Christians around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Some do so on December 25 and others on January 7, depending on what church or liturgical calendar they follow.
Given the overwhelming hegemony of Western Christianity in Europe, the Americas, Australia and throughout the colonised world where European Christianity has been the vehicle of colonisation, the fact of celebrating the birthday of Jesus early in January has become something of an afterthought.
But why? The difference is not just liturgical, canonical or doctrinal. It is also cultural, historical and the prelude of decolonising Christ and Christianity.
Eurocentric hegemony over Christian practices and perceptions of its central figure, Jesus Christ, have systematically sidelined various other rites and conceptualisations of his figure. Shifting the point of emphasis from one branch of Christianity to another – or any other religion – points to the multiplicity of ways in which a religious figure such as Jesus has been celebrated.
As millions of Eastern Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, it is an opportune time to revisit how he has been imagined throughout time and across the world.
For those familiar with Jaroslav Pelikan’s magnificent book Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (1999), this is not unusual for a different cultural milieu giving birth to a different figure of Christ.
In his study, we encounter a floating figure of Jesus which moves from a Jewish Rabbi in the first century after his birth, to “the Light of Gentiles”, and “the King of Kings” during the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, “the Cosmic Christ” in the aftermath of encounter with Platonism, “the Son of Man” in St Augustine’s work in the fifth century, and “the Prince of Peace” during the Reformation in 16th-century Western Europe.
In more recent times, the figure of Jesus Christ has been used to bring Christianity closer to the dispossessed masses and to address their urgent political needs. In the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, for example, the so-called liberation theology emerged in Latin America, which re-emphasised Jesus’s image as a revolutionary figure, fighting for social justice and rights for the poor and marginalised.
Within the context of right-wing dictatorships, unhinged capitalism and growing repression and exploitation, liberation theologians combined elements of Marxism with basic precepts of Christianity, thus rebelling against the politically and socially conservative Catholic Church.
They joined forces with a variety of political movements, including those for indigenous and labour rights. The figure of Jesus as a revolutionary re-invigorated faith in local communities and re-organised religious practices from top-down to bottom-up.
Issa ibn Maryam
Despite the political hegemony of Western Christianity, throughout the world various cultures have also embraced Jesus Christ and imagined him in different ways.
In Islam, the figures of Christ and his mother Mary appear endearingly in the Quran, where a whole chapter is named after her. But their presence in the Islamic culture goes beyond their mention in the Quran.
They figure prominently in Islamic literature (in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc), as Palestinian historian Tarif al-Khalidi demonstrated in his seminal work The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (2001). Khalidi brought to the English-speaking world a wealth of information about the centrality of the figure of Christ in Muslim literary and poetic imagination, as well as in Islamic doctrinal debates and disputations.
Khalidi’s emphasis was the distinction between the Quranic Jesus and the Jesus that emerged in particular in the mystical tradition of Islam as a patron prophet of the ascetics. That distinction marks the space between the Quranic revelation and the long history of various peoples historically cultivating love and affection for a prophet they considered their own.
As Khalidi’s text shows the Muslim Christ is a central figure in a multiplicity of hermeneutic contexts different from the Christian context. Here Jesus becomes a figure of mystical reunion with divinity quite different from a theological premise of the Trinity.
In a beautiful Qasideh of the Persian poet and philosopher Naser Khosrow (1004-1088) we read:
When you have sword in your hand you should not murder people,
God will never forget evil deed
Jesus once saw a person murdered on his path
He wondered and he asked:
Whom did you kill so that you were killed in return?
And who shall kill the man who thus murdered thee?
Don’t harass people tapping on their door with your finger,
So no one would bother you banging on your door with his fist!
Such references to Jesus Christ abound in Muslim sources in multiple languages. To poets and philosophers like Naser Khosrow, mystics like Rumi and Ibn Arabi, Christ was not an alien figure. He was one of their own.
The rise of the figure of Christ in the immediate historical vicinity of millions of Arab and Iranian Christians of various denominations, poses the inevitable question of the interface between the figure of Christ in the Gospels and in Islamic sources, as what some have called “the Fifth Gospel” – for if we collect all the references to Christ in poetic, literary, mystical and philosophical Islamic contexts, we will have a solidly Islamic Jesus.
Jesus of the East
Fascination with the life of Jesus Christ has not been confined to Europe and its immediate neighbourhood, the “Middle East”. In his book Jesus in Asia, theologian R S Sugirtharajah shows how the figure of Jesus was liberated from its Eurocentric confinements and assumed global dimension in various works.
In seventh-century China, with the permission of Emperor Taizong, missionaries of the Church of the East and local converts produced various texts on Jesus, positioning him within the Chinese context. Almost 1,000 years later, under the patronage of Moghul ruler Akbar, a Jesuit monk authored a distinct volume on the life of Jesus, trying to address various issues in 17th-century India and theological concerns of the local population.
Apart from these state-sponsored texts, which allowed Christian foreigners to openly engage in debate with local religions, various other works were produced in Asia in which Jesus occupied a central place, often in defiance of both official power and the colonial impositions of Western missionaries.
Consider the use the image of Jesus during the Chinese Taiping revolution, led by Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese convert to Christianity who wanted to impose a new theocratic rule in China in the mid-19th century; the centrality of his suffering and poverty in the Korean Minjung movement for democratisation and social justice in the 1970s and 1980s; or the reconstruction of his life and teachings, and their infusion with the Hindu tradition within the context of the Indian anticolonial struggle.
Indeed, the figure of Jesus Christ has come to represent many different visions and served various functions throughout time and across geography. As we mark the 2020th anniversary of his birth, amid global turmoil, tension and uncertainty, perhaps the multiplicity of meanings he has embodied should have us rethink dominant narratives among Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other believers worldwide.
The question we face today is much more than remembering how historically we have loved and honoured Jesus, but whether his figure has a contemporary significance for us in our troubled day and age and if we can imagine a future through his life and example?
What would that Jesus look like, be like, feel like, when the reign of sectarian fanaticism, imperial hubris and colonial conquest has finally exhausted itself and the need for truth and reconciliation will commence from his birthplace in Palestine and spread around the world?