Images stick with me. Dreams, pictures, paintings, scenes from a movie or computer screen—some I’m happy to hold on to and some I wish to purge from my memory. Any ideas I had of what Harry Potter and his friends looked like, conjured purely from my imagination, have disintegrated now that I’ve seen the movies based on the books. I’m okay with that; the movies were so well cast. And most people agree, even though they undoubtedly had other pictures in their heads than I did. One image implanted in me, however, doesn’t have much in reality for comparison or replacement: the picture of Jesus from Warner Sallman’s famous painting The Head of Christ. I’m so ready to give this one up.
Sometime during childhood I received a photograph of this painting. I don’t know, maybe from Sabbath school or VBS (Vacation Bible School). A photograph. Okay, I knew that it wasn’t a real photo of Jesus, but it was kind of eerie because of that medium. It didn’t feel right to just, you know, throw it away, so I propped it up on my dresser where I saw it every day—many times a day. Then my mom told me that I didn’t have to keep it, wasn’t obligated. It wouldn’t be wrong to get rid of it. Maybe I was in danger of idolizing it. Not of a denomination that keeps religious icons around the house, we didn’t have any other sort of religious picture at all, as I remember. What I don’t remember is for sure how I felt about the picture then, as a kid. Did I like it? Did I not? Either way, I tossed it. But it won’t go away.
When I pray, it seems the first image in my head is that painting, that representation of Jesus. Yes, I have seen other artist portrayals of him in movies and other pictures, but they often seem to be copying this famous picture and don’t take its place. You know what I wish? I wish I could still access my picture of Jesus from the hidden places of my memory, from before I had ever laid eyes on any painting at all. Why does this bother me so?
Jesus is a man who lived on this earth; this I believe. He looked like someone, and he probably did have longish hair, a rugged beard, a dark complexion. The artist, as I have read online, became a devout Christian and strove to give people a new picture of Christ that wasn’t so effeminate as others had been. Certainly many people loved it then, and hundreds and thousands continue to love it today. If it works for others, I should be glad. Oh, but the image, the picture—so frozen, so still, so sad. Does it do a good job of reflecting the man, of reflecting God?
For a few weeks my husband and I have joined friends to watch “The Gospel According to Matthew,” starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. I had seen some of this production in a Bible class in college but not enough to really adjust to another picture of Jesus. He looks similar but also wildly different from the Sallman painting. He has the dark complexion, beard, and hair (which is less beauty-parlor shiny and clean), but he has personality. And through much of the first half of the film he’s more smiling prankster than somber peacekeeper. He speaks the words from the Bible, but he exhibits personality that is somewhat concealed in the text. He’s someone fun and approachable.
It’s taken a bit of time, but I’m starting to adjust to this new picture of Jesus; however, that changes nothing when it comes to my prayers. I’m not saying I want Bruce Marchiano to be the new face I see when I pray, but I’m still searching for something to make the connection with God more real.
Why can’t God, I ask and wonder, reveal himself to me as he can or will only to me? I don’t expect to see exactly what Jesus looks like, because that’s not really what’s important, but I feel a little cheated with what I do see. I’d be thrilled if God would, as his character in the show “Joan of Arcadia” did, appear to me, to anyone, as different people—maybe sometimes rerunning his favorites. One day I pray and God is an old black man, the next a small white boy, the next a Mexican mother. Whoa! Will it be like that in heaven? Maybe when we each encounter God, but as Jesus I’m guessing he’ll stick with what he looked like on earth (Jesus, God, God, Jesus—I still don’t understand the division or unity). But, wait, will I look the same as I do on earth? I think we get new bodies, but that’s something I’m not too concerned about. For now, for here, who does God want me to see when I talk to him?
Perhaps it is the man, the boy, the woman. The more I look around with eyes open, truly open, I should be seeing God in all these people. Regardless, I may not know what Jesus really looks like, but he knows me and sees my face.