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The face of Jesus Christ
BY JAMES CULROSS, A.M., D.D. None of the rooms of the British Museum there is an old battered
bronze, before which you may now and again see a visitor
pausing. It is a study to watch the faces of those who do so. One will look for a few moments with a vacant expression which tells plainly enough that he sees nothing, while another will gaze silently for half-an-hour at a time. The bronze is a woman's face. Who conceived and fashioned it no one knows. As old metal it may be worth ten or fifteen shillings; as the revelation of a grand ideal, telling what a woman may be, it is beyond price.
We have all seen faces, or had glimpses of them, or visioned them in dreams, which will haunt us to our dying day. They were revelations to us of the human soul such as no philosophy could have made : in a moment, as with a flash, they have told us mysteries which words were inadequate to express. And inasmuch as God made man in His own image, after His likeness, they were also revelations to us of the Divine.
There is one face which millions and millions have longed to image to themselves—the face of Jesus Christ. It is not mere curiosity, but not seldom is intimately connected with love to Him and a true desire to realize His presence and glory more effectually. We know, for He has told us, that His going away
was expedient for us, and probably the love with which we regard Him has a loftier character on this very account; yet the desire to see Him, or to conceive
hat He was like, is a most natural one, and probably every one of us has experienced it. What must it have been, we keep saying to ourselves, to gaze upon that face! There were those who could have told us about it, having beheld it and seen in it the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth ; but they have said nothing—have not given us so much as a single hint. They seem again and again just on the point of breaking silence; they tell how, when He was transfigured, His face did shine as the sun; how He set His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem, while the disciples followed Him, amazed and afraid ; how He bent His face toward the ground, damp and chill with the heavy night-dews, in the garden of Gethsemane ; how men struck Him and did spit in His face at His mock-trial ; how, long years after, in the isle called Patmos, that same face shone forth upon the beloved disciple as the sun shineth in his strength ;” and how, before its awfulness (when as God He sitteth upon the great white throne) earth and heaven shall flee away, and there shall be no place found for them. But the face itself is nowhere portrayed, nor is any single hint thrown out by any single disciple enabling us to imagine what it was like. We know the appearance of a Socrates as he walked the streets of Athens or conversed in the market-place three-and-twenty centuries ago; but not a word is said by the disciples about the personal appearance of Jesus. They could have told us everything; in point of fact, they have told us nothing.
Is this silence an oversight, or is there design in it? The wish to look upon Him or (that being impossible) to image His appearance, meets us from the very beginning. Zacchæus, for example, sought to see Him, what manner of person He was, and ran forward and climbed into a sycamore tree for the purpose. Certain Greeks came to Philip, just before the last sufferings, with the request, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Even Herod was exceeding glad when Pilate sent Jesus to him, for he had been desirous to see Him of a long season, because he had heard many things of Him. The silence of the New Testament, then, respecting His personal appearance is silence in the presence of very natural curiosity, and silence, too, where the instincts of affection might have been expected to lead to some fulness of detail.
Numerous legends have come floating down to us out of the misty past, each of them told in a wonderful variety of ways. The evangelist Luke, for example, is asserted to have been a painter as well as a physician, and to have painted the face of Jesus from the life; Peter from memory; Nicodemus to have carved His likeness; and even Pontius Pilate secretly took a portrait of Him. There is a letter said to have been addressed to the Roman Senate by one Publius Lentulus, a friend of Pilate and his predecessor in the government of Judea, which pretends to describe His appearance during His lifetime.* There is the legend, variously told, of Abgarus, king of
* This letter describes Him as “of noble and well-proportioned stature, with a face full of kindness and firmness, so that beholders both love and fear Him." His hair is described as “ of the colour of wine, and golden at the roots." It is “ divided down the centre after the manner of the Nazarenes." His forehead
even and smooth; His face without blemish, and enhanced by a tempered bloom.” In speech "He is deliberate and grave, and little given to loquacity." No man had over “ seen Him laugh ; but many, on the contrary, to weep."
Edessa, who was sick nigh to death, and thought that the likeness of Jesus might cure him. He sent a painter to take the likeness, but the painter could not, by reason of the light that shone from Him; so Jesus took the man's robe, and, pressing it to His face, left a perfect portrait of Himself on it. There is the legend of Veronica, a daughter of Jerusalem, whose house stood on the way to Calvary. Seeing Jesus pass on His way to be crucified, she had compassion, and, taking her veil from her head, she gave it to Him to wipe His distressed face. He returned it to her with the sacred image impressed upon it. There is the story that His likeness was cut in an emerald by command of the Emperor Tiberius, and long afterwards received by Pope Innocent III. as the redemption price of a captive in the city of Rome. These legends, of course, and many like them, must be set aside as untrue. I refer to them only to show that the silence of Scripture is silence where there was a strong desire to obtain knowledge. One cannot help concluding that the pens of the sacred writers have been Divinely stayed and restrained, as well as guided, in what they wrote. They not only spake, but also were silent, as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Painters have attempted to meet the longing which Scripture leaves unsatisfied. They show us the Child Jesus, clad at times in the “tender sweetness of unsuffering and unforeboding youthfulness," and again with the shadow of the Cross thrown over His face; they represent almost every incident of His ministry and life recorded in the New Testament; they venture into Gethsemane, with the mystery of its grief and agony; they fill up almost every moment from His leaving the Prætorium and going down the steps where the Cross awaits Him, with a face in which there is no guile and a bearing that shows Him equal to the endurance, onward till we see His dead face ready to be wrapt up for the grave; they trace Him from the grave to the Ascension; they show Him, as it were to-day, knocking at the heart-door, with a crown on His head, and eyes full of yearning love and wondering, sorrowing patience. Few comparatively of these pictures are spiritually helpful; they fail to “enlarge our sense” of Christ. Some of them, indeed, are profane in the highest degree; not a few of them tend to a worship of art rather than of God. Many of the painters had no right to touch the subject; they may have been competent to render scenes from heathen mythology, or battlepieces, or popes and emperors, or sensuous beauty, or portraits of a gentleman; but they were as unfit for showing us the face of Jesus Christ as an unbeliever is for leading Christian song or preaching the everlasting Gospel. Especially in trying to represent the Sufferer, whose visage was “so marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men,” they have made too much of the physical, and have missed the grand, glorious grief which marked Him for the Man of sorrows. And, after all
, we sympathise the more earnestly with the words of the Apostle Paul: “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.”
No doubt the face of Jesus Christ disclosed the Godhead and manhood which met in Him. Yet only to those who had eyes to see: to a Simeon in the temple, but not to a Caiaphas; to a John the Baptist, but not to a Herod; to a disciple, but not to a Pharisee or Sadducee. If He were to walk through our streets to-day, drest like one of the people, or to make His appearance at a meeting of city men, or to enter one of our churches, how many would discern the glory of His face, or see any beauty in Him that they should admire Him? “The light shinech in darkness"—the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," and the darkness comprehended it not.”
If we cannot see or imagine the physical and outward; we have that face in scripture, and pre-eminently in the four gospels. The book itself is not our Saviour; but it is the picture of His face. It discloses His true likeness to all who have eyes to see. Our creeds and theologies oftentimes hide or misrepresent instead of revealing Him ; so too, not seldom, does our very evangelism; it is meagre, narrow, dogmatic, mechanical. What a relief for the lowly soul to open the blessed Book! The face of Jesus Christ meets us in the Old Testament, in type, and psalm, and prophecy,-like the photograph of a friend sent on to us before his arrival. It meets us in the New Testament, as described by those who were eye-witnesses of His glory. They do not so much narrate his life as reveal His face. That face beams forth upon us from the sacred page, and follows us with its eyes into every scene of life.
It were well for us in a thousand ways, for holiness and strength and joy, that we should live and work, wake and sleep, throughout our earthly pilgrimage, as in presence of that Face. The glory of God shines forth from it-the glory of righteousness and truth and compassion and love and salvation—and that not by mere reflection, but by way of indwelling. Old Plutarch tells of an Egyptian inscription : "I am He that was and is and shall be; and who is He that shall draw aside my veil ?" The veil is done away in Christ. The face of Jesus Christ is for us the face of God; and, while it reveals, it also (so to speak) softens and shades the ineffable splendour of the Divine majesty, which we could not have looked upon in its naked and absolute reality and lived.
There is a story, or parableI do not know which to call it-of a family in the Spanish Indies, who were in nowise different from their neighbours in the same upland, save that, when they looked towards the sky, every one of them saw a Face looking back upon him. The family got scattered, and multiplied; but, into whatever towns or strange lands they came, this mark followed every one of them, that still he saw the Face which no other around him could see. Men marked that, while differing widely in other respects, all were like to each other in the look of their faces. And while some explained that they inherited this common look, others said that, by looking to the One Face, they grew like to it in their own visage, and consequently like to each other. The story may stand for illustration of what takes