When I was a teenager in the 1970s Jesus was presented in less than flattering terms, at least from my standpoint as a young man. The paintings and statues of that day presented Jesus as a rather thin willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly but effeminate hippie who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes. 1970s Jesus was nice, and I should be nice too. In my 1970s Church we had no crucifix. Rather there was a cross and a rather slender and starry eyed Jesus sort of floated there in front of the Cross. Ah the 70s, a time of a cross-less Christ and a cross-less Christianity. The cross was all too much for a kinder gentler Jesus, a Jesus who affirmed, and was my friend. A friend, truly he is, but but was he not also the Lord? Was he not the omnipotent King? Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know they were into revenge, but I’d learn about that later). But the Jesus I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Fr. Robert Barron calls beige Catholicism) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.
What follows is a portrait of Jesus Christ that I culled from a few sources and adapted. I wish I could remember the sources to credit them here but it was over twenty years ago in seminary that, from some dusty old books written long before the 1970s, I culled this portrait on the human stature of Christ. Note that the focus here is on the humanity of Christ. It presupposes his divine nature but focuses on the human nature and, as you will see draws most of its material straight from the Scriptures. As You can see the description is longish. In case you would rather print and read it later I have put it in PDF here: On the Human Stature of Christ
The exterior appearance of Jesus seems to have been a handsome one. A woman in the crowd broke out into praise of him with the words, Blessed in the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that nursed Thee. His response to her Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep itseems to suggest that she had bodily excellencies in mind as well as spiritual. The powerful impression which Jesus made on ordinary people certainly owed something to his attractive exterior which by its charm drew everyone to him and held them. Even if this was due primarily to his spiritual and religious power, still, his eyes, with their burning, waking, reproving looks must have been especially striking. For example see how Mark remarks of the eyes of the Lord in the following passages: 3:5,34; 5:32; 8:33; 10:21; 23:27. We also may cull from Scripture an impression of health, power, energy and well being in Jesus. Jesus seems to have been a thoroughly healthy man, not prone to fatigue and with a great capacity for work. We never hear that Jesus was visited by any sickness. A proof of his physical endurance is born out in Scripture. He was in the habit of rising very early (Mark 1:35). The hills and the lake were especially dear to him and after a long day he loved to climb some lonely height, or late in the evening get himself taken out on to the shimmering water of Lake Gennesareth and stayed out far into the night (cf Mk 4:35; 6:35). We also know that his public life was one of wandering through the mountain valleys of his homeland, from Galilee to Samaria and Judaea and even as far as to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21). Despite these arduous journeys he counseled that one should travel light, bringing nothing for the journey, neither staff, money, nor bread, neither have two coats (Luke 9:3). Hunger and thirst must therefore have frequently accompanied him. His last journey from Jericho up to Jerusalem was an astounding feat. Under a burning sun through a desolate, rocky waste he climbed some 3500 feet in a six hour climb. Despite this, he seems not tired since that night he takes part in a feast at the house of Lazarus and his sisters (John 12:2). By far, the greater part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent out in the open exposed to rigors of climate in a life filled with labor and toil with often little time eat (Mk 3:20; Mk 6:31). He owned no home and “had nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20) Hence he likely spent more than a few nights sleeping out in the elements. Only a sound body of physical stamina could have endured such as this.
And now to his mental stature itself. He faced many malevolent enemies among the Pharisees and Sadducees and dealt with them effectively reducing them to silence (so much so that they began to plot his death). In addition there were tiring explanations to be offered to disciples who were often slow to learn. His self assurance is manifest. In the midst of a raging storm he went on peacefully sleeping till his disciples woke him. He immediately grasps the situation and rebukes the storm.
There was tremendous clarity in his thought. He had an absolute grasp of His goal which gave him an inflexibility and finality (in the good sense) of his will. Jesus knows what he wills and determinedly pursues it. This is evident even at twelve years of age in the temple.
The three temptations in the desert are turned back forcefully by the Lord. He is never deterred by opposition. There is opposition among the kindred of his own town, among his followers (cf esp. John 6:57) and even among the Apostles (cf esp. Matt 16:22). Here we have a man of clear will. He demands the same determination and certainty from his followers. No man, putting his hand to the plough and turning back is fit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:62)
He bore so clearly the marks of the true, the upright, and the strong, that even his enemies had to declare when they came to him, Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and care not for the opinion of any man. (Mk 12:14) He shows forth a unity and purity and transcendence that reflect his interior life of union with the Father. His loyalty to the will of his Father is unwavering and clear even though it leads directly to the Cross. Jesus in every way is a heroic and epic figure in the purest sense of that word staking his life for a known truth and demanding the same of his followers.
Jesus was a born leader. When he calls his apostles, they immediately arise to follow after him. (cf esp Mk 1:16; 1:20) Again and again the Apostles note how they wondered among themselves about the marvels of his actions and even how these struck terror into them (cf esp. Mk 9:5; 6:51; 4:40; 10:24,26). At times they did not dare question him any further (Mk 9:3). The same wonderment affected the crowds.(cf Mk 5:15,33,42; 9:14). He spoke with towering authority and the people sought the loftiest images to in wondering who he could be. Is he John the Baptist? Elijah? Jeremiah or one prophets? (Matt 16:14) His spiritual power and authority discharged themselves in stern language and bold action when the powers of evil arrayed themselves against him. Demons trembled against his awesome power (Matt 4:10.) He also rebukes strongly the evil that is in men and warns them that they will not be worthy of him if they do not repent (Matt 13:41sq; 13:49sq; 25:1sq; 14sq; 33sq; 18:34; 22:7; 22:11sq.).
He is absolutely clear and unflinching in dealing with the scribes and pharisees Matt 23:14,24,25). As shown above, he knows himself to be the Messiah and is anything but a fair-weather Messiah but follows the model of the prophets rebuking all enemies of the truth He proclaims He speaks of hypocrites, serpents and generations of vipers and liars (cf Matt 23:33). He calls Herod a fox (Lk 13:32). Although he was never one to tread lightly he never forgets himself or loses control. His anger is always the expression of supreme moral freedom declaring, for this I came into the World, that I should give testimony to the truth (John 18:37). Because He was so consistently true to His Father’s will his life was only “Yes and No” and he reacted with great severity against anything that was ungodly or hateful to God. He was ready to stake his own life for the truth and die for it.
To describe Jesus psychologically would be to describe his as a man of purposeful virility, absolute genuineness, austere uprightness and heroic in performance. He knows the truth, himself and with exact clarity executes his mission.
16 Replies to “On the Human Stature of Christ”
A similar “willow-wisp” image of Jesus was presented to me in my childhood and I concur with much of what you say. What troubled me though was “The exterior appearance of Jesus seems to have been a handsome one”. The only physical description of Jesus that is given in Scripture is in the prophecy of Isaiah:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” Isaiah 53:1-3
What are you thoughts on this?
Yes, I too thought about the Isaiah quote. However, the quote is in reference to his Passion. Those texts describe a man who has taken our sins upon and speak of his appearaence as being marred by that. He was made by the Romans to appear as a common criminal etc. So it isn’t, by itself, a text that completely sets aside the speculations of the text that Jesus had a generically handsome appearance. But then too, the reflection I posted is ony that, a speculation.
I thought that might be what you’d say. Fair enough! 🙂
I guess I’m just a little nervous about painting Jesus’ beauty in anything that resembles too closely the contemporary understanding of “beauty”, that’s all.
Over the summer, I watched a documentary about what Jesus might have been like. It was an anthropological view of the man in his life and times. It incorporated what was said in scripture about Jesus as well as the elements of his lifestyle- the physical, social, economic, etc. It took us to where he grew up as a child, showed us tools he would have used as a carpenter, even the diet he would have eaten. The physical picture they painted of him was very different from the tradition view, and it was clear he would have been physically strong. It was really interesting.
Yes, just to make those long walks through the mountainous and arid terrain of the holy Land required quite a strong disposition. The Gallileans often made a yearly walk of 60 miles (120 mile rountrip) down to Jerusalem. I’ve been to the Holy Land and it is a moutainous and difficult terrain. QUite a challenge to us out of shape moderns!
Also, didn’t Jesus get a whip and start going to town on the moneychangers in the temple? (John 2:14-15) That doesn’t sound like a wimpy thing to do. That sounds like a human being who was very angry at people who were disrespecting God, and did something about it.
Indeed, and all those intractable debates with the Temple Leadership and Pharisees.!
And what about Jesus’ humor? Jesus, as Man, in light of His union with the Divinity, beheld the Face of God, the Beatific Vision, and enjoyed all its effects – such as beatitude. Humor is a great way to express joy, and Jesus would certainly be a happy Man. Indeed, many of His teachings are filled with true humor of one form or another.
Jesus, the perfect Man; perhaps it is why many doubt He exists. How can a perfect man exist? Yet we have historical evidence that He did exist and still exists, now risen to glory and seated at the right-hand of the Father Almighty.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about doing a post on Jesus’ humor. it is more subtle from our cultural perspective but surely there. THere are no lines that say “He laughed” but there is a lot of humor in some of the parables etc. Stay tuned for that article!
I’ll look forward to that! There is so much talk of joy in the scriptures, and I believe humor must be there somewhere. Write soon!
I recently read “The Name Of The Rose” where the whole idea of Jesus laughing was seen by some as heresy!
“Even God has a sense of humor. Just look at the Platypus.” – “Dogma”
Also we have the Shroud of Turin to look at and if one believes this to be the true imprint of Jesus Crucified then one must believe he was about 6 feet 2 inches tall and quite muscular.
Indeed, that would have been tall for that time. I have never heard the height mentioned before. As for the face, it wouldl have been swollen and disfigured a bit due to the beatings and general distress but the countenance remains strong.
Just to confirm — is the movie clip at the end from “The Jesus Film”? If so, I just might have to find a copy!
The movie is the gospel of John. Here is the amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Gospel-John-Henry-Ian-Cusick/dp/B0006Q93ZG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1256151384&sr=8-1
Desmond Hume plays a very good Jesus. Not as good as Jim Caviezel, but quite good nonetheless. (The ancient Mary in Gospel of John is a whole nother matter altogether.)
Certainly he is worlds better than the thin, effeminate hippie falsetto Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar. I didn’t mind the Superman Jesus from Godspell too much. In fact, he was probably better than the awful Jesus portrayals from movies in the 60s, including the one by Capt. Pike.
I do like Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth, even though he’s not quite the rugged type, like Cusick and Caviezel. And who could not absolutely love Olivia Hussey’s Mary?
However, the Jesus in The Gospel of Matthew movie (by the same group that did Gospel of John) is very off-putting with his constant, unending smiling and laughing. He was more of the Buddy Jesus type.
They are all just dramatic portrayals, of course. But things like art, especially religious art, matter.
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