I used to work at a large university, and to reach my office I had to walk through a hallway filled with imposing portraits of the school’s deans. Clutching my coffee, I’d look up, daunted by the dignified, cloaked figures staring down at me as I scurried to my desk. One professor held her little poodle on her lap, and even the dog looked regal (though still somewhat yappy).
I sometimes wondered how I’d want to look in the unlikely event my portrait were ever painted. Would I smile? Faintly, perhaps, like Mona Lisa. What would I wear? And could I ever convince my hair to cooperate?
From the monarch to the man on the street, we want to be remembered as beautiful, intelligent, impressive. Museums would certainly be sparser without our quest for the perfect picture. Nowadays, we’re more likely to use pixels rather than brush strokes, but we still strive for flawless wedding pictures, savvy corporate headshots, endearing school portraits. Social media has spawned the relentless “selfie,” in which even Pope Francis makes regular cameos.
Interestingly, Jesus seemed quite unconcerned about leaving behind an accurate picture of his physical appearance while on earth. He never sat for a portrait. And none of the Gospel writers tell us what he looked like. Was he tall or short? Long-haired? Dark-eyed? Fair? We don’t know.
This lack of detail isn’t surprising when you consider that Scripture as a whole provides few descriptions of its many characters. Joseph the patriarch and David would have been camera-ready (Genesis 39:6, 1 Samuel 16:12). And David’s son Absalom was simply “flawless,” with hair so thick that he had to shave it off every year because it became too heavy for him (2 Samuel 14:25-26). But most Biblical figures are unsketched in Scripture, and we can only imagine their appearance.
We do know that Jesus was transfigured into a glory that stupefied Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36). In Revelation, John sees his beloved Lord as so transcendent that this apostle who “leaned against Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper (John 13:25) now faints at the sight of him (Revelation 1:9-20).
Aside from those passages, we have no Scriptural specifics with which to visualize Christ. Yet we can still trace the lines of his face if we realize that Jesus chose to leave a radical portrait, one that would stun even the most avant-garde artist in its boldness.
Isaiah 53:1-12 offers a brutal yet triumphant image of Christ as the suffering servant , a man possessing “no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (v.2). Beaten and pierced, he is “one of those from whom men hide their faces” (v.3).
From historical records, we know that crucifixion was so heinous that the Roman Empire, which perfected this manner of execution, reserved it for slaves and non-citizens. The flogged, naked victim was left to die by asphyxiation, heart failure, shock, or some combination thereof. Surely no one would wish to be remembered this way, at a moment of utter humiliation and agony.
But through his horrific death, Jesus “bore the punishment that makes us whole” (v.5), and for bearing our guilt, “he shall divide the spoils with the mighty” (v.12), having been raised from the dead. Even resurrected, Christ forever bears in his glorified body the marks of his passion, before which Thomas exclaimed in belief (John 21:24-29).
In the Eucharist, Christ draws another mystifying self-portrait. He declares the bread and wine to be his very body and blood. Pope Paul VI, conceding that the Eucharist is “hard to understand,” explained in an address in 1970 that “it is as if [Jesus] said: ‘Look at me in this way, get to know me like this…. This is how I am among you now.” In essence, the pontiff continues, “this is the sacramental garb which at the same time hides and reveals Jesus.”
Many of Christ’s disciples found it too hard to accept Jesus as the “living bread from heaven” (John 6:51). But through faith we grasp that the Eucharist unites believers in the mystical body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). As St. Paul reminds the baptized, “you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). In this sense, Jesus reveals his likeness as a kind of photo mosaic, an image made out of thousands of smaller images. When we step back, we see a beautiful whole; and when we lean in, we see each other.
And when we lean in closer, we see the clearest lines in our savior’s face — the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the oppressed, the sick. These are the ones in whom Mother Teresa, referencing Matthew 25:31-46, found “Jesus in his most distressing disguise.”
So we need not mourn the lack of an “accurate” portrait of Jesus. He himself has drawn a magnificent one by which we can remember (and respond to) him.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.