By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
When we follow the Christian liturgical calendar, celebrating the birth of Jesus in December, it is only a few scant weeks until February when we begin to prepare to commemorate the crucifixion and the passion of Christ. The Lenten season comes so quickly after the Advent season that it affects how we understand who Jesus is. In our theological imagination, Jesus is born just to die. We have a fixed image of the nativity, the cradled hope of humanity in a manger. And then we replace that image, very quickly, with the crucified body of Christ on the cross. But if we are to truly understand who Jesus is, and what it means to be a follower of the man whom James Baldwin calls a “disreputable sun-baked Hebrew,” then we must fix our attention on the many years after Jesus’ birth and before his death. Because before he died, he lived.
Before he died, he lived. Jesus was Mary’s beloved son; a son who loved his mother so much that he began his public ministry at her prompting, turning water into wine at her insistence.
Before he died, he lived. Jesus nursed at his mother’s breast and learned at his earthly parents’ feet. Like all children, he played, laughed, loved, and grew in stature and maturity.
Before he died, he lived. Jesus knew every temptation common to man. He wept, he grieved, he got angry, and he lived in the fullness of his humanity. He walked dusty roads and knew weariness and hunger, homelessness and rejection.
Before he died, he lived. Jesus ate and fellowshipped with his closest companions. He loved others deeply and was deeply loved in return. Before he was Savior, he was friend and confidant.
Before he died, he lived. Jesus, facing execution as a political criminal, took time while on the cross to make provision for his mother and those he loved. He cared for the material and spiritual needs of those he held dear.
We need to know this Jesus who lived and loved, this Jesus who walked the earth fully human, but no less divine. We diminish the witness of decades spent working for justice and setting the captives free if we don’t take seriously the living, loving Jesus. We need the Jesus who loved the unlovable and forgave the unforgiveable. We need the Jesus who touched the untouchable and healed the incurable. We need a Jesus who lived before he died, so that our Christian witness is one of life and the fullness thereof, not simply one of suffering and bearing the cross. We need to know the Jesus who lived, so we can truly understand the importance of the One whom Roman authorities put to death.
Living in a moment in which so many innocent black and brown bodies suffer public and tortuous deaths, we need the reminder that these men and women, these boys and girls, lived and were loved before they became hashtags. They were fully human and fully present – before being executed by powers and principalities. And it is only by taking seriously their lives, and the potential of who they could have been, that we can then understand the utter devastation of their deaths.
Before Trayvon Martin died at 17 years old, he lived. Before he was cut down by a vigilante’s bullet, he was a high school junior, son, brother, and beloved child of God.
Before Sandra Bland died at 28 years old, she lived. Before her lonely death in a Texas jail cell, she was a sister, daughter, friend, volunteer, and beloved child of God.
Before Michael Brown died at 18 years old, he lived. Before his body lay on that hot Missouri pavement for hours, he was friend, brother, son, and beloved child of God.
Before Renisha McBride died at 19 years old, she lived. Before her death by a bullet at a stranger’s front door, she was a daughter, sister, niece, and beloved child of God.
Before Tamir Rice died at 12 years old, he lived. Before he was shot, two seconds after being encountered while playing in the park, he was an artist, basketball player, son, brother, and beloved child of God.
This Lenten season, I am reflecting on the many ways black and brown people suffer and die, both physical deaths and spiritual deaths by a thousand indignities. But, we still manage to live, love, and be loved – even in a world that has an almost pornographic obsession with our deaths. I am a follower of Jesus not only because of the work of the Cross, but also because of the life he lived before the Cross. May we spend our lives doing what Jesus modeled for us in life: fighting the forces that diminish, dehumanize, and destroy the least and the lost.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.