Last year, I showed my teenage Sunday school students a series of portraits of Jesus. When I got to the larger one on the right, one of my students exclaimed: “But that’s not Jesus!”
By the end of our session, we could all laugh (or cry?) about the way our culture has remade God into our Western image. Of course, the picture in the middle is the one most likely to resemble a Palestinian Jewish man of Jesus’ day. But the topic was reopened last week when a popular cable news anchor told the country that Jesus was racially “white” – as was St. Nicholas.
That comment has prompted all kinds of scholarly responses. But I thought this one, from an Eastern Orthodox theologian specializing in St. Nicholas’ early Byzantine church, was worth reading as a challenge to all of us as we struggle to overcome the prejudices we have inherited from our culture.
You correctly stated that the mythical figure of Santa Claus is based on an historical figure, St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a city near the southern coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). First of all, modern categories of “black” and “white” are just that – modern – whereas race was understood differently in the ancient world. St. Nicholas was not “white” if by white you mean European…. Rather, St. Nicholas was an unmarried, ascetic (i.e., thin through fasting), Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bishop, so the notion of the contemporary Santa Claus’ being “black” is no further removed from the historical reality than his being fat, married, and “white.”
Even more disconcerting was your equally inaccurate assertion that Jesus was white. Jesus was, of course, Jewish, and so was racially Semitic, at a time when there was very little intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews. This means that Jesus would have had black or very dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and olive skin, with Middle Eastern facial features, including probably a large nose. He was most certainly not a white European. The portraits of Jesus that I have seen in Protestant churches and homes throughout the country depicting him with light brown or even blue eyes, light brown (almost blond) hair, and clearly European facial features is as historically inaccurate as any black/African Jesus.
As I go about my Advent preparations – seasoned with uniquely Western images of decorated fir trees, snow-laden cottages, and carols recalling “the bleak mid-winter” – it’s worth asking: How do I feel about worshiping beside a Palestinian manger cradling a dark-skinned baby, attended by parents of a distinctly different race?
Am I content that God created me, or will I insist on having a hand in re-creating Him?