Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic tirade following a DUI arrest has provided comedians with sufficient material to keep us laughing through Mel's next film in Aramaic. I was especially amused by the endpiece in Time Magazine, the August 14th issue, by Joel Stein. The premise of his satire is to take with mock-seriousness the oft-repeated certainty, in Iran and elsewhere, that the Jews are behind every bad thing that ever happened in history.
Like the crucifixion of Jesus. Stein winks at the Christ-killer accusation and suggests that the church can be grateful to the Jews for doing the deed to a man of thirty-three. He teases: "You'd think Catholics would thank us, since otherwise they'd have churches today full of statues of a bald old guy clutching his heart in hospice care, and who's showing up every Sunday for that?"
That started me thinking. What if...? What if Jesus died of old age and not on a cross? What if he preached into his seventies and then retired? Would he wash his dog in a basin like the fellow in the picture, as bald as any guy Stein imagines? Would he limp toward his final days instead of going out in a blaze of agonized glory? And, yes, Mr. Stein, would anybody think of him as God on earth?
Well, of course, there's the late George Burns, who, with the late John Denver, made a couple of popular movies on this premise, God as an old man. There's no relevance to the point of this essay, but I can't resist repeating a bit of dialogue from one of the films. Someone asks George if he has any regrets with his creation. He replies, "Yes, avocados; the pits are too big." But this ninety year old divinity owes more to jokers like Stein than to evangelists like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Then there's Polycarp. Dear old Bishop Polycarp, whose name isn't exactly a byword in Christendom. I have yet to hear of any church named Polycarp. St. Melchizedek, yes; St. Polycarp, no. He died on a cross at a ripe age, in his eighties, I seem to recall from a class in church history at seminary. Every confirmand learns about youthful St. Stephen, stoned to death while Saul-Paul holds the perpetrators' overcoats. But Polycarp? A bald old guy on a cross, a year or so, if not months, away from dying in his sleep? No way.
What is is. What was was. We could play the "what if" game instead of Scrabble for a long, long time, and rearrange history to suit our preferences. Bend it this way or that, the fact remains Jesus was a young man in his early thirties when he carried that cross up Calvary's killing hill. Ephesians 1:10 has an arresting way of explaining the crucifixion (and a lot of other things), that "with all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time...". Providence, the theological thought, not the city (which, thank you, Roger Williams, got its name from the thought), that God knows what God is doing with us and for us.
Reading what is the will of God is ticklish business, prone to all kinds of error. Just ask Pat Robertson. But I will nonetheless venture to suggest that Jesus died on the cusp of his maturity because God in highest heaven knew that fickle creatures like us would not rally round someone at the end of their days on earth, only someone in the middle of them. Someone full of life. Someone with everything to lose. Someone who doesn't while away his days washing bichon frieses in a galvanized tub. Someone youthful enough to appeal to teenagers with their lives ahead of them and their passions strong. Someone with hair.
Sorry, Joel, the crucifixion was heaven's design, not a Jewish conspiracy. But maybe you can write another endpiece this December, about Mary. You can blame the Jews for filling up all the rooms at the inn in Bethlehem and forcing her to deliver Jesus in a barn, thereby gifting the church with a very, very appealing and marketable story calculated to win young minds and hearts everywhere... and fill the sanctuaries on Christmas Eve.