The Electronic Jesus
Jesus teaches, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn. 8:32) Truth and freedom are inseparable. Jesus embodies the truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (Jn. 14:6). Our encounter with Jesus through our faith not only defines who we are as members of His Mystical Body but also directs our lives in hope and love.
Paradoxically, the firm certainties of the faith are as elusive as ever, with technology in part to blame. Over fifty years ago, philosopher Marshal McLuhan observed that the medium is the message. The form of a message determines how that message will be perceived. Hence the medium of movies, TV, live-streaming, and internet videos have innate, singular, and subliminal messages.
In recent decades, producers have provided several films depicting Jesus. The latest is “The Chosen.” Most reports indicate that the popular Christian television series provides compelling representations of the life of Jesus and His disciples. Here are a few superlatives: “‘The Chosen’ is a faith-based game-changer.” “This series is excellent, and I didn’t want it to end.” “Jesus is fully man. You want to have a beer with Him.”
The “virtual reality” of Jesus movies promise a personal encounter with Him, sometimes without faith. The impulse is not new. Throughout history, many pious souls sought extraordinary mystical experiences to confirm their faith. But St. Philip Neri warns: “He who desires ecstasies and visions does not know what he is desiring.” Do we know what we are desiring when we seek a virtual-reality encounter with Jesus?
Proponents of the electronic Jesus reply that great art also depicts its own virtual reality of Jesus. The history of art also has ambiguous religious implications. There is a legend that when Michelangelo finished his statue of Moses, it was so realistic he demanded, “Speak!”
The Mosaic Law commanded: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath.” (Ex. 20:4) But the Law also directed that two sculptured cherubim adorn the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus left no photographs except for the ambiguous authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (and the Sudarium). The iconoclasm crisis of the 7th and 8th centuries forced an important distinction. The Second Council of Nicaea allowed the veneration, but not the worship, of holy images.
The realism of great art as a static medium enhances the contemplation of mystery. But the dynamic action figure of the electronic Jesus doesn’t give much room for reflection. By overexposure (and overacting), we may even come to detest our electronic Jesus.
Advances in technology have many unexpected effects on the practice of the faith. The most celebrated music is only a click away; we no longer need to attend a symphony in our communities. Alas, the instant availability of music is arguably the most significant reason people don’t sing at Mass. Similarly, our fixation on an easily accessible electronic Jesus—and lust for the religious consolations—threatens to undermine authentic liturgical sensibilities (especially in children who have not yet fully assimilated the arduous demands of participation at Mass).
Marshall McLuhan, a Catholic convert, wrote to friends saying, “I am not a fan of [evolutionist Catholic theologian] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The idea that anything is better because it comes later is surely borrowed from pre-electronic technologies.” So it’s still worth examining the pre-electronic saving truths of Jesus.
After the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus directed Mary Magdalene not to cling to Him because He had not yet ascended to His Father. After the Ascension, He would only be accessible by faith. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit upon us on Pentecost (and our Confirmations), and fully incorporated us into His Mystical Body. Our encounter with Him is not the direct experience of a personal encounter, nor a virtual encounter with an electronic Jesus. It is a mysterious encounter through the eyes of faith that directs our lives to heavenly glory. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)
The purpose of every encounter with Jesus is transformative: Life in Christ, closer union with Him, and greater eagerness to become instruments of His holy will. The liturgy is communal and engages all the senses and all the faculties of the soul. At Mass, the assembly of priest and people finds a “personal relationship” with Jesus—often devoid of emotional consolation—in the obedient response to His words: “Do this in memory of me.”
We enter into the saving mysteries of the divine orchestra at the Mass. The medium is the message. The emphasis is on faith, and the ritual mediates our encounter with Jesus. During the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus is present in the priest who leads the celebration of Mass. Jesus is present in the readings from Scripture proclaimed at Mass. Jesus is present in the group of people who gather to offer the Mass, who are members of the Church, the Body of Christ, His continuing presence in the world. Preeminently, Jesus is present—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine.
During Mass, babies cry, restlessness, distractions, and yawning are common—especially during the sermon. The ritual of the Mass envisions these innumerable disturbances. There are no pause buttons. The rites of the Mass are relentless and continue despite the distractions. The Mass re-presents—in ritual and reality—the Cross and Resurrection. When we receive Holy Communion, we share the very life of Jesus Himself and open ourselves to living and loving as He did.
The Mass sends us forth as members of His Mystical Body in sacrificial Christian service. Our faith in the words of Jesus—and our sacramental union with Him—encourages us to “baptize all nations” in obedience to His commands. As visible members of His Body, when the world sees faithful and good Christians, they see and experience Jesus. We should be a more powerful representative of Christ in the world than an electronic Jesus.
The ritual of the Mass is pre-electronic—and ancient—with the purpose of worship and communion. During Mass, the Word becomes flesh, and we encounter Him. We know Him. He sends us forth in freedom. Beware of any subliminal detached-from-reality electronic interference in our relationship with Him.
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