Three weeks ago my son, Daniel Capes, died. He was 36 years old. His wife, Jenel Capes, asked us to pick up his ashes. We did so last week. These ashes are all that remain here of the life Cathy and I created in 1983. I realize we are more than ashes, but every experience we ever had of Daniel was in this body. Every sight of him. Every sound of him. Every wisecrack. Every smile. If the Christian doctrine of incarnation tells us anything, it tells us that bodies matter, that the material carries sacredness within every particle of dust and ash. Below is a picture of me at 27 holding my son for the first time. He was only minutes old. Son, you have left a Daniel-sized hole in our hearts, which nothing in this world can satisfy.
On my summer reading list is a new book by Darrell Bock and Benjamin Simpson, both faculty members at Dallas Theological Seminary. The title of the book is Jesus the God-Man: The Unity and Diversity of the Gospel Portrayals (Baker Academic, 2016). Bock and Simpson treat the Gospels as reliable sources for the life of Jesus, and they do give us a coherent, new reading of these diverse texts. They are not just concerned with the Christ of faith but the Jesus of history, to use the traditional terms.
It is typically understood that the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—provide us with the story of the human Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Anointed; the story of the Christ from above, that is the incarnate Word, is the subject of John’s Gospel. Not so fast . . . Bock and Simpson say. The portrayals in the Synoptics and John are far more interesting and complex.
At the end of the day, Bock and Simpson demonstrate that the Gospels give us different stories, different portrayals; but in their analysis their accounts are complementary not contradictory. The Divine Christ is not absent from the Synoptics. The earthly Jesus is not alien to the Fourth Gospel.
Last week I posed a historical question: when Jesus entered public life (at the age of 30) did he have all his teeth? It is a question which can’t be answered with certainty. There is no physical description of Jesus from contemporary sources to help us nor are there any physical remains, so to address the question you look analogically at what happens to 30 somethings who have limited access to dental care. Consider this: what would you look like today without the benefit of braces earlier in life? how about the bridges, the caps, the crowns, the whitening toothpaste? The chances are good you wouldn’t have that perfect, made for TV smile.
This historical question has a theological component. You see most people have some image of Jesus in their heads. As they read the Gospels or pray, they imagine Jesus looking one way or another. Those images have been laid down in our experience. It may have come from a painting you saw on the wall in Sunday School like Sallman’s the Head of Christ (1941; see the Warner Sallman Collection).
It could have come from a favorite movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Jim Caviezel is a dashing, leading man type who portrayed Jesus in Gibson’s 2004 epic drama.
Or perhaps your favorite is the Laughing Jesus who has a nice set of choppers.
But there is another place where our image of Jesus comes. From our theology. Orthodox theology tells us that Jesus is fully God and fully man. This means, at least in our sanctified imaginations, that Jesus is a perfect man, a man with no physical flaws or blemishes. A man taller than most, with eyes more penetrating than most, with teeth perfect and whiter than most. Our commitment to the divinity of Jesus often trumps our understanding of his humanity so that we could well imagine the infant Jesus speaking fluent Chinese from the manger.
But to embrace the incarnation, a central tenet of faith, we must take seriously Jesus’ humanity. A truly human Jesus would have to learn to speak proper Aramaic and Greek. He would have to practice his letters to form them properly. What else could Luke mean when he said that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2)? He would have had to apprentice with his father in the carpenter shop in order to make goods his neighbors needed. He would have had belly aches, vomiting, and diarrhea. He would have been laid up for days with the flu and had bunions and blisters on his feet. A truly human Jesus would have had toothaches and probably lost some teeth before he was in his 20s. Fortunately, his wisdom teeth would have come in about then in order to fill in the gaps and help chew his food.
We are not very comfortable with a truly human Jesus because we’re not comfortable in our skin. So I guess it makes sense that we would think Jesus had a different kind of skin, skin that wouldn’t blister in the sun, freckle or wrinkle with age. Our Jesus may have been the Word made flesh (John 1) but He had a different sort of flesh than ours.
The 2nd century Christians known as the Gnostics were so uncomfortable in their skin that they denied Christ his. He only appeared to be human. He only seemed to suffer for there can be no true participation of the divine in the ugliness of humanity.
If the incarnation is true, if God has become flesh and dwelled among us in the historic person known as Jesus of Nazareth, and if Jesus truly died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave, then this body we inhabit matters. It matters to God. It must also matter to us.