Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

A Quandary at Christmastime: So what did Jesus really look like?

Monday, December 30th, 2013


Depending upon your opinion of – or comfort with – online communications, Facebook can either be heralded as a new-fangled version of the old double-hung door where acquaintances can electronically visit with one another and keep up, or it functions more like a harbinger of the upcoming zombie apocalypse: mesmerizing vast swaths us into a digitalized stupor which passes for today’s version of the proverbial bread and circuses which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire. For me, the social utility serves more as the former than a launch pad for Armageddon – it’s a great way to keep up with far away friends, to share photos as well as a few laughs along the way. I have also come to find it a pretty accurate social barometer of the mood of the particular moment, doing a far better job at predicting things to come in the cultural sphere then the folks on television and radio do as regards the upcoming weather (apologies to all my meteorologist friends out there).

 A recent example on Facebook serves as a pretty good case in point for this: a few weeks ago, I was scrolling through comments on my Facebook newsfeed, when I noticed that a friend of mine had put something on his personal page regarding the physical appearance of the historical Jesus. On his post, my friend – who was born in New Jersey but is of South Asian descent – had typed the statement: “Yay- Jesus looked exactly like me!” beneath the visage of a strongly built, dark-eyed man with thick features, short dark, wavy hair and a heavy black moustache and beard. The image my friend was commenting upon is a relatively famous one which was created now over a decade ago by Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from Manchester, England, who used his professional skills in forensic medicine – as well as cultural and archeological data – to develop an artistic representation of what a typical 30 year old Galilean Semitic male would have looked like at the beginning of the Christian era 2,000 years ago. What emerges from Neave’s interpretation – which he readily admits is not a “re-creation” of Jesus’ actual face as much as it’s a re-creation of what a young male face might look like for those who were born and lived in the same time and region as Jesus himself – is decidedly darker and swarthier then the standard version of what is possibly the most famous image in human history with its long, flowing light brown hair, fair skin and Caribbean blue eyes.     

Beneath the photo and my friend’s statement, many of his Facebook friends had jumped onto the band-wagon, echoing their delight that the Jesus of history had “looked like them” too – darker complexioned like my friend – many of them being South Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino. Now, I am not one of those people who feel the need to compulsively comment on all of my friends’ Facebook posts, and while I do make it a habit to generally keep abreast of what my friends put up on-line, I try as best I can not to add my own two-cents unless I have something substantive to say. And while I was aware that the originator of the photograph never intended his work to be taken as a literal depiction of the actual face of Christ, as a “justice and peace guy” it is my practice to never unnecessarily create a controversy if I can help it…especially if – please pardon the very bad pun here – I have no skin in the game. So when it came time to add my contribution to my friend’s online conversation, I took note that while I could not vouch for what the historical Jesus actually looked like as a grown man, I could venture a guess that most probably, as a child, He – much I’m sure to the chagrin of my Irish Catholic grandmothers – almost certainly DID NOT have the blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes that I had as a child, regardless of how he is depicted on the many store-bought Christmas cards exchanged at this time of year.

I would have completely forgotten about this internet exchange on my friend’s Facebook wall we’re it not for the fact that no more than one week later, the cable-news networks and  blogsphere experienced a near nuclear meltdown when media personality Megyn Kelly – on the December 10th episode of her nightly news program “The Kelly Report” – made a remark in response to an article in Slate magazine regarding the desirability of a more racially diverse depiction of Santa Claus in the popular culture. Addressing this suggestion, Kelly asserted that not only was Santa Claus “just white” – but that Jesus Christ was too! Predictably, both the internet and the late-night talk shows exploded in response, the discussion running the gamut from ridicule to condemnation. For her part – in response – Kelly acknowledged that since the controversy took hold, she had learned that the question of Jesus’ actual skin color was “far from settled”, and went on to claim that the segment itself was “tongue-in-cheek” and just an attempt at humor, and that the entire episode “would be funny if it were not so telling about our society”, ending her comments by casting herself as the most recent casualty in this proxy battle of the ongoing “war on Christmas – the irony that this entire affair was occasioned by preparation for the birth of a child that we have come to refer to as the “Prince of Peace” seemingly having been lost on just about everyone on both sides of this “battle-line”.

So much has already been written about Kelly’s unfortunate comments as well as the responses to them that I feel I have little myself to add except to say that I do wish that she had not felt the need to conscript Our Lord and Savior into her defense of a particular ethnography for Santa Claus. That stated, I do think that in her defense of her comments, Kelly was onto something when she said that the entire affair was very “telling about our society” – although I suspect that the insights I have gleaned from these events differ significantly from those that Kelly might hold. What strikes me as particularly interesting – incredible in fact – is that from Facebook to the cable-news networks this entire controversy was premised on the actual, physical appearance of Jesus (and for that matter, Santa too): his skin color, his eye color, the texture of his hair, all attributes that the original sources of our information about Jesus – the Gospels, the Letters of Saint Paul -are conspicuously silent on. Having – to our present day knowledge – never sat for a physical portrait during His lifetime and based on the original texts and sources, the best that we can EVER get at what Jesus (and in fact, most of the figures of the Bible for that matter) looked like when He walked the Earth is an interpretation through the eyes of artists – from the baby in the manger up through His Resurrection.

I don’t think that this silence on the part of the Gospel text as to Jesus’ physical appearance was an oversight on the Evangelists part: no, in fact, I think this was a way to show that Jesus did not come just to redeem a particular people, but instead that His redeeming mission was for the benefit of all human-kind.  In fact, I’m sure of this: my certainty based in the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. While the Gospels themselves are silent as to WHAT Jesus physically looked like, they are equally clear about WHOM Jesus looks like. In response to the question of: “When did we see you Lord?”, Jesus reminds us that He is made visible in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. If we want to see Jesus – to really see Jesus – we need not only look at the figurines of the precious child in the manger in the beautiful Nativities that sit beneath the Christmas trees in our homes and the alters of our Churches, but also at the often confused, unwashed and unkempt men and women whom we encounter on the streets on our way to and from those places.

This kind of active “seeing” is never easy, as most residents of major metropolises will tell you – the goal of navigating a city street is to arrive quickly at your appointed rounds and avoid eye contact, limiting your vision to notice only those things essential to the accomplishment of your purposes. In advocating that we embrace a more engaged kind of “seeing”, I put myself first on the list of those who need to do a better job; for you see – right before Christmas this year – I am pretty sure that I did encounter Jesus Himself, although I am not particularly proud of my response to Him. I was busy running one of the million errands which we all do on the run-up to Christmas Day, and I was rushing to the post office right before it closed. As I scurried to slip into the entrance before staff locked it, a short, stocky figure who looked to be in her mid-thirties appeared in my path. It was a particularly cold day, and I remember that she was inappropriately dressed in wearing just a beat-up looking spring jacket over a stained velour jogging suit, as she turned her large, dark eyes towards me and began to speak:  Excuse me sir…” In response, I quickly apologized that I had no change on me, and rushed past her into the revolving doors, but not before hearing her pleading response to my pre-emptive:  “That’s not what I was going to ask you…”

Her words stayed with me as I strode up the escalator, proceeded to the Post Office window, mailed my parcels, and got some cash out of the ATM machine. Once downstairs and back outside, I searched for her up and down the block, eager to share with her some of the cash that I had just taken out of the machine so she could get something to eat, something better to wear against the cold, to find out what it was that she wanted to ask me – but she was gone. Giving up my search, I closed my eyes and asked for forgiveness, hoping that when my time on Earth is done, and when I meet that woman again at the Gates of Heaven as I am sure I will, that she takes the time that I did not to hear my requests, and have mercy upon me.

It’s funny, but while we all may want a Jesus who looks like us – acts like us – IS like us, perhaps WE NEED a Jesus who is none of those things, a Jesus who will challenge us to do better both at Christmastime and throughout the coming year as we strive to help build His Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven…

A Blessed Season of Christmas to you all, and God’s Blessings in the New Year.                                                                  

Of Melodies and Messiahs

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

The time in and around Christmas has always been one of my very favorites, and for many reasons – the festivities and food, get togethers with family and friends long distant, the decorations, the well-wishes that come from near and far – and even the shopping believe it or not (I love to go into the stores when they are abuzz to pick out “the perfect gift” for loved ones!) But probably as much as any of these, it is the music that accompanies the arrival of Christmas that I love the most. Christmas songs at this time of year can seem ubiquitous of course – some very sappy, and others very trite (“Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” comes to mind…). And yet, for those songs that maintain their focus on the real “reason for the season” – the birth of Our Lord Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem – there is still something good and wholesome and profound in walking all around the city and hearing everywhere you go music that heralds the arrival of Our Savior.


I have some favorite Christmas songs of course; on the top of my list has always been Do You Hear What I Hear– which I always thought was a “traditional” song, but in doing some research for this post discovered was first written in October 1962 making it just a little bit older then I am – how is that for a little bit of unwelcome information!  Interestingly, the song was written in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace in a world threatened with nuclear annihilation. The reason that I love this song in not only for its melody – which of course is beautiful – but most particularly for its message: the lyrics relate the story of Jesus’ birth but actually do so in a very ambiguous manner. Jesus’ name in fact is never actually mentioned. Instead He is spoken of as simply “the Child” – the Child who is simultaneously  “shivering in the cold”, “sleeping in the night” and who will bring us “goodness and light”. The anonymity of the Christ Child in the song is to my mind reflective of the circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth – far, far away from the political, religious and economic power centers of Rome and Jerusalem in the tiny little backwater village of Bethlehem, and not even in an inn, but in a place where they kept the animals. The song continues to reflect the humble circumstances of Christ’s actual birth in the manner that it relates how the news of Jesus’ arrival is passed along – beginning with the lowly little lamb – most certainly one of the least of God’s creature – up to the Shepard Boy, who then tells the mighty King, who eventually proclaims the message to people everywhere. In spreading the word of Jesus’ Nativity, the song very much takes the route that God Himself actually takes in the Gospels: beginning in the stable, moving out to the Shepherds in the fields, then on to the Magi from the East and then out to every corner of the world. In a very sublime way, this simple song communicates God’s gentle ways of speaking to the human heart – not with bombast and ostentation, but instead in the beauty of simplicity and honesty.


Another favorite at Christmas is a bit more offbeat – not so much for the song as for the version that I like. The song is “We Three Kings of Orient Are“, and it too is beautiful, and it is also “traditional” in that very real sense, being that it was written in 1857 – making it considerably older then me thank goodness, and sharing with me only the fact that our origins both trace to New York City. There are very many magnificent recordings of this song and I appreciate them all, but the version that I most particularly like is the one released in 1997 by the New York down-town Rock and Roll song-writer and performer Patti Smith on the album “A Very Special Christmas 3”  – which was issued by the Special Olympics organization to raise funds for their excellent programs for special needs children. Smith’s rendition of the song is a bit different from the others that you sometimes hear – very atmospheric in nature; the song intersperses verses from the Gospel of Matthew regarding the visit of the Magi to the crib in Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 9-15) with the verses of the traditional song sung in a very foreboding, gothic manner. Melody is a very powerful conveyor of mood, and to be quite honest I think that this almost off-putting arrangement that Ms. Smith couples the lyrics and Matthew’s Gospel account to communicates very effectively the very humble, vulnerable and dangerous circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth. When recounting the Christmas story – which has been sentimentalized by the media and trivialized by commerce – we need to remember that Mary and Joseph lived within a Palestine that was occupied by the ruthless forces of the Roman Empire, the journey that they took from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the orders of the dictatorial occupying power Emperor Caesar Augustus was a long, dangerous and arduous one – especially for the pregnant teenage Mary. Upon arriving in Bethlehem of course the Holy Family found themselves homeless, and were forced to take lodging in a dirty animal stall that would today probably be comparable to giving birth in a commercial garage. Then upon the birth of the Christ Child, there was the threat of death from King Herod the Great – a thug and local puppet enforcer of Roman authority so threatened by this humble birth that he murdered countless other children in a fruitless attempt to retain his worldly power. As a response to this very real threat, the Holy Family was then forced to flee to a foreign country, which of course would render them as refugees in today’s world. This is the actual story of Christmas – without the sentimentality and saccharin coating we sometimes try to place upon it. Perhaps we do so because we do not want to imagine Mary, and Joseph and Jesus Himself in such humble and vulnerable and dangerous circumstances – perhaps it frightens us to do so. But being frightened by the circumstances of Jesus’ humble birth is the exact opposite of what God intended to communicate on that first Christmas night. We need to recall that the first words that the angels heralding Jesus’ birth spoke to the shepherds in the fields were “Do not be afraid!” By choosing these exact circumstances in order to become flesh and blood, Jesus is teaching us all a lesson: these circumstances never diminished the inherent human dignity of His Holy Family – no, instead they show us that human dignity is never dependent on where one is born, on whether one has a home or not, on whether one is rich or poor, on whether one is welcome or unwelcome. Jesus’ birth into difficult circumstances should remind us all that – like Him – every person we encounter must be valued as preciously as we would value the Christ child Himself – this I believe is and remains the true message of Christmas.


It is my prayer that this Christmas, you all may find the Peace, Joy and Hope that was born to us in that humble stable on that first Christmas day and that these gifts from God remain in your heart throughout the coming year. A Blessed Christmas!