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So Where Is Jesus Now?
In a couple of months, it’ll be Easter, and the same church signs around the state that proclaimed JESUS IS BORN will be proclaiming in black block letters JESUS IS RISEN, sometimes adding INDEED in case the point is missed.
As far as I know, Jesus is the only person whose birth and resurrection—though not his death—are described in the present tense. (Or have I just missed the church signs crying out, on the Saturday after Good Friday, “JESUS IS DEAD TODAY?”)
The present tense—the “is-ness” of Jesus—underlines his identity with the God self-named I AM. It confirms that you and I can have a real relationship with that God and with that Jesus, because they aren’t characters from the past but beings in the present. And the is-ness of Jesus metaphorically and accurately names the way Christ is experienced by Christians in a here-and-now that is the signature of the Holy Spirit.
All well and good: the grammar is iffy, but I won’t find fault. The was/is/ever/more shall be tense we use to tell the scriptural story combines with the turning of the liturgical year to create deep layers through which the eternal and the temporal, biological and spiritual, profane and sacred, human and divine stitch their complex and interesting patterns.
In a few days, by coincidence, it will be both Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday, eros and thanatos, love and death; the start of the season in which we may contemplate and repent of our sins. So many of which —for me, anyway—began in desire and cupidity.
This week would once have been known as Septuagenisma, the “pre-Lent” time, since Lent apparently demanded more preparation back in the old days. Pre-Lent commenced on February 2nd, the date upon which Jesus was/is/ever more shall be presented as an infant in the Jerusalem temple. There, the temple priests looked for his shadow and figured out how long winter would last.
Anyway, between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday, we are now simply in what is known as Ordinary time. Again.
See, there is a sort of “Groundhog Day” feeling, lather-rinse-repeat in the Christian liturgical year, but also to the Jewish year and to other years as well, since human beings recognized and depended upon the cyclicality seasons and called it sacred long before we discovered the rotund circularity of the earth.
Lather, rinse, repent and then, this year, the risen Christ will greet Mary and the women outside the open tomb with “Surprise! April Fools!” Since Easter happens to fall on April 1st.
Also between now and then there is the Feast of the Annunciation, but it would invite a sort of spiritual whiplash to pay too much attention to that, since it takes place on March 25th: “Guess what, Mary! You’re going to have a son!” and then, a mere five days later, her son is on the Cross.
So Mary’s pregnancy, as described by Luke, will be compressed into Advent, her first labor and delivery won’t even get a whole sentence to themselves, but will be subsumed into the bit about how the birth takes place in a stable because the Inn is too crowded.
By the way, any guesses as to why the Annunciation has to be celebrated on March 25th? That’s right: it’s nine months before December 25th, Jesus’ birthday.
Although…Luke’s Gospel doesn’t actually tell us the date of Jesus’ birth, and most scholars who look at the internal evidence don’t seem to believe it really happened in the bleak midwinter. The story describes lots of people being on the road with Mary and Joseph, traveling to meet the census-takers each to his own city, and there were shepherds abiding in the fields with their flocks, none of which happens in winter. It would instead indicate that Jesus was born in late summer or early fall.
Or rather —gotta watch that tense thing, now!—Jesus IS born in late summer or early fall. But since it ISN’T late summer or early fall right this minute…in fact, it’s (sigh) February…where is Jesus now?
Well, Mary is pregnant. She is a few weeks along. Jesus is an embryo.
It is in the first few weeks of pregnancy that an embryo experiences its most dramatic rate of growth, the original single cell dividing and dividing in a process called hyperplasia. After the first nineteen days, this growth slows down a little, as hyperplasia gives way to hypertrophy, a phase that will persist, all-hypertrophy-all-the-time right through adolescence into adulthood. Once we have reached maturity, there is a whole lot less hypertrophy and, indeed, in the geriatric phase of our lives, the cells shrink…with predictably discouraging results.
Ah, but getting old beats the alternative, as Jesus—who never got the chance to age—would probably be the first to tell us.
But he won’t tell us this today, because at the moment, Jesus is a wild, biological tumult at the tiny center of which lies the crucial element of organization. His rapidly dividing cells, protein hungry, are on the move but they know exactly where to position themselves.
“It is not birth, marriage or death,” the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert wrote, “but gastrulation which is the most important time of your life.”
And Jesus is a gastrula, a trilaminar cup-shaped structure of totipotential human cells all marching obediently into position, lateral to medial, lining themselves up, nuclei to the back, microtubules to the front, in precise ranks along the basement membrane and in so doing creating the basic axes of the body—front and back, top and bottom.
I picture the genes and enzymes barking out orders ( “Left Face! Forward March!“) as the busy cells form the human Jesus according to his unique chromosomal blueprint… or what has been termed “the Fate Map“ of the human organism.
Jesus looks like nothing, now, but he isn’t: as Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written, “…from the seeming chaos of early rapid-fire cell division and unimaginably precise deployment of these cells to their designated posts, there is a vector of life, a direction, and velocity of life forces that is perfectly programmed, irresistibly logical and immutably fixed in time and space…”
Despite surprisingly infrequent errors, most gastrulae become fetuses and then make it to birth having ridden what Nathanson calls “the crest of the vector of life as the surfer rides the perfect wave.”
So a gastrula doesn’t look like much, but it is nonetheless what it is. If it’s going to be Jesus, that means it’s Jesus already, Jesus right now, Jesus as small as an O in 12-point font, but Jesus all the same. Not just because it was/is/evermore shall be Jesus, you understand, but because that’s how humans —all of us—come into being: zygote, blastula, gastrula, embryo, fetus…baby, kid, grownup …and geezer if we’re lucky.
Mary knows she is pregnant right from the start. That’s a more common miracle these days when instead of an angel or a strange dream, a pregnancy test detects trace amounts of the hormone—Human Choreonic Gonadotropin, if you’re interested—that begins to be secreted by the placenta as soon as the human being arrives in the womb and sets up shop.
But even though Mary knows she’s pregnant, the life, activity, and development of her infant is hidden from her, a mystery taking place only inches away from her eyes, but well-hidden behind the windowless wall of her own body.
After the Angel Gabriel departed, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was (is?) then six months pregnant with Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
As it happens, six months is about the time a first-time mother will begin to feel her baby move. This was the moment called “quickening” in ancient times and marked as the beginning of human life. So the response of tiny John the Baptist could be seen as the moment when Jesus—at that point, a mere zygote—gives his cousin life.
Of course, modern medical technology has allowed us to know that John the Baptist has been turning and kicking and sucking his little thumb for at least three or four months by this point, following his own fate map, surfing the vector like a perfect wave.
By eight weeks gestation, Jesus was/is/evermore shall be about yay big. His heart is beating with a nice, regular rhythm. His eyes have migrated to the front of his head, so his face looks a lot more human than before. Nerves capable of transmitting sensory information to his small but growing brain are developing around his mouth, and in the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
Give it another month, and Jesus has eyelids and he can clench his little hands into fists. If Mary were a 21st-century pregnant lady, she’d be having a 12-week ultrasound right about now, and the technician might even tell her that the Savior of the World is indeed a little boy.
Maybe Mary will send a printout of the ultrasound to her cousin Elizabeth who—now nursing her newborn baby John-the-B—will scotch-tape it reverently on the door of the fridge. And when her husband Zechariah comes home from work, he’ll see it there and say…awwwwwww.
Last week, a friend who knows me well sent me a YouTube video she knew would charm me. It was an MRI movie, incredibly detailed, taken of a 20-week-old human fetus moving around inside his mother’s womb. He seems to have a fair amount of space in there—he’s “chillin’ as my friend put it, sitting on his little bum with his little legs stretched out before him. He’s waving his little hands around as if preaching (“the meek shall inherit the earth!”) He reaches forward and grabs onto his own toes. Watching that film, I experienced a physical sense of deja vu, a vivid muscle memory of babies, wriggling and turning inside me.
According to NPR (online) “In the journal Current Biology, the researchers report that [when red light is projected into the womb]…fetuses seemed to turn towards and follow … red dots [arranged in the pattern of a human face] more frequently and for longer than they did when the lights were flipped upside down and looked nothing like a face…”
And, also from NPR: “A new study of over a thousand recorded cries from 30 French newborns and 30 German newborns found differences in the cries’ melody patterns. French cries tended to have a rising melody, while the German cries tended to have a falling melody.The finding suggests that newborns just a few days old may already be trying to imitate the prevailing intonation patterns of the language they heard while still in the womb.”
So…where’s Jesus now?
He’s never nowhere, right? He’s always somewhere.
He’s a little baby, crying after his circumcision; he’s an adult dying on a cross; he’s an adolescent, skipping away from the group of pilgrims and getting lost for days, scaring his poor parents to death; he’s a teacher talking to Mary Magdalene while Martha whips up supper; he’s a man climbing a mountain with a couple of sweaty disciples, and a man in shining garments waiting for them at the top; he is a twenty-week-old fetus playing with his own toes…
Last year, around this time, I learned that the transfiguration of Jesus was not what I’d always thought it was, a miracle in which Jesus was transformed.
Jesus didn’t change. He was who he was…and is and ever more shall be: zygote, blastula, gastrula, embryo, fetus, baby, kid, man…fully human. Fully divine.
It was the disciples who changed. It was the disciples who were able to see what they had not seen before, able to know what they thought they knew already.
And: This happens. Not necessarily on a mountain top. Sometimes it happens in a university classroom, or during a conversation with a stranger, or while watching the news. Sometimes it happens in a doctor’s office, when the ultrasound technician passes a wand across your pregnant belly and you see an image on screen and realize…that there are not just two human beings in that room, but three are gathered in God’s name, and God is there too.
I love knowing that Jesus—because he was fully human not because he was divine—was a miracle gastrula, wildly dividing, being and becoming, turning, dancing and swimming inside his human Mum. Because he was fully human, he gestured with his hands and then laid his own hands on his own, very small feet.
I love knowing—not thinking, imagining or even believing, but knowing (scientifically!) —that because Jesus was a human being, he emerged from Mary’s body already attuned to the rhythms of her language and already looking for her human face.
This is the ordinary mystery that the divine enters into, the miracle of ordinary life that is changed when we change; that becomes what it is when we are willing to see who we are, and to know each other and love one another…as Children of God.