The Image of Christ: Seeking the Face of Jesus

The Courier (Houma, La.), 19th December, 2003

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Nativity

Dusk fades at 5:45 p.m. on a cool mid-December day.

For Houma resident Natalie Bourg that means it's time to turn on the Christmas lights. She jogs inside to flip on the switches. Then, she steps outside again to survey the lights to see if they are all lit.

She walks around the house and surveys each of the bulbs. All of the red, green, yellow, orange and blue lights shine on the wires outlining her house. The trees at the corners of her house are glowing with more lights. All is well with the Santa Claus on the roof, Rudolph's red nose and the Frosty the Snowman next to the front door.

"One more to go and we are good at least for tonight," she says with a smile. "This one is what the whole season is all about."

As Bourg marches to her front yard with the classic tune "O Holy Night" ringing through speakers in the background, she glances upon a view she values more than the other decorations combined. She observes the Nativity set up.

Mary and Joseph are lit, and so are the three wise men and shepherds. But as she glances upon the illuminated face of baby Jesus in an manger covered in hay, she ponders.

Bourg admits that sometimes she wonders if the figure she sees of baby Jesus -- and drawings and sculptures of the adult Jesus -- truly depict his genuine appearance. She also contemplates whether or not the images are even similar to the real Jesus.

Since there are no Bible passages in the New Testament or early church sources describing the physical features of Jesus Christ, historians and archaeologists throughout the centuries have asked the same question. Many of them have searched for historical clues to learn of Christ's true image.

"I don't think we can ever know if a picture of Jesus is accurate, at least not in this life," says Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association in Minneapolis, Minn. "There are too many things that are unclear."

Christians believe the only hints of Jesus' image are found in the Old Testament. A prophecy in Isaiah 53: 2-3 states that "when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."

The Bible's vagueness led early A.D. artists to study historical records in order to draw and sculpt the icons of Jesus. Since Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, many artists illustrated Christ as though he were a stereotypical Jew of his time. The first artwork of Jesus depicted him as a young shepherd wrapped in a simple robe with short hair and no beard, according to Newsweek magazine.

The images of Jesus then changed in the sixth century, when archaeologists discovered the Holy Mandylion cloth in Edessa in 544. On the cloth, also known as the Image of Edessa, was a painting of what many scholars at that time thought was the face of Jesus. Most artists duplicated the image, believing it to be true picture of Jesus.

Then, in 1356, archaeologists discovered the Shroud of Turin, perhaps the single most studied artifact in the history of mankind, according to Discover magazine. Discoverers believed the shroud, a centuries-old linen cloth with an imprinted image of a crucified man, displayed the real the image of Christ.

Carbon-dating tests have since ruled out the possibility the impression on the shroud is Jesus, despite beliefs by some Christians the carbon-dating tests have been inaccurate. Many archaeologists also believe the Image of Edessa, which had been lost for hundreds of years, carries the same image as the shroud.

The imprints on the Shroud of Turin are the common depictions of Jesus displayed today. Those representations show him with shoulder-length hair, an elongated thin nose and a forked beard. Other artists have also created their own images from imagination, with some claiming their projects have been inspired by God. Some have created a Jesus into their race, ethnicity and culture.

"A European painter creating art for a European audience can be excused for making Jesus look European, just as I would expect African and Asian painters to come up with an image suitable for their culture," says Trouten, having written numerous articles concerning artwork and Christ. "The fact that (Jesus) came ... and shared our human experience is what's important and should be valued."

In 2000, National Catholic Reporter magazine hosted an art contest, asking thousands of artists across the world to draw their own image of Christ. The winner, Jesus of the People, was a dark-skinned, multicultural, feminine looking Jesus in simple robes. The drawing has gained support, but it has also caused much controversy because of its contrast to the typical drawings of Jesus.

"Because we don't know what the real Jesus truly looked like, it was probably the right one to choose if you were a judge, even if it was unpopular," said Robert Johnson, an in-home Bible study leader from Houma. "Of course that's not what he looked like, but it had a little bit of each culture in it. Jesus wasn't just for one culture, he came for all mankind."

Johnson, whose group studied the physical image of Christ a year ago, says some people are curious about Jesus' appearance because they tend to rely on visual evidence to believe something. Many people, he says, are also seeking to fulfill a spiritual hunger, and they need an icon to match their faith.

"In today's society, if you see it then you believe it," Johnson says. "It's not that there is no faith involved, but contemporary art makes Jesus Christ someone people can relate to now and touch now, not just some historical figure from ancient times."

Johnson believes drawings and sculptures of Jesus can aid a Christian's faith since icons can serve as a reminder that Christ's life was actual history, not some imaginary tale. Images, he says, can also remind believers that Christ's life ultimately meant eternal salvation through his sacrifice.

Stephanie Detillier of Raceland says she rarely thinks about the issue of images and Christ and believes they are not of significant importance. "I don't feel that's what (Jesus) wanted us to remember him by," she says. "He wanted us to remember him by his words and his actions."

Trouten agrees and says images can actually hinder a person's faith if they are not cautious, citing one of the Ten Commandments that forbids graven images. But Trouten says as long as a person does not worship images and only views them as reminders of Christ, illustrations and sculptures are acceptable and beneficial.

"One of the unique things about Christianity -- and Judaism before it -- is that it is not an image-based faith," Trouten says. "The fact that [the Judeo-Christian] faith isn't attached to a particular artistic representation of God helps us remember that God is not a statue or painting. God is so much more than that."

As Bourg continues to think about the images of Jesus, her 9-year-old daughter Jessica joins her by the Nativity display. Jessica Bourg kneels in front of baby Jesus and clasps her hands together to say a prayer. It's something she does every evening during the Christmas season.

She's not worshipping or praying to the plastic baby Jesus, but she exaplins that the infant reminds her of her savior's sacrifice and love for everyone. She prays to the Jesus she cannot see.

As for images, she doesn't think about them too much. With her fervent faith, she believes she will meet Jesus face to face when her time on earth is complete. Only then, she says, will she truly know what he looks like.

And that's all that matters to her.

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