23 March 2011

Who is Jesus? A Lenten Talk

Our images of Jesus may be inherited, but they have shaped how we think of him even before we form the foundations of our own adult faith (Montage: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Who is Jesus? A Lenten Talk

Holmpatrick Parish, Skerries, Co Dublin

8 p.m., Wednesday 23 March 2011

Who is Jesus?

Let me begin by asking you to throw out some words that you would use to describe Jesus. Just try to throw them out at random: My Saviour; My Lord; the Way, the Truth and the Light.

How about the images you have?

What comes to mind when I ask you think about Jesus?

Detail of a stained glass window in Saint Philip’s Church, Leicester

The Baby Jesus?

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd?

The Crucifixion

Jesus on the Cross?

The Resurrection

The Risen Jesus?

For some of our neighbours and friends, the images they have of Jesus, the answers they give may include:

The richly-decorated Sacred Heart chapel in Saint Patrick’s Church, Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

● the Sacred Heart;
● Our Lord ...
● or even simply God.

If your neighbours are Muslims, it may be: “A Prophet.”

If they are Jews, it may be “A rabbi” or “a teacher.”

Even if they are agnostics, sceptics or atheists, they may still concede he is a wise teacher, an ethical guide, a key figure in understanding historical events ever since.

But did anyone say:

● Christ the King?
● The Second Person of the Trinity?
● The Light of the World?

Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’

I remember Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World as the first image of Christ that I saw as a child, sitting on my grandmother’s lap as a small child.

The images we have of Jesus have probably been with us since early childhood, they may have been passed down in our families over generations. They may have been there since even before we were brought to church or Sunday School. They determine the answers we give to the question: Who is Jesus?

So our thinking about Jesus and who is are shaped by factors that we may not even be conscious of as adults.

The icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, is one of the earliest known images of Jesus

In the Bible, we find a number of titles for Jesus:

1, Son of Man: This title is also found in the Old Testament. In the Psalms, the Book of Job, and other books, it is used for humanity as a whole. In the Book of Ezekiel, the title occurs 94 times, and refers to the author.

We find the title ‘Son of Man’ is found 82 times in the Four Gospels, but only in the sayings of Jesus. We could say it denotes the fullness of what it is to be human. In the Passion narratives, it underlines the nature and power of righteous suffering. So, we could interpret it as saying Jesus is what it truly is to be truly human.

The Adoration of the Lamb on the Throne ... the main panel in the Ghent Altarpiece

2, The Lamb of God: This title is given to Christ at the beginning of his public ministry as he approaches John the Baptist. It has resonances of the Passover, so John’s Gospel begins with Jesus hailed as the Lamb of God and closes with his death as the Paschal Lamb is sacrificed in the Temple. This title speaks to us, therefore, of self-sacrifice, revealing a God who suffers for and with us.

3, The New Adam: this is a title found in particular in the Epistles. It describes Jesus in a way that restores humanity to all that God has created us for. In other words, the identity of the wholeness of faithful humanity is to be found in Jesus. He is the one that humanity can both identify with and aspire to.

4, The Son of God: In the Old Testament, angels, and just and pious men are called Sons of God, and the title is also used in the Old Testament for Israel and the Israelites as a nation: “Let my son go that he may serve me.” It is also used for kings and leaders.

But in the Gospel use of the title, the vocabulary shifts from earthly to unique truths, and it serves to join heaven and earth in Jesus a person. It is used at his baptism and transfiguration, where it signifies a transcendent fact before foundation of word. It invites us to understand two unique relational concepts: the relationship of God in Trinity, and the relationship God has with humanity.

5, Lord: In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word Lord (kyrios) is used to translate the sacred names of God so that they are not used in vain or blasphemously by those who read the text. In other words, at the time of Jesus, there is a loaded meaning to the word kyrios, which signifies a temporal ruler, but also has a hidden, religious reference to divinity. In the Gospels, it is used a sign of his authority as miracle worker (Mark, Matthew) and as a teacher (Luke). So when some translations render kyrios as “Lord” in reference to God in the Old Testament, but as “Sir” in references to Jesus, can you see how the Gospel writer’s build-up of expectation about who Jesus is begins to be lost?

When Jesus stills the storm on the lake, he is not just a wonder worker with an interesting bag of tricks, he is indicating that he is the lord of creation

When Jesus stills the storm on the lake, he is not just a wonder worker with an interesting bag of tricks, he is indicating that he is the lord of creation.

6, Prophet: Did he think of himself as a prophet?

7, Messiah: We read back, with the benefit of the hindsight of Christian faith our own interpretation of Messiah or Christ. But at the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had many different expectations of the Messiah, and did not necessarily identify the Messiah with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The Messiah might be a king, a liberator, the one who ushers in a new reign of justice; the suffering servant might be the whole nation, the whole people. But Jesus was obviously not a warrior king like David, and he was not accepted by the whole people.

We can read too much into these titles too, and find them too restrictive in their meanings and our understandings if we first of all deny that their purposes are in their symbolism.

They seek to point not only to Christ as fully God, but to the fullness of humanity in Jesus. If we have difficulties in knowing who Jesus is for us, remember so too did the disciples … and they lived with his earthly presence for years.

Jesus is someone we grow into, someone we are transformed into by grace.

Sharing that which Jesus is, the way of the agape, growing into the new Adam in love, being self-sacrificial, is being caught into relationship with God.

But I have another problem with titles. And it is this: if I was talk about Patrick as a canon, chaplain, lecturer and writer, these titles may tell you about my functions, and my relationship with the Church, but they tell you very little about my personality, and little about how we can get to know one another in friendship.

On the other hand, if I share some personal biographical details, some CV details, then we’re beginning to get to know one another. I’m 59, I went to school in Gormanston, my grandparents are buried in Portrane, I have two adult sons, I worked as a journalist for many years ... why, we may even become friends.

And if I add some likes and dislikes – I love my weekly beach walks in Skerries, travel, history and music, I enjoy cricket and rugby – then you’re getting to know the human me. We’ve laid the foundations for a friendship that can continue and grow.

And so it is the same too with Jesus. Titles are descriptive, but the story of his humanity opens us up to true and lasting relationships. We can be friends at a true and deep human level.

So Jesus tells us about himself in terms of relationship with us. There are seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, seven ways in which he talks about who is, gives himself a self-description, but always in terms of relationship:

He says he is:

‘I am the bread of life …’

1, Bread: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall will never be hungry” (John 6: 35);
2, The Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
3, The Gate: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10: 9).

“I am the Good Shepherd”

4, The Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
5, The Resurrection and the Life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
6, The Way, the Truth, and the Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
7, The True Vine: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinegrower” (John 15: 1).

So: who is Jesus?

If you were asked to write a CV for Jesus, with verifiable facts and references, what could you include that would clinch for him that special relationship with you that he wants?

Date of birth? Nationality? Education? Home address? Previous jobs and work? Experience? Referees? Future hopes?

Let’s get back to those images, and imagine them as a family album that tells us, or introduces us to the CV of Jesus, that tells us who he is.

And then decide whether you going to call him for interview and give him the job described in those titles: 1, Son of Man; 2, The Lamb of God; 3, The New Adam; 4, The Son of God; 5, Lord; 6, Prophet; 7, Messiah.

The illustrated CV

There are a number of basic facts that are agreed on about the CV details for Jesus, but remember that even the Gospels themselves present his life-story in different ways. This doesn’t say they have doubts and questions about Jesus, but they do indicate a variety of emphases, even in the early Church.

We can say:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

His mother was Mary, who was engaged to Joseph when she became pregnant.

The Nativity depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Jesus was born ca 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.

Matthew and Luke says he was born in Bethlehem, Mark and John say nothing about his birth but say he was from Nazareth.

Luke is clear that his family was from Nazareth, but Matthew says they lived in Bethlehem.

The Adoration of the shepherds portrayed in Lichfield Cathedral in Lady Chapel’s neo-gothic altarpiece carved in Oberammergau in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Luke says that after his birth local shepherds came to worship him, and then he says over a week after his birth, at the age of eight days, he was circumcised.

Giovanni Bellini, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, (ca 1470), Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

Some weeks later, Luke says, he was brought to the Temple, where an old man, Simeon, hailed him as salvation of all peoples, a light for revelation to all people and the glory of God’s people.

Luc-Olivier Merson’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879)

Matthew alone says that after the birth of Jesus, he was visited by the Magi, and that his family then fled to Egypt where they remained until the death of Herod, and then they moved first to the area around Jerusalem but very quickly to Nazareth. Luke, on the other hand, tells us nothing about a flight into Egypt, but says instead says that soon after presentation in the Temple the family went directly to Nazareth.

We know little about the childhood of Jesus

We know little about his childhood, although Luke again tells us that every year the family took him to Jerusalem for the Passover, and that on one occasion he got lost in the Temple in Jerusalem because he had got caught up in a debate the teachers or rabbis.

He spent his childhood and his early adult years in Nazareth, a village in Galilee. Perhaps he worked in his Joseph’s workshop. The English translations tell us Joseph was a carpenter, but this simply translates a word that might also be translated as builder or architect.

John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Both Mark and John have little interest in his birth or childhood. They begin their Gospel narratives with the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, but Luke and Matthew also tell us this story.

After his baptism, according to Matthew and Luke, he withdrew to the wilderness, and was tempted in the wilderness. His rejection of these temptations tell us a lot about the future priorities of his work: the end does not justify the means.

But he returns to Galilee – John says immediately – and there he begins his public ministry and gathers his disciples. Some of the stories from this time include the Wedding at Cana, and by then he was in the habit of going to the synagogue in Nazareth every Saturday.

Jesus in the Synagogue, as painted by Northern Ireland-born artist Greg Olsen

On one of those Saturdays, he is called up to read from Scripture and stirs controversy when reads what almost sounds like his manifesto for his future career:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

When his message is rejected in Nazareth, he makes his home in Capernaum.

Then Jesus called the Twelve together ... and he sent them out (Luke 9: 1-2)

He soon has a core group of disciples, whom we usually give as 12 in number, although there is no agreement on the list of 12 names.

He taught in the towns, villages and countryside in Galilee, mainly in the area around the Sea of Galilee, although he visited other areas, including the region of Tyre and Sidon, and John tells us he continues to visit Jerusalem a number of times for the Passover.

The Sermon on the Mount, by Cosimo Rosselli, from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

He preached not himself, but the Kingdom of God – the best known example of his preaching is the Sermon on the Mount. But there are two versions of this, including two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the other in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

Jesus heals the man at the pool

● He healed the sick;
● he raised the dead;
● he restored sight to the blind;
● he gave mobility to those who were lame or crippled;
● he made clean the lepers; he calmed the storms;
● he fed the multitude;
● he dined with Pharisees, tax collectors and sinners;
● he valued the place of children who at that time had no legal rights or economic worth;
● he engaged with the outsiders, such as the Samaritan woman and at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman who wanted healing for her daughter, and the Roman Centurion who wanted his servant healed;

He raised the dead

And he spoke up for those who were marginalised:
Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree (Illustration © Henry Martin)

● because of their work, like Zacchaeus the tax collector,
● because of their ailments seen as punishment for their own sins and the sins of their ancestors, such as Bartimeus,
● who were unjustly accused of sinful living, such as the woman about to be stoned for adultery,
● or the woman who burst into the house of Simon the Pharisee and anointed his head and washed his feet.

A carving of Saint Philip on the pulpit in Saint Philip’s Church, Leicester ... was he trying to keep people from seeing Jesus? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But so often, as we see, the Disciples are found trying to keep these people away from Jesus?

Do they really realise the full enormity of who he is?

We know little about his family, but we know he had close personal friendships with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. At the time, synagogue worship was controlled by the Pharisees and Temple worship by the priests, and he worshipped in both; yet his message and the claims made for him made enemies for him among both groups.

He taught in parables. He told stories about:

The Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple ... who was good at praying, and who was a model for praying?

● a sower,
● a son who squanders his inheritance,
● a judge who s corrupt,
● an unexpected outsider who looks after a man who had been beaten and mugged;
● a rich man who pays the consequences not for being rich but for ignoring the humanity he shares with a lowly beggar at front door;
● a Pharisee and a publican praying in the Temple;
● fig trees
● labourers in fields
●grains of wheat
●mustard seeds
●wedding banquets.

The wedding at Cana

From the wedding banquets to the wedding at Cana, from his meals with Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee, to the meals he had with his friends in Bethany, we know he enjoyed eating with his friends and with strangers.

Peter Paul Rubens, the Feast of Simon the Pharisee

Palm Sunday ... the Triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem

And so, appropriately, his life reaches its climax in Jerusalem when, at around the age of 30, he arrives, or arrives back for the Passover meal.

His arrival in Jerusalem causes great rejoicing.

He causes a stir, indeed creates havoc, when he turns the tables in the Temple.

Within five days rejoicing is going to turn to betrayal.

The Last Supper ... an image from Bridgeman’s workshop in Quonian’s Lane, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

His earliest recorded words are not in the Gospels but those the Apostle Paul records in I Corinthians 11: 23-26, recalling what he said at the Last Supper.

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ in the Garden (1598), the National Gallery of Ireland

But he is betrayed, arrested, and is interrogated by the Jewish authorities, specifically the High Priest.

The Crucifixion ... detail of a window in the South Transept, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

He is tortured, condemned to death by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, and is executed as a common criminal outside the city walls, nailed to a cross on a hill near the city dump.

Salvador DalĂ­, Christ of Saint John of the Cross

All but one of his disciples have fled by now. His body is taken down from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph, who were not among the 12.

The entombment of Christ

He is buried in another man’s grave.

The Resurrection, a fresco ca 1460 by Pierro della Francesca, in the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro in Tuscany

And when the coast is clear, some women come to that grave to clean things up to give him a proper burial.

The empty tomb ... a window in the gallery in Holmpatirck Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

They find the grave is empty. One of them, Mary, thinks first she is talking to a gardener, but then realises this is Jesus.

Noli me tangere, an early Cretan icon in Venice

But do the disciples believe her?


It takes some arguing, some time, convincing.

Then they told ... how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread

The disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognise him until the breaking of the bread.

Christ breaks bread during a meal with the disciples on the shore after daybreak

The disciples by the shore do not recognise him until they eat with him.

Carravagio: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Thomas refuses to believe until he sees his wounds.

The disciples, who got it wrong about Jesus so often before Good Friday, are still slow to get it right about him even after Easter.

Salvador Dali: The Ascension (1958)

Even after the Ascension, they hide in fear, until they are fired by the Spirit at Pentecost.

They now come to believe that he is going to return again. They form a community, they spread the good news, the Church proclaims the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did, and the Church becomes the Body of Christ.

Future prospects

So on that CV, who do you think Jesus is?


And do you think Jesus knew who was?

He was truly human.

Did he see himself as a rabbi?

How did he understand his own miraculous powers?

Did he know his own death was inevitable?

If so, why did he allow it to happen?

Why did he not run away?

Why was he so fearful in the Garden of Gethsemane?

If he was only behaving as if he was truly human, then he was not truly human.

If he remained constantly conscious that he was God, then his human consciousness was only an appearance, and God, in the incarnation, only pretended to identify fully with our humanity.

George Fox, the founding Quaker, challenged his contemporaries: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you?

The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-1927, Sir Stanley Spencer

● Is he coming again?
● A personal saviour?
● One who comforts you?
● Or is he more than that for you?
● Who do you say Christ is?

Concluding comments

There are a series of compliments and complements in the whole creation story.

At the beginning, God creates us, humanity, in his own image and likeness.

We say no to that, in our own wayward way.

But God then complements the first compliment by taking on our own image and likeness in the incarnation.

He does not just pretend to become like us. He becomes totally like us – to the point of death and burial and the body beginning to decay in the grave.

In the resurrection, he invites us to return to the promise of what we could be in the Creation.

In the Eucharist, we take the gifts he has given us to sustain our lives, food and drink that only become food and drink through human toil, and offer them to God, and once again God offers himself to us in Christ.

Now in the Body of Christ we are called to be truly human but to be caught up into God, to become like Christ, to become part of Christ, to enter into the perfect relationship that is found in the Trinity.

A useful link:

Just who is this Jesus?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This Lenten talk was presented in Holmpatrick Parish, Skerries, Co Dublin, on Wednesday, 23 March, 2011

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very thoughtful and comprehensive presentation in Skerries Mills this evening. Go raibh maith agat, Patrick.Your focus on the miracles all being seen in the context of relationships hit home very strongly. Beir bua is beannacht. Trevor Sargent.