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.