Monday, October 24, 2005

Christ in the Apse: the Laminated Jesus

If we take off our "spectacles of faith," and set aside for a moment our presuppositions about who Jesus was, we may be able to encounter in the Synoptic gospels an individual we scarcely recognize. We might find someone who sees himself as ushering in a non-political, eschatological kingdom of God. His teaching ministry is preëminent in his mind, and is often hindered by his fame as a wonder-worker. "Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth" (Mk 1:38). This is a rabbinic ministry to Jews, in direct opposition to the legalism of Pharisaic Judaism and the traditionalism of the Sadducees. Like any good Jew, Jesus considers the Gentiles unclean and unworthy of his message. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel...It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mt 15:24, 26; cf. also Mt 10:5ff.). He comes to radically reform Judaism, and expects God's blessing and power to accompany him to Jerusalem, where he would inaugurate a new messianic era of righteousness and peace. When he is rejected by the crowds in favor of Barabbas, a revolutionary zealot, he is crucified and in desolation cries out that God has forsaken him.

Before angry rebuttals rise up in your throats, consider that this admittedly truncated reading of the gospel story may possess a kernel of truth we dare not admit. Recent scholarly efforts at "re-Judaizing" Jesus have placed him firmly within a first-century Palestinian context, and have done much to strip away the many layers of theological laminae, which have obscured the Jesus of history and replaced him with the Christ of faith. That this makes us angry and uncomfortable, only highlights the depth and importance of the nerve we have touched.

The Christ of faith is a composite figure, a conflation of New Testament teaching about Jesus of Nazareth with 2,000 years of liturgy and theological reflection. This "laminated" Jesus may be in fact closer to the truth than the one offered at the beginning of this article; I think it is impossible to know, frankly. That is, for the moment, beside the point. What matters to me is that in gilding Jesus into a Johannine "Logos," or a Byzantine Pantokrator, or a conservative Calvinistic Burghermeister, something important and precious is lost. As Jesus spent more and more time among the people, Jew and Gentile, it seems that he began to advocate for a radical existence which was framed around a conflict with powers, sacred and secular. Jesus followed the prophetic model of calling for war against injustice, against hypocrisy, against the abuse of people - especially the poor, against spiritual bondage and religious hypocrisy. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10:34).

We have replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Christ, and then to make sure we never really hear or meditate on his original, radical message, we overlay him with so much finery and adoration that he becomes an icon to be kissed, a crucifix to be carried, an idol to be unthinkingly and fearfully worshiped. The cost of keeping only the Christ in the Apse, is the perpetuation of the same injustices and hypocrisy Jesus railed against in his own time. The cost is a system of religious enslavement where some are "in" while most others are "out." The cost is a society where the ethics of Jesus are derided and ignored, and where the church is complicit with the demonic power structures of the world. Money, Sex, and Power are baptized under the Christ in the apse, while the least among us go hungry and die, and the stranger at our gate remains barred from the precincts of holiness.

I am not saying here that the Christ of faith, the Christ of the creeds, is not the true Christ. I am saying that in our theologies and our worship we have silenced Jesus, and his radical message of the cross - not his cross, but our cross! "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me...Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 9:23; 14:27). Our cross is our participation in Jesus' war against the powers of darkness, and the willingness to be casualties for the sake of justice, peace, and the kingdom of righteousness. Is this the message resounding in the churches today? Is this the message our pious politicians unctiously utter? The silence is deafening.

{"Head of Christ," Rembrandt van Rijn, 1655}


Blogger homo unius libri said...

"I don't care if it rains or freezes as long as I got my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car!"

9:55 AM  
Blogger John Cowart said...

Just vistiing by way of Pam's This Side Of Heaven blog.
I really enjoyed reading some of your past entries. I wish I knew more about illuminated manuscripts; I found your posting about them fascinating.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Why thanks, John! I wish I knew more too...Somedays I wish that I had gotten a Phd in Paleography.

7:51 AM  

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