What’s on your nighttime reading table?
This winter I’ve waded my way through biographies of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Catherine the great, King Edward VII, King George VI and – as I have most years since 1959 – John F. Kennedy. When the movie Gandhi was released in 1982, I went to the Columbia University book store and bought every book about him I could find. It was the same when the Shaka Zulu television series was released in 1986.
Why do biographies have a special fascination for us – and I’m not just talking about us history nerds?
We read biographies, President Kennedy wrote, because we need to answer a basic question: “What was he (or she) like?”
Catherine Drinker Bowen, the biographer of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis Bacon, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Sir Edward Coke, among others, visited Eastern Baptist College as a guest lecturer in 1970. The gig must have been mandated by her publisher and she did not hide her reluctance to mix with the scrubbed adolescents of a Christian college. She couldn’t tell the difference between a Mennonite plain coat and a clerical collar, and she was evidently dismayed by questions she regarded as witless and puerile, such as, “was Adams a born-again Christian?”
But Bowen, ensnared by her contract, stuck with it, and after a couple of days she seemed to resonate with the students’ natural curiosity. She smiled with resignation when someone asked her if there were any historical facts she regretted being unable to uncover.
“Oh, God, yes,” she said. “Washington. There is so much information about him – his height, his build, his wooden teeth – but nothing about how he talked.” Her voice rose with remembered frustration. “I was crazy to know how that man talked!”
Decades later, I wish she had found something about that because there must be a few Eastern alums – not just me – who fretted about that ever since. We know Washington mumbled during his first inaugural address and people in the first row couldn’t understand him. We know he spoke with an English accent much like that of the redcoat General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. But was he an Olivier baritone or a Capote tenor?
We will never know. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
Readers of history are faced with many unanswered questions. I’d like to know, for example, what Abraham Lincoln’s teeth looked like. Historians are unsure and there are no photos of Lincoln smiling toothily. At least one contemporary thought Mr. Lincoln had perfect white teeth, but Lincoln’s only reference to his dentation describes an unsuccessful extraction and a toothache so painful that he wrote to a friend, “my mouth is now so sore that I can neither talk, nor eat. I am literaly (sic) subsisting on savoury remembrances.”
But our curiosity about Washington’s voice or Lincoln’s teeth pale in comparison to our interest in an even more significant historical figure: Jesus of Nazareth.
By the time we reach the fifth Sunday in Epiphany, the Common Lectionary has steered us through biblical anecdotes painting a vivid but incomplete portrait of the Nazarene. We see Simeon and Anna cuddling the baby Jesus in the temple as they testify to his true identity. We see the adolescent Jesus, confounding the elders in the Temple and admonishing his parents that they should have smart enough to look for him in God’s house. We have seen the young adult Jesus standing on the shore to call disciples to service, and assuring Nathaniel, “You shall see greater things than this.” We have sensed the charisma of the young man whose call is so irresistible people drop everything they are doing to follow him. And we have seen the supernatural power of a man who orders evil spirits back to hell.
Even so, there are times when we get crazy to know something more about Jesus than we can discover in the Gospels. It doesn’t make it any easier that his basic nature is vigorously debated. If we read his biographies to answer the question, “What is he like,” we will find the answer filtered through the myriad teachings of scholarly theologians, desert fathers and ammas, ascetic saints, Borgia and Medici popes, Henry VIII, the Inquisition, the Reformation, hangings of witches in Salem, the Pentecostal tent movements, Billy Graham crusades, Vatican II, and the occasional Baptist movement to burn the Qur’an.
All of this omits a lot about Jesus that must be obvious to all of us who have one thing in common with him: he was a human being, “tempted in all ways,” and subject to all the ordinary and extraordinary experiences we all share.
Some of these human experiences have been ignored or buried by church conferences in the second and third centuries. Ebionists argued Jesus was an ordinary man. Gnostics declared he was a spiritual being who only appeared to have a body. The hypsostatic union decreed in 451 that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. Most Baptists accept that latter view of Jesus, but since none of us can imagine what it is like to be divine, we must focus on our first hand knowledge of what it is to be human.
But so much of being human is naturally vulgar and it is hard to imagine Jesus as subject to the same human constraints. Because if he was fully human, it is necessary that he experienced what the bible disdains to mention, including hormonal awkwardness born of desire. Too, Jesus acknowledged being accused of gluttony and wine bibbing, so it’s likely he enjoyed good food and drink. If he enjoyed them a lot, we may postulate he had occasional gastric distress after eating too much food and a raging headache after drinking too much wine. Nausea, diarrhea and flatulence would have been part of that universal equation.
The human body is an uncomfortable thing to carry around with you, and it was so with Jesus as it is with us. He suffered the unbearable heat of Galilee like everyone else, got gooseflesh and a cold nose when the temperature dropped, felt sleep deprivation when he was kept up all night by admiring crowds, and occasionally lost his temper and snapped at innocent creatures or objects, such as the hapless fig tree.
Eleven verses in Mark’s spare Gospel (1:29-39) offer a capsule portrait of Jesus the human. The brief passage is fully packed. It shows him at his messianic best: restoring Simon Peter’s ailing mother-in-law to health so she can make lunch for the itinerate band, and then, with “the whole city gathering at the door,” healing the sick and casting out demons.
Mark does not stipulate one aspect of the story, perhaps because it’s obvious: all this activity is exhausting. Jesus is burning his candle at both ends. Sooner or later he is going to need a break.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark,” Mark reports, “Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
For Jesus’ sake, I hope it was the kind of prayer session in which we all indulge from time to time: the kind in which we close our eyes, empty our brains, and snuggle up to God. In other words: a holy nap.
But the respite doesn’t last long.
“And Simon and his companions hunted for him,” Mark divulges. “When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”
It’s a wake-up call. It makes me think of other biographical anecdotes, as when President Kennedy’s chief counsel, Theodore Sorensen, reported how he woke up an exhausted JFK during the 1960 presidential campaign: “Get up! Nixon has been out campaigning for hours already.”
Jesus’ response to Peter sounds like resigned determination: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
But the human Jesus also needs to take care of himself in order to do “what I came out to do.”
There is ample evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was wise enough to do that, taking advantage of dinner invitations and offers of hospitality around Galilee, and not spurning offers of comforting massages.
Jesus got tired. That’s the easiest thing about him to understand.
Tim Rice captures Mary’s gracious attentions to the human Jesus in the musical, Jesus Christ: Superstar. She insists Jesus rest his weary bones, singing:
Try not to get worried,
Try not to turn on to
Problems that upset you,
oh, Don't you know
Yes, everything's fine.
And we want you to sleep well tonight.
Let the world turn without you tonight.
If we try
We'll get by.
So forget all about us tonight.
Sleep and I shall soothe you,
Calm you and anoint you:
Myrrh for your hot forehead
oh, Then you'll feel
Everything's all right,
Yes, everything's fine.
And it's cool and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet.
Close your eyes,
Close your eyes
Think of nothing tonight.
Everything's all right.
Yes, everything's all right.
Jesus the human got tired as we get tired. Even the most works-oriented Christian must realize that God expects none of us to run ourselves into exhaustion. We aren’t worth much to anyone when we burn ourselves out. Jesus sets the example: he preached, he cured the sick, he cast out demons, he raised the dead, and he rested. If you’re fully human, being fully divine doesn’t mean you can be on duty 24/7. As musicians say, even the most inspired musical score needs periodic rests to be beautiful.
Jesus was fully human. That much we can understand. But his humanity also gives us clues about the divine side of his nature.
When I was a child, I’d look at paintings of Jesus and note that he had a golden halo around his head, an unmistakable sign of his divinity. I wondered, when I was young, why so many people doubted his parentage when all they had to do was look at his glowing head.
At the same time, I figured faith was easier for Jesus than it is for the rest of us because he could see God and talk to God every day and never have any doubt that whatever happened was orchestrated by God.
But I wonder if that assurance is really possible when the son of God takes on human flesh.
Because Jesus was fully human, I suspect, he had no special guarantee, no unmistakable sign of God’s presence, no nimbi or haloes, no signs in the sky, to show him the holy.
He had to operate on pure faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
That’s not easy, and how well we humans know it. Stepping out in faith without a visible safety net is scary and many of us won’t do it.
But Jesus did it all he time. Jesus never stopped trusting God and Jesus never doubted that God’s promises would be fulfilled.
That faith is a facet of humanity that is palpably divine.
Jesus, like us, was a frail human being who walked many a hot Galilean road and worked strenuously and made himself available to all who needed him. And occasionally he needed a nap.
We work hard too, and there is nothing more holy than a Sunday afternoon nap.
But Jesus, unlike us, was also fully divine. And the message he worked so hard to impart to his fellow humans is that the spark of divinity exists in all who are created in the image of God.
We may not see it. But the divine savior who understands our human weaknesses so well is urging us to step out in faith to accomplish whatever God is calling us to do.
Whether we can see the safety net or not.