Recognising Jesus

Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone, 1510

Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone, 1510

Pentecost 7
Mark 6:30-34m 53-56
Marian Free

In the name of Jesus, who has come, who is present with us now and who will return to take us to himself. Amen.

One of my enduring memories from a childhood visit to an art gallery in Cologne is of an entire room filled with bloody and vivid images of the crucifixion. As a ten year old I was fascinated and repulsed. At the same time, I had no idea why anyone, let alone so many artists would want to focus exclusively on this aspect of the Christian faith and why they would make them so appallingly realistic. Weren’t there other aspects of Jesus’ life that were worthy of representation, I wondered?

I am not an art historian, but I know that if we were to look at depictions of Jesus over the last two millennia, we would find a wide variety of themes and an equally wide variety of images – from the chubby child of the nativity to the tortured image of the cross. Every age has made its own interpretation of Jesus – artistic or otherwise – depending on the social and political climate of the time. Even the New Testament is not free from this sort of development. Each gospel represents Jesus in a slightly different way according to the needs and interpretations of the community for which they were written. The letters which succeeded those of Paul have changed the image of the church as the body, to the image of the cosmic Christ as the head of the body. By the time of the writing of Revelation, Jesus the Good Shepherd has become the Paschal Lamb. .

In the Middle Ages, Jesus the judge became Jesus the mother, and closer to our own time, the “social worker” Jesus of the late 1800s became the “apocalyptic, revolutionary Jesus” for much of the 1900s.

Artists are part of the society in which they find themselves and their images of Jesus reflect the mood of their society. Jesus is at times wild-eyed and fierce, at others gentle and effeminate. He is depicted both as ethereal and also as solid and muscular. He is presented as strong and as vulnerable.

The last century has seen an attempt both to enculturate Jesus in a variety of contemporary and national settings. So we can find images of Jesus in a Korean setting and representations of Jesus as black, Asian, Maori. More than one artist has painted Jesus as a woman. The crucified Jesus has been used to represent the oppressed as in the agonised Christ of South American origin which spoke to all those who were tortured and killed for choosing to stand with the poor. In more recent times, we have been exposed to controversial and challenging images such as the Piss Christ.

Other forms of artist expression also struggle to bring Jesus into our contemporary world – movies such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Last Temptation of Christ, all in different ways struggle to make Jesus real for the society of the time. Works of fiction such as the Narnia series and the Joshua books also try to tell the story in a way that will speak to a new generation. Today the new medium of the internet allows a wide variety of expression. If you type in “pictures of Christ” on You tube you can find everything from speed painting the crucifixion, through cartoons to comedy – images which are traditional and images which are contemporary and which range from the shocking to the sentimental.

Of course, all of us have a problem when we try to picture Jesus. During his lifetime, no artist captured his image and no writer described him. We have more information on the appearance of the apostle Paul than we do of Jesus.  Most of us, if we are honest have a mental picture of a bearded, long haired Caucasian man, probably about five-foot ten with attractive features. Depending on our preference or on the art to which we’ve been exposed Jesus is blonde with blue eyes or dark haired with brown eyes. In reality he was almost certainly a short, stocky, dark, hook-nosed Palestinian, with untidy hair and beard. We simply have no way of knowing.

I wonder then, if Jesus were to return today, how would we recognise him? What characteristics would we be looking for – gentleness or strength, conservatism or activism? Would we recognise him by his teaching or simply by his presence? Would he be identifiable by his concern for the outcast and for the despised among us? Would his presence among us be healing and comforting, or would it be radical, divisive and confronting? Are we expecting Jesus to appear all in white surrounded by light – obvious to all and sundry? Or are we prepared for him to simply come among us unannounced and indistinguishable from any other person whom we might know?

In today’s gospel, we have two scenes from the life of Jesus. At two different times and on two different sides of the lake – Jesus is recognised by the people. In the first instance, they are so keen to see him that they race ahead and reach his destination before him. In the second, as soon as he appears, people gather from everywhere. There is nowhere Jesus can go – in the cities, the villages and in the farms he is recognised by those who see him.
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It seems self-evident to us that he would be instantly recognizable. Yet that was not the case, those in authority certainly were not convinced, and thought that the populace were deluded and foolish to be so taken in. They were so convinced that they knew what they were looking for, that they failed to see what was right in front of them. Worse still, they were so affronted by Jesus’ popularity that they plotted to destroy him.

We would be wise not to be complacent, but to be always on the lookout, ready and expectant for Jesus to appear among us. It would be sensible to be so conversant with the Jesus of scripture, his teaching and his life, that we would know him when we saw him. It would be judicious to develop and deep and real relationship with Jesus in the present that will inform and enlighten us in the future. We would be prudent to maintain an openness and receptiveness to God’s revelation, so that should Jesus appear we would be ready to greet him wherever and however he might come..

Are we, like those in today’s gospel, full of expectation and hope, going out to where Jesus will be, or are we, like the authorities, hanging back, convinced that we know all there is to know and waiting instead for Jesus to come to us?

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