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Lent’s call: Contemplating the face of Christ

By Msgr. Thomas J. McDonnell
Posted: 2/8/2008

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Artists of every age have tried to capture the beauty and mystery of the face of Jesus. Such as we know is an impossible task. Quite simply, the Infinite cannot be squeezed into the concrete dimension of space.

The task is, moreover, made even more difficult because the Gospel writers left no physical description of Jesus. There is, for example, no description of his height, the color of his eyes, etc. Such was not their concern. They concentrated upon portraying him as Love and Truth Incarnate.

Paradoxically, in this context, Jesus reminded his disciples that whoever saw him in reality saw his Father (Jn 14:9). He made the God we cannot see visible to us. Two thousand years later, we are at times puzzled by Jesus’ observation. Bereft of any concrete description of the Lord, how are we to understand the Lord’s words?

Moreover, at the beginning of the Jubilee Year (2000) the Holy Father John Paul II urged us to contemplate the “face” of Jesus, most especially upon the cross, to discover the deepest truth not only about Christ, but also about ourselves. Vatican II reminds us: “Christ, the new Adam...fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his lofty calling.”

We must, then, ask ourselves: How are we to begin our quest to search out the face of Christ?

Our Lenten reflections will center about trying to discover the many truths to be found in the face of Christ. Such will not be completely comprehensive. But hopefully, our glimpse into the Lord’s eyes, etc., will lead us to a deeper spiritual growth.

Before we begin our quest, there are two points which must be highlighted. The first concentrates upon St. Paul’s phrase where he prays that the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened (Eph 1:18). Such is the grace we must pray for. And we must realize that “seeing with the eyes of the heart” demands an ever-deepening prayer life.

In his poem “Ash Wednesday,” the poet T. S. Eliot reminds us of another aspect of our Lenten ascetic: the need for inner stillness and silence:

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the centre of the silent Word...

Where shall the word be found, where will the word tResound? Not here, there is not enough silence.

I mention the Word because it is through the Word that we will, paradoxically, be able to form our portrait of Jesus.

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus began his self-portrait with the words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” He then added: “Today this scriptural passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:16-21).

At the very outset of his ministry and throughout the Gospels, Jesus depicts himself as a man of compassion -- reflecting the compassion of his (and our) Father. Indeed he later responds to the queries of John the Baptist regarding the authenticity of his mission and ministry by pointing to his own compassionate outreach: “Go tell John what you hear and see; the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news preached to them” (Mt 11:4-5).

To return to something mentioned above, I believe that despite their creativity and genius, there is a misplaced emphasis in the static portrayal of Jesus. His true portrait is to be found in those in whom his life is refracted. In our case, such would focus upon eyes the color of compassion -- eyes that not only observe the sufferings of others but in a real sense identify and share it with them.

They are also the ones who have been gifted with the ability to “hear” the inarticulate and silent cries of the suffering throughout the world. (This, too, is a grace.) Such was an integral part of Jesus’ own ministry, when, for example, he sensed the hunger of the crowd which followed him.

The above must be conceived as the first broad sketch of our portrait of Jesus -- a portrait which we hope to develop at greater length.

Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.