When I was in the eighth grade, my mother and I travelled back to Atlanta during spring break. I had been born there, but my family had moved to Fairhope seven years earlier. We still had some friends in Atlanta from my early childhood, so we took a short visit to see them. Although it was my spring break, our host’s daughter was still in school, and, being an eighth grader, I wasn’t that interested in spending spring break by myself while my mother and her friend did whatever it is that the mothers of eighth graders do during school hours. So I went to school.
It must have been an early spring break for me that year because I distinctly remember sitting with my friend in her school library listening to a presentation on black history. The room was racially mixed—roughly half black and half white. I remember hearing a passionate presentation about black history, beginning with its roots in northern Africa. With great passion and fervor, the guest lecturers were driving home the point that all human history can trace its roots to African history when a hand shot up. A student asked, “What color was Jesus?” And the solemn reply was immediate: “Jesus Christ was a black man.”
I wanted to raise my hand and say, “But Jesus was Jewish,” but that would have been missing the point. It had never occurred to me to think of Jesus as a black man. Up until that point, even though I knew he was Jewish and probably looked like a Palestinian, in my mind he had always looked like me—white with relatively fair features, perhaps even blue eyes. But that’s not who Jesus was. It didn’t matter what Jesus looked like. It didn’t even matter what his ancestry was. Jesus was a black man.
Now I wish I could go back and say, “Yes, Jesus was a black man, but that’s a far bigger statement than a simple claim of racial heritage.” We worship a God who became man, but the Incarnation can’t be limited to a particular ancestry (Jewish) or a skin tone (olive) or hair color (black) or accent (countrified Aramaic).
In today’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-26), Jesus’ disciples are approached by some Greeks—some gentiles—who want to know Jesus. In today’s world, on this side of the cross and empty tomb, that doesn’t matter. In Jesus there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, rich nor poor, black nor white. But in this story, in this moment before the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, race and religion were locked in a fixed framework. These Greeks could never be fully Jewish. Even though they had come to Jerusalem for the festival as faithful worshippers, they would always be on the outside looking in. Yet, when Jesus dies and is buried in the ground, he does so in order to bear much fruit.
Part of the fruitfulness of Jesus’ death is to eliminate the particularities of race and religion. We now live in a world in which Greeks can come to Jesus without needing to navigate the world of political and religious correctness. Before the triduum, that was impossible. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, he was just a Palestinian Jew, faithful to his ancestry. Afterwards, he is everything to everyone, and through him we are reconciled—not only to God but to each other.