We’ve been in Jerusalem long enough to be able to spend time with pilgrims of varying denominations from all over the world. I personally love the concept of pilgrimage. I love being able to find the spiritual world within the material one, and I love how it brings people together through a special kind of worship; because while there are many beliefs and traditions that make the groups of people we’ve met fascinatingly different, there are important ways that we are similar. One of these is that we believe that somehow in coming here we will find something of Christ that we can’t find elsewhere. Since Christ’s death believers have spent thousands of years, millions of pages and countless hours trying to understand what it means to believe in a god who has form, but who few have ever been privileged to see. And, because we don’t see, we work very hard to find meaning in not seeing. We cling to Christ’s pronouncement that it is better to believe without seeing anyway, reminding ourselves that a true believer’s responsibility is to move past such superficial needs as sight and touch. But, despite our best efforts, there is something tangible I think most of us long for when we think about Christ. The fact is we have physical bodies and our physical bodies long for physical connection. And so we pack up our hope and our longing and we travel across the world looking for him. His spirit may be everywhere, but perhaps, like Jacob, we can find the place where the heavenly voices we hear are not echoes, but the sound of heaven itself meeting us, indicating the place where earth and heaven conjoin, hoping that in reaching out there we may find something we can touch.
This was something I hoped for when I came, and I’m happy to say it’s something that I have found, in a far deeper way even than I thought I would. As we’ve traveled to the villages where Christ ministered we have seen the remains of the abject poverty in which he lived and by which he was surrounded. It has been astonishing to see the depth of difficulties in which Jesus lived. We have studied the accounts of daily life and the struggle for survival that was, tragically, a natural part of the world in which he, his family, and his friends lived. In addition, we live in an area where poverty is still common today and have seen how different such life is from anything I have experienced. In doing so I’ve come to see and touch in a way I had never considered, even though Jesus explicitly taught it over and over. I’ve found a God, not who protects and proves his power through separateness to humanity, but who saves through his radical connection to humanity. A God who abandoned his greatness to embrace vulnerability and poverty. He was not someone who served a mission to the poor or who threw a beggar the occasional coin or who used a position of power to help those less fortunate. He was not a handsome, clean, well-fed benefactor who visited and talked with and showed compassion to the poor and then went home to a bath and a change of clothes and a meal followed by a comfortable bed. He couldn’t be those things, because what he was was one of “them”. He was the less fortunate, the forgotten, the beggar. And he was these things because he was a God completely uninterested in protecting himself because he was completely committed to his hope in humanity.
In Philippians 2 the author implores the community, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Comparing Christ to a slave is no metaphorical device. This is not a linguistic tool the author is using merely to demonstrate Christ’s submission, though that is certainly integral to the message. From the beginning, one of the greatest difficulties Christ and the Christian community faced was in trying to explain, not that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, but that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. It’s hard to understand from our perspective of 2000 years of reframing Jesus in a way that emphasizes his majesty, but 1st century disciples and detractors alike understood something that we have forgotten. As far as the world’s opinion of what constitutes greatness, Jesus was nothing special. He was not just poor, he was impoverished. As Elder Holland reminds us, there were times when he was even homeless . According to Isaiah he wasn’t attractive . And while the KJV describes Jesus as a carpenter a more accurate translation would be what we might think of as a construction worker. Nazareth was a poor village, he would have grown up with no luxuries—luxuries at that time being things like furniture and clothing that didn’t itch and enough food to stave off hunger. He wasn’t physically clean—only the wealthy had access to any kind of bathing facilities. There was no soap, no change of clothes, no privacy. There wasn’t enough money and there were too many taxes and there was no one to care. It is hard to imagine the stark contrast in which Jesus would have stood to the gods of his day. From the Greco-Roman gods of indescribable beauty and privilege, whose deathlessness and power made mortals little more than toys, to the Jewish god of fire and thunder, who created worlds and broke nations with a word. Gods drastically different from each other, and yet in both cases whose immortality kept them forever unsullied from the mundane, much less real suffering. And yet it is within this very world of incomprehensible gods that Jesus and his followers boldly claimed that the God was being made known, not on mountains or in throne rooms, but in a poor, unattractive, socially marginalized, uneducated day laborer. An outrageous assertion wherein god’s power is made manifest in powerlessness and poverty and suffering and death. God was to be seen in Jesus, who did not see glory “as something to be exploited”, but as something to be emptied of so that it could be shared amongst those whom he came to save.
It is this understanding that has taught me to see and touch God. Our pilgrimage here has helped me to know Christ in a way that I didn’t before; it has given significantly more profound immediacy to his teachings. Even though he had always been very clear in stating and showing where it was he could be found, in seeing something of the world in which he lived I have come to see and understand much more clearly the literalness of those teachings. That he meant it when he said he is found in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry and the naked. In the marginalized and the lonely and sick and the sinner. In those who suffer while the world looks on with indifference. In those to whom Christ came, among whom he lived, for whom he died, not as a great mythological hero, but as one of them. When Jesus emptied himself he did not rob God of dignity, but showed us what that dignity is. A dignity not composed of splendor and wealth and dominance, but of suffering and love and servitude. Dignity that, by emptying himself of it, was spread into the lives of all humanity, where God is perpetually reaching out to be seen, touched, and understood. Ours is not a God of distance and obscurity, but a being so tangible, so touchable and seeable, that it takes my breath away. A God who beautifully, miraculously, shockingly, can be touched and seen by simply reaching out to what is already there.
2. Isaiah 52:3
thanks for these powerful insights and reminders
This was just…beautiful. “Where is his beauty that we should desire him.” These words haunt me, mediate my expectations of that Jesus I put faith in; expectations both heavenly and temporal.
You use the words “where earth and heaven conjoin,” which to my understanding is the LDS temple. Given the milieu you have provided for Jesus on earth, the temple becomes even more an extra-terrestrial space, that while on earth, isn’t really earthly at all.
As to pilgrimages, mine is internal these days. :)
Thank you for your OP.
Powerful insights indeed. Thank you Mary.
I can’t help but think of John Turner’s “Mormon Jesus” and how wed we are to a masculine, fairly attractive, very white, very much a visually charismatic leader type image of Jesus. Our rash of recent NT films reinforce this. A friend of mine does portraitures (including a painting that now hangs in the Philadelphia temple), and I’d love to convince him to paint a genuinely dirty, impoverished looking, probably missing teeth Jesus. I was very struck on Sunday when I visited the Priesthood Restoration Site on the Susquehanna to see the “translation table” set up in the house with the gold plates under a cloth and a top hat sitting on the table, and an image and description of the seer stone in the Visitors Center. Our images & aesthetics can change.
As Jerry points out, pilgrimages being a kind of temple experience (many of our latter day pilgrimages and pilgrimage stories that we tell are literally temple trips), it’s profound to think of solidarity with and serving the impoverished as a holy, temple-esque experience. Perhaps my favorite portion of the post is your pointing out the contrast between our common narratives & experience of condescending to help the poor vs. Jesus condescension to be the poor. The contrast highlights potential pitfalls in how we go about doing the work of the Master—who, as you point out, was a slave.
Great first post Mary. Well put James. I’ll plug my old post on the problem of Mormon art as I do think this is a problem. It is getting better. In that post I linked to a dark skinner Jesus painting (somewhat abstract) at lds.org. I also linked to a likely appearance of Jesus given the likely phenotypes of people who lived in Palestine at the time.
Wow. That was beautiful and insightful. Thank you.
Wonderful post, and one that will long stay with me. I think you’ve managed to capture the power behind the sentiments “in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Thanks everyone. One of my greatest hopes is to see religious art that is not only historically accurate but that celebrates vulnerability and humanity rather than trying to explain it away.
Moving. Insightful. Powerful. Your thoughts have opened my heart and changed my perspective. Thank you Mary!
Thanks for this post, Mary. In thinking of pilgrimages, I’m reminded of a story in one of John Groberg’s books, in which one family continually saved up to go the temple but never made it because there was always someone in need who they ended up contributing to. And I consider the trade-offs inherent to using resources to serve those in our immediate vicinity versus pilgrimages (which can be costly). And your post highlights how a pilgrimage can be a personal investment that strengthens one’s resolve to help others more urgently and more generously.
This is beautiful Mary. My mind raced to think of Donatello’s “Penitant Magdalene,” which presents a ragged, tattered and torn Mary Magdalene, very human like me, yet reaching for the divine. Thank you for your friendship.
Doug, I will have to look that up, it sounds amazing.
David, that’s a very important observation, and one that I think we need to take very seriously for all expenditure. Every time we spend money there is an opportunity cost. I think that’s why the concept of consecration is so important. It’s a reminder that nothing in our lives should be just for us, everything should be done with the intent of blessing others, too.
Sorry, I forgot to put my name on the previous comment :)
It’s certainly a great opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, and anyone who has the inclination, the time, and the means, can benefit from such an excursion. Most of the world’s population would probably regard such a pilgrimage as a luxury beyond comprehension. I am reminded of President Monson’s introduction to his talk: “Ponder the Path of Thy Feet”:
“One woman, each time she related experiences she had during a visit to the Holy Land, would exclaim, “I walked where Jesus walked!”
She had been in the vicinity where Jesus lived and taught. Perhaps she stood on a rock on which He had once stood or looked at a mountain range He had once gazed upon. The experiences, in and of themselves, were thrilling to her; but physically walking where Jesus walked is less important than walking as He walked. Emulating His actions and following His example are far more important than trying to retrace the remnants of the trails He traversed in mortality.
When Jesus extended to a certain rich man the invitation, “Come, follow me,”?He did not intend merely that the rich man follow Him up and down the hills and valleys of the countryside. We need not walk by the shores of Galilee or among the Judean hills to walk where Jesus walked. All of us can walk the path He walked when, with His words ringing in our ears, His Spirit filling our hearts, and His teachings guiding our lives, we choose to follow Him as we journey through mortality. His example lights the way. Said He, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Very beautiful and helpful insight, thank you
I too have visited the Holy Land and have found great inspiration in both the setting and the roots of the biblical experience. But to say that someone’s art does not portray how things really were and thus misleads us in some way might be an over statement. The spirit of the current artwork and portrayals of Christ in the Bible videos lift my spirit each time I view them. I believe that was the intent of the artist or director. Even if something may not depict the scene with complete historical accuracy the spirit of the message has come through.
Even in the temple things are portrayed in ways that are not historically or chronologically accurate but we are still being well taught the things the Lord wants us to learn. Nevertheless there is still much to learn about humble circumstances in which the Lord was raised and flourished. But the most important things we need to learn from the events of Christ’s life are about love, sacrifice, and doing the will of the Father. I am satisfied that current and future artists will continue to strive to inspire us with their portrayals of the Lord whether in tatters or clean robes. Each will reach the hearts and minds of any inquiring soul.
Great thoughts, Mary. Thanks for sharing.
It is interesting to me how there are different levels of poverty here. You point to how Jesus was poor relative to his day. But they were all poor relative to our day (though they still had social standing decided by that relative poverty). And then one turns around and realizes how poor we all are compared to where Christ is with God now. In terms of relative poverty, it seems like even if Jesus had been the richest man in the world in the most technologically advanced and prosperous era in our history, it is within rounding error of a poor carpenter in Israel compared to God’s wealth.