Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 19, 2012

2012.02.19 “What’s in a Face?” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6

Central United Methodist Church

“What’s in a Face?”

Pastor David L. Haley

2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6

February 19th, 2012


          “Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6, The Message

What’s in a face?  Have you ever considered how much of who we are is communicated through our face? How do we know each other? Through our face. When we know each other, how do we know what mood we’re in? Through our face.

Perhaps this is why we try to make the most of what we got.  Because, let’s face it (no pun intended), most of us do not have “that golden ratio” of facial proportions, and do not look like George Clooney or Halle Berry. In fact, judging by the lives of those who have perfect faces, it might well be a greater curse than blessing. Who would want to be judged primarily by our looks? Yogi Berra, the famous NY Yankees catcher, was once called ugly. His reply: “So I’m ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face.”

Women, obviously, have greater skills with faces than men. Oscar Wilde, the British dramatist  and wit, once said, “A man’s face is his autobiography.” How true that is! Men, ever examine your face in the mirror? A little remnant of teenage acne scarring here; a chickenpox mark there; here’s where the horse broke my nose; this scar is from a fight. Notable moments of personal history are all mapped there.

But if “a man’s face is his autobiography,” Wilde went on to say, “a woman’s face is her work of fiction.” By now most of us men know there are whole stores, or whole sections of stores, devoted to the art of making faces.

As we age, our faces, once youthful, begin to acquire “character”, which is a euphemistic way of saying, wrinkles and lines and scars and way more chins than we need.

Hello? Someone is saying, don’t you know science has come a long way in “saving face?” Yes, I know there are surgical and chemical techniques for face-lifts, like Botox, but for most of us those are out of the question, not that we’re ever want to look like Barry Manilow or Joan Rivers anyway. In our neighborhoods, plastic surgery is just not a growth industry.

At some point, we have to decide where we are going to draw the line (or not) in searching for the fountain of youth, and accept growing old as gracefully as we can.  One of my preacher friends in Memphis – himself prematurely gray – used to accuse me of hitting “Grecian Formula.”  I don’t, for the record, but I would admit I’m just glad I still have hair. I had another friend who said of his gray hair, “Just do what I do: pluck them out.”  Did I mention that he’s bald?

Regardless of how much “character” our faces attain, they are still our primary mode of knowing each other, and expressing who we are. Two of the cruelest diseases, I think, are Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, because each of them, in their severest forms, rob their victims of facial expression.

In dealing with death through the years, one of the things I have observed is that death removes personality from our faces. The lines and wrinkles are eased, and personality disappears. Have you ever seen any of those death masks that used to be made of famous people? Looking at the masks, it’s hard to tell what they looked like. For example, here’s the death mask of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who died March 2, 1791.  (See image #1 below)

It is through our faces that we smile, frown, flirt, cry, and express happiness, sadness, pleasure, and pain. Consider the human wink: how many different things one small gesture can communicate? What an expressive instrument God has given us in our faces.

Perhaps it is for such reasons that Christians through the centuries have been so curious about the face of Jesus. Long before there were questions about what Jesus would do, there was the question, what did Jesus look like?

From the Gospels, we get no information. Perhaps, because they were Jewish, in which the representation of the divine is prohibited, not one of the Gospel writers ever told us what the face of Jesus looked like.

So, from early on until now, Christians have had to use their imaginations to portray the face of Jesus. When one looks through the history of art at the results, the most telling observation is that, most often, people portrayed Jesus as looking like themselves, whether early Byzantine or medieval European or American Caucasian.

From the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy to the punishing bruiser of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” Jesus served the needs of the day. Blacks painted an African Jesus, such as this one, Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie, and Marc Chagall depicted Jesus as a victim of a pogrom, a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) for a loincloth.  In Asia, Jesus took on almond eyes and blond hair in Scandinavia. (See images 2, 3, 4 & 5 below)

Many of us Midwesterners doubtless believe Jesus looked like this: the “Head of Christ” painted by Chicagoan Warner Sallman in 1940. Sallman was an obscure Chicago ad man and evangelical Christian, who was inspired to paint a portrait of Jesus by an art teacher who exhorted him to depict a “virile, manly Christ” who “faced Calvary in triumph.” It was distributed to World War II soldiers and eventually became the most popular Jesus representation ever, with more than 500 million copies in circulation. (See image #6 below)

Unfortunately, almost never did anyone imagine Jesus to look like what a Jew of his time might have looked like. Until about 10 years ago.

Such a conceptualization was based in large part on the work of Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England. Neave and a team of researchers started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used forensic science, computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time, to determine the shape of the face, and color of eyes and skin. (See image #7 below)

Their results?  What might Jesus have looked like?

Does this look like a man you’d be willing to drop everything and follow?

In 2004, while filming a documentary about the historical Jesus on CNN Presents, (The Mystery of Jesus), they went further. They discovered that even Mr. Neave was satisfied. It wasn’t just that the facial overlay made Jesus look like a New York taxi driver, it was that they didn’t like the eyes and the mouth, what the historian Robin M. Jensen, writing in the Christian Century, called “a particular dumbfounded — one might say stupid — expression.” So they hired a New York artist, Donato Giancola, and reworked the portrait, using Mr. Neave’s skull and information from other experts. The results are a more noble, even soulful, Jesus, and yet historically believable – something closer to the itinerant Galilean of history. (See image #8 below)

Obviously, this representation is quite different from the typical long-haired, light-skinned and delicate-featured depiction of Jesus seen most often. This Jesus has a broad peasant’s face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose. He would have stood 5 feet, 1-inch tall and weighed around 110 pounds, which anthropologists believe was the average height and build for a person of that time and place. Given the harsh conditions, especially for working stiffs like the members of Jesus’ family, combined with Jesus’ ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a rather sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing.

Reflecting upon this face, and its challenges to our assumed beliefs and preconceptions, consider what St. Paul tells us in this morning’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “Our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.”  (2 Corinthians 4: 3 – 6)

Does it matter exactly what the face of Jesus looked like?  No. Did his face have to be bright and beautiful? No. Because what St. Paul is saying is not that the light of the knowledge of God was communicated solely through the features of Jesus’ face, but there and through everything he did: his words and deeds, his life, his death, and his resurrection.

In symbolic terms, that’s what today’s Gospel story of Jesus’ transformation is also saying. Jesus took Peter and James and John with him up a mountaintop, and there, as he prayed, their eyes were opened to the glory of God that shone through him. As St. John was to put it a few decades later, “No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made God plain as day.” (John 1:18)

Nevertheless, considering what faces communicate, I think it not surprising that Christians have often wished for a face of Jesus to gaze upon, especially in hard times. Crosses and crucifixes are not enough, and Christians have needed a human face of Jesus to help them “be Christian.”

When times become challenging, when the circumstances of life become hard, and faith becomes a struggle, we need a face of Jesus which communicates the faith Jesus believed and lived, even amidst the hardness of his own life.

When the circumstances of life make us wonder if God is aloof, apathetic and uncaring, we need to see the face of Jesus, radiating the compassion of God.

When the sins of the human race are endlessly repeated, and our own faults and failures more than we can bear, we need a face of Jesus that assures us God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.

When death seems the black hole of every human life, of everything and everyone we’ve known and loved, we need to see the face of Jesus glowing with the life of God, the God of the living and the dead.

It’s like this: at the end of every funeral, before the casket is closed, there comes that time when we must say “goodbye” to the body of the person we loved. We go to the casket, and we go to the face.  There, for the last time, we gently touch the closed eyes through which the light of the person’s personality shone; we touch the lips of a spouse that once we kissed; there, written on the face, are the lines and scars of a lifetime, each one telling a story about the person we loved.

No wonder we want to see the face of Jesus. For our lives fill up with light as we see and understand God in the face of Jesus Christ.

One more thing: our faces? What are we communicating?


         “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?” by David Gibson, The New York Times, February 21, 2004

         “The Real Face Of Jesus – What Did Jesus Look Like?,” by Mike Fillon, Popular Mechanics, December 7, 2002.


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