A few months ago, one of my relatives passed away. After I found out, I wept and spoke on the phone with other family members to mourn and plan travel arrangements for the funeral. Then I logged on to Twitter and sent a private message to someone I knew would understand: Jesus Christ, tweeting under the handle JesusOfNaz316.
It felt like bringing my sorrow directly to the Son of God. I quickly received a sympathetic reply. A few minutes later, the account tweeted the second half of the Hail Mary. The words “now and at the hour of our death” struck me in a way they never had before. And as I saw the likes and retweets add up, I realized that people who had never met my relative, who never knew he existed, were praying those words on his behalf.
Twitter is not where you expect to find spiritual comfort. Too often, it is the site for call-outs, pile-ons and racist trolling. But there are also pockets of compassion and inspiration. Accounts like JesusOfNaz316 are one pocket, sanctifying an often-profane virtual space. If good ministry means meeting people where they are, and if Twitter is where they are, then these accounts are showing how to shepherd an extremely-online flock.
Jesus himself was a master of pithy pronouncements; each of the Beatitudes comes in well under the 280-character limit on Twitter posts. True to form, JesusOfNaz316 mixes brief prayers with light humor and punchy political jeremiads. He tweets song lyrics, for example, Toto’s “Africa,” like Gospel verses: “Most assuredly I say unto thee: It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.”
Accounts like JesusOfNaz316 are one pocket, sanctifying an often-profane virtual space.
Followers who are awake in the middle of the night in North America might see him write, simply, “Peace be with you.” These posts invariably receive a dozen or more replies: “And also with you” or, less commonly, “And with your spirit.”
The account also gives the Son of Man a contemporary voice on the social and political issues that become trending topics on Twitter. “There seems to be a lot of confusion on a certain matter,” began one tweet in September, the day after a man murdered 22 people and wounded 24 others in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa. “Just so we’re clear on this... No one has a God-given right to own a gun. I hope that clears things up.” The tweet was popular with users, receiving more than 3,700 likes.
The user behind JesusOfNaz316—who spoke with me on the condition I keep the Messianic secret and not reveal his identity—opened the account in 2010 hoping to fill a gap on the site: religious humor that could still be profound. He had seen other Jesus-themed accounts, but none resonated with him. “I have a background and interest in this,” he recalled thinking to himself, “and I could have some fun representing what I see Jesus to be.”
“I really try to make this account as honest as I can with the way I see Scripture and religion and speak to what’s going on in our day,” he continued. “Jesus interacted with people of all sorts.”
The account does attract a few haters and trolls. The user said the criticism usually amounts to, “Who do you think you are, pretending you’re Jesus on the internet?” He gets accused of blasphemy. But, he adds, “all Christians are speaking for Jesus, all are interpreting him.”
JesusOfNaz316 is not alone in bringing serious spirituality to Twitter. Others, in fact, who take a similar approach have even larger audiences than his more than 22,000 followers.
Aaron Billard, a United Church of Canada minister in Moncton, New Brunswick, runs the Unvirtuous Abbey Twitter account, which has about 43,000 followers, and a Facebook page with 143,000 fans. The postings of the “digital monks” of the Abbey tilt more toward humor and pop culture than JesusOfNaz316’s. “Please Note,” Billard wrote in August, “After yesterday’s incident at our ecumenical service, handbells are no longer permitted in the abbey chapel.”
But he nevertheless receives direct messages from people thanking him for bringing them laughter and comfort in times of poor health or other challenges. Someone recently wrote to Billard saying the account brought her back to the church. He said in an interview in 2011 that the Abbey receives “incredibly sincere prayers from people who have nowhere else to pray.” When I asked him what about the account resonates with people, he responded with one word: “Irreverence.”
“I really try to make this account as honest as I can with the way I see Scripture and religion."
Like Billard, the Chicago-area rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg, who has almost 90,000 Twitter followers, is often called upon to provide pastoral care to people who only know her through her tweets about progressive politics and Midrash. “People are trying to make sense of their lives and to figure out how a spiritual practice, how God, how Judaism can help them to enrich their lives,” she told me in an email. “My responses online aren’t any different than in person, except that I don’t get to offer pastoral presence in quite the same way from behind a computer.”
Neither Billard nor Ruttenberg is speaking in God’s voice, though. Communicating with JesusOfNaz316 can feel, to me and other Twitter users, like a form of prayer. Robin Robinson said JesusOfNaz316 first reached out to her in response to a tweet in 2013 in which she expressed “being at my wit’s end” while caring for her parents. “He checked in on me to make sure I was O.K.,” Robinson said. The sense that she is talking with Jesus “makes the holy feel just a little more immanent,” she said.
There is cognitive dissonance in knowing there is an ordinary person behind the account, even while it feels natural to approach him as Jesus Christ. But it resolves into harmony because the user’s performance is so convincing. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, who has corresponded with JesusOfNaz316 for more than two years, said the account resonates with her because the user “has a wise and pastoral voice and a deep listening ear that can detect so much from the heart—even (especially) on Twitter, where that is difficult.”
The speed and informality of Twitter allow the user behind JesusOfNaz316 to fill small, empty spaces in people’s spiritual lives. “I think people want to hear from Jesus, and people are hearing Jesus” through this account, he said. “I’m really humbled by that.”
It is hard—in this secular age, if not always—to connect to the divine. It is hard to hear God’s voice. At least, I find it hard. One Catholic impulse is to mediate the connection through material reality. Digital reality can work, too. I am not saying Twitter is a sacrament. But JesusOfNaz316 makes it easier to hear God. When I see a tweet from him asking people to pray, I pray. Often, it is the only prayer I do all day.
JesusOfNaz316, Billard and Ruttenberg prove that Twitter spirituality is, simply put, spirituality. “It’s really powerful how deep these conversations are able to get online,” Ruttenberg said. “A lot happens in this space, and it should not be minimized or discounted as a place where learning, pastoral counseling, connection and growth can happen.”