty-five years ago—not in this world. In fact, Benny, by Friday this whole crowd is going to demand that Jesus be put to death!”
“You were drinking all night!” Benjamin laughed. “How are you going to kill Romans with your head filled with wine?”
Jerry couldn’t think of an answer—he couldn’t even comprehend the question—but the idea of a stiff drink sounded pretty good. Benjamin put his arm around Jerry’s shoulders and the two men began walking up the dusty road toward the center of Jerusalem. As they walked, Jerry shook his head in amazement. “Man,” he said softly, “Brenda is never gonna believe this excuse.”