One of my favorite Lenten images is the painting “Christ in the Desert” by Ivan Kramskoy (pictured above). In the painting we have the “fully human” Christ. He does not have a halo. There is not a choir of angels around him. He is not is some majestic pose. Rather he sits alone in the hot desert. There is a weariness and fatigue to his posture. His shoulders are hunched and burdened. In his expression it is easy to see that he is lost in his own thoughts. The painting carries with it a sense of grave silence.
I contrast this image with that of the superhero
Iron Man (image to the right).
This figure does stand in a majestic pose. He is all metal and strength. His eyes gleam forth in vision and leadership. His weak humanity is completely covered over by a suit of iron. This is the superhero who rights wrongs and triumphs over evil … or so we are told.
But Iron Man is a myth and not a savior and Jesus is real and never pretended to be a superhero.
In Scripture we are told that Christ is like us in all things except sin. In fact, Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us that Christ emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He humbled himself even being obedient unto death. (Philippians 2:5-11)
If Christ is like us in all things except sin then he is not a man covered in iron but rather a man living in flesh and blood like all of us. He knew limits and weariness. He knew hunger and thirst. He experienced disappointment, fear, anger and loneliness. The whole gamut of human reality he knew even unto infinity as Pope Benedict XVI points out in his second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” precisely because he experienced the full human condition in all its fears, uncertainties and limits without reverting to sin. The “except sin” of Christ does not shield Jesus from the fullness of the human condition; rather it leads him ever deeper into it. We are the ones who shield ourselves precisely through our sins.
Our sins remain a running away from the human condition.
Why not a superhero? Why not a man covered in iron to save us?
Here a poem entitled, Letter to Genetically Engineered Super Humans by Fred Dings might instruct us:
You are the children of our fantasies of form,
our wish to carve a larger cave of light,
our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb
its rungs to the height of human possibility,
to a stellar efflorescence beyond all injury and disease,
with minds as bright as newborn suns
and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned.
Forgive us if we failed to imagine your loneliness
in the midst of all that ordinary excellence,
if we failed to understand how much harder
it would be to build the bridge of love between such splendid selves,
to find the path of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities,
to be refreshed without forgetfulness,
and weave community without the thread of need.
Forgive us if you must re-invent our flaws
because we failed to guess the simple fact
that the best lives must be less than perfect.
Today we sit in the desert with the savior Christ – human like us in all things except sin. He is not a superhero nor does he want to be. In the fullness of the human condition, the much “less than perfect reality”, he turns again and again to God and he binds himself to the Father’s will. This is what makes him both savior and brother to us. In his grace we are now invited to also bind ourselves to God not despite of but through our imperfect human condition and to be restored in relationship to God, to one another and to our very selves.
Now, as always, we need a savior rather than a superhero.