What Jesus Really Looks Like

I’ve come across some interesting internet chatter about the real face of Jesus.

In the Bible, it is interesting that Jesus is never explicitly physically described (except in the book of Revelation where everything is symbolic). Most of our ideas about how Jesus looks comes from centuries of art.

There are some, especially those who are interested in attacking the Christian faith, who push online the “real” face of Jesus. This “real face” is usually one that tends to be ethnically different than the majority of Christian art. His skin color and his facial features resemble that of a person from the Middle-East and less like a European.

What I find interesting is that often the people who pass along this image think that they have made some kind of attack against the faithful. Perhaps there is an underlying belief by the enemies of Christianity that there is an element of racism in the faith. This is incredibly illogical and goes against the demographics of the Church. Currently, there are more Catholics on the continent of Africa than in all of North America.

It is true that in the majority of Christian art throughout history, Jesus is depicted like a European. This is more of a cultural element of art history than it is a theological point. In different parts of the world, the Gospel story has been depicted in ways that made them as relatable to the predominant culture. I remember once seeing a beautiful Japanese painting of Jesus calming the storm where He and the apostles were depicted as Japanese men.

In fact, sometimes heavenly visions take on the ethnic character of the local population. The most famous is probably Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the Virgin Mary appeared in the form of a beautiful Indigenous woman. There are also other stories like Our Lady of Lavang, where Mary appeared to a village in Vietnam in the 18th Century. The accounts of her appearance describe her as looking Vietnamese. We know that Christ’s glorified body can change what it looks like (Luke 24 and John 20-21). It stands to reason that this would be true of the Virgin Mary as well.

On the other hand, I read a Catholic was incensed by the shifting ethnic depictions of Christ and Mary. His point was that the Incarnation means that Jesus became human at a specific time and place. To take liberties with that is to divorce his real-life human nature from his divinity. To make his ethnicity malleable is to dehumanize Jesus.

Looking at both sides, I think it is important to have the proper perspective.

As a Middle-Eastern man of Jewish ethnicity, the Jesus who walked around 2000 years ago probably did not look like a European. It is important to acknowledge that Jesus entered into real human history and took on a specific human nature.

The depictions about Jesus that differ from this historical reality are not necessarily bad. In any art, there is an element of interpretation. We do not worship the image as the pagan idolaters did. Instead, we worship the God Himself. The images are merely interpretations of that God as He was incarnated. In a similar way, we always have to keep in mind that Private Revelations carry with them an incredibly subjective element, as Fr. Benedict Groeschel made clear in his masterful book A Still Small Voice. In that book, Fr. Groeschel makes the point that a Divine experience, which is beyond human understanding, must be filtered through mind in ways that the human being can apprehend. This means, that the visionaries may bring some of their subjective viewpoint to the experience.

But above all, any depiction of Christ should be reverent. The goal should be trying to lead man to God and not to try to remold God after the image of man.

However, the best answer to the question of what does Jesus look like came from my pastor.

When talking about this question, he pointed us to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)

The face of Jesus is found in the poor. The face of Jesus is found in those who are suffering. The face of Jesus is found in those we are called to love. And since we are made in God’s image, the face of Jesus can be seen when you look in the mirror.

That is what it really means to see the face of the Jesus. When we can really see Him in other people, we will be able to love Him in others.

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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