PETER MANSEAU: Yesterday, as I rode in an airport town car from JFK out to Long Island, it took about two minutes for the driver to make the strangest attempt at small talk I've ever heard. So, he said, what do you think about Jesus's bones?
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Essayist Peter Manseau.
MANSEAU: He was wearing one of those cell phone earpieces and shouting toward the windshield, so at first I couldn't tell if he was talking to me. It seemed just as likely he was having an early morning discussion about first century archeology with his dispatcher or his wife. Then he caught my eye in the rearview mirror. They found them, he said seriously. You heard, right?
Cruising along at 65 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, I wondered if it was worth mentioning that in fact they had not found actual bones, just ossuaries, bone boxes. Scholars the world over have raised a collective eyebrow at the possibility of the boxes having once contained the remains of Jesus and his family. The driver seemed a true believer on the subject, however, and I didn't want to upset him.
As we squeezed between a tractor trailer and a concrete highway divider, I worried if voicing my doubts about Jesus's tomb would increase the likelihood that my own bone box might turn out to be a charcoal gray Lincoln with leather seats. As it happened, I didn't need to say anything at all. It soon became clear that to the driver at least, what had actually been found in the dirt of Jerusalem was beside the point.
By the time we left Queens, he had explained his interest in Jesus's bones by telling a tale of lapsed church attendance but lingering faith. He told me how he and his wife decide how much to spend on Christmas, then give half to the soup kitchen instead. Our meal just tastes better that way, he said. Then he told me about a guy he knows who used to have one leg shorter than the other until a miracle lady touched him and made him whole. No kidding, buddy. I saw it, he said. His leg grew an inch and a half.
We were at a stoplight in front of Mercy Hospital - surely a detail too contrived to be invented - when he turned around and told me, then the miracle lady touched my bad knee. He stared hard at me through tinted lenses. And I was healed too, he said. When the light changed, he turned to get back to his driving and he did so now with a little less intensity. He seemed transported by the memory, and even repeated, as if to no one, my knee, I swear, healed.
That's when it hit me. We weren't talking about Jesus's bones anymore. We were talking about his bones. We weren't talking about a documentary concerned with long ago deaths. We were talking about one man and his life today. I think this is why the supposed discovery of Jesus's tomb has received so much attention. Like the long-ago occupants of bone boxes dug up in Jerusalem, the spiritual lives of those all around us are known only through glimpses and guesses. Faith makes everyone a mystery, and stories about faith can sometimes remind us how little we know, not just about God or religion but each other.
Eventually my driver returned from his spiritual reverie, driving the rest of the trip hard and fast. Gripping the handrest in the backseat, I asked him how it felt when the miracle lady healed him. Well, you know, I had two bad knees and she only fixed one, he said. But that's another story.
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ELLIOTT: Peter Manseau is the author of the memoir "Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son."