International Ministries

The Face of Jesus

December 16, 2011 Journal
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The Detroit Institute of Arts has been hosting a special exhibition with the Louvre and the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.  It is a fabulous and moving exhibition about this great painter and how he depicted Jesus.  Rembrandt was the first Christian European artist to use Jews as models for his portrayals of Jesus.  (For information see

Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam when the city was very cosmopolitan and when there was a flourishing and respected Jewish community.  He lived for many years in a Jewish neighborhood and often employed Jews as models, particularly for Jesus.  He also included many details of Jewish life and culture in the paintings of various gospel scenes.

Sharon and I participated in a special interfaith program jointly hosted by the DIA and the InterFaith Leadership Council on which I serve.  We had Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars speak about Jesus within each faith tradition and views of art.  We also enjoyed an in-depth lecture on Rembrandt and the face of Jesus by the exhibition's curator.  Then we toured the exhibition galleries taking in an astonishing number of Rembrandt's sketches, prints and masterpieces.

Rembrandt had two general types of portrayals of Jesus.  One was the more traditional northern European view of a light brown-haired god-like person with glory and power.  The other was the Jewish Jesus with his hair combed in the way of the local Amsterdam Jewish young men.  This was a more earthy, meditative, gentle and even vulnerable Jesus.  The exhibition concludes with two large and glorious portraits of Jesus side-by-side for us to mediate on, contrast, and compare.  I must say I was more deeply moved by the Jewish Jesus, grasped by Rembrandt's portrayals in the center of my soul.

If I had been the Christian lecturer, this is what I would have said: Both of Rembrandt's portrayals were correct for us Christians.  Jesus should be painted by a northern European as a northern European.  There is a universal nature to Jesus--he is Lord of all, beyond time and culture, the Christ who was the pre-existent Word made flesh, the one with whom we can all identify.  So Rembrandt is right to paint Jesus' face as a northern European face.  And the black Jesus of some African-American portrayals is correct, a portrayal we know well in Detroit where we have the Church of the Black Madonna.  The Asian nativity at the Bangkok Christian Guest House that shows a Thai Mary with her baby in a bamboo house surrounded by a rice paddy is true.  I had a friend, not a famous artist, who painted one of the best portraits of Jesus I've ever seen--in the darkness of Gethsemane, sweating in anguish.  Is he black or white?  Can't tell.  But very real and substantive.

The Christmas carol "Some Children See Him" speaks of this universal embrace of the face of Jesus incorporated into every culture.  "The children in each different place will see the baby Jesus' face like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, and filled with holy light."

But the Jewish Jesus is true, too.  In fact, that Jewish Jesus is the anchor that gives the substance and meaning to all the other faces of Jesus that reflect my face and your face.  For when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us the universal God became incredibly, profoundly particular.  Jesus was born in the particularity of a Jewish family from Galilee in the particularity of a moment in history--during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus "while Quirinius was governor of Syria."  Jesus was born into a particular culture that dealt with all the cultural forms of childbirth in the Jewish community of that day.

In fact, the good news we celebrate at Christmas is the incarnation in that one very particular human being, the child, the Jewish child with a very specific (and mixed) family tree was born.  With only general sweet childness, with only universal humanity, there is no incarnation, no "in-fleshness."  "We beheld his glory," the gospel write testifies.  It was glory revealed in flesh, in particular flesh.

The good news of this season is that the transcendent God has become God with us, incarnate in Jewish flesh, and thus in the depths of our humanity--your particular humanity and my particular humanity.  Mystery of mysteries now made known to us in Jesus!  That's why we sing "Gloria!"

Thank you for all you have done to give substance to the love of God in your support of taking the good news of Christ around the world.  I especially enjoy working at bringing substance to the angelic carol of "Peace on Earth" through this one we also call "Prince of Peace."  These are the gifts we bring to offer the incarnate one.  Have a blessed Christmas and a grace-filled 2012.