...But Jesus didn't look like that!
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
15 February 2009, 10:30 (2 before Lent)
On the front page of last Friday’s Times there was a stunning picture – an artist’s impression of our beautiful planet shrouded in a cloud of debris. 28,000 satellites have been launched into space since the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and 9,000 are still in orbit, most of them - about 94% - no longer working.
Worse still, there are now in all more than 300,000 objects
whizzing around the globe, and last Tuesday a Russian military
satellite collided with an American civilian one creating clouds and clouds of further debris.
In 50 years that is the terrible and dangerous mess that we have made of the space around the earth.
It is a cameo of what we have done when we have acted impulsively, greedily, godlessly through the human ages.
And yet we are capable of creating beauty and lasting good. One aspect of this is art which can inspire and redeem beyond words and money and reason.
Just down the road at Ebbsfleet, Mark Wallinger has won the competition for the south of England’s equivalent of the angel of the north’ – a spectacular piece of art set beside the channel rail link and the A2 as a welcome to these islands.
And Wallinger’s winning design is an enormous white horse, 33 times larger than life at about 160 feet high. As a symbol of Kent and England, it will contrast handsomely with the patchwork of pylons, power lines, chimneys and cranes that dominate the skyline around that part of north Kent.
And so to this morning’s Bible readings from Proverbs, St Paul and St John: passages of extraordinary power, mystery and compulsion.
Are they works of art set amidst the grime and squalor and failure of our human living?
And even if they are, are they heard and able to inspire?
I am not sure that I can answer that question head on.
Certainly, each passage takes on the task of revealing the unique power of God as creator, redeemer and sustainer.
Like music, and poetry and art, the words bear more meaning than we can ever understand or control.
These are words that can touch our lives in such a way as to change our living: we are no longer self- contained and self-centred entities but personalities in relationship with our creator and his handiwork around us.
Here is a claim that challenges and potentially changes the way we see the world and live our lives.
But what does this flesh, this Jesus look like?
Forget the Bible colour illustrations and sentimental Sunday School art of how we think people might have looked 2,000 years ago.
No. How does God with a human face look this morning?
But why do we have to do this?
Because if the very heart of Christianity is St Paul’s claim to the Colossians:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, - then he has to have a face and a personality.
And all of us here in church and throughout the world will have an image and an expectation of how Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of faith, looks.
Now Mark Wallinger is famous for another piece of art that he created in 1999, the first work to be placed on the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square and entitled Ecce Homo, ‘Behold the Man’.
This statue depicted Jesus dressed in a loincloth with his hands bound behind his back at the moment when Pilate presents him to the crowds in a setting not that different from Trafalgar Square.
And it was the people, the onlookers, who were to decide whether Jesus should die or be released.
Jesus looked so small, fragile and undistinguished and some people found it all shocking, obscene and utterly wrong.
In fact, this Jesus was life-sized in the strictest sense, for he was cast from the body of a living model, a friend of the sculptor.
And everyone in Trafalgar Square, whether feeding the pigeons or heading for work, had a view on this way of representing Christ.
Some were moved by the vulnerability and ordinariness of Jesus the man, others were shocked by the unheroic body of the Son of God, who must surely have looked in some way divine.
And people were split: should he appear so serene and stoical?
Shouldn’t the artist have made it clear how much this man is going to suffer - the little crown of barbed wire seemed hardly enough to suggest the depth of pain that lay ahead on the way to Calvary?
Again and again, in puzzlement or irritation, they pointed to the face and said, "But that isn't Jesus. That's not what he looked like."
And there in miniature is a resumé of debates that have run round Europe for more than 1500 years.
It is clear that the early Christians were unconcerned by Christ's actual appearance.
Even once they had moved from representing him merely by letters and symbols to sculpting him as the Good Shepherd, he remains any good shepherd, features varying from statue to statue, as he carries home the lost sheep.
By the early Middle Ages, everything had changed. The church focused devotion more intensely on the person of Jesus, and Saint Francis above all taught the need not just to revere him but to love him.
And as we all know, it is hard to love somebody with no face.
And since then countless artists have depicted the features of the incarnate God.
So we are left with an extraordinary paradox - and the one most often voiced in Trafalgar Square: we all know what Christ looks like, and yet there is not a word in the New Testament about his physical appearance.
Indeed as Jews, Jesus himself and his followers would have recoiled from the idea of making an image of the divine under any circumstances.
But look at what we have really done.
We have dared to picture God in human flesh.
But at the same time have we made Christ unrecognisable, unbelievable, and unable to share our human flesh and encounter us in the face and form of a neighbour?
The Englishman on that plinth in Trafalgar Square, Jesus among the pigeons was almost too real and too present for our comfort.
Mozart and Mahler, Michelangelo and Monet, Milton and Masefield – their works resonate in us with something of the divine and the creative spirit of the eternal Father but they are not the Word made flesh.
The claims of Jesus are dangerous and very uncomfortable for every age and every people. God is as close as the people we are.
The divine Wisdom of the Proverbs passage now dwells in a house, wears clothes, eats and sleeps and dies.
God is our neighbour.
In our gospel passage from St John, what we translate as dwelt among us literally means pitched his tent. God dwells amongst us today in a fragile and passing way.
And it is so easy to overlook and to be blind to his presence.
Our news this February is full of gloom and pessimism.
We hear of natural and manmade disasters in the forms of Australian bushfires and flooding, unrelenting bloodshed and cruelty, financial meltdown, cynical greed and self-seeking, and even adolescent parents and the loss of childhood and its essential innocence.
Yet it is precisely here, in these critical and threatening situations, that God pitches his tent and risks himself in the person of the God whose death is decided by a baying crowd.
As we look at little baby-faced Alfie Patten, 13 years of age, 4 feet in height and father of baby Maisie - might it be possible that God in Christ could ever look like him?
God reverses and upturns all our prejudices and selfish assumptions.
Amidst the debris of our human progress through this life, God comes to us in the familiar and the everyday, and there we encounter the glory, the awe and the terror of his eternal and redeeming divinity.
Listen to these devastating words from a 20th century poet:
Looking at it
without seeing it.
Is this the secret
of life, the masked ball
which meaning attends
incognito, as once men looked
in a manger, failing
to see the beast for the god?
from Incarnation ~ R S Thomas