"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean," wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne. "The world has grown grey with thy breath." Where, I wonder, did the Victorian poet get this picture of a Christ who draws the color out of life? Then it occurs to me: from Christians. He drew the image from observing people like me.

Those who follow Jesus have done a good deal to propagate an image of Christ as the cosmic killjoy, the divine naysayer, who never met a delight he could not dull or a dream he could not puncture. Puritanism, the 20th-century writer H. L. Mencken famously quipped, is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Puritans or not, Christians have done their part to vindicate his statement.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth, the Gospel of Luke says, he was handed the scroll of the Book of Isaiah. Unrolling it, he found the place where Isaiah looked to the Messiah, whose coming would herald a joyful deliverance:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (4:18–19).

Believers, though, sometimes behave as though Jesus made an altogether different announcement, one chiefly in praise of getting up early and working hard: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to see that everyone lives by the rules. He has sent me to make sure people settle down and lead respectable lives, to work more and play less, to grow up."

I stand as guilty of this as any Christian I know. I put faith in getting up for work, paying the bills on time, and having my daughter in bed at a decent hour on school nights. I think of myself sometimes as an ox in a furrow, eyes looking straight to the end of the row, feet trudging step by step toward the goal. I imagine this is what it means to follow Christ each day.

But what does this gray Christ have to do with the Jesus of the New Testament? That Jesus begins his ministry with a marriage celebration and eats regularly with "sinners." He ends a long day of teaching not with a tedious final exam but with a miraculous dinner with his disciples. He spoils more than one funeral dirge by summoning the departed back to life. Unlike his prophetic forerunner, John the Baptist, Jesus came "eating and drinking" so much that his critics called him a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:19). There is nothing gray about his breath. When Jesus is present, the blind see, the lepers are cleansed, and the lame leap for joy. He is Christ in full color.

Think also of the images and stories Jesus used to describe the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like finding buried treasure. It is like coming to work at 4 p.m. and getting paid for the whole day. It is like the father who throws a fabulous homecoming party for the ne'er-do-well son who stumbles home repentant. It is like the woman who misplaces a coin and, after finding it, throws a party to celebrate.

In Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven, the refugee from Christ fears what he will have to give up if he surrenders:

For, though I knew His love Who


Yet was I sore adread

Lest, having Him, I must have naught


There is some truth here, as we are indeed called to deny ourselves. Loss, though, does not have the last word. When Peter announces soberly that he and the other disciples have "left all we had" to follow Christ, Jesus insists that a proper accounting includes this: "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:28–30). Jesus promised his followers life to the full, not life that's nine-tenths empty (John 10:10).

Invaded by Joy

In his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner said the gospel is not just good news but knock-your-­socks-­off, couldn't­have-­dreamed-­it-­up-­in­-a-­thousand­-years news. And so, Buechner says, "the high comedy of Christ" brings tears of joy and laughter, "tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness."

Buechner also calls the gospel a fairy tale, where the evil dragon is slain and the princess finds her prince. But it is a fairy tale that is true, that finds its home here and now, in this broken and confused and harried world—that is to say, in my world. In fairy tales, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, we catch "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." In Christ, the Joy beyond the walls of the world clambers into the world—into my world—through a stable in Bethlehem.

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I'm trying to follow the real Jesus, the Jesus in color rather than the gray Christ. I still get my daughter to bed at a decent hour on school nights and pay the bills on time. But I know that Joy beyond the walls of the world has invaded my sometimes mundane life, and made its disappointments small in the bright light of God's presence and promises. I am living, after all, in the year of his favor.

"Joy," C. S. Lewis once said, "is the serious business of heaven." And joy is the
serious business of all those who worship the risen Christ, the Lord of a thousand colors.

Timothy L. Hall is president of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.

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