At lunch last week, I was reminded of some pieces of art that I particularly love, but have not seen since I left the New York area. Housed in the Metropolitan Museum, they are a set of portraits taken from the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. The thing about them is that they breathe: seen in person, they are so real that it seems the people can talk to you. Each individual clearly shown. Children, men, and women. They take the shards of clay, the hieroglyphs, the dessicated features and dried bits of bone — the fragments of past life — and breathe in color, flesh, and movement. In their presence, the past teems with people just like us; no difference at all.
These are not, of course, the faces most of us associate with ancient Egypt. There are other images, more august images, which have invaded the popular mind. Rameses, King Tut, the hieratic, abstracted faces of kings who were also gods. The human face divine. These images do not look like they were ever flesh and blood, as if they had always been gold and stone and lapis lazuli.
No wonder Christ was shocking. The author of Hebrews writes, In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. This is no hieratic king, not a man who knew how to seem a god. It is flesh and blood, tears and cries, suffering and submission and salvation all in one. Flesh of our flesh.
How do you think of him? Does he live and breathe like you do? Can he weep?
Or is he distant, eternal, a regal and austere presence?
Which one are you?