This is very strange given that we’re not Christian, and neither Alastair nor I bring Jesus up on a regular basis. We go to a Unitarian Universalist church, but in spite of the word “church,” it’s definitely NOT a Christian institution as such. There are Buddhists, Jews, atheists and “recovering Catholics” (their words, not mine) in the congregation, and most members would say that Jesus was a great teacher with a lot of excellent things to say about how people should act and treat each other. But the Son of God? Not so much. Sure, his name comes up from time to time in services, and occasionally in the stories the kids listen to in the Religious Education program. But Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh’s names come up almost as often.
Among Elsa and Clio, however, Jesus is a much more frequent topic of conversation.
I think this is in part because he is one of the first people through which the girls learned about death. But not because his death was particularly, well, important to a whole lotta people. It was a total coincidence: A few weeks before Christmas, back when the girls were three, we were listening to a Christmas carol CD together (we may not be Christian, but I used to be, and I still LOVE Christmas, dammit) and there was a little storybook that went along with it. For “Away in a Manger” there was a nativity scene, and the girls wanted me to explain it. So I did. And then the girls wanted to know if they could meet Jesus sometime. I explained that, well, no. He lived a very, very long time ago. And was dead. (A brief, age-appropriate discussion of death ensued.)
But ever since then, whenever death comes up — almost every time, anyway — so does Jesus. (Either him or Sam Cooke, another of subject of the girls’ early understanding of mortality. Or our neighbor, Mr. Tony — rest his soul. We have a little holy trinity of death.)
And just the other night, while we were reading a bedtime story, Jesus appeared unto us again. (Just in time for Easter!)
In the book — a wonderful new one, by Alicia Potter and Melissa Sweet called Mrs. Harkness and the Panda — there was a part where Mrs. Harkness scatters her husband’s ashes in the mountains of China. This led to a discussion of cremation (I love when books result in teachable moments — even if they’re sometimes a little, er, tricky). And then (of course) Elsa asked, “Jesus didn’t have ashes, though right? They put his bones under the ground.”
For the sake of simplicity, I said yes, I thought so. (And then realized that I didn’t really know. They supposedly put him in some sort of cave at first, but did they bury him after that? Or just leave him there, out in the open? And did grave robbers / followers take his body elsewhere, as some posit? What did they do with it? Or perhaps his corpse really was re-animated and whisked up to heaven by an angel, and I’m going to hell.)
Back to bedtime:
Clio piped up and said, “When we were outside at the playground at school, we were digging, and we told Joey (name changed) that we found Jesus’s bones under the ground.”
“You did WHAT?”
“It was because he told Elsa that Jesus was going to come down from heaven and kill her. So we wanted to play a trick on him.”
“Why did he say that to you, Elsa?”
“Because,” Elsa said, “I told him that Jesus wasn’t up in heaven. Because we don’t believe in heaven, right?”
Instead of getting derailed on THAT whole discussion I reminded the girls — bumbling and stumbling all along the way — that Jesus is very special to a lot of people. So they may get upset when you say things like Jesus isn’t in heaven. And it’s definitely not nice to play tricks and make jokes about him. (Meanwhile, I’m just imagining the phone call I’m going to get from Joey’s mom, chiding me for my girls’ religious insensitivity.)
“So, why are you guys so interested in Jesus?” I asked once I’d said my piece.
“Because he was a very important teacher,” Clio said, parroting the language Alastair and I had used on countless occasions.
Elsa nodded. “And because he’s dead.”
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Photo: Shreyans Bhansal