“But mom! What’s JESUS!?”

Twelve years ago I enrolled my son into a lovely, if somewhat precious, alternative preschool in Southeast Portland. Twelve children and two wonderful teachers gathered some combination of two or three days each week from nine to noon to play outside (rain or shine), make art, make friends, play trains, eat snacks, and generally be about the business of transitioning from toddlerhood to kindergarten.

As the fall unfolded, the rains began, and we all looked toward the darker season, I learned that, as for the rest of us, December was going to be a busy month for preschoolers. They were promised a different special guest every week, giving presentations on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the winter solstice. I decided it might be fun for the kids to learn about Advent, the Christian tradition’s four-week countdown to Christmas. I would show them the Advent wreath, teach them how to make a simple one using greens from the school’s huge backyard, and talk about lighting the candles one by one as we wait for Jesus to be born, the same way many of the kids had waited for their baby brother or sister to be born.

Some humorous conversation ensued, in which the more experienced teacher had to interject the assurance that Jesus was not actually going to come to anyone’s house on Christmas Eve, at which point some of the kids began to focus on Santa, who most certainly was coming on Christmas Eve.

My three-year-old then made piped up to ask: “But mom: what’s Jesus?” I could’ve been mortified that the son of a church lady and aspiring clergy mom didn’t know who Jesus was, but really I thought it was hilarious. And a good question. How would you answer it?

What's your image of Jesus?

Quick: what’s the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the “J-word”? Chances are it’s the “Breck Jesus.” Jesus with the long blond hair, looking off into another world. For me, it’s different every day. Some days it’s the Che Guevara Jesus (bottom left in the picture). Some days it’s the National Geographic Jesus. Lots of times, the image of Jesus I most readily imagine is the icon from true old-time religion, called “Christ Pantocrator.”

Christ Pantocrator

Most of the people I know who are put off by Jesus don’t really know about the upstart guy that I try to follow, who was all about sharing food with friends and strangers, preaching about economic justice, and making food, health care, and hope available to everyone, regardless of their gender, socio-economic status, age, moral fiber, nationality, or religion. That’s what I think Jesus is.

And – bonus fun fact – there are tons of great stories about Jesus and food. What’s not to like?

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