Does It Matter How We See Jesus?
A Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2: 1-20.
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ana Municio on Unsplash.]
At our church Council meeting in early November, we had a conversation that generated a question I have been mulling over ever since.
(And in hopes that you didn’t read my sermon title when I sent it out yesterday,) I want to set up the context before I tell you what the question is.
We were talking about a rather unorthodox Christmas banner message that someone had shared.
It called for rejoicing at the birth of “a brown-skinned, middle-eastern, undocumented immigrant.”
Obviously, the message is intended to surprise, perhaps even to shock.
And in that effort, it pushes the envelope a bit beyond accuracy…
The baby whose birth we celebrate tonight was probably brown-skinned and was certainly middle-eastern, but it is anachronistic to say he was an undocumented immigrant because that is a category that did not exist in the 1st century.
It would be more accurate to describe him as a refugee, and even then, he wasn’t strictly speaking born a refugee, but rather became one after his family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murder squads.
Of course, Christmas card images that picture Mary beatifically smiling at her newborn with not a sweat-frizzed lock of hair or bloodied cloth is sight get some things wrong too!
But here’s the important thing: in talking through what was and wasn’t true about the particularity of Jesus’s human identity, our Council had a really thought-provoking conversation about why we, individually, imagine Jesus looking one way or another… and the ways we respond to images from different cultures that depict the holy family with the characteristics of the given race and place.
Which all raises the question that has been with me ever since: Does it matter how we see Jesus?
When we say a prayer, or come to the altar for communion, or sing a Christmas Carol about a “holy infant,” do the features, and skin-color, and social circumstances of the images we hold in our minds matter?
It’s not actually a yes or no question, because our answers are inevitably going to bring up all kinds of different considerations about how our imaginings shape both our personal spirituality and the ways that we engage with the world around us.
We had a lot of different answers among us on Council, and I’m really grateful that I got to hear them all. (I’d love you hear your thoughts as well, if you want to share them with me at some point).
And because I learned so much from listening to other people’s answers, I wondered if we could bring that same question to the sacred story that we celebrate tonight…
to ask whether the specifics of Jesus’s humanity… his features, his skin-color, his social circumstances… mattered to the other people in this story.
I wonder first about Mary: exhausted from her journey and her labor… and by the stress, and joy, and overwhelm of the months before…. I wonder, when she looked into the face of her infant son on his first night of life, whether it mattered to her what he looked like.
Did she look to find a miniature imitation of her father’s ears, or the color and texture of her mother’s hair?
Did she stare into the newborn paleness of his eyes and long for them to darken soon to match her own?
Knowing what she knew from the angel and her own experience about his divine origins and the weight of prophecy that sat on his tiny shoulders… did all of that overshadow the miracle of him being just her son?
A child who shared her DNA. Who would grow up to look like her? Who would share not just her generic humanity, but actually her blood?
I expect, for Mary, it did matter that she could see herself in Jesus.
But what about for Joseph? The story cuts from a different angle for him.
By the night of the Nativity, he had had time to process the strange events and explanations that led to him acting as midwife to his wife before he had acted in all ways as her husband.
He had made his choice, at another angel’s urging, to accept and protect Mary and her child… to claim them as his own before society’s eyes.
But I wonder if it hurt at all to look at the baby in Mary’s arms that night and know that there was no point in looking for his family’s nose, or prominent second toe, because he wouldn’t find them.
Or, I wonder, if he already knew he didn’t need those physical touchpoints to be a father to this boy.
That Jesus would grow up mirroring Joseph’s mannerisms because they shared their lives.
That they would laugh at the same jokes, and hold their wood carving tools the same way, and that people would talk to Joseph about his son and his eyes would shine with pride at the word without any hesitation.
Whether that night, or as their relationship grew, I like to think that for Joseph it DIDN’T matter, in the end, that Jesus didn’t look that much like him.
Of course, there are others in the story as well, without the complicated family dynamics to impact their response to Jesus’ particularity.
The shepherds in the field bring no expectations to their encounter, or if they do, they would be expectations of difference rather than likeness.
The waited-for Messiah, God’s promised agent of deliverance, is not someone they would think to see reflecting their own humble, marginalized circumstances.
The Messiah would share their nationality, of course, but he was to be the Son of David, a royal heir with power and majesty.
Not a working man’s child, stinking of animals and sweat, exiled to the outskirts because he has no claim to accommodation even on the night of his birth.
So, I wonder what it must have been like for them, after the chorus of angels had retreated, to approach a stable with all its familiar smells and isolation, and see the prophesied baby wrapped in strips of homespun cloth.
A child whose circumstances so closely mirrored their own humble, unexceptional lives.
How could it NOT have mattered deeply, profoundly to them, to see in the specifics of Jesus’s low-status surroundings a scene where they could comfortably enter… a family not unlike their own?
There is one more group that does not make an appearance in our story tonight, but whose arrival marks the end of the Christmas season, so it makes sense to consider them as well: the Magi, court advisors from the East.
Would it have mattered to them, at the end of their long journey – for which they disrupted their lives and expended untold resources – to find at the end of their search a king so unlike themselves?
The difference in their nationality was a given, but they went first to Herod’s palace when they came to Judea, because a palace is where you expect to find a king.
And royalty was the social level with whom they interacted. They came with gifts that would ingratiate them to a future ally.
They must have expected more than a humble family. A child whose very existence was unknown to those with power until it was announced by their own arrival.
If this were just a human story, the contrast of expectation and reality MUST have mattered, MUST have disappointed the travelers whose status as “Wise Ones” might be questioned as a result.
But, when they find the humble child, they still bow and offer him honor.
And what is more, they defy the king who instructed them to bring back a report and return home by another way.
And so, it seems, that to them it did not matter that Jesus was different – both from their expectations and from the status and circumstances of their privileged lives. They still saw in him a king whom they should reverence and whose unexpected way of changing the world they should serve.
The characters in the Christmas story vary widely in how they see Jesus.
But, of course, the most important question tonight is: does it matter how we see Jesus?
Does it matter whether he looks like us, or not?
Does it matter whether we see in his features familiar angles, or in his skin a tone that matches or contrasts with our own?
Does it matter whether we see in the environment around him a scene where we would feel comfortable entering in, sharing a meal, embracing the earthy animal-scented reality?
Does it matter whether we see in the circumstances of his status, his place relative to power and privilege a mirror of our own?
Does it matter whether we can see ourselves in what we see when we see Jesus?
I hope there is not a simple yes or no answer to that question for any of us.
Because if we can sit with the question it can open us up to contemplate what it really means to say that in Jesus we find Emmanuel: God with us.
It can make space for us to discover the ways that Jesus is so close to our humanity…
to the small and profound details of what it means to live in space and time and imperfect bodies and complicated families.
to know that he KNOWS us in a way that can only happen through direct experience.
AND it can also make space for us to discover the ways that Jesus is so close to other people too… people who don’t look, or think, or act, or understand the world like us.
In the end, I don’t know how much it matters what your image of Jesus looks like… as long as you see in him God’s limitless willingness to draw near to you AND to every other human being too.
And to know that that is what love looks like.
Thanks be to God.