WHAT DID JESUS LOOK LIKE?
Last night Art and I were watching CNN, and they showed part of a documentary about Jesus. The thrust of this particular piece was that people were curious about Jesus’ physical appearance. They showed many renderings of Jesus throughout many different cultures. What was striking, and this was noted, was that every ethnicity thought of Jesus as being one of their own. Native Americans portrayed him as a Native American. Africans portrayed him as an African, and so on. Of course, we as European Americans are most familiar with the blue-eyed, fair-complexioned image, which runs throughout Western culture for the past two thousand years.
Then they showed a “scientific” rendering. They had extrapolated from an ancient skull what a man of Jesus’ time might have looked like. Indeed, the image that resulted looked an awful lot like a composite of the Jewish boys in my high school class in Pittsburgh.
But I couldn’t help but think all the while we were watching that this documentary, fascinating as it might be, misses the whole point. I feel confident that Jesus was unconcerned with his physical appearance. He would be much more happy to know that, as we approach the celebration of his birthday, we were honoring His spirit. After all, Jesus was a rabbi. The literal meaning of the word “rabbi” in Hebrew is teacher. What did this man teach that is of value to us two thousand years later?
But of course, to quote Madonna, we are “living in a material world”. In twenty-first century America, there is a very high premium on people’s looks. If you don’t believe me, think of the flak Donald Trump has taken for his hairstyle. Now think about it. Is The Donald’s hairstyle his most important characteristic? Is his hairstyle more important, say, than his style of capitalism, his attitude toward business, his success or failure as a husband or as a father, even?
We live in a time when models are plucked from the pages of magazines and transformed overnight into movie stars. Does it matter whether they studied method acting? Does it matter whether they’ve ever read Shakespeare? Does it matter whether they have clear diction or the psychological sophistication to understand the roles they play? I leave it to you to answer any of those questions. (You can guess my own opinions).
So, last night as I was trying to sleep, I had this wild thought. What if you really could judge a book by its cover? What if everyone’s looks were a kind of code for who they were? What if every lying politician had a long nose? What if every beautiful girl had the soul of Mother Theresa? What if every vain, egotistical movie actor had a pot belly? What if every rapist was marked with acne scars? What if every larcenous criminal really did have beady eyes?
Well, it would be a different world, wouldn’t it? All we would need as an electorate would be photographs of the candidates plastered all over the media. But wait? Isn’t that how we elect our leaders now? Yes, only in my hypothetical world, it would work.
Perhaps in school we would learn The Code. There might be pull-down charts in every classroom showing each physical characteristic and its translation just to the right, like this: (picture of a very long nose) = Lying. (Picture of square jaw) = Trustworthy. Then when we go to vote, voila! We vote for someone who looks like Dan Quayle and we get someone who acts like Abraham Lincoln. (Ah, if only it were that easy).
Well, this morning when I woke up I was sandwiched between Art, who had his arm around me, and our cat, Henry, who was curled up beside me on the bed. Art was still asleep, snoring just a little. Henry was purring and when I stirred he reached out and tapped me with his paw, begging for a little affection. I reached out and petted him and it brought the biggest grin to my face. I woke up feeling so much love and warmth and gratitude.
So for today, when I try to imagine what God looks like, I will see Henry’s face, or Art’s face. And when Henry tries to imagine what God looks like, maybe he’ll see my face, or Art’s face. And maybe it’s the same for you. I am far from Catholic, but I do have to say that, suddenly, the act of communion makes sense to me on a certain level. We are the hands and the face of God, at least, when we are engaged in acts of love and kindness.
What did Jesus look like? He looked like us. Like all of us.
© 2004, Robin Munson