The Face of Christ
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them (a scholar of the law) tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
What did Jesus look like? There are no photographs or paintings of Christ. There are no sculpted images. He posed for no fresco artisan. The image on the Shroud of Turin may seem persuasively real, but there is no absolute assurance of its authenticity. It remains a kind of “divine tease.” We only can surmise the reason that the Lord prevented an absolutely reliable image of Himself. But is it even possible — or praiseworthy — to hope to somehow see the face of Christ?
Even before the age of modern photography, there were many trustworthy images of great men. There are sculpted images of Julius Caesar and masterpiece paintings of popes and kings. Today, every dollar bill carries the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. And today, the depictions of prominent personages by the great artists are ever more accessible in books and the Internet.
It is perhaps instructive, as an intellectual exercise, to reconstruct a famous image — without the help of Internet pixels — by using memory alone. What does the Mona Lisa look like? We might be able to reproduce the image imperfectly by memory. The details are probably sketchy; the hair, the eyes, the colors form but a blur in our mental reconstruction. Perhaps Mona Lisa’s smile is easily remembered, if difficult to describe. Is it a pensive smile? Is it a knowing smile? Is it a smile at all? Regardless of how we describe the details of the image, the painting remains unchanged. The painting itself does not depend upon our subjective definitions. But, for purposes of this reconstructive mental exercise, our conceptual definitions are all we have.
Understanding the Catholic faith is something like that. The “deposit of faith” handed down after the death of the last apostle is objective or, as the cliché goes, “It is what it is.” But in every age, the deposit must, in a sense, be “reconstructed” for viewing, often using time-hallowed dogmatic words such as “transubstantiation.” This is the role of Catholic doctrine or dogma. If we take the time to understand the role of doctrine is to portray — using conceptual statements — the “image” of the deposit of faith received by the apostles, we can better appreciate the value and beauty of church teaching. Just as densely packed computer pixels provide a clearer photo image without daring to distort the image in any way, highly refined church teachings provide an ever more precise image of the true and unchanging faith. This is why Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor refers to church dogmas fondly as “windows to the infinite.”
Interestingly, after the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published by the Vatican in 1985, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described how the catechism provides a “depiction” of Christ Himself. In this, we leap beyond imaging the deposit of faith, to imaging the very person of Christ. Of course, we may think of biographical works as providing similar images, whereas the catechism is not strictly a biographical work. The catechism not only provides the historical and dogmatic statements about Christ, but also teaches us how to behave and live. The moral section is a key part in reconstructing an authentic image of Christ.
In the Gospel, Christ reveals (and confirms Old Testament teaching) that loving God and neighbor are foundational to the law. God’s law and His love are inseparable. Psalm 119 is a veritable hymn on the joy of knowing and living God’s law: “Oh, how I love your law. I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.”
Later in the Gospel, Christ tells His disciples that if they really love Him, they will keep His commandments (cf. Jn 14:15). This is crucial. Attention to and living God’s law is not at all a question of “mindless legalism” or burdensome restrictions on human freedom. Quite the opposite. God’s law liberates us to live in His love and, in a truly mystical and astounding way, provides a means to see the very face of Christ. Again, Psalm 119 provides us with an Old Testament clue: “You are my portion, Lord; I have promised to obey your words. I have sought your face with all my heart.”
There is something firm and reliable — even non-negotiable — in seeking the face of Christ through His law and love. Over time, and with study and prayer, it becomes clear His face is completely incompatible with evil or with idolatry, impiety, murder, adultery, thievery, dishonesty or any kind of impurity. These can only disfigure and crucify a tenderly loving and beautiful face.
But in choosing God’s law, we ourselves become good. And if we grow in God’s goodness, we become more of what God destined us to be — not only living His law in love, but also reflecting His divinity. In every good act we see the hand of a loving God. And in every truly virtuous person we see a hint of the unblemished face of Christ.
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