Wax on, wax off

getty kouros

What are you lookin’ at? It’s cold out.

Naked, comfortably so with a slight smile on his face, feet astride, and rock-hard. Well, marble-hard. That’s your average kouros, a statue carved from marble in ancient Greece and Rome.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell told us the story of the Getty Museum’s infamous kouros. Typically, a kouros is excavated from an archaeological dig site and looks like it, too. Chipped, cracked, battered, discolored. I used to install flooring and I know if you use the wrong mortar installing marble tile, the whole thing is a discolored mess. The sands of time are not easy on delicately carved marble art. But this one was in perfect condition. Perfectly preserved. Perfectly excavated. But, likely, a perfect forgery. This lad’s smile was probably in knowing mockery as much as youthful bliss.

After it passed initial expert analysis, the Getty paid their ten million and displayed it proudly, amazed at their great find. But the opinions of the naysayers started to pile up. Eventually, they would sheepishly, but not completely, admit their exuberance was possibly misled. The posted details on the kouros now say this, “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery”.

If it’s a forgery, it’s an impressive one. But really, it just seems too good to be true, or authentic. Too perfect, too clean, too well-preserved. 

We’ve all known people like that. It just seems too good to be true. The house is clean, the car is not only clean but in perfect mechanical condition, the kids behave better, get better grades at school and even dress better. Their lawn is greener, their bills up to date, and investment accounts maturing nicely. We want to find the chips and the cracks, bring them down to our level, “Must be a modern forgery. It’s got to be.”

As a pastor, friend, brother, and human, I like to think I see past the perfectly polished marble surfaces, but I’m as gullible as anyone. And we all want to put up our best fronts. But the truth is, no matter how good things look, there’s usually a chink in the armour somewhere. I’ve discovered a few getting below the surface with people. Stuff like hidden depression; living in reaction to a dominant parent’s demands that could never be satisfied; always feeling inadequate and hoping to be perceived as on par, not really better than everyone; raging results-driven performance to be the best, or at least better than most, at any cost. The list goes on.

It seems like a particularly modern problem. One provoked by Facebook, Instagram, and all the other like media by offering a curated, edited, glimpse into our lives. But we’ve been keeping up with the Joneses long before there were Joneses to compare ourselves to. Like the Getty museum, we prize the appearance – even if it’s phony. In the opening pages of the bible, right after creation is finished and Adam and Eve’s honeymoon comes to a tragic end, Cain compares his work and worship to his brother, Abel’s. It makes him miserable. How can my little brother outperform me?  So, to overcome his jealous misery, the first sibling rivalry comes to violent end.

I don’t know many people who have resorted to murder to feel like they are projecting the best version of themselves. A few, maybe. But I know we all do it one way or another. I think our fear is this: if we can cloak over our misery or despair with the right image, fill in the cracks or create the perfect forgery, have just the right appearance, then maybe our misery will go away. But over and over it turns out to be a fool’s gamble. First Cain, then everyone ever after who has tried it has been disappointed by their artistic efforts, all in vain.

But there’s another way. Forgeries, like our misery and desire to appear perfect, aren’t a new problem.

In Greco-Roman times, the desire for the perfect aesthetic was as desired as it is today. The perfect body, and the perfect representation of it – that’s the creative drive behind a kouros. Buying and selling the kouroi was a thriving market. But then as now, things aged and broke down. Especially big, heavy things made of marble that would be moved and shipped as they were traded. As the statues aged and fractured, sellers would try to increase value by filling the cracks in with wax. Gloss over the imperfections and sell it as in perfect condition. But of course, in the hot Mediterranean climate the wax would eventually discolor and harden. Deception revealed. However, if a dealer had a real prize, a kouros or statue in perfect, preserved condition, they could sell it marked as ‘sine cera’ – Latin for ‘without wax’.

And then, a small group from long ago found a way to live and thrive without that deception. Not in marble carvings, but in their real lives. They found the other way. Jesus himself replaced Cain as a better older brother. He showed a way of acceptance and togetherness that changed the way of human relationships forever. It was said, because of his example, that even after he left and returned to heaven his followers ‘…continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…” (Acts 2:46).

Together, glad, and sincere – sine cera. No wax. No filling in the cracks. No posturing. No pretense about their worth or condition. Just as they are, not as they wish they were. And the result? Glad. Together.

Forming community around our best appearances is initially easy – come together with the people we want to be like, set apart by our lives’ perfections. But eventually it is found to be as hollow as the kouros is solid. 

Counter-intuitively, against every impulse inside us, real community – family – formed around a sincere acceptance leads to the real togetherness, and gladness, we all long for. All because the one who had nothing to cover up himself didn’t need to cover anything up in us to love us. Before him, all our filler melts away. We see and love each other just as we are. Of course this isn’t the easy way to build together, but it’s the only real way. No forgeries needed. 

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