Last May I had the opportunity, while in London, to visit the National Gallery. Loving art, and being with my son who is an art major, I was excited to spend hours there. I loved the Van Gogh, the Monet, the Rembrandt paintings and many more. But there was one massive disappointment. No, it was more than disappointment. Massive frustration.
I did not see one portrait of Christ, in all the famous works of him, that came anywhere close to depicting Jesus as he really is. Not one.
They are all wispy, pale Jesus, looking haunted, a ghost-like figure floating along through life making vague gestures and even vaguer statements. The Nativity scenes were particularly ridiculous. The classic art depicting the infant – themes now repeated on Christmas cards and in the creche scenes displayed in churches and on suburban coffee tables – portrays a rather mature baby, very white, radiantly clean as no baby is ever clean, arms outstretched to reassure the nervous adults around him, intelligent, without need, halo glowing, conscious with an adult consciousness. Superbaby.
This infant clearly never pooped his diapers. He looks ready to take up the Prime Minister-ship.
Why did it make me angry? Because when we lose his humanity, we lose Jesus. The Incarnation is one of the greatest treasures of our faith. The world keeps pushing God away, but in the coming of Jesus he draws near. Incredibly near. He takes on our humanity. "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity..." (Hebrews 2:14).
But we have so sanitized and religious-ized the baby Jesus that most of our imagery of the Nativity now adds to those horrible religious views of him. Jesus becomes a vague though impressive figure with wonder powers who is floating above this life that the rest of us are slogging through. Life was easy for Jesus, right? He barely broke a sweat. O, wait - there was that terrible sweat in Gethsemane. Hmm.
The Incarnation – the beyond-all-doubt evidence that whatever else he was Jesus was surely a human being – it has been stolen from us. And with it innumerable treasures regarding the humanity of Jesus and, therefore, our humanity too.
One of my favorite Christmas meditations comes from this passage by Chesterton. (He is speaking of Bethlehem, and what it held in its hills that fateful night.)
"…as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity."
Savor that last passage for a moment. That feeding-trough-turned-cradle held something more human than humanity? What? Do you think of Jesus as the most human human-being that ever lived?