Friday, February 13, 2009

behold the man

--Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, ca. 1655

[Frank] Sheed is far from the first to point out that four amateur writers couldn't have invented the most original character in all the world's literature. Not even a Shakespeare could have imagined Jesus, as he imagined such marvelous figures as Hamlet and Cleopatra. Jesus' words have a power no other human words have ever had. They ring with wisdom, authority, and mystery. They have the stamp of a definite personality, totally unlike any other ever known.

Replying to Freudian critics who have tried to portray Jesus as hysterical or otherwise abnormal, the French historian Henri Daniel-Rops, in JESUS AND HIS TIMES, observes "the perfect balance of his character," its wholeness and integration. He is consistent, yet unpredictable; he can be serene, tender, tearful, piteous, stern, indignant, even furious, as the moment warrants, but he is always "master of the event." And he is marvelously quick-witted: When his enemies try to trap him, he is never at a loss but, on the contrary, always has an unexpected and decisive answer. Jesus' words, Daniel-Rops remarks, have "the unmistakable accents of a man who has only to speak to be obeyed." He has, supremely, the gift of reaching people's hearts in earthy language. He sizes people up, judges their motives, and says exactly what they need to hear, with a complete lack of the self-absorption and confusion that usually impede human communication. He combines spiritual authority with the keenest alertness to the situation and the person he is facing at the moment. He can win a disciple with the slightest personal attention -- as when he astounds Nathanael with the simple words, "I saw you under the fig tree." Only Nathanael knows what this refers to; but it's enough for him. He believes.
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, ca. 1599

It's striking how many of Jesus' sayings are quick responses to his immediate circumstances. The Gospels constantly show him in lively interaction with others. He is always ready, never remote. It's easy to overlook his sheer sociability, shown in his preference for humble and even disreputable companions. We shouldn't forget that such people accepted his company too, as they would hardly have done if his manner had been aloof, priggish, or pontificating. Evidently the holy Son of God wasn't holier-than-thou.
--Joseph Sobran
Valentin de Boulogne, Christ and the Adulteress, ca. 1620

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