I was a Christian long before I became a Catholic Christian, and that’s another topic. Topics. The point is, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus ever since I was a child.
Somewhere along the line, I started noticing a disconnect between what I occasionally, not always, saw in religious art and the Jesus I was reading about in the Bible.
“…The distance between these alarming and operative realities and the memory, say, of fat Mrs. Dimble saying her prayers, was too wide. … On the one hand, terror of dreams, … the tingling light and sound from under the Director’s door, and the great struggle against an imminent danger; on the other … horrible lithographs of the Saviour (apparently seven feet high, with the face of a consumptive girl) ….”
(“That Hideous Strength,” Chapter Eleven | Battle Begun, C. S. Lewis (1945) via fadedpage.com [emphasis mine])
The aesthetic quality of Jesus junk — I’ll save that for another day.
I don’t know when, where or why Western artists started equating ‘spiritual’ with a limply languid posture.
I’m less uncertain about why I’ve seen an incident recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 2) called the “temple tantrum.”
A ‘Christianity Lite’ version of Jesus is all about peace, love and passivity. Which, I’ll grant, feels better than the old-school ‘fire and brimstone’ judge of commies and hippies.
But I think both miss important aspects of our Lord’s character.
At any rate, I’ve got snapshots like these bits of Luke’s Gospel to deal with.
“When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.”
“Then Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”‘”
Since Nazareth was our Lord’s home town, I could imagine the close shave in Luke 4 as either showing a helpless nebbish being saved from his psychotic neighbors by a miraculous intervention — or something else. I’ll get back to “something else.”
The cleansing of the Temple account isn’t quite as ambiguous. Although I think a reader’s prior assumptions matter.
Passivist? Pacifist? Not quite the same thing.
- Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com
I figure that Jesus is no fool, knows what to expect from us, and isn’t shocked when people act like humans. Which reminds me of another close shave.
Clarifying that “I AM” remark, Jesus was quoting Scripture and saying “I am God.”1 No wonder folks in the Temple area freaked. They knew Scripture, too; and likely knew what happened after attempted deity-level identity theft.
So — how come folks in Nazareth didn’t hurl Jesus down that hill? And what kept him alive after that “I AM” incident?
Maybe Jesus was a lucky nebbish.
Or, my opinion, Jesus of Nazareth really was and is “I AM.”
That still leaves unanswered questions.
Or maybe Jesus has what my culture calls “charisma” — personal charm, in this case cranked up to “God” level.
If I focus on the “God” level aspect of our Lord’s charisma, then that’s a miracle.
Or I could decide that since we’ve all got charisma, Jesus is simply an extreme example. I figure it depends at least partly on which definitions are in play.
“MIRACLE: A sign or wonder, such as a healing or the control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power. The miracles of Jesus were messianic signs of the presence of God’s kingdom (547).”
Or maybe all the times when folks didn’t notice that they were talking with the Son of God were miracles. And that’s yet another topic.
“When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry.
Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again.’ And immediately the fig tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, ‘How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?’
Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done.
Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.'”
As a child, the fig tree’s fate didn’t bother me nearly as much as the bit about unwavering faith and throwing a mountain.
Decades later, taking a line through various oddball notions, I can imagine someone saying that Christianity’s a fraud because faith-based mountain pitching is stupid.
Or, coming from another direction, I can picture some crackpot’s followers insisting that they’ve moved mountains from Elk Ridge to Pikes Peak. And nobody noticed because Monsanto put tracking cookies in our burgers and fries.
That sort of trouble I don’t need.
Making up my own version of what the Bible ‘really’ means is an option.
But not if I’m going to be a Catholic.
Reading and understanding the Bible matters. So does accepting the authority Jesus gave Peter, and paying attention to what some of the world’s best minds have been saying for the last few millennia.
If I felt that I was smarter and wiser that Saints Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine of Hippo, that’d be a problem. But I don’t.
I’m also okay with God being God and me being me. And that’s yet again another topic. Almost.
I’m forgetting something. Let me think. Ghastly lithographs. Perceptions and a den of thieves. A fig tree. Right.
Cursing a fig tree because it’s fig-free seems petty. Or scary. Or both.
Either way, the disciples asked Jesus about the tree’s demise. Since our Lord answered by talking about faith, prayer, trees and mountains — I’ll assume he was making a point about faith and prayer. And using trees and mountains as figures of speech.2
“Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
“…We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made….
…by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary,
and became man….”
(Catechism, Credo Chart (The Nicene Creed))
I also think Jesus really, physically, suffered and died on Golgotha.
If I thought Jesus was just some guy who’d been given a “son of God” badge, maybe I’d see him as among history’s outstanding teachers. Who was also delusional, since he said he was God; which would make him a lunatic, not an ‘outstanding teacher.’
And that’s still another topic. Topics.
But I think Jesus is human on his mother’s side.
And that Jesus was humiliated, tortured, executed and buried.
But that’s not why I’m following him. Not the whole reason, at any rate.
Many folks have been humiliated, tortured and killed. Some, like Jesus, knew what they’d be suffering; and willingly accepted their messy deaths. Admiring them may make sense. Worshiping them? Not so much.
Lots of folks admire someone who’s above average, who’s done something remarkable.
Some of us even try to be like our hero, maybe even join the team. Or company. Or society. Psychologists occasionally call these dominant folks “alphas.”
A few of us owe our lives to someone who died while saving us.
I follow Jesus the Nazorean, the man who said ‘I am God,’ was nailed to a cross, and left there until he died.
Then, a few days later, Jesus stopped being dead. That’s, putting it mildly, remarkable.
Then they started telling anyone who’d listen what had happened.
Some of us thought it was the best news humanity’s ever had.
Others — well, John is the only one who died of natural causes.
I’d prefer skipping opportunities to choose between renouncing Jesus and a painful death.
But I follow the man who is God, who was killed on a mission that made God’s kingdom — and family — open to each of us, and who didn’t stay dead.
Heroes just don’t get more “alpha” than that.
I’ve talked about this before, and probably will again:
- “Holy Week: Top of the Charts to Lethal Fiasco”
(March 28, 2021)
- “Happy Death?!”
(April 26, 2020)
- “Something Wonderful”
(April 9, 2020)
- “‘Do Not be Afraid’”
Guest post, Deacon L. N. Kaas (January 7, 2018)
(August 13, 2017)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 554–556
- St. Thomas Aquinas, III, 45, 4 (via New Advent)