Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ’

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.                                                                  

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

One of the things that I think sets New Yorkers most apart from people from many other parts of the country is our distinct appreciation for the concept of irony – whether its in our humor (it’s no coincidence that the sitcom “Seinfeld” – perhaps the most ironic comedy ever produced on television – is set in New York City), or in recognition of the sometimes circuitous journey that life take us on, New Yorkers appreciate irony like almost no other people on Earth. Given this fact – and considering that I am a born & bred New Yorker – I have always found the events of Holy Week extraordinarily powerful. It is a week of events that to the common observer appears to begin with Earthly exaltation ending five days later in apparent weakness, humiliation and death…..and yet to believing eyes, these circumstances are quite the opposite – the events at the culmination of this most Holy of weeks signifying not the destruction of a particular life that those in authority in that time and place had intended – but instead, the beginning of life renewed for all of us; a sacrificial gift of love that created hope of life renewed for us all. It is for this reason that we Christians call the Friday of this week “Good” Friday – it is not because the things that happened to Jesus on that day were in any sense good: the conviction of an innocent man for reasons of politics and religious intolerance, His scourging and torture, and His eventual execution by the means employed by the governing authority of that day on a Cross, are by no means “good” things – neither today nor 2,000 years ago. No instead, we Christians call this day “Good Friday” because it was on this day that Jesus Christ took on the means employed by the governing civic and religious authorities of his day who intended to utterly humiliate, degrade and destroy him by those means, and yet – by the power of His loving sacrifice – He transformed these terrible events into the birth of hope for the world that has endured for the over 2,000 intervening years since that day when those in authority thought that they had finally “taken care” of what they considered to be their “Jesus problem”.

This thought about the irony of the fact that we Christians dare call the day of Jesus’ loving sacrifice “Good” Friday hit me recently when a colleague of mine – after I had returned from the Sirius/ XM studios with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan after the taping of one of his “JustLove” programs – asked me about the topics discussed on the air that day. I responded to her that that day, we had highlighted one of our “Catholic Charities Around the Nation” segments, and that the topic that we had discussed was a shelter – operated by Catholic Charities of the New Orleans Archdiocese – that assisted those who were victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to remove themselves from their abusive situations and begin to rebuild their lives in an atmosphere of support and respect. In response to my statement, my colleague challenged me how I could maintain a hopeful disposition when discussing a topic as horrible as sexual assault and abuse. To be honest, her question left me very shaken – and I truly had no adequate answer for her at that moment; she got me thinking not only about sexual assault and domestic violence, but about many of the topics that we had discussed during the show for the past several month – of the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and the overwhelming toll of death and destruction that occurred in these places, of events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire whose 100th anniversary just occurred where many young working immigrant girls lost their lives due to a desire for profits over safety, of the tragedy of the shooting in Tucson in January that took the lives of 6 innocent people including a 10 year old girl born on September 11, 2001 – all these things terrible –and like those things done to Jesus that Friday  2,000 years ago – none of them in any way or any sense “good”.

My colleague’s question continued to haunt me for some time; like any good one, it had me search deeply within – asking fundamental questions about human suffering, about pain, about loss, about love, and about God. Blessedly, this searching on my part happened during the later stages of Lent and Holy Week, when our attention turns to Jesus’ own suffering and death. Answers to these questions are of course never easy, even those who were closest to Jesus during His life on Earth remained confused when confronted with His profound suffering, of His undeserved death. In Scripture, after the events of Good Friday, the women who accompanied Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, all while the male disciples were in hiding – went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body with spices as was the Jewish burial custom of the day. I am sure that they were all three troubled by questions as they walked together to that tomb – questions about suffering, about pain, about loss, and about God – and they sought answers. When they had reached their destination, they found Jesus’ tomb open and empty. In answer to their questions, a messenger from God appeared to the women and asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead”, informing them that Jesus was not there – and reminding them of Jesus’ words to them that His suffering and death would not be final, but that He would be raised up. God’s messenger did not then dismiss the women upon proclaiming Jesus’ triumph over suffering and death, instead he called them to action – enjoining them to “go quickly and tell the disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and He is going before you to Galilee”….for Jesus Himself at that time was not standing still but was on the move ahead of them…

Here at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, our motto is “Providing Help. Creating Hope.”; that motto is included in our logo, and appears in the shadow of a Cross. It is here, in reflecting on the words of this motto – in the shadow of the Cross, on this Easter weekend – that I believe I can begin to find an answer to my colleague’s question. If we, like the first Christians – those women who witnessed both the terrible suffering and underserved death of Jesus as well as His Resurrection from the dead  – can respond in action to the terrible suffering of this world, perhaps we can play a small part in creating the Hope that His loving sacrifice and Resurrection laid the foundation for on that first Easter weekend 2,000 years ago.

A Blessed Easter to you all!