Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Jesus was like

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Actor Robert Powell in a still from 'Jesus Of Nazareth'   

Regardless of how well one may know the Gospels, it is challenging to form a clear image of “what Jesus was like.” This is not in reference to His deeds and words, for these are amply recorded in the four canonical Gospels. I am referring more to what we would today describe as someone’s “personality.”

Are we able to get behind the personality of Jesus? Are we able to describe or analyze His personality with certainty, or at least with a measure of confidence? Some would formulate the question differently and ask if we are able to penetrate or understand the “self-consciousness” of Jesus.

New Testament scholars, beginning in the 19th century and through to the present day, are often preoccupied with questions concerning the “messianic consciousness” of Jesus. Did Jesus know He was the Messiah, and if so, when did this messianic consciousness dawn upon Him? Yet, we may ask, besides a genuine and justifiable curiosity, is it that important for us to probe either the personality or self-consciousness of Jesus? Is it even possible?

The Gospels are decidedly not preoccupied with these questions, for the Gospels do not consciously offer a “personality sketch” of Jesus, nor do they attempt to analyze the psychology of Jesus. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God through His deeds and words. Therefore, whatever insights that we are given into “what Jesus was like” are revealed precisely through His actions and His words – not through a psychological sketch or analysis.

In a very insightful article entitled “Quite Beyond Us,” Father Patrick Reardon of All Saints Church, Chicago, writes the following about what he calls the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus.”

“The identity of the man Jesus is rooted in this eternal relationship of the Son to the Father,” Father Patrick writes.  “Self-awareness in Jesus is indivisible at every point from the consciousness of his eternal relationship to the Father. He has no personal identity apart from that relationship.

“Now I submit that there is nothing else in any human soul even remotely analogous, and this is the reason why psychological analysis… is an inadequate and even misleading path to the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus, while possessing a human psyche, transcends psychology for the same reason that He, partaking fully in created being, transcends metaphysics,” he continues.  “The ‘subject,’ the self, of Jesus’ consciousness is not a human being who is personally distinct from the consubstantial Son. We have not the foggiest idea how this self-awareness of Jesus took form in His soul, and speculation on the matter is an exercise in either futility or heresy” [Touchstone, October 2007, p. 13].

Father Patrick’s words will resonate strongly for any believing Christian who believes and confesses what is declared in the Nicene Creed about Jesus Christ in an orthodox manner: “Who for us men and for our salvation was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” Without that belief and confession, the psychology of the man Jesus would be fair game for many different and contradictory interpretations.

Bearing in mind the wise words of Father Patrick, which I would further claim are supported by our Orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ, I still believe that we can say a good deal about “what Jesus was like” that neither betrays the Gospel image of Christ, nor our Christological confession of faith in Him as God and Man. To do this, I would like to turn to a work by Denise and John Carmody.

Respectfully and soberly, and with an excellent command of the Gospel narratives, they take on the task of summarizing what they believe is a genuine portrait of “what Jesus was like.”  They do this in a book titled In the Path of the Masters, in which Christ is discussed together with the Buddha, Confucius and Muhammad. Each figure is treated sympathetically and respectfully. Their goal is to be descriptive and informative, with no polemical edge.

Of course, for many Orthodox Christians this would prove to be a questionable, ambiguous—or perhaps blasphemous—endeavor! We do not consider Jesus as a “great religious figure” to be compared with others, but again, as the Son and Word of God incarnate. And, together with the Evangelist Luke, we also claim,  “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]. 

Nevertheless, the Carmodys, Christian thinkers themselves, have offered a finely written and deeply reflective passage on some of the main characteristics of what they term Jesus’ “personality.” They have obviously meditated on this deeply, and I would like to share some of their insights.

Reading this section in their book, I can compile the following descriptive list about Jesus, though it may not be exhaustive. For them, Jesus:

  • is both fiery and gentle, both sociable and solitary.
  • is full of energy and subject to fatigue.
  • is both conservative and a revolutionary.
  • is eloquent and compassionate.
  • possesses a heart open to the poor, the sick and children.
  • makes friends and wins the allegiance of women, a very rare quality in His time.
  • is celibate and unmarried.
  • wanders from village to village and lives simply.
  • is courageous in standing up those who opposed Him.
  • is quick-witted in debate.
  • is committed to the spirit above the letter of the Law.
  • is filled with love.
  • seeks and responds with appreciation to genuine faith.
  • seeks only His heavenly Father’s will and glory.
  • is consoled by the Spirit of God.
  • never sins and is without moral faults.
  • is not drawn to wealth and power.
  • never succumbs to flattery or threats.
  • possesses a sense of humor “now and then.”
  • is often ironic according to Saint John.
  • loves His friends deeply.
  • is forgiving.
  • is realistic about human weakness.

As thorough – and convincing—as this may sound, the Carmody’s also acknowledge the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus.”  They write, 

Still, Jesus remains a mysterious figure, a personality that we cannot fathom, not only because all human beings finally escape our judgment… but even more because the depths of His personality lie in the undecipherable relationship he had with his Father. For Jesus to be was to be God’s Son. This is now orthodox Christian theology, expressing the Christian conviction that the godhead is a Trinity of divine ‘persons’ among Whom Jesus is the second, the Son and Word of God become flesh…  On the human level, Jesus seems filled with concern for the needs of the poor people whom He encountered. On the more mysterious, divine level, His sole concern seems to be to glorify His heavenly Father.

I very much appreciated these words of caution on their part. Yet, as a kind of final assessment, I will admit that this following sentence resonates deeply with me when meditating on what Jesus was like: 

But His over-all disposition seems serious, sad, absorbed in a mighty struggle.

And I also found their concluding paragraph on this subject compelling and profoundly challenging about our own relationship to Christ: 

There must have been something compelling about the personality bearing all these traits. By the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven… He had stamped many lives indelibly. Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciples John and James – all His intimates felt that He had become the substance of their lives, the only treasure they cared about. The report of later Christian saints has been similar. The most intense Christians have felt that Jesus was their reason to be.

For a moment, just imagine Jesus as the “substance” of your life, its true “treasure” and the “reason” to be!

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