We know next to nothing about his personal life, although he is one of the most famous individuals in history. Even his original name has been pushed to the side. We call him now by a title he consistently refused during his lifetime. His racial origins are obscured, for most people connect him with Europe. His earliest followers embellished his life and his teachings in their attempt to share with others the effect he had made on their lives.
Far from being European, this man was a Semite from the deserts of the Middle East. We are not sure where or when he was born. His real name was Yeshua, son of Miriam, and some of his contemporaries considered him an illegitimate child. Several dozen of his original teachings have survived in the embellished accounts of his life we call Gospels. He was a poor man who preferred the company of other poor people and associated with social outcasts. In the third decade of his life he was executed as a common criminal. Anything else we say about him, be it so little as changing his name to Jesus Christ, is a matter of theologizing.
Christology is a branch of theology that attempts to understand Yeshua’s impact on our world, and scholars divide various Christologies as either “low’ or “high.” Mark’s Gospel is an example of low Christology, while that of John is high. High Christology places more emphasis on Yeshua’s divinity and transcendence, stressing that he is the Christ and the Son of God. Low Christology does not deny these things, but dwells more on Yeshua’s humanity and his immanence. Taken together, the two present a rich meditation on the central mystery of Christian faith, the Incarnation.
At the heart of this mystery is an ancient awareness that God became human so that human beings might become God. Saint Athanasius spoke these words in fourth century Egypt, and they were repeated throughout the Patristic period. Today, unfortunately, for many Christians, the Gospels have become little more than religious etiquette to help capitalism run smoothly. We need to return to the person of Yeshua and discover once again what he means in our lives.
The great Franciscan mystic, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, taught that Christ flees when we approach him with our intellect. What he meant was that Yeshua is a person, not a fact or object for analysis. Taken together, the four Gospels present him as the human face of God. “He who sees me,” says Yeshua in John’s Gospel, “sees also the Father.” When Athanasius and other early Christians tell us that Yeshua became a human so that we might become God, they are naming him as the bridge that unites our humanity with divinity. Only through Yeshua can we bridge that gap.
The Gospels are not books of etiquette or factual biographies but windows or doors, like icons. In reading the Gospels we encounter Yeshua as a living person. He shows us God’s face and challenges us to conform our lives to his. As we respond to his challenge, we enter a dialog that leads us into a deepening relationship with him.
However important high Christology may be, in our relationship with Yeshua we must start on our own side of the bridge. He meets us there, the God who became human. He himself experienced the Father as compassion and love. In turn, he spent his short life among the poor and the outcast, showing them compassion and love. He tells us to follow him, to do as he did. Involving ourselves in the work he embraced is the way he suggests for coming to know him personally.
When Brother Robert painted the icon of Christ of the Desert, he purposely left out many Byzantine details, to distance it from Hellenized Christianity. Gone are the blue and red robes of the Greek philosopher that he wears in later centuries as Pantocrator and gone, too, is the Greek theological inscription in his halo. He wears white homespun from his native Palestine. His skin is swarthy and his hair dark. His inscriptions are in Aramaic, the language he spoke daily. As he gazes from this icon, he invites all people to encounter him personally in the Gospels for themselves, so that they, in turn, can call him the Christ, whatever their own background.