Childhood Shorts – Chapter 39: The Nazarene
Childhood Shorts – Chapter 39: The Nazarene
January 10, 2020

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Latin class was a different paradigm. The subject was not religion and Mr. Tiernan was no priest. We also had no misconceptions that mastery of the language might answer any existential questions. Still, there was a peacefulness and a sense of faith that we derived from the predictability and intentionality of his lessons. They were stimulating and they brought our spirits to life even as they revived a language and a history that were supposed to be dead, as dead as dead as can be.

Boys with a sharp distaste for Latin found themselves fully immersed in the course’s textbooks as they attempted to extract understanding. Mr. Tiernan was a knowledgeable and vivacious evangelist of his subject. You would have believed him had he claimed to have been an eye witness as the chronicles of ancient Rome unfolded. A relational educator, he was personable and trustworthy. A teacher among us, not a minister over us, he chose to walk beside us daily in our journey of learning. In so doing, he made Latin and all of the ancient empire accessible to our minds. There were certainly aspects of studying Latin that were challenging, but we found fruit in persevering with Mr. Tiernan. Through him, many of us expanded our vocabulary and also developed a decent command of grammar. Our reward was the ability to decode and consume the richness of Latin for ourselves.

We found the language to be powerful in its poetry and prose. To be ripe with romance, equally in the modern sense of attraction and courtship, and in the historical sense of chivalric adventure. We discovered that certain European languages had deep roots in vulgar Latin (which was basically ‘hood’ Latin, the language of the streets, the stuff of common parlance). We gained insight into where the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English peoples had derived their compulsion for colonial empire-building. Among other things, we deduced why Latin was the language of jurisprudence in England and the countries of the Commonwealth.

Latin brought the world into clearer historical perspective. We were introduced to the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, and the mythology behind the founding of the great city. We heard of the seven kings of Rome, the last of which, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), by far had the best name. We learned about the consuls and the senate, and the differences between patricians (nobility) and plebeians (common people) in the days of the Republic.

We read about Hannibal and the Carthaginians, and the period of the Punic Wars. We were taught of Julius Caesar and the triumvirate of power he established with Pompey and Marcus Crassus. We soaked up the tale of his assassination at the hand of Brutus (the Younger) and the Liberatores on the Ides of March in 44BC. We devoured multiple texts by Cicero. We consumed like tabloids stories about Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra. We parceled through narratives related to Octavius (Augustus) and other emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Like Nerva and Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, as well as some of the others. We debated the crisis of the third century and examined the events that led to the rise of Diocletian, Constantine, and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. All due to Mr. Tiernan, Latin was for a number of us a six-year adventure of which we never grew weary.

An unexpected by-product of my enthusiasm for the language was the interest I began to cultivate for epic historical drama films. The genre had been alive since the silent movie era of the 1910s and 1920s. Greco-Roman and Biblical epics had flourished under the direction of Cecil B. De Mille during the mid-1930s, and by the 1950s and 1960s, outstanding films were being produced in the sub-category. Movies like Quo Vadis? (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960) set the thresholds for quality. However, the film that most deeply influenced me as a child was Ben-Hur (1959), which starred Charlton Heston.

The saga tells the story of a wealthy nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur, who lives with his mother, Miriam, and sister, Tirzah, in Jerusalem. A fallout with his childhood friend, now Roman garrison, Messala, results in his family being condemned to the dungeons and Judah to the galleys as a slave. On the way there, a parched and collapsed Judah is revived by a Nazarene who kneels by his side, gives him water, and restores his will to live.

The long-arc of the film narrates Judah’s quest to return home and portrays his hate-filled crusade to avenge his family. Along the way, he becomes a master charioteer and defeats Messala in an action-filled grudge-match of a chariot race. A dying Messala reveals that Miriam and Tirzah are still alive. But we find that their leprous condition has brought Tirzah to the brink of death. Esther, the woman Judah loves, convinces the family to seek out the Christ. They go to Jerusalem but arrive too late. They find the trial of Jesus already completed and the rabbi on his way to Calvary under the weight of the cross. As Jesus stumbles to the ground, Judah seizes the opportunity to offer him water. In the eyes of Christ, he recognizes the same Nazarene who had once revived and refreshed him.

In a later scene, we see rainwater carry the blood of the crucified Christ down the mountain from Calvary. Providentially, it finds the cave where Esther, Miriam, and Tirzah are sheltering. Amidst the thunder and lightning, the two leprous women are miraculously healed and Judah reunites with them at their home in Jerusalem. There, he tells Esther that he had heard Jesus, even while the savior was facing death, call out for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him. As Judah presses out the last drops of this final evocative dialogue, he lets Esther know that he also felt the voice of the Nazarene take the sword of vengeance out from his hand. His fight with Rome, he tells her, is over.

Ben-Hur was only a movie. I realized that. But I was struck by the way the story was told. Judah and his family are placed in the foreground of the narrative. However, Ben-Hur is not really about that household. It is instead a film about the gift of Jesus in the world and the work of his grace to restore and redeem. Judah and his family are the vessels through whom the power of Christ is made plain for us to see. Their intimate encounters with Jesus portray the Son of God as personal and trustworthy. Even as he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders to Calvary, he is mindful of the needs of the individuals he meets along the way. Thirst is quenched. Leprosy is healed. Lives are changed. A wall of hostility is destroyed, and peace descends like a dove on all four members in the household of Ben-Hur.

Beyond the main protagonists, the film depicts multitudes sitting at the feet of the messiah during the sermon on the mount. We see masses crying at the sight of him on the road to Golgotha. Crowds watching closely at the cross of his crucifixion. Crucially, the film, Ben-Hur, makes us realize that the many are individuals, and that Christ is savior of both people and persons. As surely, the followers, these several men and women, also had intimate testimonies of providential rendezvous with the King of the Jews. A conscientious and caring steward, Jesus is presented as a teacher among them and not a minister over them. He walks beside them in their daily journey, and he makes the mystery of his purpose accessible to their minds. He is shepherd, they are sheep, and he knows each one by name.

This notion, the idea of a tenderhearted and proximate God, fired up my soul as I watched the movie. Just as the Sunday school songs of my younger childhood had done. Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. The thought of it revived my thirst for the answers to several questions that yet lingered. Was there more to this religion than the superstitions which had left me cynical and alarmed? Were my heart and mind perhaps misunderstanding the true nature of God? Did autocrat and scaremonger not fit his character? Might the abbreviation, A.M.D.G. have depth beyond what I had imagined? Could the charge for us to do everything to the greater glory of God be more profound than I had understood? With all these queries swirling about my brain, I was once again urgent and anxious in my longing to find answers. 

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