Sunday, March 21, 2010

Redecorating Jesus

Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8

Christian men have always been in search of more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith than 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild'. 'Thank God for testosterone,' as one American worship leader put it. On the other side of the fence, however, stands the "chick lit" version of Jesus, who is touchy
feely and romanticised, the wounded healer, the person to whom we can cling for a deeper relationship and a true expression of what love really means. The danger of both extremes, of course, is that - as someone once said - 'they redecorate Jesus, in our own image'.

That's what Cynewulf's 'Dream of the Rood' does. Cynewulf was an Anglo-Saxon poet who wanted to glamourise the crucifixion for the warrior class who were in charge of ancient England at the time. This is how he describes Jesus being crucified. It's important to note that he is telling the story from the perspective of the tree from which the cross was made on which Jesus died. This holy tree, or Rood, speaks directly to us in the poem.
Then the young hero prepared himself,
that was Almighty God,
strong and firm of mood,
he mounted the lofty cross
courageously in the sight of many,
when he willed to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the hero embraced me,
yet dared I not bow down to earth,
fall to the bosom of the ground,
but I was compelled to stand fast,
a cross was I reared,
I raised the powerful King
the lord of the leavens...
Notice how Jesus is not portrayed as a victim being nailed to the cross by his oppressors, but as a hero - courageously climbing onto the cross of his own free will and embracing it as his manifest destiny. Even on the Cross he is the powerful king who is lord of the heavens.

Of course, there is much truth in this portrayal, and it especially reflects the way that John describes Jesus' death in his Gospel. This is the Jesus who calmly debates the nature of kingship with Governor Pilate, who tells his friends that the hour has come and now is when the Son of Man must be lifted up, who arranges for his mother to be looked after by the disciple whom he loved, and who cries out at the end of his life, 'It is accomplished!' But even in John's version of events, Jesus does not ascend the Cross himself.

The poem takes the depiction of Jesus' death one stage further towards heroic martyrdom than John had dared to go, whereas in the Gospel accounts - and particularly in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke - there is a certain ambivalence about the way Jesus dies. He is at once resigned to his fate and at the same time tormented by an agony of soul. The Jesus who cries, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' is very easy for us to identify with in our own suffering, but he doesn't seem as self-assured as the heroic Jesus of the poem.

Throughout history, this idea of representing Jesus as the ideal hero of whatever culture the writer or artist finds himself in has remained popular. So a bronze crucifix from Ireland, made during the period when Celtic Christianity was in the ascendant there, depicts the crucified Jesus not as a warrior hero but as a Celtic chief. He even hangs on the cross wearing his chieftain's robes and a breastplate decorated with Celtic symbols.

In the Nineteenth Century, Jesus was depicted as the first exponent of Victorian public school values. The famous writer Thomas Hughes in his book 'Tom Brown at Oxford', a sequel to 'Tom Brown's School Days', distinguished two types of men. On the one hand there were people like Flashman, the bully and bounder who is the anti-hero of "Tom Brown's School Days". People like Flashman are described by Hughes as 'muscle men', "who seem to have no belief whatever as to the purposes for which their bodies have been given them, except some hazy idea that it is to go up and down the world with them, belabouring men or captivating women for their benefit or pleasure." In contrast, he sees Tom Brown as a 'muscular Christian', someone who - in imitation of Jesus - "has hold of the ... belief, that a man's body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he. For mere power, whether of body or intellect, he has," Thomas Hughes hoped, "No reverence whatever."

The sort of rugged Christianity which Hughes is expounding here makes Jesus more akin to the
examplar of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If' than to a wounded healer. He's the sort of decent bloke who - in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested - was able to keep his head while all around, his disciples, were panicking and losing theirs, and blaming him; who was able to trust himself when other people were mocking and deriding him; who was lied about, but didn't deal in lies; who was hated, but didn't give way to hating. He was good, but he told other men not to call him 'good teacher'. He thought of tempting things, but he didn't make those thoughts his aim. He met with triumph on Palm Sunday, and disaster on Good Friday, and treated those two impostors just the same. He held on when there was nothing in him except the will which said, 'Hold on!' He talked with crowds and kept his virtue, keeping the common touch and refusing to be crowned as king. He filled each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' distance run. And he was not just a man, my son, he was the Son of Man!

And yet, of course, that picture of Jesus - while it contains more than a grain of truth - is a redecorated Jesus, a Jesus made in the image of Men's Sunday. In our reading from Philippians Paul says that he was a man's man, or at least a thoroughly Jewish man, a zealous persecutor of heretics and the kind of guy who carried the practice of righteousness to the point where it became a fault. 'But all such assets,' he says, 'I have written off because of Christ.' In fact, he counts everything - all his manly achievements - as 'sheer loss, so much rubbish' in comparison with the gain of knowing Jesus and being 'in union' with him.

Paul isn't someone who wants to celebrate his own power - not even the muscular Christian kind of power which consists in rigorously training your body and bringing all your desires into subjection so that you can help other people and serve the common good. That was the kind of power which Paul had sought when he was a pharisee, and which he had now renounced. Instead, the only power he is prepared to trust in now is the power of Jesus' resurrection.

And when he celebrates Christ crucified, as he does, it's not the glorious, majestic Christ hanging in royal majesty on the cross like a warrior hero whom he sees in his mind's eye, it is the suffering, vulnerable Christ. And Paul feels called to share those sufferings 'in hope of somehow attaining the resurrection from the dead.' 'I press on,' he says, 'Hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. I do not claim to have hold of it yet. What I do say is this, "I press towards the finishing line, to win the heavenly prize."'

That final statement, 'I press towards the finishing line,' might sound a bit like the muscular Christianity celebrated on the playing fields of Eton where boys learned to 'play up, play up and play the game!' But Paul's finishing line is certainly not the sort of manly goal envisaged by Kipling, who urged his son to reach that state of mind where 'neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you' and where 'all men count with you, but none too much,' because Paul is striving to reach the goal through suffering, and by counting his friend Jesus as more important even than his own death. That's surely counting someone too much by Kipling's standards!

And so, finally, to our Gospel reading, where we find the same Jesus who, in John's account of Good Friday, is glorified on the cross, being prepared for death by his close friend Mary. In an appallingly intimate gesture she not only pours costly perfume over his feet but wipes them dry with her hair!

Judas Iscariot was certainly appalled. The treasurer of Jesus' little band of disciples, he observes that the perfume must have been worth about £18,000. No wonder that its fragrance filled the whole house. How many poor people could have been fed if the perfume had, instead, been sold to buy bread? John makes the unkind comment that Judas was not, in fact, concerned for the poor, but only wanted to get his own hands on the money. But Jesus will say only that the ointment is a fitting preparation for the day of his burial.

Here, then, he allows himself a bit of self-pity and regret, a bit of humanity, we might say, a bit of vulnerability and need for comfort in the face of his own death. Is this Jesus, even in John's Gospel, getting in touch with his feminine side and reminding us that real men don't need a stuff upper lip?

The real Jesus, then, is not just the passionate lover of our souls, but neither is he just the young hero going calmly and stoically to his death. He's a person who knows all the whirlwind of emotions which ordinary humans experience, a person who - like each of us - was a complicated mixture of male and female attributes, a person who is not constantly battling to suppress and control his feelings but who is so in touch with his inner self that he is comfortable with Mary's expression of what it means for her to be his friend.

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