In 1930, Elias Garcia Martinez, a professor at the School of Art in Zaragoza, spent his holidays painting a fresco for the church in north-eastern Spain. His portrait of Jesus was typical of the style common in the day. He called his work “Ecce Homo” from the Latin translation of John 19:5, “Behold the man!”
His portrait was unremarkable. It only became famous in August of 2012 when Cecilia Gimenez painted over the fresco in an attempt to restore the art. Most people consider it to be a total failure. A BBC Europe journalist wrote that her “restoration” looked more like “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic” than the savior of the world. So bad was the painting that it has even been nick-named “Ecce Mono” – a Latin/Spanish combination that means “Behold the Monkey!”
I’m not writing to criticize Gimenez and her desire to restore a fading old work of art. If I had tried to restore the piece, it wouldn’t have fared any better. (Well, maybe I would have been smart enough not to try, but that’s a different post!)
The botched restoration attempt makes a pretty good parable for the image that most modern readers have of Jesus.
Most people in America recognize Jesus by name. They are familiar with the idea that he is the “founder” of Christianity. To most, he’s a good teacher, a religious guru, and a wise man. But the image that most people have of Jesus is as far removed from the beautiful reality as the restoration is from the original.
We miss the compassion that was extended to the most marginalized of society. We miss the indignation aimed at those who abused their spiritual authority. We miss the audacity that caused crowds to call for his death and his coronation nearly simultaneously.
It is our goal as we begin this study to act like Secret Service agents-in-training. When cadets enter training to prepare for work in the anti-counterfeiting division, rather than focusing on all of the myriad ways of making funny money, their trainers immerse them in the original, the real deal. They study genuine currency. The more familiar that they become with the real thing, the more quickly anything phony pops out as a fraud.
The same thing happens when we learn about Jesus. The more clearly we study the original Jesus, the historical man of Galilee, the more real he becomes, and the easier it is for us to discard any fake images of the man.