Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 11, 2018

2018.02.11 “The Face of Jesus Christ” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6

Central United Methodist Church
The Face of Jesus Christ
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 11th, 2018

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6, The New Revised Standard Version


Did you see the recent article in the news, that the ancestors of those of us who are of British ancestry, may not have looked like we think.

The recent facial reconstruction of a 10,000-year-old skeleton called the “Cheddar Man” revealed what many might find as a surprise: he was a man with bright blue eyes, slightly curly hair, and dark skin. “It might surprise the public, but not ancient DNA geneticists,” says Mark Thomas, a scientist at University College London.


The Cheddar Man earned his name, not because of his fondness for cheese, which likely wasn’t cultivated until around 3,000 years later, but because he was found in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England (which is, incidentally, where cheddar cheese originates).

Using new techniques of DNA sequencing and facial reconstruction, they were able to determine his skin color, eye color, and hair type, making him the oldest British individual whose genes scientists have mapped. (Ceylan Yeginsu and Carl Zimmer, ”‘Cheddar Man,’ Britain’s Oldest Skeleton, Had Dark Skin, DNA Shows,” The New York Times, February 7, 2018.)

How and when Britons developed lighter skin over time is unclear, perhaps because light skin allows for more UV radiation, which helps break down vitamin D, or maybe – given the British weather – because they spent more time inside watching the telly. But what it demonstrates is that our ancestors may not look like what we may have imagined. This would include me, as a DNA test I took last year revealed my ancestors to have lived in Britain a thousand years ago. (What happened to my blue eyes?) For those of us who are not white, and often made to feel inferior because of it, how comforting to know that EVERYBODY once looked like you. Just how was it that we white people think we are the apex of evolution?

Similarly, it is equally true that Jesus may not have looked like we think he did, even though he lived only a mere 2,000 years ago. To explore this, I am returning to an updated version of one of MY favorite sermons, last preached 6 years ago. It is a sermon also preached by me to me, because it changed the way I think about Jesus, and may for you as well.

We do so on Transfiguration Sunday, appropriately, when St. Paul asks us to consider “the face of Jesus Christ.” Writing shortly after the middle of the 1st century, some 25 years after Jesus, Paul said this: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The face of Jesus Christ: what did the face of Jesus look like? Did Paul even know? If you remember, Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the Apostle, met not the human but the Risen Jesus in flash of light on the way to Damascus, as recorded in Acts 9, where he was knocked to the ground by a voice and a vision, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” A chapter later, he makes the enigmatic statement: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” Did Paul ever meet the human Jesus? It is unclear if he is referring to himself in particular, or all of us in general. But whether he did or not, he didn’t tell us a thing about it.

Which is peculiar, because faces are important to us, faces make us “who we are” to each other, they are a major way we communicate with each other. Let me ask you this: how do we know what mood our husbands or wives or friends are in; usually through their faces. 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 meanings one small gesture can communicate? What an expressive instrument God has given us in our faces.

Of course, as we age, so do our faces. 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. Women, generally speaking, pay more attention to their faces than men; who has not heard the phrase, “let me put my face on.” The British wit Oscar Wilde once said, “If a man’s face is his autobiography, a woman’s face is her work of fiction.” Thankfully, there is a lot more all of us can do these days to put our faces on. I read recently they have invented a new cream that eradicates brown (aging) spots; I could use a couple hundred dollars worth. Which – as I understand from the price – is not much.

Given the importance of our faces, do you not think it extraordinary that no one who knew or wrote about Jesus, ever bothered to describe what he looked like?

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.


6 - Warner Sallman's Head of Christ

6 – Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ

Most of us Midwesterners, likely believe Jesus looked like this: the “Head of Christ” painted by Chicagoan Warner Sallman in 1940. Sallman was an obscure Chicago ad man, a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, who worked out of his studio on Spaulding Avenue in the North Park neighborhood. He 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. Just last year, someone discovered an oil original in a thrift store in River West, estimated to be worth $100,000. For many of us, at least in our imagination, this is what Jesus looked like: not only white, but these days, American and Republican.

Unfortunately, almost never does anyone imagine Jesus to look like what a Jew of his time might have looked like. Until about 15 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.

7 - Richard Neave's conceptualization of Jesus

7 – Richard Neave’s conceptualization of Jesus

Based upon their results; this is what Jesus might have looked like. Does this look like a man you’d be willing to drop everything and follow? (“The Real Face Of Jesus – What Did Jesus Look Like?,” by Mike Fillon, Popular Mechanics, December 7, 2002)

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, who 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. (David Gibson, “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?”, The New York Times, February 21, 2004: )

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

Obviously, this representation is quite different from the typical long-haired, light-skinned and delicate-featured depiction of Jesus we imagine. 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 people like the members of Jesus’ family, combined with Jesus’ ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing. Remember, he also spoke a language most of us – except those of us who speak Aramaic – would not understand. What kind of new idolatry is it, that we re-make Jesus in our image, especially when we project on to him our stereotypes and prejudices? If only such portraits of Jesus as this could be posted in churches across America, perhaps it could help American Christians remember that Jesus was Jewish, not Christian, Middle-Eastern, not white.

In the end, does it matter what the face of Jesus looked like? No. Did his face have to be bright and beautiful? No. Was it foreign and different? Yes. “Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me,” says Carlos Fuentes. What Paul was saying is that whatever Jesus looked like, in him we recognize not only ourselves, but what God looks like.

Nevertheless, considering what faces communicate, it’s not surprising we have often wished for a face of Jesus to gaze upon; crucifixes and crosses are not enough.

When life is hard, when times are challenging – and faith is a struggle – we need a face of Jesus which communicates the faith he lived, amidst the hardness of his own life.

When life makes us wonder if God is aloof, apathetic and uncaring, we need a face of Jesus, which radiates the compassion of God, showing us that God is love.

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

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

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; we go to the face. There, for the last time, we touch the closed eyes through which the light of their personality shone; we touch the lips of a spouse that once we kissed; there, written on their face, are the lines and scars of a lifetime, each one telling a story about the person we loved, now at peace.

So now we better understand St. Paul when he said: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Whatever he looked like. Amen.


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