Tony Woodlief | Author

The obscured man

This is not a comment about the reasoning of a Slate essayist, who wrote recently that the white Santa is outdated. This is not a comment about the Fox News talking head who took umbrage, asserting that not only Santa, but also Jesus, is white. This is not a comment about the predictable crowds who predictably gathered to hurl predictable barbs, nor even a comment about the lack of grace they afford one another during this season of grace.

This is a comment about who we see when we consider the Christ. When Mary called Magdalene came to his tomb and found it empty, she wept. She wept because, she said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”

It would be a fitting reaction, don’t you think, to weep at the thought of people dragging about the body of your savior, that he might suit whatever purposes they have for him? Thank goodness that doesn’t happen today. Thank goodness none of us is guilty of that.

She wept and she turned and she saw him standing near, the God-man who had drawn from her seven demons. She saw him and he asked her why she wept, but she did not recognize his face. How could she have followed him so far, known him so closely, and not recognize him? She did not know who he was until he said her name. He told her who she was, and in doing so, he revealed the truth of himself to her.

Peter and several other disciples had the same experience, near the shore of the Galilean Sea. They did not recognize this man who called to them in their boat. Not until he directed them where to cast their nets, causing them to be filled, revealing himself through a miracle. In their obedience to his direction, they came to know him again.

Christian tradition teaches that we are to understand these failures to recognize Christ as an indication of how profoundly he was changed in resurrection. Having descended into hell, having arisen glorified and uncorrupted, he had become a forerunner of what we are promised. He became what we are to become, but from whom we live, most of us, at such a great and tragic distance.

So you see, it doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like before his work at Golgotha. Anyone who wants to place some ethnic or racial claim on him, to subtly draw him toward their favored group, or tug him away from some disfavored group, is missing the whole point. We are none of us like him.

Not a one is like him, and yet we are called to be like him, to pick up our crosses and labor up that hill, labor past earthly gain and glory, past respectability, past career success and collegial esteem, past praise from the clever. We are called to go to death ourselves, to lay down these mean-spirited and self-seeking lives, that we might be cloaked in the selves we were meant to be from the beginning.

The question is not: Who did Jesus look more like? The question is: Why don’t I look more like Jesus?

And the place to look for an answer is the heart. We do not look like him because our hearts are not inclined toward him. Which is why so often we don’t recognize him, even when we look him full in the face, even when we cradle his words in our hands, even when we bow our head toward an empty cross and whisper how great is our love for him.

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