The first time I saw Jesus, I was five years old. I was walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, holding my mom’s hand. He was tall, bearded, and dripping with blood. Two muscular men flanked him, their veins bulging as they supported the bulky wooden cross he dragged along behind him.
I remember the very moment that he turned toward me, the red circles around his eyes deep and sorrowful, the streaks of mud arranged in careless patterns across his cheeks, the crown of thorns gouging deep imprints into his forehead.
He smiled benevolently. I screamed and hid behind my mother. And then he was gone, his cross thumping along behind him, scattering the Easter Parade crowd.
Jewish girl meet Jesus. Jesus meet Jewish girl.
I was never the same after that. Sure, I’d grown up the only Jewish kid in town. Sure, I knew that my peers spent their Sundays at church doing mysterious rituals with wafers and wine. Sure, I’d seen statues depicting Jesus on the cross at my friends’ houses, outside of churches, hanging from the mirror of my cousin’s car.
But, this. This flesh and blood man parading down the street swathed in tattered sheets and blood invoked a visceral response in me like nothing I’d ever experienced.
My mom had raised me to believe that God was a mystical, magical power impossible to depict in any human way. He wasn’t like us, with our needs and our wants and our blood and our guts. Trying to put a human face on him was at best misguided, at worst, sinful.
And yet, there he was, strolling down the street, his mischievous eyes betraying his somber appearance. I’m not sure if it was the blood, or the pained expression on his face, or the repeated warnings of my mother, but, for whatever reason, from that moment on, I was terrified of Jesus.
He and I met many more times after that. At weddings, funerals, even a Christening or two. I developed a coping mechanism for dealing with my fear. As soon as I got into the church, I’d take a quick look around, take note of where all the crucifixes were, and find a seat as far away from them as I could.
I’d hide out in the pew while the priest delivered his sermon. I’d keep my eyes fixed on the beautiful stained glass windows as the church goers kneeled and crossed themselves, and then, when the good Catholics went up to eat Jesus’s flesh and drink his blood, I’d disappear into my seat.
Eventually, I came to understand my fear, and with that understanding came peace. Jesus to me was the manifestation of everything my mother had warned me about. Worshipping false idols, assimilation, ascribing divine powers to humans. Growing up as the only Jew in town, I’d been indicted as an accessory to his death on more than one occasion. Add to that the shocking images of a man nailed to a cross and covered with blood, and it’s no wonder I was terrified.
I ended up marrying a wonderful man, who happened to be raised Catholic. This meant a lot more meetings with Jesus. Each time got a little easier. I could maintain eye contact now without feeling that sharp clenching in my stomach.
And then I had my own children. For a long time, I avoided any event that involved church. We’d skip the wedding and head straight to the reception, claiming that the kids were too little to sit through the service. The truth was, I wasn’t ready for my kids to meet Jesus yet.
Then my brother-in-law got married, and my husband was asked to be in the wedding party. I couldn’t make excuses anymore. It was time to make a formal introduction.
The day of the wedding, I grasped my son’s hand tightly as we went into the church. He’s the kind of kid who carries bugs outside instead of squishing them, the kind of kid who cries over lost toys and hurt feelings. How in the world was he going to handle seeing a bloody man nailed to a cross?
Before we could get inside, one of his cousins spotted him. My son ran ahead of me, and the two boys scrambled into the church together, their high-pitched voices echoing through the somber vestibule.
I followed close behind.
Jesus was waiting for us inside, his arms spread wide in a welcoming gesture, his eyes smiling kindly.
“Who’s that?” my son asked.
“It’s Jesus.” his cousin answered.
“He looks nice.”
I peered further ahead into the church. The next statue was the one I feared most. The Jesus of my childhood, nailed to the cross, rivulets of blood pouring down his cheeks. My first instinct was to shield my son, but he was already inside, racing down the aisles with his cousin.
My son stopped short when he saw the crucifix. His small hands curled and uncurled, his bottom lip quivered. He looked for his cousin, but the older boy had skipped ahead, past Jesus in his many phases of life, cherubic infant, earnest young man, wilted corpse in his mother’s arms.
I came up beside my son and took hold of his hand.
“Are you ok?” I asked. He shook his head furiously.
“It’s just a statue, nothing to be afraid of. It’s not real.” I whispered.
“But, my cousin said that he was God’s son and that people killed him because he was so good, and God loved him, and they were jealous.”
My mom’s voice screamed in my head. Tell him that he isn’t God’s son! Tell him humans can’t be like God! Tell him Jewish people only believe in God!
I thought about my own childhood. About how faith in God was not a conversation but a lecture, about how Jesus was a physical representation of the fear I felt for deviating from Judaism, about how he symbolized the error of trusting humanity over the divine, about how much I wanted my son to forge his own spiritual path without fear of judgement.
“That’s what some people believe.”
“What do you believe, Mom?” His big eyes searched my face for the truth.
I took a deep breath and knelt down beside him.
“I think Jesus was probably a nice man who tried to do good things in the world.”
“Like Saphta?” he asked. The comparison of Jesus to my Jewish mom made me laugh a little.
“Yes. Like Saphta.”
“Why would anyone want to kill him if he was nice?”
“Because people are sometimes afraid of things they don’t understand.”
He reached up one small hand into the air and leaned towards the statue. I sucked in my breath. Should I let him touch Jesus? Was that allowed? Would it be some violation of our Judaism? Of Catholicism?
He stroked Jesus’ hand and smiled.
“I’m not afraid of him. I understand him.”
And just like that, they became friends.