Why James Martin’s Middle East Pilgrimage Matters


I'm typing these words from Beirut, Lebanon after spending the day at refugee tent settlements about 10 minutes from the Syrian border. My trip has me pondering the importance of the Middle East for my faith and its history. The Rev. James Martin knows how I feel. A Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America magazine, Martin also recently visited this region, which he documents in a fascinating new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Martin brings his journey through the Holy Land to life by moving beyond mere to stories to telling us what it taught him about a Jesus who can often seem distant. Here, we discuss what he learned about Christ while traveling through the cradle of Christianity.

RNS: You begin the story of your trek through the Holy Land to rediscover Jesus with the classic question Christ asked his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" How do you answer that question?

JM: For me, Jesus is everything! But to answer more directly, Jesus is the fully human, fully divine Son of God. That's why one of the goals of the book is to underline the importance of both his humanity and divinity. The same person who walked the dusty landscape of first-century Palestine also rose from the dead. To put it in more theological terms, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. Otherwise, the Resurrection is meaningless.

Moreover, Jesus is always fully human and fully divine. Whenever I give talks on the book, I like to invite people to think of him as human at times when he “seems” more divine, and divine when he “seems” more human. So I say: He’s divine when he’s sawing a piece of wood in the carpentry workshop. And he’s human when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead. That usually shakes people up!

RNS: You say, "Jesus' humanity is a stumbling block for many people, including a few Christians." What do you mean?

JM: Many of us have a hard time with a Jesus who shows what you might call “difficult” emotions, especially anger and frustration. One example is his interaction with the “Syrophoenician woman,” who in the Gospel of Mark asks Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus responds by saying something that New Testament scholars note was “highly insulting” at the time: “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In my book, I offer explanations of why he might have been harsh—he was testing her faith, or he initially wasn’t expecting to deal with someone who wasn’t Jewish, and so on.

Any way you look at it, it’s a sharp remark, at odds with the Jesus most of us expect to meet in the Gospels. So we have to grapple with his real humanity, as it is presented in the Gospels. Otherwise we’re missing an important side of him.

RNS: You note that there are some variations in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth. What do you make of this?