In 1999, the National Catholic Reporter ran the “Jesus 2000 competition,” looking for a portrayal of Christ for the new millennium. From nearly 1,700 entries from around the world, Sister Wendy Beckett, an art expert, author and television personality, selected “Jesus of the People.”
In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus––dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe, He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.”
Through her painting, “Jesus of the People,” Janet McKenzie invites us each to explore who Jesus is and was. We are all part of “the people.” “Jesus” is part of us, and we are part of him in an ongoing, ever-changing relationship.
I met God when I was 23. I was washing my hair, when the quality of the water changed. It was a baptism, a wet and dripping, scalp soaking, water swirling at my ankles baptism. In that moment, God offered the thing I needed most and didn’t even know I’d been missing––unconditional love.
Even with that experience, I had no idea who Jesus was. I’d seen him when I was a kid––A painted ceramic grown up, hanging from a wood frame, larger than life, skinnier than anyone ought to be, clad in a diaper, with a wreath of thorny sticks on his head, blood dripping down his face.
I heard about him when I was in college from obnoxious young men who stood on the Quad, reading passages from the Bible in thunderous voices and shouting, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
It wasn’t until I began attending Gilroy United Methodist Church that I met Jesus in a real way. That came after God came to me; after I’d accepted God’s grace. God’s love came with no strings attached, no conditions that I must follow. I chose the Methodists because they got to me after God did!
Since then, through worship, study, and prayer, Jesus became a personification of grace in my life. He’s a mainstay in my subconscious, appearing in dreams, including one where, dressed in a yellow squall hat and slicker (just like the Gorton’s fish sticks man), he saved me from kidney disease and pneumonia that threatened to suck me into Hell.
I write to encounter Jesus. I have been Bible people: the Samaritan woman talking theology with Jesus at the well, Zaccheus the tax collector observing Jesus from his perch in a tree, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, trying to understand his death on the Cross. I have imagined Jesus’ words to me, the way he would redirect my desires and challenge my understanding.
Jesus allows me to teach and preach with him, invites me to heal and be healed, to suffer, to grow, and to be resurrected alongside him. He is a paradox, a mystery, someone and something I can’t fully comprehend. In the Bible he is the storyteller, and the subject of stories. He is a man who walked the earth long ago, and a presence within men and women who walk the earth today. He was born human with a divinity so bright it summoned the world to take notice. His death was brutally inhuman with divine repercussions that shook the world and changed it permanently. He became a savior to millions who came thousands of years after his resurrection, ministering to a world he caught only the smallest glimpse of, yet had an amazing understanding of.
Through Jesus, we are all allowed to be fully human, and to express fully the divine within us. Somehow his spirit is alive in us. By telling his stories, we can honor the gifts Jesus gave to the world during his earthly ministry. By telling the stories of how God has changed us and how we experience this “Jesus of the People” we can allow the Christ spark to keep igniting the world.