My Complicated Relationship with Jesus

My Complicated Relationship with Jesus

“Oh, you have the same birthday as Jesus,” was a sentence I heard over and over again in my birth country of Iceland from the time I can remember.

When I told someone my birthday as a child, when I was asked for identification as an adult, or when people found out some other way, I always got the same response.

Complete strangers called me ‘Baby Jesus’ or ‘Christmas Baby’ well into my thirties.

My actual birth date is the 24th of December. That is when Icelanders (and many other Europeans) celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Here in the USA, where I now live and work, I have never gotten the above-mentioned response from a stranger, probably because most people celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December.

Whether Jesus was born on the 24th, the 25th, or sometime in the spring, doesn’t really matter in this context. What matters is the psychological conditioning I experienced as a child and well into my adult years because of this repeated message that was echoed by people around me.

To everyone I met, I was special because they believed that I had the same birthday as Jesus, and, as a result of that, I felt a special kinship with the carpenter from Nazareth.

Bible Stories and Confirmation

In Iceland, there is no separation between church and state.

Growing up, I attended Christian studies in school, where I learned about the Bible—especially the stories of Jesus’s life (spelled Jesú in Icelandic) and the importance of the parables he told—but my family never attended church on a regular basis, probably because church was mostly a dry and lifeless government institution in Iceland (at that time; I attended church there last year and it had changed for the better).

Christmas was always a wonderful time at our house, a whole month of celebration, with observations of many traditions, and, during Easter, I remember having many talks about the life and death of Jesus with my father.

When it came time for the Christian ceremony of confirmation at the age of fourteen, I followed the herd. Everyone was getting confirmed whether they were believers or not; both as a coming of age ceremony and as a way to get a boatload of presents (try talking a teenager out of that deal on the technicality of being a non-believer).

In preparation, we spent a whole year learning passages by heart, reading the Bible with an emphasis on the New Testament, and going to Bible studies every week.

I guess I was an agnostic at that time, but I was fine with going through the process. I remember that many of the girls in my class dismissed the whole thing (meaning the story of Jesus) as a ‘nice fairytale’—their words, not mine.

Crying Over Superstar

In my late teens and early twenties, I had little time for religion, but my connection to the figure of Jesus remained strong. I always thought affectionately of him during Christmas time and was fond of our special bond (even if I knew by then that the date of his birth probably wasn’t historically accurate).

At Easter time, it became a ritual of mine to listen repeatedly to the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I remember sitting alone in my father’s sauna in my mid-twenties, listening to Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say) and crying.

Tears have flowed during similar listening sessions many times since. The sense of anguish portrayed in that song over the difficult decision to accept the fate of death rather than flee still touches my soul.

Misquoting Jesus

Although my church attendance was lacking, my bond to Jesus remained strong; even while I explored the paths of Yoga and Vedanta and felt more in common with the experiential approach of many New Age groups than with traditional church services in Iceland.

However far away from me the church was, I still wanted the figure of Jesus Christ to remain in my life.

In my late twenties and well into my thirties, I watched every movie made about Jesus and read many books about his life.

When I came across a book titled Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, it was an eye-opening read. He showed that instead of being the word of God, as many proclaim, the original Bible manuscripts are copies of copies of copies of copies, and, that there are some discrepancies between those copies, meaning that, however academic the process is, some passages in the Bible are best-guess estimates.

This did not break my bubble. I was never taught that the Bible was the literal word of God. What reading Ehrman’s book did for me was to put the Bible into context and remind me that following the spirit of the teachings of Jesus was more important than to obsess over every word.

Jesus in Texas

When I moved to Texas in 2010, I was astounded to find how differently Christianity was practiced there. Calling oneself a Christian seemed more to be about cultural and political identification than a part of a spiritual pursuit. I saw people wear Christian symbols on their sleeves while breaking many of core teachings of Jesus, for example, praying in public, throwing stones from glasshouses, refusing to turn the other cheek, ill treatment of the poor and sick, and the list went on.

As a new US Citizen, I still maintained my love for the core teachings of Jesus, especially the Golden Rule, but I found it increasingly hard to identify with those who veiled Christianity in white-nationalism, American exceptionalism, and unforgiving social politics. In that social environment, I hid my Christian identity rather than champion it. What was (and still is) being done in the name of Jesus often made me feel ashamed.

From Jesus to Yeshu

During my studies to become an Interfaith Minister, I started reading the New Testament again for personal fulfillment.

When I put aside the social and cultural differences between Iceland and Texas and focused solely on the message, it reignited my appreciation for the teachings that have informed much of my life. Once again, I found myself researching the life and work of Jesus.

One of the sermons I watched, during that period, pointed out a disparity that I seldom thought about; the portrayal of Jesus as a white man, which, historically, he was not. I realized how that portrayal had played into everything from politics to stature and how praying to a white Jesus automatically placed people of color in a difficult situation, to say the least.

From that point on, I decided to use his Aramaic name and refer to Jesus as Yeshu, to remind myself of his Middle-Eastern origin and the fact that he was not white.

Where I Stand Today

I am turning forty-five years old on the 24th of December this year. Even though I know that he was most likely born in the spring, that Christmas is in effect an assimilated pagan festival (Saturnalia or Yuletide; take your pick), and that the Bible is not the literal transcript of all his teachings, I still feel a strong connection to Yeshu Christ.

Furthermore, even if the New Testament is part history and part myth, the teachings of Yeshu are still relevant to my life. My long and complicated relationship with him is far from being over and I can see his teachings play an ever-increasing role in my ministry in the years to come.

I wish you happy holidays, a Merry Christmas, or, as we say in Iceland, “Gleðileg jól.”

Gudjon Bergmann
Author & Interfaith Minister

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