Who is Jesus?
Is he a playful Messiah who cops to loving wine and food and having his feet massaged with a woman’s silky hair soaked in fragrant oil? Does he enjoy telling jokes, as when he plants in our heads the mirthful image of a camel slipping through the eye of a needle? Did he pray one moment and play the next?
One of the lessons of Palm Sunday is that people’s attitudes about Jesus have always been changeable.
One week we’re cheering him with palms as God’s promised messiah. Days later, we’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:
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?
Last year as my Lenten devotional reading, I read 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.