Certain ages have established talking points. At 25, there’s the quarter-life crisis, which is false, but gets you thinking about the banal inexorability of aging. At 27, you talk about rock stars who died before they could get old and embarrassing, because you desperately don’t want to, either. (“Get old and embarrassing,” I mean. You’re definitely going to die.) At 33, my current age, there’s an even stranger hook. I don’t remember when I first heard the phrase, but now, whenever anyone asks me how old I am, I follow up my answer with, “It’s my Jesus Year.”
I started saying this basically because the gory death of the most celebrated person in the history of the Western world—which is thought to have happened in his 34th year—is a more enjoyable topic of conversation than the incremental, horrific, and unavoidable effects of time on my mind and body. At first, most of my conversations about the last days of Our Lord and Savior (well, not mine, but some people’s) didn’t go very far beyond some stupid riffing. But after awhile, I started to legitimately wonder if there was any worth in comparing myself to this particular religious figure who was at the height of his powers at my age. I was barely raised Catholic, and then only until shortly after my First Communion; now, I’m not even a casually spiritual person. But at this point in my life, I’m open to any help trying to deal with not being particularly young anymore, so long as it’s cheaper than out-of-network therapy (and with my insurance, that’s all therapy).
Online, the Jesus Year is usually interpreted as an Eat, Pray, Love-style self-help paradigm involving “rebirth,” “doing good,” “getting in touch with what matters,” and related platitudes. For those stuck between the quixotic idiocy of their 20s and the terrifying, baby-seasoned stasis of their 30s and beyond, 33-year-old Jesus is reimagined as a model for how to live life. There are blogs written during Jesus Years, high-concept memoirs on the subject, and lots of Christ-themed social-media birthday wishes. Despite the reductive virtues tied up in the idea—or because of them—there seems to be an ironic distance involved in embracing it; in a way, the Jesus Year is an opportunity to secularize Jesus, to sublimate his lurid end so that you can make bad crucifixion jokes at boring birthday parties for 33-year-olds. As I see it, in your Jesus Year, you’re not meant to literally come to Jesus. Instead, you’re meant to allow Jesus to inform your sharable, vaguely spiritual, not-quite-midlife crisis. You’re #blessed, not Blessed.
So although I was open to the personal-growth premise because I am desperate to mitigate oldness, I quickly realized that this wasn’t for me. It struck me as facile, overly ironic, and meme-ified. But the thing is, before the concept lodged itself in my brain, I hadn’t earnestly thought this hard about J.C. since back when I was trembling with fright during First Communion, maybe. This year, once I bothered to actually think about Jesus of Nazareth as much as a historical man as a Guy Who Glowed With God’s Glory On A Damn Mountain, I started to conceive of my own version of the Jesus Year. Because why not. I needed to codify a plan to deal with the process of painful life-decay, and I had to hang it on something.
Here are some tenets of my (admittedly cursory) program for making it through your 34th year—more or less inspired by a beloved ancient Jewish preacher and craftsman who died in a way that can aptly be called “gnarly.” They’re mostly about basic everyday things, rather than Big Things like Career, Family, and Death. I prefer to avoid thinking about those matters entirely.
Basically, there’s one version of me that has to die, so that another version can live. These versions are defined by the hair on my head and face. The first guy has most of the hair on the top of his head and a full, dark beard. The second guy’s head hair is on its way out, and his beard has developed an asymmetrical grayness—leaving him in a continual flux between denial and vain revulsion. This first guy has to be deaded so that the second guy can stop being an asshole to himself. Just as Man was reconciled with God in the wake of Jesus’ death, the balding grayface comes to terms with himself and the world as his younger counterpart fades into martyrdom.
Now, let’s move on to beard length rather than color (apparently, my Jesus Year is mostly about facial hair) and general style approach. Obviously Jesus’ appearance is well-trod territory, but if it can be utilized to justify a 33-year-old’s waning vanity, who cares.
What we’ve imagined J.C.’s look to be is a function of the ancient world in which he lived, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate its virtues. As I’ve gotten older, shaving and wearing uncomfortable but good-looking clothes don’t seem as necessary to me. I never shave cleanly anymore. Though my scruffiness is partially because I have the cheeks of a toddler and the brows of Peter Gallagher—if I’m clean-shaven, I look like a balding baby with Groucho Marx eyebrows—it’s also because I have little interest in scraping my face with sharp metal every day. Unless you have a square jaw to display at business meetings (or a spouse who doesn’t like to be facially abraded), a beard-trim every once and awhile is all you need to keep yourself looking relatively proper face-wise.
As for Jesus’ garb, he probably just wore clothes that were popping in Pax Romana. Still, they seem incredibly comfortable but also kinda distinguished, as opposed to, say, sweatpants and a flannel. Anyway, just the image of a beatific, self-possessed ancient guy with a healthy beard and robes billowing serenely in the desert wind—even if it’s a pop-cultural picture of Jesu-Christo—is enough to make me buy some fragrant beard oils and wearable sheets.
It’s debatable whether or not Jesus was actually a carpenter, but he is believed to have probably learned some kind of building-related trade from Joseph, his father (technically). J.C.’s supposed craftsmanship reminded me that it’s never too late to learn how to build some crap or regularly do some crap. With woodworking or something, you’re like, “Hey, I made this thing.” You have the thing, and you can show it to people, even if it’s a sucky stool. It’ll make you feel good.
Or, if you’re like me, and things like building/cooking/crafting seem insurmountably difficult, even just to start doing anything at all that involves the physical world every day is a great Jesus Year resolution. If I didn’t run around outside and do a prison-cell workout in my bedroom most days, I would not be able to sleep or be a functional human. My need for daily exercise is especially important now that my neuroses feel like they will only get worse; strenuous physical activity is the only reliable thing that always loosens their grip.
The only widely agreed-upon facts about Jesus—which of course presuppose the mostly accepted fact of historical Jesus’ existence—are that he was baptized by a guy named John and that he died. This aspect of him is another simple consequence of living a long-ass time ago: in the ancient world, even if you were thought of as a literal messiah, most people wouldn’t know anything about you except that another dude once dipped you in some water.
Nevertheless, like Socrates before him—and unlike Plato and the apostles—J.C. wasn’t concerned with writing down things about himself for everyone to read. Even if he did write about himself and we just don’t know it, he obviously wasn’t too concerned with preserving that work for posterity. It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: stay off Facebook, never tweet, and don’t write a memoir. (Unless you’re Thomas Pynchon; I’d read that.) Don’t leave anything behind besides the fact that you died and one other weird thing, like that time you won an obscure eating contest or something. This way, when someone in the future is constructing a dumb self-help trope based on one of us—Saint West probably—in order to help deal with the lousy-ass march of time, it requires some imagination.
As aforementioned, this is the main Jesus Year joke, and it’s true. Don’t. Seems awful.
Jake Tuck contributes to The New Yorker online, The Awl, and McSweeney’s. He tweets at @jaketuckbeast and lives in Brooklyn.