ANTONIO A. HIDALGO
It was the biggest, most important media conference of all time – even for the jaded news icons who had seen more than their share of hyperbole in their long years on the job. They came from all over the world to swoop down on the new Manila Hotel – waving their reservation receipts, sundry international credit cards, fistfuls of crisp thousand dollar bills, letters of introduction from the most powerful editors and network presidents in the world, and the occasional letter of recommendation from the Philippine President, or at least a Filipino cabinet secretary – so stiff was the competition for the rooms at the 800-room five-star hotel. Needless to say, there was bedlam everyday for several days before the conference at the hotel lobby, which was always crammed not only with international media personalities, but also with gawking spectators, Filipinos and tourists, who craved to be a part of history, even if it was only to be in the place where the great conference was to be held before it actually took place. It was common knowledge that HE was staying in the penthouse suite of the hotel, and it was not impossible that HE could be briefly glimpsed as HE came down for HIS meals or other needs.
Almost as soon as the hotel had been reserved for the conference, it was put under the tightest security. This meant installation of the latest CT scanners at the doors, which had all been hastily imported, and which could scan to the innards and the skeletal frame. Unfortunately, it also involved the deployment of thousands of intelligence agents, policemen and army petty officers – all dressed in dark slacks and cream polo barongs, holding video phones from which they monitored every square inch of the hotel's common areas and communicated with one another and the hotel personnel. They only added to the confusion because they were nearly as disorganized as the crowds that daily flocked to the hotel.
The statement from Global Biotech, Inc. announcing the conference was brief but electrifying:
"THE SECOND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST
"Global Biotech, Inc. is proud to announce an international media conference at the Manila Hotel, Manila, Philippines on Monday, December 25, 2035 to introduce Jesus Christ to the world community.
"Thirty years ago, on March 25, 2005, a team of eminent scientists working for Global Biotech, Inc. successfully cloned Jesus Christ from his DNA which was obtained from an unimpeachable source and carefully verified by a separate team of the most qualified historians and theologians of that time. The embryo was successfully implanted in an eighteen year-old virgin who worked as a washerwoman, Maria Santos of Paco, Manila, Philippines. The child Jesus was brought up by Maria and her brother, Jose, a mason. Both of them chose to forego normal lives so that they might bring up Jesus Christ with financial assistance from Global Biotech, Inc., and advice from the company's team of educators, theologians and social scientists – all of whom have impeccable credentials.
"It was decided by the Global Biotech, Inc. project management in 2005 that Jesus Christ should be born in a predominantly Christian, poor country in keeping with his mission in his first life. Chiefly for security reasons, and to forestall imitations, the project has been kept from the public since then.
"Today, the project has matured and Jesus Christ is thirty years old – the age at which he started to impart his religious truths to the world. Global Biotech, Inc. proudly presents Jesus Christ to the world."
Sven Horsgaard, the chairman of Global Biotech, presided over the conference. He launched into a lengthy technical presentation of the cloning process that had "elevated mankind to the level of the Creator." The complicated holograms of color-coded DNA floated before the eyes of every journalist, security officer, and privileged spectator, including practically the entire central government of the Philippines, as Sven droned on in his jargon-filled monologue. The patient crowd was extremely quiet, its eyes glued on the heavily bearded young man with sad eyes and shoulder-length hair, in a cream robe, who was seated beside the standing chairman and who followed every word with great interest. Finally, the chairman wrapped up his presentation with an unabashed tribute to Global Biotech's audacity and unselfish generosity in cloning Jesus Christ, which, he said, was a guarantee of the unsurpassed quality of its products and services.
But when he turned over the conference to Jesus Christ, it was not the long-haired man in a robe beside him who stood up. Another young man with undercut, tousled and dyed blond hair, the current hairstyle in Manila, in jeans and a red T-shirt, who was seated three places away, stood up briefly to wave to the crowd. Then he sat down and talked in a most casual manner, his every word picked up by the super-sensitive mike, no larger than a cigarette lighter, that was barely noticeable at the center of the long table. He spoke for three minutes, smiling often, sometimes gesturing with his hairy, muscular arms, and said nothing of importance. He simply greeted the world, told all mankind that he was glad to be back, thanked his foster parents for their sacrifices, said that he had done a bit of traveling to renew his knowledge of the human condition, and assured everyone that he was, indeed, Jesus Christ, though he had, thus far, not yet been contacted by God. He never mentioned Global Biotech, Inc. and ended his talk rather abruptly with an amused smile.
The chairman announced that three written questions had been selected from the thousands that had been submitted, for Jesus to answer. He explained that there would be plenty of time for Jesus to teach the world in the coming years. Then he read the first question:
"Are you truly the Son of God?"
"I was. But this time around, you might say that I am the Son of Man," Jesus answered off-handedly, triggering much laughter in the crowd.
"What miracles will you do to prove yourself?"
"Don't know about that. Tried making wine from water a year ago. Gave it up. The wine wasn't even as good as the Napa Valley stuff," Jesus retorted instantly to more laughter.
"Will you feed the poor in the Third World countries?"
Jesus thought for the briefest moment as he stroked the short black stubble on his chin. "No. It would alter the future of mankind in the wrong way," he said vaguely, before he pointed to a stout, bearded man who was waving his hand while standing in the center aisle.
"Why don't you look like Jesus Christ at all?" the man shouted.
"The PR men of the sponsors tried to do that," he said with a laugh, "but I prefer to live in this time."
The chairman suddenly stood up to announce that the conference had ended. Then he briskly walked out of the lobby, followed by the bearded man with long hair wearing a robe, carrying the chairman's briefcase. There was a stampede to send out the dispatches.
The story preoccupied all the media in every country for the next few weeks. Most of the coverage was skeptical about the cloning of Christ. Every bit of information about Global Biotech, Inc. was ferreted out by the cascade of background stories that followed the first reports on the conference. The company and its people stood up to the intense scrutiny. It was the leading biotechnology company in the world, and had been this for four decades. The teams that had successively managed the project included eleven Nobel Prize winners. None of the team members, or officers of the corporation for that matter, had the slightest blotch on their records, save perhaps for an ardent desire to make the company profitable.
Some of the more interesting complications from the conference were the need for tightened security for Christ, for there were rumors of a fatwah for his death from the mullahs of Iran. And the pressure on Global Biotech, Inc. from the Saudi Arabian government to clone Muhammad. And from the King of Thailand to clone Gautama Buddha. The rumors eventually died down with no real hard news, as is often the case with earth-shaking events.
Christ became an instant icon because his photos from the conference circled the globe many, many times. He had to change his hairstyle to a crewcut, dye his hair back to its natural dark color, shave his stubble, and take to wearing a business suit and necktie to avoid media harassment.
He was thus dressed, and completely alone, when he showed up at the Vatican to see Pope Paul XXXII. He called the Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican from his hotel room to ask him to arrange a private meeting with the Pope. Jesus clearly specified that the meeting was to be between him and the Pope only, with no one else in attendance.
Jesus was met at the gate of the Vatican by Cardinal Bottini, who greeted him very properly, with a slight bow, but no warmth. The Cardinal offered to tour Jesus around the Sistine Chapel, but Jesus told him that he had already seen the place as a tourist and had admired Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling. They went straight to the Pope's waiting room, receiving the salutes of the Swiss Guards at every door they passed – salutes meant for the Cardinal, for the guards could not have recognized Jesus.
Christ waited for twenty minutes in the opulently appointed anteroom before a buzzer sounded and the Cardinal stood up to show him to the door. He entered the door and the Cardinal stayed behind to close it after him. The Pope stood up from his massive desk in one corner of the cavernous office and motioned him to a sofa with an antique coffee table at the opposite end. As the beaming Pope approached Jesus by the sofa, he reflexively offered his ring to be kissed. Jesus's eyes flashed and the Pope, without skipping a beat, hugged him instead and said:
"We have waited for this moment for an eternity, it seems. Please, let us sit down and talk."
"You dare to make the founder of your church wait?" Jesus said gruffly, as he sat down.
The Pope sat beside him and turned to look at Jesus serenely. "That is yet to be established, my dear young man," he said evenly, with a benign expression. "But we are sorry that we had to sign some urgent papers that were suddenly brought up. Perhaps some tea or coffee would atone?"
"I am thousands of years old. And I didn't come here to drink coffee or chitchat."
"What, then, can we do for you, Sir?"
"It's a travesty – all of it, all organized religion. Surely, you see that sometimes?"
"We do the best we can, Sir, in our little spheres of influence. Perhaps, if you could be more specific about the Catholic Church, since we can't do a thing about the other religions?"
"Okay. I'll start with you, because your church is the most authoritarian and harmful. But I'll go on to give the others a piece of my mind. What's with this ex-cathedra infallibility? None of you popes are divine! Certainly not Peter, the first one, or anyone else that came after."
"We did not start this venerable tradition, Sir. It has existed for thousands of years and its philosophical foundations may be found in successive encyclicals of our esteemed predecessors. Please understand, Sir, that the infallibility of the Pope, when speaking ex-cathedra, is a subtle concept that is absolutely necessary and that has all the requisite limitations and safeguards from abuse. One that is not amenable to intelligent discussion when expressed in rough and unsophisticated language. Surely, you know, with your excellently supervised education by some of our own scholars, that the matter is not as simple as you wish to make it appear?"
"Everything is far simpler than you want it to be. But let's turn to fucking. Why do you torture yourselves with this crazy celibacy rule? The Gods gave screwing its power to assure the survival of the species. You would all govern more wisely if you were happier."
"I must appeal for an elevated discussion, Sir. One that befits your status and does not demean a Man of God in the House and City of God."
"Good. You are now an 'I' and no longer a 'we.' And contraception! Why forbid it when the poor are multiplying like flies and are living lives as unfulfilling and short-lived as flies?"
"I was told that you had read all the pronouncements of the Church. You did not agree with the carefully reasoned arguments?"
"You should really take a stand against the forced spaying of pets like dogs and cats. Perhaps against the idea of pets altogether."
"Let me tell you now, in all frankness, that I was really against your cloning when the idea was first discussed with the Church. But I was only a young priest then and had no power to stop it. I thought, even then, that you would not understand our situation and the necessity of what we do."
"What about those silly evangelists? They lead the masses by the nose. Your church has its own, like that stupid El Shaddai movement in the Philippines. Close them down!"
"I'm sure that you have read Dostoevsky's chapter on the Grand Inquisitor?"
"He was a delightful writer."
"Please, think back on what he said. You left us all before in a great blaze of glory, assuring your place in legend and history. We, on the other hand, were left to do the dirty work, hampered by our human frailties. But we understand our kind. I assure you that there was no other way."
"No other way, my foot! I understand all of you, especially the poor. No way shall I kiss you, though you dream of it so that you could be even more full of yourself."
"Do you intend to do this unpleasant business with all the other religious heads?"
"You ain't seen nothin' yet. I will lead a revolt that will leave all your churches in ruins. Remember: 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.'"
"You will be crucified all over again."
"So what? I can do it again and again and again."
"For what purpose? Do you think it will end differently this time around? That men will not build on your life and teachings for their own purposes? And, perhaps, achieve some measure of good in the process?"
Jesus guffawed loudly at this. He stood up and walked out without looking back at the Pope.
Word of the encounter spread like wildfire. Cardinal Bottini, who wanted to be Pope, retrieved the tapes of the conversation and surreptitiously released them to the media. The news stories that came out heavily embellished the drama of the brief meeting. These were followed by similar accounts of confrontations with the heads of the Greek Orthodox Church, various Buddhist and Muslim sects in several countries, and other Christian denominations. In a few months, spontaneous movements in the millions sprang up all over the world, composed chiefly of young people, to follow Jesus Christ. The Global Biotech, Inc. headquarters in Atlanta and Jesus's foster parents in Manila were besieged daily with thousands of video calls, text messages, letters, telegrams and sundry missives begging Jesus to speak to groups that had abandoned all practical and earthly pursuits to devote themselves to him. The mobilization for Jesus accelerated with astonishing speed, fueled by stories of his exploits, like chasing the parish priest out of the Mount Carmel Church in Quezon City, Philippines with a belt while the latter was celebrating mass one Sunday. Or his preaching to a crowd of thousands on the beach at Fort Lauderdale for a full weekend, during which he fed them pita bread and smoked salmon that he conjured up out of nowhere, cured dozens of gays who were dying of AIDS by simply touching them on the forehead, and entertained them by walking and doing handstands on the water for thirty minutes.
Like a true revolutionary, Jesus was energized by the rapid multiplication of his followers. Without any hesitation, he plunged into a whirlwind preaching tour, sparing no country, however small and insignificant. His ubiquitous preaching was magnified by the media, which he had mesmerized by this time, and which tried very hard to document his every word and movement. In this way, he managed to be everywhere in the world at once. The more frenzied his pace became, the happier he seemed to get. He gained weight and felt stronger. True, he began to look more and more disheveled, the longer he stayed on the road, but this was only because he didn't want to travel with too many clothes or to waste any time shaving or having his hair cut. He took to wearing a loose, comfortable robe which he rarely changed and grew his hair and beard long. After several months, he looked like the Jesus Christ in the catechism books – the one that was supposed to have been his original incarnation.
Like a true revolutionary, too, Jesus was very clear on why he wanted to destroy all the organized religions, but rather vague on what was to take their place, save for a general idea of a more human, individual, and liberal moral order that everyone was supposed to voluntarily internalize. The nebulousness of his alternative did not seem to matter, however, for he drove all the churches into the clearly defensive position of undertaking belated and desperate reform measures which scored no points at all with Jesus's youthful armies. It did not take long for Jesus to bring the world to the brink of a moral revolution that, it seemed, would shake the very bowels of the earth.
On his thirty-third birthday, Jesus took one of his rare trips home for a brief rest. One evening, he spent a little time after dinner meditating beneath an old acacia tree that dwarfed the tiny backyard garden. Such were his powers of concentration that he could do this, even though beyond the wall, only a few feet away, was a main street where constantly passed an endless procession of the colorful Manila passenger jeepneys – the same jeepneys that made such a racket with their noisy engines spewing poisonous fumes and customized horns that blared motley tunes that ranged from snatches of "Danny Boy" to the theme of the recent hit movie "Forever My Love." Jesus had meditated for more than an hour when his mother quietly stepped out of the house to sit on a wooden bench near the tree. She missed Jesus very much and wanted to spend as much time as possible with him during this visit. Jesus faced the acacia tree and did not see or hear his mother walk into the garden. They both sat quietly for a long time, before Jesus heaved a mighty sigh, stood up, and turned around. Maria's heart nearly broke when she saw the extreme anguish on Jesus's face and realized that he had been silently crying all this time to the point that the front of his robe was completely drenched with tears.
Her first impulse was to rush to him and ask why. But she froze on the bench when he gently stopped her with an upraised hand. They gazed soulfully at each other for several minutes while Maria's compassionate tears streamed down her cheeks. Finally, Jesus spoke to say: "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me." Then he turned back to face the tree and meditate for several hours more while Maria silently kept watch on the bench.
Jesus left home very early the next morning. He made it a point to wake up his mother and father to say goodbye before he left. Then he walked out the front door and was never seen again.
With his disappearance, the Jesus frenzy gradually wound down. The world went back to its business of making do and surviving. No one was sure why the legend of Jesus's Second Coming slowly petered out, and why the media stopped giving it top billing. Some said that Jesus was eased out of the news when a group of American astronauts, commanded by the young and personable Captain Mark Sawyer, landed on Mars and beamed full documentary coverage of this breakthrough back to earth. This was why Jesus had suddenly disappeared – he simply could not take anonymity. Others insisted that it was the other way around – the moral revolution had been aborted by the sudden disappearance of Jesus. They conjured up dark plots hatched by the religious leaders whose power Christ had threatened – plots that, however, were never substantiated. There were occasional stories of the sighting of Jesus performing some miracle or the other within the circles of committed cultists, even after his movement had died. But most observers dismissed these as the products of a kind of hysteria, like the supposed sightings of Elvis Presley, which had continued to persist long after Elvis's music had been forgotten.
The dying of the Jesus myth and his disappearance threw the Global Biotech, Inc. into disarray. At first, the company spent millions in mobilizing a worldwide search for Jesus. When this proved futile, there was major carnage at the top executive levels, after much corporate intrigue and finger-pointing, for some people had to pay for the fizzling out of the company's most important, most expensive, and longest-running, promo. Then, its sales went into a tailspin until it became only the third largest company in its field after being number one for such a long time. Naturally, the company's most talented scientists left to join the larger companies with more vibrant research programs.
In contrast, Jesus's foster parents, the simple Maria and Jose, accepted his disappearance with resignation, which allowed them to bear their profound grief. They were consoled by their memories of their beloved son, their fleeting historical role, and their ample, if diminished, monthly stipends from the Global Biotech, Inc., which were continued, just in case Jesus should show up all of a sudden.
But the legend of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ did not end so nondescriptly. Two years after his sudden disappearance, Jesus made it back to the front page headlines and prime time shows. A purported message from him, handwritten in a neat script that the experts had all agreed was his handwriting, inexplicably and simultaneously, showed up in all of the world's important news rooms. It read:
"FAREWELL TO MY FLOCK
"I was contacted by our Creators and left this world. I shall be away for a long while.
"It was not the right time.
"Coming back was a gas. It rekindled all my old passion for my brethren. I look forward to doing it again someday.
"Lose not your heart. Verily I say unto all of you: your salvation lies in your hands alone.
"And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
The terse message was analyzed to death for months. Some analysts said that it was a fitting end to a monumental hoax that was about to be discovered. Others drew a moral lesson – that it was not for man, but for God alone, to determine when the second coming of His son should be, especially since Jesus wrote that "It was not the right time." A few saw the hand of an alien race from somewhere in the universe, since Jesus referred to "our Creators" in his farewell note. The humanists, of course, trumpeted his message about our salvation being in our hands alone. And the religious found proof of eternal existence beyond this life in Jesus's last sentence.
From A Song for My Brother and Other Stories by Antonio A. Hidalgo (Milflores, 2002).
This story won Third Prize in Futuristic Fiction in the 2001 Palanca Awards.
Posted on November 23, 2008