by David Sisler

Michael Farrell, editor of the National Catholic Reporter conceived an art contest which would "update the image of Christ for the new millennium." The goal of winning artist Janet McKenzie was "to be as inclusive as possible." Ms. McKenzie evidentially succeeded exceedingly well because one of the judges, Sherry Lynn Best, said, "It's not real masculine. It's not real feminine. It's not really androgynous, either." Well, I guess that about covers it!

The move to "update the image" of Jesus should come as no surprise, particularly since the theological portrait of Jesus has been undergoing a systematic "update" for quite some time. Jesus needs updating, we say. His demands are too structured for modern audiences, we say. And so entire denominations, or large percentages of allegedly Christian churches, ignore the clear teachings of the Word of God.

When denominations dare to uphold their orthodox standards many in the media champion the interloper who would tear down the historic faith. The battle which rages over the faith once delivered to the saints becomes front page news. When the church finally has enough spiritual gumption to uphold the standard of God's Word, and expel the heretic, the story is buried in a back section of the newspaper if it is reported at all.

Well, how shall we update Jesus?

Michael Farrell suggested a contest to draw a new portrait. Obviously no one knows what Jesus looked like. Philip Yancey, in his incredible book, The Jesus I Never Knew, says, "In 1514 someone forged a document which contained a description of Jesus as a tall man with hair of a color that can hardly be matched, falling into graceful curls... His eyes [are] bright blue, clear and serene." Yancey says the forger gave himself away with the sentence, "No man has seen him laugh."

So, do we update Jesus to making him a sit-com hero, a ninny without enough sense to come in out of the rain, one who makes crude, off-color jokes, stumbles over his own feet, and is the victim of endless pranks by his friends? Or are the pages of the Gospels filled with images of a Jesus whose face would often have been creased with laughter and whose eyes would have sparkled at the humor of life around him?

The prophet Isaiah comes as close to any physical description we have of Jesus when he said there was no compelling beauty about him, but evidentially there was plenty of joy in his life-style. Yancey points out that Jesus was invited to at least one wedding and there he performed his first miracle, ensuring that the gaiety of the event was not lessened by a short-sighted shopper who did not buy enough wine. He attended so many parties that his enemies called him a drunken sot. The Pharisees demanded solemnity of this teacher from Nazareth and Jesus declared that it was the duty of the host of the party (speaking of himself) to keep things livened up.

If you are going to update the image of Jesus, maybe you will want to change the way he can be approached. Perhaps the greatest short story ever told is "The Parable of the Prodigal Son." In his classic book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner describes the boy's decision to leave the pig pen and try for a place back at his father's table. The boy has a well- rehearsed speech calculated to "soften the old man's heart enough so that at least he won't slam the door in his face. There is no sign he is sorry for what he has done."

But before the boy can give his well-prepared speech, his father throws his arms around the son he once believed to be dead and orders a county-wide party. Why the boy had come back home did not matter. That he had come back home was all that mattered. And how many of us return to Father's house the same way? We are in a trouble of our own making and we want to escape the consequences. Humans would demand some show of repentance. God knocks us in the dust and rolls around hugging us with joyful laughter, glad that we have accepted the invitation to come home.

Paint Jesus anyway you wish. Take Janet McKenzie's new image as the new canon if you will. Whether you paint him thick-lipped or thin, dark-skinned or light, or even (as my Mom used to say) pea-green, pink and purple, the only thing that matters is the color of blood. His blood. Update the image of Jesus? I find the imagine of the Christ of Calvary very satisfactory. I only pray he finds me so.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 12/18/99

Copyright 1999 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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