We can know a fair amount about Jesus, the Son of God, through the Gospels. Yet most of realize that knowing about Jesus is not the same thing as knowing Jesus. Furthermore, as New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks articulately points out in his recent monograph, Christ Is the Question, historical research is inadequate to come up with a clear, consistent picture of Jesus anyway. He argues that, instead of relying solely on researching historical documents, knowing Jesus requires the personal engagement of each individual, community and generation. Knowing Jesus is not a static historical endeavor, but an ongoing, dynamic, spiritual process, rooted in history but developed existentially and communally through time. In other words, the various biblical accounts of Jesus call us to develop our own knowledge of Christ by interacting with the biblical narratives and testimonies available to us and by seeking our own personal connection with Christ.
So, how does anyone get to know Jesus Christ better through experience? I mean, as distinct from God as Father (Mother) or the Holy Spirit? As I reflected on this question on pilgrimage in Spain, my attention kept being drawn to the symbols of Jesus everywhere—on hillsides, in the villages, around the public squares, and, of course, in every church. Though in recent decades Spain has become decidedly more secular, it is still predominately a Roman Catholic country. This means, for example, crosses are displayed in public places in nearly every town. An image of the body of Christ is paraded through many towns during Easter week with elaborate rituals carried on throughout the nights. And in nearly every church, Christ is prominently displayed, hanging on the cross, usually in the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar, often above Mary, Queen of Heaven, who holds the Christ child on her lap. In addition, sometimes we find the crucified Jesus in a glass casket, affixed to poles, allowing the people to carry him through the streets on Good Friday.
James Michner, in Iberia, discusses the thoroughly Catholic character of Spain, at least from the time of the expulsion of the Moors in the fifteenth century through the mid-20th century, when he wrote his book. I could see for myself that through symbols and special rituals, alongside regular mass and religious holidays, many of the people of Spain have developed an ongoing, significant relationship with the Son of God. I spoke to very few individuals to find out how any one individual might articulate that relationship, but it was clear to me that the Christ held a very significant role in the culture.
How do they know him, then? How do any of us know Christ in present experience? Our knowledge with him grows as we more fully appreciate his character, his priorities, his passions, his service to humanity, and his ongoing role in the world. Though the crucifix is the primary way he is depicted in Spain, Christ is also portrayed in art, stained glass windows, and sculptures as the Judge of the world, the Savior of those who put their faith in him, and the ultimate Redeemer of the Universe. To know Christ is to appreciate what he has done for us in history, what he offers us now by way of forgiveness and promise for the future, and what he will bring to the world at the end of time. In a word, Christ symbolizes hope to believers, because he himself is Hope in so many ways.
In many towns, I would spend time in the church there, sitting at length in front of the crucifix. For one, it was a relief from the blistering mid-day, summer heat—the churches were often the only cool places in town. But even more, the visual depiction of Christ at the moment of his greatest personal sacrifice would lead me to the Son in a way that powerfully engaged my mind, my heart, and my spirit.
As I have written elsewhere, for me the crucifix communicates Christ’s sacrificial love more than anything else. The visual depiction of his suffering and death reminds me that it cost Jesus a great deal to fulfill his God-given purpose. By contemplating his sacrifice, made with real flesh and blood, I grasp better the extent of his love and devotion to God, whom he called Father. I can feel the intensity of his passion more fully. The implications of his commitment to a prophetic ministry in the face of hostile opposition, culminating in his dying out of his faithfulness to God, overwhelm me—yet draw me to him more strongly than ever.
Thus, by contemplating the crucifix, I believe I actually “know” Christ better. By reflecting on the many symbols and rituals found ubiquitously in Spain, I came to know Jesus more profoundly as Hope—not just for me personally, but for all who would put their faith in him; and for the world, which will one day be redeemed. I did not learn one thing about the Son of God that isn’t already explained in Scripture, but my experience of seeking out a greater understanding through experience has profoundly deepened my appreciation and love for him, all leading to a powerfully felt devotion to him.