Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who was that masked man?

Recently I've been thinking about that passage in Luke (24:13-25) in which two travelers encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road and didn't recognize him.

Puzzling, is it not? These two walkers (one of whom doesn't get a name, which leads some scholars to think that Luke either had a lousy copy editor or the unnamed person was a woman) had known Jesus for years and should have remembered what he looked like. But they were clueless.

I can understand that. For one thing, Jesus probably looked a lot better than he did the last time they saw him, scourged raw, his face twisted in the agony of crucifixion. For another, Jesus may have been wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab head dress that could hide his face. Many artists and cartoonists, themselves puzzled as to why Jesus was unrecognizable, have drawn a keffiyeh into the picture when they portray this scene on the road to Emmaus. Works for me.

But I think the traumatic events of the past several days also played a role. Death is disorienting. When I was 15, my mother's 32-year-old brother, my Uncle Maurice, died after a painful bout with cancer. At his funeral, I noticed my mother and other family members watched me intently as I approached the open casket to pay my respects. I learned later that everyone thought he looked exactly like me – straight brown hair, high forehead, black horn rimmed glasses, pursed lips. They thought I was going to see myself in the box and freak. But under circumstances like these, people may not see what others expect them to see. I looked at my uncle sadly and thought, "Damn, he was a good looking guy."

We'll never really know why the two travelers – Cleopas and what's-her-name - didn't recognize Jesus. Not only didn't they recognize him, they actually seemed to feel superior to this stranger they encountered on the road. "What's up?" Jesus asked, all friendly-like, and they snapped at him. "You don't know, man?" they said, or as the New Revised Standard bible puts it, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" And Jesus – who could resist many temptations but not the urge to bait his friends – said, "What things?" So Cleopas and what's-her-name immediately begin to proclaim the gospel story of Jesus' resurrection, which is ironic when you think about it, because their first efforts at evangelical witness were to grab Jesus by the robe and tell him to believe.

At the end of the story, Luke reports that "their eyes were opened" and they recognized Jesus. As soon as they did Jesus, apparently still playing them, abruptly disappeared.

The story, known as the Emmaus Road Encounter, is uncomfortable territory for those of us who have trouble recognizing Jesus when we see him. We don't, of course, know exactly what he looked like. Two thousand years of art have rendered millions of iconic faces, Renaissance portraits and pre-Raphaelite paintings of Jesus, all of them remarkably different. The Jesus I would recognize on the road would have to look like Sallman's head of Christ, first sketched in charcoal by Warner Elias Sallman in 1924 and rendered in oil in 1935. The portrait, first titled "Son of Man," has been reproduced more than 500 million times. My Sunday school teachers at the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., gave us baseball card size versions of it at Christmas so we could memorize the face. When I think of Jesus, I think of Sallman's head of Christ.

Is the portrait an accurate representation of the face of Jesus, shown with straight, light brown hair, aquiline nose, and white skin? No. But the image is certainly imbedded in our culture. Most of the Jesi of cinema look like Sallman's image:
The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ. Perhaps the blondest Jesus of all appeared in Gospel Road, the film produced in 1973 by my idol, Johnny Cash.

Anthropologists are clear that, unless he was a genetic freak, a man born a Jew in Bethlehem two millennia ago would have black hair, dark skin, and would likely brandish uncut
payots, or sideburns, mandated by Leviticus 19.27. Not the kind of Jesus who could have hidden in a crowd where I grew up.

Theologically, of course, the race and ethnicity of the incarnate God is irrelevant and artists have portrayed Jesus as African, Asian and European. Whatever works.

Besides, it's not a good idea to get obsessed about what he really looked like. In 2002, the Washington Post published a feature, "The Face of Christ," that included a face described by readers as a brutish-looking man in a police mug shot. The face was created by forensic experts who based it on a half dozen 2000-year-old skulls found in Jerusalem. Readers were told that the latest tools of science were used to get a clearer idea what Jesus really looked like. (See above).

As our friends on the Emmaus road demonstrated, it's not easy to recognize Jesus in our midst at any time in history, whether we know what he looks like or not. But one thing is sure: if we're going to pick out Jesus in a crowd, we'll have to ditch the Sallman image – and we'll have to ditch our own presuppositions, the "my Jesus" that limits him to our personal biases, and makes him hard to spot.

A pastor friend of mine once told the story of having a late-night visitor at the Manse. The visitor was a homeless woman who obviously hadn't bathed in weeks. "Please, Reverend," she said. "I hate to bother you but I'm living in my car and I haven't eaten in days. I'm not a druggy, Reverend. I need food."

Pastors hear stories like this all the time. But it was late at night and my friend was tired, so he went to a box in his office where he kept "The Deacon's Fund" – ready cash for emergencies. The only cash in the box was a $20 bill – far too much for a meal. But he sighed, and handed it to the woman.

The woman gasped at his unanticipated generosity and grabbed my friend's hands.

"The hands of Jesus," she said. "The hands of Jesus."

Embarrassed, my friend freed his hands and sent the woman on her way. But as he lay awake in bed, he had a sudden thought. "She wasn't talking about
my hands," he exclaimed.

In that same church there was a regular worshipper named Dick Jalopy – not his real name, but it rhymes with the mocking moniker his friends called him when he was in high school: Sloppy Jalopy. Dick was a recovering addict and not a little strange. He believed too much of the national budget was being spent on the Vietnam War and too little on services to the poor, and he carried his protest to political meetings dressed in a false white beard, red cap, red jacket, Bermuda shorts and decaying high tops. He called himself "Santa Cause." And even without the costume, he looked creepy with his pock-marked skin, long snarly hair and bandy legs. He also smoked constantly, explaining with a cough, "A lot of addicts beat the drugs but never the cancer sticks."

I used to watch Dick come into church on Sunday mornings. He had his preferred pew (as most Baptists do) and members of the congregation knew to sit far away from him. But he was tolerated because that's what Baptist do, or try to do. I don't think he ever joined the church, but he never missed a Sunday.

One Sunday during the organ prelude, I stared at the back of Dick's head. What's up with you, Dick? I mused to myself. Sure, you love God and you love people and your faith keeps you clean. But you're strange, smelly and you make people uncomfortable. And no one knows where you live.

Suddenly the organ swelled with the strains of, "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," and in the process of standing I was so surprised I lost my balance.

My God, Dick, I thought. Are you Jesus, man?

Sloppy Jalopy? Jesus?

It's the kind of thought one has when one misses the morning coffee, and I quickly dismissed it. But for years, every time I saw Dick, I'd think: that's exactly what Jesus would look like to us. Strange. Eccentric. And he would make us uncomfortable.

Okay, probably Dick Jalopy was not Jesus. But that's also true of the Jesi we carry in our hearts, white and blonde and holy like Sallman's head, or glowing and red-bearded like the Holman Hunt figure standing at our door and knocking. These images don't make us think of the Jesus who violated religious traditions by healing the sick on the Sabbath, or by declaring to his followers that none of this is about
you, but about the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed and those drowning in economic injustice.

No wonder Cleopas and what's-her-name didn't quite grasp who Jesus was when they fixed their gaze upon him.

"Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets declared," Jesus told the couple, and they still didn't recognize him. "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

In a strange way, Jesus was more Santa Cause than Sallman's head. His defiance of tradition and convention made people uncomfortable, and they turned away from him.

That's why the Emmaus Road story can be disturbing. And I've got to wonder. Would I recognize Jesus if he joined me on a stroll up Broadway? Or would I dismiss him as a strange and eccentric figure who doesn't meet my expectations. Would my heart burn within me as he talked, or would my mind wander because he was saying things I didn't understand?

And when he went on his way, would I go with him to the judgment? Or would I be like the sheriff and prospector in the old movies who stayed behind and watched the good guy ride away, and ask myself:

Who was that masked man?


  1. I too remember good old "Santa Cause" In some ways he was a "saint of hopeless causes" But then that was Jesus too.