Jesus: What God Is Like by Gene Ciarlo

Irarely talk to God. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I talked to God, or prayed to God apart from saying “Our Father” in the Lord’s prayer. Furthermore, I don’t think I can honestly say I “love” God. I find it challenging to love some of the people whom I see, let alone God who is mysterious and neither male nor female, nor even a person. I don’t understand how people can say that they love God unless I’m suffering from a misunderstanding of love.

Do I believe in God? Yes, but not as most people acknowledge, imply, or testify that they believe in God. I believe in the ongoing divinely created order; I believe that the universe is shot through with divinity, godliness, goodness, holiness, and beauty. As scholastic theologians might say, beauty, truth, and goodness are the ultimate transcendentals; they are, if you will, the potter’s clay. They are not synonymous with God, but they embrace all that is, all that we enjoy and thrive on in our world. I think that is why Native Americans and others who instinctively acknowledge divinity in nature as substantive in their religious beliefs and practices weep when they see what we have done and are doing to our earth.

Although I have trouble loving God, I can love Jesus. In fact, I talk to Jesus several times a day. I prefer to call him Yeshua because too many people use the name of Jesus in a negative, derogatory, exclamatory way. If I said “Jesus” out loud and in public, how would people react? They would think I just publicly uttered a forbidden curse word. It would be considered rude and offensive. That is one of our cultural aberrations. People are even afraid to say “God.” They say, “Oh, my gosh!” Yes, I can say I love Yeshua, unabashedly, and I demonstrate it quietly in what I call prayer, more a making present than an all-too-common introduction to petitionary prayer.

This season immediately after Christmas is the season of Epiphany. Literally, the Greek word means “manifestation.” Thus Jesus is “manifested” to the world: he is born, he lives among us. God is made manifest, as the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” proclaims loudly, listing the temporal ways and times that God was made manifest in Jesus. The present epiphanic liturgical season is more “Yeshua time” for me than are any of the details of the Christmas story.

To describe Jesus, I prefer the words of Marcus Borg, one of my favorite Scripture scholars and considered among the greatest in his field. He said it very simply: “Jesus discloses what God is like.” Those simple words are a meditation in themselves. What is God like? Study Jesus and his life, and the stories that have followed him as narrated in the New Testament, and you will come to discover what God is like. The gestalt is important: the whole story that introduces us to Jesus, but further and more profoundly, what our mind, our heart and soul conclude after we have digested all the information offered us in the Gospels. There one finds the true epiphany, the personal epiphany. Think of Jesus in the words of Viktor Frankl: “The more one forgets himself, by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” For me, that is a modern way to describe what “happened” in time to Yeshua bar-Yosef.

If we probe further into the life of Jesus by pouring over the books of the New Testament, we find distinct faces of the man. The greatest and most obvious distinction is the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. Before Easter, the stories that we read mainly in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us about the historical Jesus, the man who walked within a very limited part of the Middle East, who said and did amazing things along the way. He appears to be very human, an ordinary person and yet not ordinary at all because he was a mystic.

Jesus was a mystic. I define a mystic as a person who has an experiential awareness of God. A mystic is an extraordinary person who experiences God, and this, I believe, is the only way that a person can come to love God. That is not common, and the mystic—or perhaps she might be called a contemplative—cannot verbally describe to others what God is like, nor would she want to try. An experience of God cannot be described.

However, Jesus was more than just a mystic. He was a social prophet. Borg speaks eloquently of this aspect of Jesus in many of his books, especially in 2009’s The God We Never Knew.

As a social prophet, Jesus was a people person. He was totally dedicated to people, to helping Jews understand what their religion was all about, who Yahweh was for them, in order to bring them back to their roots. More than a preacher regarding their faith, Jesus was trying to teach people what life was about. Furthermore, he showed them by his own example what their life-in-God meant for them (which, incidentally, is what any good catechist and pastor of souls should be doing). The pre-Easter Jesus loved people and suffered with and for them. That is the definition of compassion. More than anything else, Jesus was compassionate. He was not intentionally a mystic. He was intentionally compassionate. This is worth some reflection.

Borg declares that the historical Jesus started a movement. I don’t think Jesus intentionally started a movement. It happened in time by those who believed in him and followed his example. It proceeded from Jesus’s life and work and, in theory, we are still living in that movement. (Allow me to interject a personal reflection at this point: We have messed up the sociological and evolutionary development of this movement. We have changed its hallmark from compassion to an earthly institution of power and authority for the sake of personal salvation. That is the residue left by the human sociological condition tempered by time. We can hardly help ourselves. That is what we humans do.)

Did Jesus think he was God? Now we enter into part two of the story, the post-Easter story. We can read about this God-man in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. They elaborate on the life of Jesus, and create a developed idea of who he was and what he was all about. In these writings there is little doubt that Jesus was God in the flesh, God-made-man, a divine being, fully human but also God, “the image of the invisible God,” as Paul says in his letter to the Colossians (1:15). Paul and John are quite sure that Jesus knew he was God. John even put those words in his mouth: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). And in his letter, Paul tells the Romans that Jesus is God (Rom 9).

It was the essential catalyst that gave life and longevity to the movement that today we call Christianity. The early followers called it “the Way.” The newer title, Christianity, focuses on the mission, to make Christ known for the sake of salvation. It implies structure and organization. The Way, however, points to a lifestyle, a design for living according to the Jesus way. You can see how the concept of Christianity as a way to salvation easily and logically leads to moralistic beliefs and practices, a fundamental catechesis: “This is what we believe in.” Notice that the operative word is “what” and not “who.”

This may be a different way of looking at Christianity than most people have been accustomed to from their earliest religious instructions. Remember that the classes were most often called CCD classes, which stood for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Joining an organization and learning its rules, regulations, and practices often took the place of encountering Jesus and his lifestyle with words and deeds that focused on people hungry for justice, peace, happiness, health, truth, understanding, and, of course, compassion.

The church was destined to become a temporal organization with all that it implies. The central worship experience of Roman Catholicism, breaking bread in communion around the table of the Lord, ceded to a very structured Mass that lost a lot of the spontaneity, heart, and soul that existed in the early days. That was bound to happen. It is a sociological reality. The negative part is that a heartfelt faith commitment and understanding of Jesus, his message and purpose, have suffered greatly in the process.

A poignant example of misunderstanding focusing on this keystone of Christian worship is in order. In times past, it was not uncommon for a mere handful of people to proceed toward the altar to receive the Bread of Life at communion. Today there are many more persons, perhaps the majority, who feel free to come together in communion. However, there is still a grave misconception that is troublesome: too many people feel that their reception of the sacrament of unity is tied to their state of soul, their sinful condition or lack thereof. This is a perfect example of how the emphasis has been on sin, law, and salvation rather than grace, unity, and communion with the Lord and his Way.

The numbers of Christian believers and worshipers have dwindled in recent decades due to several factors. Much of the decline is due to the archaic laws and customs that are obviously outmoded and out of touch with modern society, making the entire notion of God, Jesus, worship, and mission difficult to embrace. The other major obstacle to a vibrant Christian society is ignorance about what Jesus was and is all about and what dedication to the Way entails. Our catechesis over the years has been pathetically lacking, relying more on mindless habit and custom than on knowledge and commitment to the spirit and message of the man from Galilee.

There is a new wind blowing and it may take a while for its freshness to be sensed by the young men and women of our 21st century and beyond. The old is painfully ceding to the new, regardless of how much the ancien régime tries to hold on to its security structures. The Way will come alive again, slowly but surely. History is cyclical, but above and beyond terrestrial realities, the Spirit of God works in unpredictable ways. ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.

Image: Ioannis Permeniatis, Adoration of the Magi, 16th c. | George E. Koronaios / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
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