“Portraits of Jesus”
In the American Memorial Chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, built to honor those US citizens who died defending Britain in World War II, there is a set of stained glass windows with pictures of Jesus, the nativity, … and George Washington.
It is, of course, a way of contemporizing the Christmas story. And that inclination — to make the biblical story our own — is right in keeping with the central confession we celebrate at Christmas: that in the Incarnation, God in Jesus became one of us, taking on our lot and our life so that God would be accessible to us.
Jesus became one of us. God became like us. It’s a stunning confession when you think about it. Hence artists throughout the centuries have rendered biblical stories — and particularly stories about Jesus — from the point of view of their time, their culture, and their ethnicity. All to help convey this central and important truth that Jesus is, indeed, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
not like you,” particularly to those who are different from us, is very different.
Jesus became human to be like us … and all people. Imagining Jesus to be like us honors the Incarnation, but imagining Jesus looks only like us denies it.
In 1962, South African artist Ronald Harrison’s painting “Black Christ” became a controversial sensation because it portrayed the crucified Christ in the likeness of African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli and the Roman centuries in the likeness of apartheid-supporting officials. It caused a stir in part because it was clearly critical of apartheid; it was called blasphemous because it portrayed Christ as black.
Each of us probably has an image of Jesus we carry around within us, likely shaped by pictures we saw growing up, pictures in Bibles or paintings on the church wall. Perhaps it’s the nearly ubiquitous picture of Jesus knocking on the door. Or perhaps it is Jesus as the good shepherd joyfully carrying on his shoulders the missing sheep. Or perhaps it’s the light-haired and blue-eyed Jesus so popular among many Germanic and Scandinavian congregations. There is nothing wrong with these varied conceptions, as they help us imagine that Jesus is like us. Nor is there anything wrong with portraying Jesus as black, or Native American, or Latin American, or of Middle Eastern descent.
Jesus was born, lived, died, and was raised again to demonstrate God’s profound love for us and for all people. Absent the first part of that confession — that God loves us — life can be devoid of hope and meaning; absent the second half — that God also loves all people — life can be filled by fear and hatred and even religious faith can be twisted to harm some of God’s beloved children.
I am grateful for the diversity that has become such a hallmark of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I am grateful for the diversity of tradition, piety, culture, and ethnicity. When our classes are filled with persons of different racial and cultural backgrounds, we witness to the truth of the Incarnation that God became human to draw us all into a loving and redeeming embrace. This diversity is part of LTSP’s gift to United Lutheran Seminary and, indeed, the ELCA and larger church.
But make no mistake. Such diversity is not easy. Diversity is enriching, dynamic, and creative; it is also challenging and at times turbulent, stretching unquestioned perceptions and long-held presuppositions. We so easily become comfortable with our own traditions and patterns and sometimes demand that those with different traditions justify them on our terms before we recognize their validity. Everyday at LTSP, we resist that inclination and strive to grow into God’s vision for the church and world. Therefore, please know that I continue to be grateful for your support of the hard but important work that goes on here, and that I covet your prayers for the strengthening of this blessed diversity now and in the years to come.
This Christmas, as we gather to celebrate Christ as the Word made flesh and our Emmanuel, we at LTSP pray that you be anchored in the promise that God loves you, and we pray that all of us would remember and be renewed also in the promise that God loves all, came in Christ for all, redeems all, and sustains all. Anchored by these Christmas promises, I pray that as congregations and communities we resist the inclination to fear those who are different and instead see in their faces — of whatever hue or color — the very face of God.
David J. Lose
*This reflection was inspired in part by a sermon I heard fifteen or so years ago by Marc Kolden and remember with gratitude to this day.