What Man is This?

I love the old hymn set to the 17th century English tune Greensleeves -- “What child is this who’s laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Lovely, soft, and haunting, yet it is not the child that matters; it is the man He became, the man who died, the man who rose again.

Jesus Christ -- Immanuel (God with Us) was, during the short time He was with us, a complete human being, as well as God Almighty. I know -- my brain doesn’t get all the way around that one, either, so for now let’s just look at the man. The Gospels show only glimmers of Who He was when He wasn’t actively involved in His ministry; we talk about his “missing” childhood, but when you go to look for the grown-up, off-stage Jesus, He’s just as hard to discover. We’re used to finding out anything we want to know about someone’s private life, but the personal Jesus eludes us.

I want to see a glint of humor in His eyes when His mother tells him that the wedding wine has run out, yet the words He speaks to her sound curt and purposeful and she responds pretty intensely herself. “Whatever he says, do it, “ she tells the servants. Yet certainly He had a quiet chuckle as the freshly water-filled jugs instantly turned to well-aged wine. It amuses me how narrowly the clueless host escapes embarrassment and how fooled the wedding planner is – surely it all amused Jesus, too.  But He had a serious purpose – He had started showing people who He really was; He had opened the curtain – the show had begun.

But, surely He must have been fun to be with. What did He and the disciples talk about as they walked those dusty roads and ate bread together? (We know of one silly conversation amongst the disciples about which of them would be the greatest, but Jesus was not a part of that.) Did they tell jokes? Talk about politics? Tease each other? We don’t know. 

The Pharisees criticized Him for hanging out with the tax collectors and prostitutes and I can picture Him seated at a table completely at ease with this rough crowd. I like to think of Him throwing back His head in laughter, offering a toast, nodding and smiling, clapping someone on the back, shaking hands with newcomers, but nothing like that is recorded, and His own account tells us we should picture those meetings more like the teaching sessions He held in the synagogues.

I can feel His exhaustion and claustrophobia after those long days healing the multitudes. He was a rock star, on at least two occasions drawing crowds of 4-5,000. They followed Him everywhere, crushed in upon Him, wouldn’t let Him breathe, and each crowd was heavily laced with the vicious hatred of the religious leaders, waiting lustfully for the slightest misstep.

I have a friend who talks about the rebel in Jesus, and it’s true that He had no respect for the man-made law of the Pharisees, and that He found many an occasion to show them that contempt. He was not, however, the rebel the crowds wanted. They thought He came to save them from the Romans, to become their new king, so the pressure from the multitudes must have been overwhelming; they wanted so much from Him – leadership, hope, healing.

When He heals the paraplegic in Capernaum the crowds are so thick that his four friends have to break through the roof of the house where Jesus is speaking to lower their friend into His presence. The intensity of that moment – the pressure of the bodies, the lack of air, the heat – just the thought of it makes me choke. Add into that the hatred of the Pharisees – who had made sure of their spot in the room – and you have a real pressure-cooker. We know that He occasionally escaped to pray by Himself, that He asked the disciples to act almost as bodyguards, that He occasionally spoke to the crowds from the safety of a boat. I would have done that too.

Only twice do we see His calm, patient surface craze a little under the pressure – His weeping for Jerusalem, for His doomed nation, and the night in Gethsemane before His arrest when He was actually sweating blood.

How human He was. Even though we can’t yet know Him the way we would like, we’ve had a peek, a glimpse of the man Who will greet us in heaven someday, the man Whose birthday we celebrate not just because He healed the sick or fed the five thousand, but because He went through with it; in spite of His terror, He finished the job. Tetelestai He said, and He died and then He rose again, as will we who believe. It is indeed a Merry Christmas.