Christmas has been my favorite holiday ever since I was a little kid, but it was never a holiday on which I’d see extended family or have a special dinner. My family never dressed up to take a Christmas photo, and I never waited in line at the mall to tell Santa what I wanted that year. Yes, my brother and I would wake up excitedly in the morning to see what was lying under our living room’s plastic Christmas tree, but that was our entire Christmas experience. Instead, I think everything about the buildup to December 25th — the lights, the music, the hot chocolate, the Trader Joe’s advent calendars, the general excitement and cheerfulness in the middle of a gray, wet Seattle winter — is why I’ve happily sold my soul to the all-encompassing capitalist extravaganza that is “Christmas”. And I’m okay with that.
At the same time, though, despite not being Christian, I’ve begun to take an interest in the spiritual side of the holiday, even if Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th. I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical Jesus versus the Jesus of Christianity, and more broadly about how different religions — namely Christianity and Buddhism — have claimed to convey the original teachings of their founders while simultaneously depicting their founders in ways that would be unrecognizable to the Jesus and Buddha of history. Two books that I’ve read which deal with this phenomenon are Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.
— Reza Aslan, Zealot
Philosophical musings aside, if we simply think about what Jesus looked like, we can see how Christians have depicted him in a variety of ways to suit their own purposes. When I was younger, the interfaith “Sunday school” I went to was held in a Unitarian Universalist church, and I remember one of the rooms had a variety of pictures on all the walls, showing depictions of Jesus from all over the world: Japanese Jesus, Ethiopian Jesus, Mexican Jesus… This ethnic variety is so surprising to think about because, living in the West, we are so conditioned to picturing Jesus as white when he obviously wasn’t of European descent (The Real Face of Jesus).
The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man. If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.
— Jonathan Merritt, Insisting Jesus Was White Is Bad History and Bad Theology
So, Jesus didn’t actually look like a white guy. Does that matter? I wish I could say “no, as long as you’re following his teachings it shouldn’t matter what you think he looked like.” However, history shows that the conception of a white Jesus, and of a white God in general, have been incredibly harmful forces in history, justifying all sorts of colonial atrocities. So, what should we do about it? Would it be better to try to move towards a more realistic depiction of Jesus? As a non-Christian, it isn’t really my place to say what Christians should or shouldn’t do — just something to think about.
Similarly, the Buddha that we’re familiar with also bears no resemblance to the historical Buddha. The Buddha opposed Hindu idol worship, and did not want to be worshiped by his followers. For the first couple centuries following his death, “his presence was indicated instead by a sign, such as a pair of footprints, an empty seat, or an empty space beneath a parasol.” However, in the first century AD in the region of Gandhara (now Afghanistan and northern Pakistan), cultural exchange between Greeks and Indian artists following the invasion of Alexander the Great produced “youthful Buddhas with hair arranged in wavy curls [resembling] Roman statues of Apollo; the monastic robe covering both shoulders if arranged in heavy classical folds, reminiscent of a Roman toga”. (this article explains more)
Later Indian artists began depicting the Buddha in a variety of styles that depicted him with the 32 lakshanas, or “bodily features of a great man”, including “long toes and fingers” and “teeth that are of equal size”. These deeply symbolic representations eventually spread throughout Asia, resulting in the Buddha image that we are familiar with. In this sense, the depictions of the Buddha are very different from Christian depictions of Jesus, in that they don’t claim to represent the original Buddha; rather they depict an idealized image to serve as a “role model” of sorts. As such, one could say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the Buddha being depicted ahistorically, while the ahistorical depiction of Jesus has had some serious consequences in the past. Like I said before, this is just something to keep in mind that I find interesting.
Back to Christmas, because everyone else’s idea of what Jesus and Buddha looked like is of little consequence to me personally. I want to end this post with one of my favorite Christmas experiences. One Christmas Day (2009 maybe?), my parents took my brother and I to a historic Spanish Catholic church on a Native American reservation while we were on vacation in Arizona. Obviously there’s some ugly history there (colonialism), but everything was decorated so beautifully, families were praying together, and it was a very special experience.
I think that may have been my first encounter with Catholicism — I distinctly remember seeing statues of saints inside the church, and comparing them with the statues I’d seen in Hindu temples. The process of going up and taking communion from the priest was also similar to what I’d seen in temples, where we’d line up in front of the deity to take apply some vibhuti (holy ash) to our foreheads and receive some prasad (food offered to God) from the priest. Just a few connections I can think of off the top of my head.
Thanks for reading this and please excuse my lame title. I’d love any comments/feedback, and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season.