My mama has this set of Santa figurines that depict how Santa evolved through the years and how he looks in various countries—for instance, 1909 Poland looks like a tall, skinny Bishop and 1908 Germany wears green and carries a long garland of holly. My sisters and I are all fighting over who gets these in the will when mama is gone because we all love them so much. It always fascinated me that Santa looked different to different people—I had always assumed he was like 1925 USA Santa, round and red—the one that matches the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas poem. Fascinated me, but didn’t weird me out or anything. I accepted it and loved it.
For some reason, my reaction to seeing Jesus depicted as anything other than the medium blond to light brunette with clean red and blue, or perhaps white, robes did bother me as a child. The first time I saw him depicted as a black man, I was almost troubled. Not because I disliked black people in any way, but because I always knew Santa was not real and Jesus was…and so Jesus had to look like a particular someone. He couldn’t be changeable. Since naturally the first pictures I saw of Jesus were your standard Renaissance European paintings, that was how he looked to me. I understood that you could draw Jesus in a story and he wouldn’t look like a Master painting, but I just always equated those paintings with his actual portrait—like he sat for them like George Washington or King Louis XV or something. If he looked different to different people, then maybe he wasn’t real.
Obviously I was a silly little child, and perhaps my upbringing in a predominately Southern white Baptist church didn’t help matters, and thankfully I have outgrown that notion, but only by experience and a natural inclination to open-mindedness. In reality, Jesus was Jewish and from the Middle East, so he was likely not blue-eyed and more than likely not medium-blond. Most adults understand that no one really knows what Jesus looked like in the flesh, but it may not be so clear to a child, and even as adults, we cling to our mental images formed as children. Children, while whimsical and imaginative, do not always grasp the abstract and naturally associate mental images with physical ones. Some children, like my Jack, are more “concrete” in their thinking, and don’t much alter their mental images of something, once formed, without considerable trouble.
While children are born not realizing any sort of negative connotations with race…they can obviously see that everyone looks different and we are all various shades of brown; we have different hair color and textures, and different shapes and shades of eyes, and they recognize no superiority of one over the other…They do learn behavior and most of us do not make it to adulthood unscathed by racism. With all the trouble brewing and bubbling in our country lately—and really, since always—I have had to stop and actually evaluate my own thoughts and behaviors and then dissect where they come from. Frankly, dear reader, I am ashamed of myself. While some things are a product of my raising, others were self-perpetuated long after I reached the age of reason.
I always considered myself open-minded and progressive in lots of ways. I have friends of all shapes, sizes, and colors, of various religions and a plethora of cultures. I have dated white, black, Hispanic, and Asian men. I have the same profound disgust for ignorant white people as I have of ignorant people of other races. By ignorant, I mean people that embody a stereotype and perpetuate it and glory in it…not the standard definition, which means someone that simply knows no better. Yet, I am not innocent. I think we would all be liars if we were to deny that we never had not even one racist thought or pre-conceived notion about someone due to their status, appearance, culture, or religion. It isn’t ever right, but it does happen to all of us, no matter your background or skin-color.
I was thinking the other day why there isn’t a physical description of Jesus in the Bible. In general, most Hebrew authors were fastidious with their words…they all had to MEAN something and get to a point, so there aren’t too many physical descriptions in the Bible as it is, but there ARE some. David was ruddy of complexion—which means be was rosy cheeked, or perhaps very tan from being outside all the time. He was handsome, or, “comely”. Esau was hairy. Jacob was fair with smooth skin. Samson had long hair and Elisha was bald. John the Baptist was wild-looking. Others have no exact description, but you can make inferences: Bathsheba and Esther were babes, Elijah was skin and bones. Nada about Jesus…not even enough to infer. Why? Because it didn’t matter at all what he looked like. The point of the Gospels was to show how he WAS…what he was trying to teach us to be. The only physical part that mattered was he became HUMAN. The rest of the New Testament goes to great lengths to stress he came for all of us—Jew and Gentile alike, and that we are all “one body” in Christ as part of his Church. Jesus didn’t care about your job, or your social-status, or even how many husbands you had…he loved anyway. He looked past all the physical, to the heart and soul of people.
Even more than that, the epiphany for me was that there is no description so we can all picture the physical Jesus how we want to—however we identify with him so that we COME TO HIM. I think God knew our little pea brains, tainted and stunted by original sin, could never measure up to their full potential here on Earth anymore since we broke our full communion with him back in Eden; he knew that we tend to be clannish and identify with things we know, so he left it open for us to picture Jesus looking similar to ourselves, because eventually the purpose and meaning of Jesus would transcend our mental picture of how he looked physically. It was only as I grew in my faith that my mental image of Jesus became fluid and changeable. It was only then that I could see him in the eyes of my brothers and sisters. When I am at my cleanest—after reconciliation, and after taking communion—I see him absolutely everywhere and in everything.
How beautiful would it be, however, if we could skip right to the transcendent part? How lovely would it be if my first mental image of Jesus isn’t always a European Master’s view (even though they are wonderful paintings), but could be different every time? What if we started our kids out from the beginning showing them different images of Jesus, and explained to them that Jesus is ALL of those colors, because we are all ONE in him? How even better would it be if we make them understand that because we are all one, we, too, are all of those things…all created in His image and likeness? The message of Jesus would shine through earlier and brighter, maybe, and those subtle, ingrained notions of a white Jesus would never be the norm. Wishful thinking and it may not ever happen until the Second Coming, but we could make things a lot easier in the meantime if we exposed ourselves, and especially our children, to the many colors of Jesus.
Note: I don’t know where all these pictures came from exactly, but I do thank whoever made them. I cited where I could, and some are common icons. I do not make any money at all on this site, so I take nothing from you. Each one is beautiful.