Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ants In Our Pants

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. - Frederick Buechner

Once in my pre-literate, pre-kindergarten period, I was playing with crayons and wrote randomly chosen block letters on a piece of paper.

I showed the paper to my father and asked him if the letters said anything.

“Yeah,” he said. “It says ‘doubt’.”


I stared dumbfounded at the paper as if it was a revelation on a golden plate. 

“Doubt!” That was an over-used word in our house, though I had never seen it written down. When Dad said “doubt” he intended it as a  kinder, gentler form of “NO,” and he said it a lot. It was his way of letting us down easy when we proposed some unlikely pleasure, such as asking if we could begin dinner with dessert or if it would be good to keep garter snakes in our underwear drawer. “I doubt it,” he’d say, turning aside to conceal a grin.

Dad’s doubts never turned to yeses, and my siblings and I had no doubt that doubt always meant no. Doubt was a potent word in our young lives, and when the word appeared haphazardly by my own tiny hand on a piece of paper, I was stunned. 

In fact, it seemed miraculous. My memories of that childhood incident are extraordinarily clear. It is as if God visited me when I was 4 to reveal that the main element of life is doubt, along with all its components of hesitation, uncertainty, misgiving, and disbelief. 

There are few things in life that I have been unable to doubt. For about three days after the 1959 premier of Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I thought it would be charming to believe in leprechauns, but I soon gave it up because their existence seemed patently unlikely, at least in Central New York. My mother believed black panthers roamed the Catskills  – that is actual panthera parda indigenous to Africa, Central America and Asia – but I doubt it. I doubt that UFO’s are alien space craft. I doubt the existence of Yetis, Sasquatch, abominable snow persons. I doubt the Loch Ness Monster.

Some of my dismal doubts put me at odds with friends and loved ones, and my spouse believes I am either soft headed or arrogant to believe President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman. But there are few things I doubt with greater conviction than the notion that the 1963 assassination was born in a conspiracy.

Unlike my other doubts, this goes beyond obduracy. In recent years, most of the members of the Dallas Secret Service Detail – the nearest eyewitnesses to the murder – have published their memoirs to refute what they regard as ridiculous rumors that shots were fired from any place other than the sniper’s nest in the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Agent Clint Hill, who this month published Mrs. Kennedy and Me: An Intimate Memoir, heaps more doubt on the conspiracy theory.

Hill (known to history as the agent who jumped on the back of Kennedy’s car) says he recently visited the sniper’s nest in the Schoolbook Depository to get a clearer image of what happened. He emerged more certain than ever that the fatal shots came from Oswald’s perch. “I spent some time out on Elm Street, in the Dealey Plaza area, in the school book depository,” Hill told Paul Brandus of the West Wing Report, “and I finally came to the conclusion that, after looking at everything, that what I did on Nov. 22, 1963, I did as much as I could do. I couldn’t have done more.”

I don’t doubt that at all, and I pray that after 54 years, Hill and the others close to the tragedy will begin to find some peace. But despite the agents’ certainty that Oswald acted alone, millions of people doubt that Kennedy died solely at the hands of a lone nut. Every online review of the Hill book, or an earlier book called The Kennedy Detail, is followed by reader comments disputing the agents’ claims and reasserting the belief (long ago dismissed by forensic experts) that if Kennedy fell backwards, he must have been shot from the front.

No doubt the doubts will persist for centuries. And no doubt – as God revealed unto me in the medium of crayon and paper – doubt is an essential ingredient of life and faith.

Doubt will be on the minds of millions of Christians this week. In most liturgical traditions, the second week of Easter focuses on the biblical account of St. Thomas’ awkward encounter with Jesus following the disciple’s dogged disbelief that Jesus had risen from the dead. 

This week Thomas will be the topic of millions of sermons, many of them acknowledging the profound faith that followed his doubt. He is, after all, a missionary whose journeys surpassed St. Paul’s in mileage, and he is the founder of ancient Christian churches in India and South Asia. 

But it’s hard to sermonize about Thomas without reflecting, just a little, on the ignominy of his doubt. Thomas reminds all of us that it’s easy to be a believer once you’ve touched the skin of the resurrected Jesus. But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells Thomas (John 20:29b), in an observation that was hardly necessary. 

The category of those “who have not seen” is pretty broad and it includes us. 

In this age of skepticism and doubt, we are self-consciously aware of how difficult it is for us who have never seen the resurrected Jesus to “come to believe”?

But there are records of Christians who didn’t see it and still had no trouble believing. 

Another scripture that is often read on the Second Sunday of Easter refers to the earliest Christian congregations described in Acts 4:32-25

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

These are incredible commitments for a group of believers “who have not seen,” although they may have received special inspiration from the “great power” with which the apostles testified of their own encounters with the resurrected Jesus.

Even so, it’s daunting – frightening even – to contemplate the sacrifices these Christians made for their faith. They gave up their real estate, their pastures, their livestock, and their fortunes for the sake of the church. They pooled the proceeds, gave all their assets to the central authority, and rejoiced as they saw their former opulence distributed among the poor.

As a journalist, I’m leery of making sweeping generalities, but I assert this with confidence: this kind of faith is virtually non-existent today, at least in my liberal Protestant tradition. 

The concept of redistributing wealth – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – is as Christian as you can get. But we are also mindful that it’s as Marxist as you can get and we’ve buried the awful thought in the deepest recesses of our psychic catacombs.

The idea of giving up all your property in the name of a higher power sounds crazy and we have the anecdotes to prove it.

Who can forget Heaven’s Gate, a San Diego UFO cult led by Marshall Applewhite. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who gave away everything they owned and committed suicide in anticipation of an alien space craft they believed was following the Comet Hale-Bopp, then nearing its passage with earth.

This is too bizarre and too tragic to be funny. Heaven’s Gate was a community influenced by the “great power” with which Applewhite and other disciples spoke of the heavenly world to come.

Heaven’s Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled, and that the only chance to survive was to leave the planet immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined “suicide” in their own context to mean “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered,” and believed that their “human” bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey. They shed their earthly belongings and drank the kool-aid. 

Were these people crazy?

Indisputably. But were they crazier than the Christians in Acts who gave up everything they had for a pie-in-the-sky promise of immortality?

I think the main difference between Heaven’s Gaters and New Testament Christians is that the latter group was more experienced in the art of doubting. If the Heaven’s Gate community had been better doubters - if they had exhibited a little more healthy skepticism - they might have double-doctored Applewhite and sent him to the Cuckoo’s Nest. And they might all be alive today.

Doubt was the common thread that brought the early Christians together, and doubt prepared their minds and hearts for the truth that was to follow. 

Thomas was neither the first nor the only disciple to doubt the resurrection until he had seen Jesus. In the biblical accounts, all the disciples doubted all the time, even after Jesus patiently explained to them that he would be killed and would rise again. The women who visited Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning betrayed their doubts when they brought spices to embalm his body. When they found the tomb empty, their doubts persuaded them his body had been stolen. The doubting disciples rushed to the tomb enraged by the terrible crime of body snatching. When doubting Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Jesus in the garden, she thought he was a gardener.

Doubt, suspicion, and mistrust abounded. And the doubt persisted until the Holy Spirit cast the scales from their eyes and enabled them to see God’s truth. 

There’s no shame in doubting. Doubt steers us away from false prophets and prepares our hearts to accept God’s true messiah.

“Therefore,” Peter preached to the doubters on the square in Jerusalem, “let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)

And only then did the light begin to flicker in the darkness of their minds.

“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit.”

The seed of faith was planted in doubt, watered in doubt, nurtured in doubt, and sprouted in doubt.

But when the plant pokes its way into the sunlight, it bursts forth in an exquisite beauty.

Is that the way God always intended it? That the darkness engulfs the faintest embers of faith until, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s eternal truth ignites as a thousand suns?

No doubt. And doubt is where it begins.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why We Tell the Story

Why is this night not like all other nights?

The significance of this question, posed at Passover Seders, cannot be overstated.

The question is an invitation to tell an essential story of faith history. Without the story of Gods intervention to liberate the children of Israel from a tyrannical pharaoh, it would be impossible to understand basic tenets of our relationship to God. The story reverberates throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. 

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the stories we tell one another. Without them, it would be difficult to define who we are. In his musical chronicling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda expresses the essential nature of story telling. 

f your family is anything like mine when it gathers for Easter dinner, there will be more oral tradition served up at the table than ham. Tales will be told, stories will be spun, family memories will be deconstructed, analyzed, and exaggerated. There will be someone – in my house it’s me – who will repeat stories told many times before, often with different emphases or surprisingly different endings. Much of this discourse will take place with the understanding that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, and for the most part, it wouldn’t matter anyway. No matter how the stories are told, they always bring us closer to understanding who we are – and what God expects of us.

My paternal grandfather Addison was austere and perhaps a little authoritarian. My mother was politely reserved in his presence, and I’ve wondered if she wasn’t a little afraid of him. Mom lived with her in-laws during the Second World War when Dad was in the South Pacific and she worked for a war materiel plant near Oneonta, but few stories emerged from that period of her life. 

Grandpa may have been a little severe in the presence of adults, but I remember him as a warm and doting presence – and a great story teller. He could describe Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox with such clarity I could see the out-sized duo trampling through the Catskills, and of course I thought at the time the tales originated with him. On the surface, Paul Bunyan lore had little to do with who I was or what God expected of me. On the other hand, I’ll never forget sitting on a bench behind my grandparents’ house, watching the conspiratorial crinkles around his hazel eyes as he spoke so quietly only I could hear him. It set the context for my existence that has lasted all my life.

As my siblings and I grew up in Central New York, we were immersed in fables from both sides of the family. Our mother, Mary Emerson, traced her ancestry to an Emerson who held an important but imprecisely described position as “George Washington’s body guard,” and a generation later we find Ralph Waldo Emerson sitting transcendentally on a branch of the family tree. I can’t document either claim, although Mom always said that when she visited Emerson’s Old Manse, she saw pictures of relatives on the wall that were identical to tin-type portraits preserved by her father. 

On the Jenks side, there were royal governors, iron works operators, revolutionary war soldiers and – judging from the fact that several Jenks graves in the cemetery in Oneonta have no recorded death dates – possibly a vampire or two. There are literally hundreds of stories emanating from these traditions, and no doubt many of them will be retold this Thanksgiving, as will many Cruz and Montes reminiscences from Cuba. All of these stories are important because they are essential glimpses into who we are, and what God expects us to do.

As I commence my eighth decade, there is one story I can’t get out of my head – a story of my father’s participation in World War II. Like most post-war baby boomers, the war had an incalculable impact on my formative years. My father’s life was changed forever by what he experienced in the Buna Mission New Guinea campaign. And, a priori, so was mine.

When I was growing up in Morrisville, most of the dads I knew were veterans. Dee Cramer was in the Navy, Taze Huntley was in the D-Day invasion, Jack Irwin was a teen-age tank gunner in Europe, Del McKee was a marine. At one time or another they were all surrogate fathers to the boomers whose diapers they were changing, and they had another thing in common: they never talked about the war. They acted like the slaughter hadn’t the slightest effect on them.

A few years ago I tried to tell their story in doggerel, focusing on my father’s worst memories:
Now Dad himself is on patrol near Buna late at night. 
He hears grunts, the startled farting of a Japanese patrol 
And a silhouetted figure looms with menace in his sight. 
“I.D. yourself, goddammit,” says my father, sick in soul, 
The answer sounds like leather on the muzzle of a gun. 
Dad feels the vomit in his throat and closes both his eyes. 
He doesn’t see the flash of his concussing Tommy Gun. 
The silhouette collapses with a gasp of sharp surprise. 
It was too dark to see so Dad crumpled to the ground 
And hugged the Tommy to his face and felt the muzzle’s heat. 
The jungle now was quiet and the only human sound 
Was the ghastly, gurgled groaning of that silhouetted heap. 
Dad pulled the Tommy closer and tried hard to close his ears 
The terrible moaning ebbed and flowed throughout the endless night. 
Dad thought of Oneonta and the sweetly passing years 
Of youth, and closed his eyes against the coming of new light. 
When the grayness of the dawn came he opened both his eyes 
And saw the Japanese teen-ager, chalky white and still. 
His blood had leaked throughout the blackest night and now he lies, 
An abandoned, empty shell. He was Dad’s first war-time kill. 
The teen-ager was gut shot. He died in agonizing 
Misery. His face was youthful and unlined, even pretty, 
But all Dad saw was an enemy uncompromising 
In his love for Hirohito. Dad killed him without pity, 
Though now as he beheld this human carcass drained of blood, 
It was hard to ignore the common bond of humanity 
He shared with this dead stranger pacified inside the mud. 
The war was a metastasis of insanity.

Dad never told anyone all the details of this story. I don’t know if it would have helped him if he had. His friend and pastor, Jack Irwin, the teen-age tank gunner in Germany, wrote an entire book about his experiences, Another River, Another Town (Random House, 2002), and I think the experience was cathartic for him. But even more important, telling the story is essential to opening the door to some of life’s great mysteries: Who am I? Where did I come from? What does God expect me to do? And what does my life mean to others who share my space?

Dad’s World War II story, which he recorded in his diary (now online), is horrendous, as were the stories of millions who shared this terrible experience. After the war, Dad led an ordinary life. He married, had five kids, taught high school, worshipped at the United Church of Morrisville, joined the Lion’s Club, and marched on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day with his fellow legionnaires. 

Ordinary enough. Yet I suspect hardly a day passed that he didn’t think of that incident on Buna. It changed him forever. And, in ways we scarcely noticed, it affected his marriage and his children. The story of Buna is one of the building blocks of who we are, without which our knowledge of ourselves would be forever incomplete. And that is why we tell the story.

There is a beautiful musical that has spent too little time on Broadway, Once on This Island. Son Will and daughter Victoria have each appeared in different school renditions of the show. It’s the story of a little Haitian peasant girl, TiMoune, who dies following a star-crossed love affair with Daniel, a rich man’s aristocratic son. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Little Mermaid, it is full of beauty, passion, pain and death. In many respects, it’s a metaphor of life. And despite its painful elements, it is a story that must be told. In the final act, following TiMoune’s death, the company dances and sings:

We tell the story
We tell the story!

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story

When God ordered the angel of death to passover Jewish households, a story was born: the story of God’s infinite power over evil and God’s commitment to love us unconditionally and to protect us from evil. When we hear these stories, we gain new insight into the primordial stew from which we sprang. We discover who we are. And in that discovery, we are given a great gift: to choose hope and faith and God’s own path for our lives.

And in many cases, those stories offer hints as to the unrestrained ways we might celebrate that gift: 

Then the prophet Miriam, Aarons sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sexy Jesus

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew 21:9-11
The first thing audiences noticed about Son of God, the 2014 film based on a History Channel series, is that Jesus is a hunk. 

Diogo Miguel Morgado Soares, a Portugese actor and supermodel, has the title role and he is distractingly gorgeous. Critics and audiences dubbed him sexy Jesus.

Compared with our standard cultural image, Diogo’s Jesus is fairly conventional with his long hair and beard and aquiline nose. He might be dressing as Salman’s Head of Christ for a costume party.

But, oh! Those limpid eyes! That strong brow! Those sensual lips!

And Diogo is just the latest in a long line of sexy cinema Jesi, who have included the crop of Hollywood’s gorgeous males: Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow, Ted Neeley, Robert Powell, and Jim Caviezel.

Jeffrey Hunter was my favorite. He was better looking than Diogo, and his break-out film role was a Christ-like figure in The Searchers. Later he played the bad guy in Disney’s Great Locomotive Chase, and he ended his career as a starship captain in the pilot of Star Trek.

Also, my daughter Katie would want me to mention that two gorgeous young men, Hunter Parrish and Corbin Bleu, were sexy Jesi in the most recent Broadway revival of Godspell. Katie has met them both.

But what did Jesus really look like?

Holy Week commences with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. None of the gospel writers tell us what he looked like, but some Christians surmise he must have cut a fine figure.

As he passes through Jerusalem’s gate he is sitting on an ass. That in itself might suggest an incipient charisma. Ordinary people who entered the city on an ass – and during Passover they were legion – were virtually invisible. 

Those whose legs were too short to straddle the beast, or whose legs were so long their feet dragged in the dust, might have attracted amused glances or snickers.

But no one laughed at Jesus. And everyone noticed him. 

Soon people were laughing and dancing and following him like a delirious second line in a Mardi Gras parade.

The trail of evidence is circumstantial, but many have followed it to the conclusion that Jesus was a great looking dude.

Others follow the evidence in a different direction. John Alan Turner, one of Fox News’ stable of contrarians, insists Jesus looked like an average Jew of his time. 
He was probably short and maybe a little frumpy. Calloused hands and messy beard. Deep down we know this, and it makes the big screen version of Jesus seem contrived and unreal.I think we’re afraid of the real Jesus because he’s too normal. He looked less like a movie star and more like a regular person -- like he could be your neighbor or your mailman.This is what initially got him in trouble. People couldn’t believe he was the Son of God because he looked too much like...the son of Joseph.
Turner may have been thinking of the disclaimer in Isaiah 53, anticipating a messianic figure who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Even so, one has to wonder: if your mailman rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, would the crowds have swirled around him in an ecstasy of adoration?

Even before his Holy Week activities, there must have been something about Jesus that attracted thousands to his sermons and made King Herod fret that, among the plethora of would-be messiahs wandering around, Jesus was the one he should worry about.

What was so magical about Jesus? 

It could have been his homiletical style. 

It could have been his appealing message that the realm of God was nigh and soon the powerful would be rebuked and everyone would love one another. 

It could have been his charming knack for turning water into wine or curing the sick. 

It could have been his piercing blue eyes.

This might be a good time to reflect that obsessions over human beauty have never been greater than they are in our own period of human history. Cinema and television dangle humanity’s sexiest creatures in front of us, and virtually all advertising is aimed at convincing us that particular products – automobiles, make-up, clothing, tooth paste, reduced calorie cuisine – will make us more beautiful and more desirable. 

It’s no wonder many of us can’t stop thinking this way when we go to church. What does Jesus have that I don’t have?

Anyones perception of beauty, of course, is subjective. 

When I worked for the World Council of Churches, I had a colleague who met Yassir Arafat in a receiving line and nearly swooned when he leaned forward to kiss her cheek. She thought he was very fine-looking, though his scraggily beard, enormous nose, and receding chin were not the standard indices of beauty.

Similarly, I thought there was much to admire about Eleanor Roosevelt, who was famous for her protruding teeth and reedy voice. And it wasn’t just her inner beauty I admired. I found her very appealing.

All of which suggests we make up our own minds about what is beautiful and there’s no point arguing whether George Clooney or Jude Law is the sexiest man alive.

I don’t think it mattered one whit to Jesus what he looked like. And of course it shouldn’t matter to shallow Christians whether he was ordinary looking or a holy hunk.

Yet during Holy Week it is irresistible to contemplate the nature of the magnetism Jesus so obviously possessed when cheering crowds in Jerusalem’s narrow streets surrounded him.

Two things we can surmise.

One, it was a powerful force indeed. 

Thousands of people who had never met him were suddenly poring out of their homes and shops, grabbing palm fronds to strew in his path, and shouting giddily, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

Two, it was a transitory magic. 

Before the week was out, people were asking themselves what they had ever seen in Jesus. One day they were ready to nominate him King of the Jews. Hours later, chagrined by what they regarded as their own temporary insanity, they were calling for his head.

If the people had been temporarily hypnotized by Jesus’ good looks, it was soon obvious that good looks were not going to save him. 

As we contemplate this dramatic cavalcade with its palms and hallelujahs, perhaps the wisest course is to forget about what we can never know – what Jesus looked like – and focus on what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry, and God saw to it that multitudes would turn out by the thousands to watch. Many would follow him faithfully to the end, and many would fall away or join the calls to crucify him. Whatever individual participants would decide about Jesus, God saw to it that God’s intervention in human history had plenty of human witnesses.

And God’s intervention leads us to conclude that, no matter what Jesus looked like, he must have been the most beautiful human being who ever walked.

There is a story that a woman came to President Abraham Lincoln to plead for the life of her son, who had been caught sleeping on guard duty. After Lincoln issued the pardon, the woman was asked, “Ain’t old Abe an ugly critter?” The woman was genuinely puzzled. She replied “He is the most beautiful man I have ever met.”

Regardless of whether Jesus was regarded as good looking by the standards of brass age Palestine, I’m sure he was regarded as extremely beautiful by many who encountered him: 

those whose loved ones he restored to health; 

the woman he rescued as she was about to be stoned to death; 

the lame he made to walk; 

the blind he made to see;

the demoniacs tormented by evil spirits he cast out; 

the tax collectors, prostitutes, and soldiers who were scorned and shunned by polite society before he sat with them as a brother to share food and drink;

the poor, the captives, the lost, the oppressed he came to save.

How they must have basked in his exquisite loveliness.

Maybe he was short, a little frumpy, with calloused hands and messy beard.

But if he was, one thing is sure:

He was so beautiful no one noticed what he looked like.

Friday, April 7, 2017


Matthew 21:1-11

Who is Jesus?

One of the lessons of Palm Sunday is that people’s attitudes about Jesus have always been changeable.

One week they’re cheering him with palms as God’s promised messiah. Days later, they’re calling for his head as a dangerous blasphemer.

For centuries Christians have blamed these treacherous mood swings on the Jews. But it was mishegas, not treachery, that accounts for their fluctuations in attitude. We should know because we Christians have always been mashuganah about who Jesus is.

Over the centuries we’ve argued about whether he is all God or all human, or equal parts of both. We’ve debated whether he died as a substitute for sinners, coining the phrase “substitutionary atonement” which sounds to some like a Mary Poppins song:

This-is-our-God’s-loving-way-to-save-us-in-the- moment.

At other times we’ve surmised Jesus did not die for our sins, but rather his death and resurrection defeated the satanic forces that hold us in bondage to sin – the Christus victor view.

We’ve also spawned sects declaring Jesus was not even divine, and some wacky humanists insist he never existed at all. “No one has the slightest physical evidence to support a historical Jesus,” writes Jim Walker of nobeliefs.com, “no artifacts, dwelling, works of carpentry, or self-written manuscripts. All claims about Jesus derive from writings of other people.”

Palm Sunday is the day Christians allow themselves to be carried away with the crowds waving palms at him, affirming his existence, celebrating his importance and, usually, upholding his divinity. 

Perhaps the best way to experience Palm Sunday is to follow the advice of St. Ignatius to imagine we are actually there in the crowds, feeling the sun on our backs, leaning away from palms slapping our faces, watching the faces of the crowd, waiting breathlessly for a glimpse of the man on the donkey.

And what does this man look like? We have to guess.

Almost certainly, assuming he looked like everyone else, he was a bearded, dark-haired, brown-skinned man with a kaffiyeh covering his perspiring head and untrimmed sidelocks.

But that’s probably not the Jesus we’ll see in our mind’s eye because classical art has distorted his image for centuries. Renaissance  artists portrayed him as European, and Pre-Raphaelites thought of him as fair-skinned and blond. Asian and African artists sought to make him look themselves, and if you ask most American boomers what Jesus looks like they’ll describe the image hanging on their Sunday schools walls: Salman’s head of Christ.

More recently our image of Jesus has evolved even further. I love the Jesus who appears in the opening credits of Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal TV show, a tall, winking, statuesque figure whose crooks his finger to invite Bee to approach him – though whether it is to bless her or mansplain to her is unclear. There is even a bobble-headed Jesus on my desk, though I regard it as a figure of iconic respect, like the bobble-headed popes and Elvises sold in novelty stores.

But perhaps the most vivid image of Jesus, based on his admonishment that “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me,” is the person we regard as the least like him: the tattooed prisoner, the bagwoman with a shopping cart, the homeless veteran, the woman in a hijab, even the surly fat uncle who won’t stop praising Trump.

I have a feeling we run into this  version of Jesus more often than we realize – a theme I expanded on a couple years ago in an earlier essay, Is That You Jesus? 

This year as my Lenten devotional reading, I’ve been reading Father James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

At the risk of sounding hackneyed (which someone my age must not), the book has brought me closer to Jesus. 

The book is the story of Jim Martin’s 2012 pilgrimage with a Jesuit friend to retrace Jesus’s ancient steps from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Martin encourages his readers to engage their Ignatian imaginations to place themselves in the midst of the biblical byplay. What did Jesus look like and sound like? Did he ever smile or raise his voice? How did the people around him react to what he was doing and saying, especially when he was performing miracles? What did his physical surroundings look like? 

Martin expresses his surprise that many landmarks described in the Gospels, often dismissed as legendary or allegorical, actually exist. Twentieth century archaeologists uncovered the long hidden pool of Bethesda and found that it has five porticoes as described in John 5:2. 

The Bay of Parables, discovered by Martin off the beaten tourist track, is a natural amphitheater where one’s Ignatian imagination can see Jesus standing in a boat as the water provides natural acoustics to carry his voice to the crowd on the shore. 

And 2000 years on, the Bay of Parables offers other tantalizing tidbits for the fanciful mind. Martin writes:

I was gobsmacked to see rocks, thorns, and fertile ground. No one planted the thorn bushes, carted in topsoil, or arranged the stones to make the locale look as it did in Jesus’ time, as if we were in a theme park called Jesus Land. They were just there.
It dawned on me that when Jesus used objects from nature to convey his message – seeds, rocks, birds, clouds, water – he may not have been talking in generalities, but about things right here.
Holy Land pilgrims also quickly learn that the locations of most biblical sites are open to speculation, citing the caveat that if a famous event didn’t happen here, it happened close by.

For example, Golgotha. When I visited Israel in 1974, we were escorted to a site favored by evangelicals as the place Jesus was crucified. The location was endorsed by a 19th century British general, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon because he thought a natural rock formation looked like a skull.

But it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem that scholars say is “almost certainly” Golgotha.

Martin quotes New Testament scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

The most important argument for the authenticity of the site is the consistent and uncontested tradition of the Jerusalem community, which held liturgical celebrations at the site until AD 66.
It doesn’t take Ignatian reverie to realize many of the people who attended those celebrations were alive when Jesus walked the earth and presumably witnessed his death and resurrection.

Jim Martin’s Jesus is a commanding account of the life and times of Jesus and, although I didn’t need it, a persuasive counter argument to those who doubt a man called Jesus walked the earth.

Martin also testifies to the church’s traditional characterization of Jesus as a divinely human conveyer of God’s unconditional love for God’s creation, and – through his miracles – a paradigm of God’s limitless power over disease and death.

Thanks in good measure to Jim Martin’s book, I can imagine myself immersed in that Palm Sunday crowd:

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (John 21:8-11)
I may, like the crowd, be asking myself, “Who is this?”

Granted, in the years following my born-again Baptist period in the 1960s I wandered down many different paths of understanding of who Jesus is. In my years as an ecumenical communicator I inhaled the smells and danced to the bells of a wide range of marvelous views of Jesus of Galilee. 

But, thanks to Jim Martin and a little Ignatian imagination, the Son of David has come closer to me than ever before.

And this Palm Sunday I'll be waving figurative fronds with added enthusiasm, singing hosannahs and blessings to the complicated carpenter who comes in  the name of the Lord.