Monday, 7 May 2012

Identikit Jesus

I reached Nazareth today, which took a while. Although Nazareth is an Israeli Arab town bus connections with Israeli Jewish towns are poor. That did give me a couple of hours at a town called Afula though. The best thing about Afula? The bus station, because that's how you leave the town. To be honest, I think many of the locals would agree.

Nazareth, Nazareth, can anything good come out of Nazareth? Well, there's certainly many good things in Nazareth, including some fantastic restaurants and cafes, of which I intend to sample as many as possible. All in the interests of people watching and adsorbing the culture, you understand.

Spending time in Israel changes you. Despite the historically dubious nature of some of the sites and the commercialisation of many, you are aware that you are in a deeply historical place, the context for many great human stories. When I visited Israel the last time it provoked, challenged and changed my faith. As it should do, I guess.

One experience spoke to me more than any other though, and I'd like to write about that today. In Nazareth can be found the Basilica of the Annunciation, the place (sorry, one of the places) where Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to God's child. According to the guide book, "Architect Giovani Muzio was told to create something modern, multinational and mysterious.". Well, two out of three isn't so bad. The remains of ancient churches and buildings from the time of Jesus do their best to promote the mysterious but loose the fight in the face of many tons of prestressed concrete. Sadly, the Basilica did little for my faith.

What did challenge and provoke me however was the courtyard around the Basilica. It too is very modern, but it is decorated with pictures donated by different national Roman Catholic groups from around the world. I've copied in those from Romania, Korea and Thailand but there are many more. Each picture is of exactly the same subject; Mary and the infant Jesus. What was striking, and what stopped me in my tracks, was the styles of the pictures. Mary and Jesus are not depicted as Middle Eastern Jews nor as Anglo Saxons (which we, of course, know that they were), but as people of the culture that provided each picture. So there is a Welsh Mary and Jesus, a Japanese Mary and Jesus, an Egyptian Mary and Jesus, and so on.

God bless Cecil B deMile, but Jesus was not a white Northern European (nor was the Roman Centurion at the cross John Wayne, one of the worst miscasts of all time surely). But in another sense Jesus was not simply a Middle Eastern Jew either. Certainly he was genetically and culturally, but as God incarnate he was for all people in all places at all times. Which means that no culture can own Jesus, including my own. Neither, I would like to add, can any institution.

Some of the worst excesses of the Christian Church have come out of an attitude that we have the exclusive on God. We don't. God may be at work through his Church in an exclusive way, but that's different. Jesus may be God at work in an exclusive way, but that too is different. The Church sometimes behaves as if it is the only mediator between humanity and God when it isn't. That role belongs to another. To use a mathematical analogy: Christians, such as myself, have often behaved as if God is a subset of the Church, when we should behave as if the Church is a subset of all that God is.

So, what did my first visit to the Basilica of the Anunciation do for me? It showed me that my God was too small. My God is still too small I shouldn't doubt. That will probably be the case for the rest of my life. But maybe the task of the pilgrim journey is to allow our understanding of God to grow, to grow and take us where it will. That should be fun!

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