Playing Jesus

nativity
I can only remember one Christmas that comes close to being this grim, and it happened when I was eight. That’s the year I decided to play Jesus.

I hate knocking on doors, especially on Christmas Eve. Especially at a hipster apartment complex with an onsite dog park and a zillion tiny balconies overlooking the Priuses. Especially for the fourth time, when I know somebody’s home because I can hear a gooey Josh Groban song blaring through the door.

“It’s Network Cable,” I yell, knocking harder. “Somebody schedule a service call?”

There’s movement at the peephole as the music goes silent. “Can I see some identification?” asks a suspicious voice.

Yeah, because my bright-red logo shirt isn’t enough. I hold my badge up to the peephole.

“I can’t read it. Slide it under the door.”

I get tired of people assuming the big Puerto Rican man is there to rob them. “I’m not really comfortable with that—”

“I know you Mexicans go for white girls. Slide it under the door.”

Did she really just say that?

“Ma’am . . . you made an appointment with the cable company, right? Why don’t you call the 800 number? They’ll verify Domingo Perez is an employee.”

“I have to call somebody because you won’t push your ID under the door?”

I almost walk away, but I don’t want another customer complaint. I reluctantly surrender my ID.

I also decide this will be a special visit. I’ve been on the job for three years, so I know all the ways to “troubleshoot” while accomplishing absolutely nothing. It’ll serve this woman right not to be able to watch Rudolph tomorrow—or whatever racist white ladies do on Christmas.

The door finally cracks open. This woman’s in her mid-forties, wearing a slightly creepy teddy bear shirt over leggings, and she’d be kinda pretty if she wasn’t staring at me like I’m a convicted felon. I try a smile and a “Merry Christmas” as she lets me in.

She doesn’t say hello; she just points to the living room. “The cable box-thing’s in there.”

This was the worst Christmas Eve ever before I got here, and now, it’s even more worst. (Is that a thing?) I can only remember one Christmas that comes close to being this grim, and it happened when I was eight. That’s the year I decided to play Jesus.

* * *

Christmas Eve as a kid meant going to Abuela’s house (that’s “Grandma” to you), eating amazing food till I couldn’t move, and opening one present—¡solamente uno!—before the next morning’s giftwrap blizzard.

But before anybody touched a present, all the cousins had a solemn duty: to act out the Nativity while Abuela read from the Gospel of Luke. I hated it because I was always the donkey for Mary to ride on. Sometimes it was tough being the fat kid.

After we finished our pageant one year, I decided we should act out the rest of the story. You know, the part that isn’t in the Bible, where Jesus grows up and learns how to be a carpenter? But I wasn’t content with donkeyhood; I wanted to be the Prince of Peace! The cousins agreed to play along after I wrestled two of them into submission. Sometimes it was good being the fat kid.

“Javi, you can be Joseph,” I told my favorite cousin. “You teach Jesus how to build stuff.”

“What about the rest of us?” asked Lina, another cousin.

“Um . . . you’re customers at our carpenter’s shop.”

“But that’s boring!”

“Now you know how the donkey feels.”

With casting complete, only one thing was missing: props. I went to Abuela’s garage to borrow a hammer and boards. Javi thought we should ask permission, but I was sure Abuela wouldn’t mind.

Javi and I started pretending to build a table. Unfortunately, the other cousins didn’t have anything to do, and I could tell they were close to a mutiny when Lina got a brilliant idea. “I’m gonna catch Jeopardy,” she announced (meaning leprosy). “Now Jesus can heal me!”

Miracle-working sounded like more fun than table-building, so I walked over to Lina, mulling what a healer should say. “In the name of JEEE-zuss,” I pronounced, “be HEEE-uhled!” Then I smacked her forehead like I’d seen a preacher do on TV.

“OW!” Lina protested. “Why’d you say ‘in the name of Jesus’? Isn’t that you?”

“Lina, stop being . . . you aren’t sick anymore, okay? Who else needs healing?”

Everyone immediately crowded around me for a miracle. Everyone, that is, except Javi. “Jesus didn’t do miracles till he grew up; it’s not in the Bible!” he said, arms crossed. “We better build tables or we’ll get in trouble. With God.”

Feeling vaguely guilty, I picked up the hammer and asked Javi to hold a board. But Lina was dancing around singing, “Thank you, Domingo-Jesus,” which I admit was kinda sacrilegious, while the other cousins clamored for healings. My brain wasn’t on carpentry at all. When I took a hammer swing, I missed the board . . . and walloped Javi’s thumb.

We celebrated the rest of Christmas Eve in the emergency room.

On the drive, Mom enumerated my sins. “You borrowed Abuela’s hammer without permission,” she hissed, “and were so careless that your cousin’s going to the hospital. What were you thinking?”

“I had to do something,” I protested. “Lina had Jeopardy!”

When we got to the ER, Abuela took the job of watching the kids in the waiting room. The whole Perez clan went along, of course, because everyone had to make sure Javi was okay. Puerto Ricans have big, tight families. It’s how we’re planning to take over the world.

I didn’t stay in the waiting room with the other kids. I passed the time in Javi’s exam cubby, miserably holding his hand while he dozed on a gurney. Meanwhile, I prayed in agony that God would forgive my sins.

Abuela appeared in the doorway sometime during the vigil. She smiled at me, but I lowered my eyes to the floor in shame.

“Sometimes I wonder,” she said softly, resting a hand on my shoulder, “why God made it so we can hurt each other. And why he doesn’t always heal us.”

I eyed Abuela warily: Was this some weird extension of Mom’s guilt trip?

“But when I see the times we love each other the best,” she said, patting my hand that was clasped in Javi’s, “I think maybe I understand.”

I didn’t know exactly what Abuela meant, but that’s when I realized it was okay to let go of the guilt. Before the tears landed, Abuela was holding me. And suddenly, Christmas Eve wasn’t quite so bad.

* * *

I wish the lady on this service call was just a little bit like Abuela.

I figure out her problem right away—the cable modem’s dead. I consider getting a new one out of the van to be done with her, but she’s looking over my shoulder like I might steal the dust from behind her TV—so close I can smell her bad breath. Plus, she’s sniffling nonstop. Even with a mask, I wonder if she’s giving me COVID.

“Ma’am, would you mind if I ask . . . are you feeling all right?”

“Would you mind if I ask you to do your job?”

That seals it: No modem today. “I need to get some supplies from my van,” I tell her.

Actually, I need to get out of her apartment before I say something that gets me fired.

I call Javi as soon as I climb into the van. I’m supposed to be staying at his house right now, but Abuela’s in the hospital with COVID, which means the whole family in Cleveland is quarantined. That’s why I volunteered to work Christmas Eve—I might as well get holiday pay.

Of course, it’s also why this is the worst Christmas Eve ever. It might be Abuela’s last one.

“How’s she doing?” I ask when Javi picks up.

“Same,” says Javi. “She’s in and out of . . . y’know, being awake. They’re saying she might need a ventilator.”

“Are they gonna set up the iPad?”

“When somebody at the hospital has time, they’ll point the camera so we can ‘visit.’”

“Call me if—y’know, when something—”

“If there’s anything bad, you’ll know as soon as we do.”

I literally jump when I hear a loud tapping on the window, and whirl to see that it’s the lady from the apartment. She apparently thought it was worth coming down two flights of steps to deliver a glare.

“I can see you from my balcony,” she says. “Maybe you could wait until after work to call your girlfriend?”

“Gotta go, cuz,” I mutter to Javi. Then I literally bite my tongue to remind myself to shut up, because the boss thinks all customers are saints—even the ones who ride broomsticks.

I grab a toolkit as a flimsy excuse for my trip to the van and follow the lady inside. As we walk in, I notice she has a little wooden cross hanging on the kitchen wall. It clearly doesn’t do much for her. But with Abuela on my mind, it reminds me of the other time in my life I played Jesus.

* * *

Pastor Lee organized a youth Passion play when I was a sophomore. He recruited me to play Jesus: not because I could act, but because I could carry a cross. At least my fat-kid credentials didn’t make me the donkey again.

The Roman soldiers were a pair of cooler-than-thou brothers who only came to church when their mom threatened them—and smoked weed in the bathroom when they did. They made me their target from the first rehearsal to the last.

“Forget nails—we need a crane to put you on the cross, Fat Jesus.”

“You were supposed to feed 5,000 people with that food! Why’d you eat it all?”

“Hey, I figured out how you walk on water. Fat floats!”

I tried laughing along. I tried ignoring them. Nothing made it stop.

Then at dress rehearsal, I found out I was supposed to wear a loincloth as my costume. I refused to put it on until Mary Magdalene (my crush) told me it looked fine. But nobody told the Roman soldiers. They hit right where it hurt.

“I always wondered why you and Mary Magdalene never hooked up, Fat Jesus. Now that I’ve seen you in a loincloth, I understand.”

I was mortified, and the insults weren’t the worst of it. As I staggered under the cross during rehearsal, one of the brothers pulled down my costume. I dropped the cross with a giant bang.

When I looked down to see my tighty whities showing, then glanced over at Mary Magdalene trying not to laugh, I lost it. I picked up a prop hammer from the stage and flung it at the brother who pantsed me. My weapon caught him on the shin and he collapsed on the floor.

The other brother, however, instantly knocked me sprawling. I was saved from a beatdown when Pastor Lee and John the Disciple grabbed his arms in the nick of time. I didn’t wait to see if he got loose. I stalked offstage to the restroom, threw my clothes back on, and ran straight for Abuela’s.

I’m not sure why I went to her house; mine was closer—I guess because that’s where I went whenever I was upset. Anyway, I joined a cousin in the den watching TV and ignored a bunch of texts from Pastor Lee.

What I didn’t know was that Pastor Lee had already called Abuela. She walked into the den with a Bible in her hand and turned off the tube. While my cousin and I protested, she flipped pages. Finally, she read aloud:

“‘The soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and stripped him. They draped a scarlet robe across his back and placed a crown of thorns on his head. Then they bowed before him and spit upon him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”’”[1]

Abuela snapped her Bible shut. “If I was Jesus, I think that’s when I would’ve quit,” she said. Then she walked out.

In the silence as my cousin stared, I decided maybe I should text Pastor Lee back.

The next day was the Passion play. Before I walked into church, I discovered somebody had posted a picture of me on Facebook with my undies showing. Plus, the Roman soldiers were way too realistic when they pounded the nails. I almost said something really un-Jesus-like from the cross.

But I happened to look up and see Abuela in the front row, the same place she always sat when one of us was in a performance, and I caught myself. Nobody except God and Abuela knew how hard it was to play Jesus. But they were enough.

* * *

Maybe if Abuela was watching, I’d have an easier time on my service call with the Bride of Satan.

“Why haven’t you replaced the wall thingy?” she asks, pointing to the cable jack.

“I don’t think that’s the problem—”

“It worked last time the cable went out,” she says.

I know swapping the jack is useless, but I keep reminding myself that it won’t help my job security if she calls the boss.

The silence is deafening as I unscrew the hardware. “Is that your family?” I ask, just to say something. I point to a portrait of three or four generations on the wall.

“I was supposed to Zoom with them today.”

When I finish with the jack, of course things still don’t work. My phone starts ringing and I’m afraid it might be Javi—afraid because he wouldn’t call this soon with good news. But I don’t even look. I silence the ringer under another withering glare and try to think of something else useless to do.

The phone rings again 10 seconds later, and I check this time: It’s him. I glance up at the lady.

“Don’t let me stand in your way,” she says icily.

“Tell me something good, cuz,” I answer the call.

Javi doesn’t reply.

“Javi? Can you hear me?”

I look down to see the phone’s dead. Naturally, that’s the same moment I remember I never plugged it in last night.

Abuela must be at death’s door—or just passed through it. This lady’s bound to call and complain to my boss, and getting fired for Christmas is exactly what I don’t need. I try powering the phone back on to send Javi a quick text, but there’s not enough juice. The lady doesn’t say anything, just glares at me like I’m a worm. I know what’s she’s thinking: He can’t fix my cable, but he’s got time to fix his phone.

That’s when I finally lose it. I slam the phone to the floor and yell the F-bomb.

For about 2.5 seconds, I feel better. Then I look up and see the lady’s not eyeing me like a worm anymore. Now she’s watching me like I’m a man-eating tiger.

“Get out,” she says. “L-leave before I call the police.”

Good thing Abuela can’t see me now. She shouldn’t have to watch her grandson terrorize some lady on Christmas Eve. Not even when she’s the world’s biggest Karen. Not even when she’s going to make sure I’m job-hunting by January.

I pick up my phone, which I’m surprised to see is still in one piece, and toss my tools in the box. At least I can go home and call Javi now.

But as I close the toolbox, my eyes fall on the hammer.

I remember the Christmas Eve when I played Jesus and pounded Javi’s thumb, but Abuela loved me anyway. I remember the Passion play when I played Jesus and nailed a Roman soldier in the shin, but Abuela talked me into going back. And I remember that I have something to do before I call my cousin.

I take a new modem out of my toolbox. “Ma’am, my grandma . . . I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. This is probably her last Christmas, and my cousin was trying . . . but I missed telling her . . .”

I can’t say anything for a minute.

“This is a new cable modem,” I finally tell her. “If you let me hook it up, it’ll get you back online. To talk to your family. Can I do that for you?”

The lady doesn’t say anything, but I sense her fear. I pick up my toolkit.

“I know you’re . . . well, you’ll wanna talk to my boss. Call and she’ll send somebody else. Tell them it’s the modem.”

I head for the door.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

What is this lady, a one-woman Inquisition? “Home,” I say, forcing a patient tone. “Home to call my cousin.”

“Is it COVID? Your grandma?” she asks.

I nod with my hand on the knob.

“My Mom died from COVID in May,” she says.

I turn around. Something like a long, silent conversation passes between us. Then she holds out her phone.

“Call your cousin,” she says. “I mean . . . if you want to.”

I take her phone and dial Javi’s number with quaking hands, afraid of what I’m about to hear.

“Hello?”

“Tell me something good, cuz,” I say.

“Guess where I am?” he demands.

“Javi, don’t . . . how’s Abuela?”

“I’m here. I got the test back and I’m negative, so they let me put on the PPE stuff . . . you wanna talk to her?”

“Who?”

“Abuela! I’m in her hospital room!”

“What?”

“She said I hafta tell you the doctors don’t know yet. She’s really sick, and some people like this get better, but some . . . well . . . here.”

The phone rustles, then I hear another voice—maybe the voice I love best in the world.

“Feliz Navidad, Domingo,” says Abuela raspily.

I can’t speak. I finally manage, “How are you?”

“In the hollow of God’s hand.”

I’m not sure how I feel about that answer.

“Javi told me you’re working the holiday,” she says. “Why are you fixing cable boxes on Christmas Eve?”

“It’s okay.”

“I wish you were home.”

“No! It’s good . . . Abuela, I’m trying to do what you taught me.” I glance up at the lady, the one who’s miraculously letting me borrow her phone, the one who isn’t looking at me like I’m a tiger or a worm anymore.

“What did I teach you?” Abuela asks, puzzled.

“Don’t you know?”

“You’re making the old lady think too hard.”

“You taught me . . . everything,” I tell her. “But mostly, what I’ll never forget . . . Abuela, you taught me how to play Jesus.”

 

[1] Paraphrased from Matthew 27:27-30.

Copyright 2020 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

George Halitzka

George Halitzka is a writer, storyteller and theatre artist. He’s penned everything from short stories to journalistic features, and from sermons to one-act plays. George’s work has appeared in regional and national publications including Louisville Magazine, Ministry Today, Living with Teenagers, LEO Weekly, and Christianity and Theatre. He was a regular contributor to Boundless from 2007 until 2011. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., Lillenas Drama, Meriwether Publishing, and Drama Ministry. George lives in Louisville, Ky., where he loves talking with God, cuddling with his wife, performing onstage, and eating too much cold cereal.

 

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