My teenage years were a time of considerable loneliness. I remember myself only too well as a teen, driven by restlessness, haunted by unspoken dreams, full of youthful grandiosity, unsure of myself, shuffling hesitantly in the stag-line at the local dance.
It was at this time in my life that I was fascinated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I read the play over and over again and watched it almost a dozen times at school. The figure of Hamlet spoke deeply to my mood at the time for I was restless and lonely and I admired precisely this kind of anti-hero – the loner, the figure haunted by deep melancholy, the man of secrets so paralysed by the world’s infidelity that he himself could never be happy and dance. Hamlet provided me with this, someone enigmatically silent, apart from others, sarcastic, unhappily at odds with all that is warm, domestic, and normal. Youthful restlessness and grandiosity want this kind of hero, the archetypal trickster, the wounded romantic, the embittered Christ-child, and the hero who is alone. The man or woman who radiates this is the perfect idol for the lonely teen. Literature and movies thrive on just this kind of hero, the Clint-Eastwood-type Christ figure.
There is something perennially intriguing in this image. So it is no accident that we often project it onto Jesus and define him precisely as the enigmatic Hamlet, the loner, the man haunted by hidden dreams, the one unable to dance. This kind of image doesn’t just colour the way teenagers think of Jesus, it is present as well, too much so, within our mainstream conception of Christ. Small wonder we often struggle to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to pray to him, and to have him as our confidant. Loners intrigue us, but what they radiate is the antithesis of the kingdom. No Hamlet inspires or invites prayer. We need an image of Jesus that does.
Philip Cunningham recently wrote a book on Jesus that he accurately entitled: A Believer’s Search for the Jesus of History (Paulist Press, N.J., 1999). What Cunningham does, and does very well, is to summarize the research of the major academic books on Christ that have been written in the last ten years as these pertain to what can be said about the actual person of Jesus. What can be said? Kind of person was the Jesus of history (as the person who undergirds the Christ of faith)?
Cunningham suggests that if we take the words of Luke (2,52) that describe Jesus’ hidden years (“He increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.”) and read them in the light of Jesus’ public life a certain picture emerges. Far from being a loner and a Hamlet, everything about Jesus radiates the opposite. It seems that he grew up happily, quite comfortable in the rhythms of family, community, and rural life. When he began his ministry, he already knew how to celebrate at table with family, how to banter, argue, tell stories, share food, drink wine, and be part of the ordinary follies, tragedies, and joys of everyday living. All his preaching (whose very health and robustness set it apart) suggests that he, Jesus, was no stranger to intimacy, community, and enjoyment. The Jesus who stepped onto the world stage at age thirty, unlike Hamlet or any other tragic anti-hero, radiated a vigorous health, a capacity to fully share in community, an extraordinary resiliency, a rare capacity to forgive and let go, and an ability to enjoy life that could scandalize others.
As Cunningham puts it, by every indication, “he grew up in the midst of family, friends and fellow villagers. Like his father before him, he pursued the trade of a woodworker, but there were also animals to care for, most likely fields to cultivate, bartering to do, all the daily tasks that make up peasant life. … He was part of his world, not set apart from it. Later we will see him constantly surrounded by people. This did not mark a change in his lifestyle; he had lived that way for thirty years or more. Frequent scenes will show Jesus at table with disciples, even enemies, engaged in the banter that characterizes such gatherings. These were continuations of the “family” meals he had been part of during his hidden years.” (pp. 28-29)
Jesus has been depicted in many ways, more recently even as a laughing Christ whose laughter mocks death and tragedy. There is truth in that image, though we must be careful too to not make Jesus, who knew only too well the depth of loneliness and suffering, into someone who is distant from depression, exclusion, tragic circumstance, and death. On the other hand, we must be equally as careful not to confuse Jesus with Hamlet or any other tragic anti-hero who lives without the resiliency, hope, faith, forgiveness, capacity for enjoyment, sense of humour, and abandonment to the dance that come from believing in God and the resurrection.