taking the words of Jesus seriously

I did something last night I’m not at all proud of. I took a ‘Selfie’. I trust my public confession absolves me of my sin, though I’m far from alone in my narcissistic hubris. Just open your Instagram account to experience the incessant duck face photos and personal snap shots of everyone eight to eighty standing in front of the bathroom mirror trying to get the perfect shot from the perfect angle to project our perfect self. We’ve come a long way from gazing at ourselves in a reflecting pool. SnapChat alone processes 350 million photos a day, most of which are selfie’s. In fact, the phenomenon, like cancer, metastasized the world in 2013 forcing Oxford Dictionary to name ‘Selfie’ the word of the year. Posturing in front of a mirror with an iPhone is the perfect preoccupation for our narcissistic selves. So why do we do it? What is driving this phenomenon?

Every culture thoughout history has had its own archetype or ideal, that individual or set of individuals who embody all we desire to be. Rome had her warriors, Florence her artists and Britain her royalty. In America, it is the celebrity, and more importantly, the unending desire to be one ourselves. A famous British actor was recently asked to describe the difference between living in London and living in New York. He appropriately replied, “It’s great. Nobody notices me at all, because here in America, everyone is the star of their own show.” Technology and social media provide the channels to achieve notoriety, as we project and pimp ourselves to as many people as possible. This search for significance is the driving force behind our Facebook vacation photos and status updates, subversively reminding you that my life is just a bit better than yours. But is this really what it means to be human; spending our lives flaunting a distorted version of ourselves to the world in a search for meaning? Most of us are terrified to allow friends and family to see the whole picture, the one with the wounds, scars, addictions and pathologies that make up our real, total self. Because somewhere deep down we still believe in the delusion of human perfectability, and “although we may not know what it means, we are disgusted with ourselves because we are far from it.”

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Into this culture of narcissism steps God in skin. But this isn’t Eden, and Jesus does not assume the flesh of untainted innocence witnessed only in the garden, He takes on the same shriveled vulnerability we all share. His skin, his flesh was identical to ours in every way. Over the last few centuries the church has unwittingly projected onto Jesus a human perfectibility that is incompatible with the human condition. Jesus was not an ‘uberman’, or a fleshy version of some angelic being. He was fully human and fully divine. And because we do not accept our own concrete humanity with all our flaws, we are less capable of appreciating the limited, human Jesus. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “He had to be made like them, fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17).  So much so that “He didn’t look like anything or anyone of consequence—he had no physical beauty to attract our attention.” (Isaiah 53:2)  Contrary to our high Christology, Jesus did not embody the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David.  Anthropologists now know that the average male height in first century Palestine was all of 5’ 2’’ tall. Are we comfortable with this picture of Jesus? A Jesus who may have struggled with his weight, who may have been bald, and according to Scripture, was not above being tempted to subvert his own life’s mission and purpose?

It is only in learning to accept the limitations of this perfect human being that allows us the capability to accept our own human deficiencies, and the limitations of others. That Christ assumed human weakness is critical to our salvation and our search for significance, since “what was not assumed was not healed.”  Therefore, what was assumed was made whole. Jesus came into the world not simply to make known the nature of God, but to disclose what it means to be a human being. He unveils not only the divinity to human persons; Jesus reveals humanity to itself. The humanity of Jesus is the mirror through which we see our own humanity as it should be, not the false self we parade through social media.  Therefore, if we keep in mind that Jesus reveals both the nature of God and the meaning of the human person, what does it mean that he spent the majority of his life in complete obscurity? Or, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” (Philippians 2:6)  In a time when celebrity Christians require a platform to serve God, when athletes are canonized for their all to public prayers and mega-church pastors star in their own reality TV shows, Jesus demonstrates the path of downward mobility. Do you remember how he urged the lame and leprous to remain silent? Or, when the huddled masses rushed to his side, he quietly retreated into seclusion. And when his dense disciples argue about who will be greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus subverts their conventional wisdom by reminding his followers that “whoever is least among you—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).  As Henri Nouwen explains:

The one who was from the beginning with God and who was God revealed himself as a small, helpless child; as a refugee in Egypt; as an obedient adolescent and inconspicuous adult: as a penitent disciple of the Baptizer; as a preacher from Galilee, followed by some simple fishermen; as a man who ate with sinners and talked with strangers; as an outcast, a criminal, a threat to his people. He moved from powerful to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted…The divine way is indeed the downward way.”

Also by Gary: The Death of a Dynasty

Yet, we who share the same skin Jesus wore secretly despise our daily, conventional life. We long for significance, for celebrity status, but we are walking the wrong way toward human fulfillment. In Jesus, we see the fullness of the divinity enfleshed in the ordinary. We come to know a God who experienced the divine humiliation of becoming fully human in order that like Him, we too could discover the path of downward mobility. Only then will we have room in our hearts to cease looking at ourselves, and finally see Jesus in the daily. Loving God more than self is not some abstract ethic, it is overwhelmingly physical. It is seeing him uninsured and giving him medical care, it is seeing him unemployed and hiring him, it is seeing him as an undocumented immigrant and giving him citizenship.  “It means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, and to serve him concretely” (Pope Francis, Address during Visit at the Homeless Shelter “Dona Di Maria, ” 5/21/13). Recognizing the poor, insecure, normal face of Jesus in the eyes of the broken and marginalized frees us from our narcissistic selves, while allowing each one of us to tangibly identify with the living Jesus enfleshed all around us. And in so doing, we may just find that in losing our life, we might actually find it. Then and only then will we know what it means to be fully human as we seek the divine.

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