One of the earliest hymns we have in our treasury of praise, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” celebrates the moment when “the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, / First revealed His sacred face.”1
Some eighteen hundred years after this classic was written, one of my own treasured personal memories is hearing my mother singing Helen Lemmel’s lyrics, as she did her chores around the house, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus./Look full in his wonderful face./And the things of earth will grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace.”2
In contemporary Christian music, excellent musicians from the days of the Resurrection Band in “(I Can’t Stop) Loving You”3 to FFH in “One of These Days,”4 the Miracle Teens of Uganda in “Presence”5 to Jamaica’s Carlene Davis in “My Turn”6 (and countless others around our world) still express the longing to see our Savior face to face, while each Sunday many of us continue to invite the Lord into our worship services with praise songs like “Lord, We Welcome You” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart”7 that assure Jesus we want to see his face ourselves.
When Aurelius C. Prudentius wrote his paean in the early 300s and Helen Lemmel echoed that desire in the late 1800s/early 1900s, Glenn Kaiser in 1981, Jeromy Deibler and Paul Baloche, respectively, in 1997, Martin Wampamba in 2001, and Che Cowan in 2004 (with similar lyrics continuing to be penned in 2009), each composer was expressing a longing Christians have felt over the centuries since our Lord Jesus Christ was physically taken up from us. In the millennia-long history between the ascension and the second coming, we have gone into the world, preached the gospel, baptized converts, and have been trying to do the things Jesus commanded us to do. But all the while, the longing to sit at Jesus’ feet and gaze into the loving face of the “Suffering Servant” lingers in every Christian heart.
Jesus’ disciples, of course, knew exactly what he looked like, and so did many in the early church. Bishop Eusebius, who lived in the same century as Prudentius, even tells us he visited the site of the home of the woman healed from hemorrhaging, whose experience was chronicled in Mark 5:25–34, to view the statue she commissioned to commemorate her life-changing experience. In his book, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, 7.18, he describes the statue, which showed a woman kneeling before a man whose hand was stretched out to her. Then Eusebius writes, “This statue (andiron) the likeness (eikon) of Jesus it was said to bear” (my literal translation). Eusebius reports that the healed woman commissioned the sculptor to copy the exact features of Jesus. But though he and many others viewed it, neither they, nor the apostles before them, ever bothered to tell posterity what Jesus looked like. Eusebius dismissed such depictions as a Gentile concern, pointing out that, since Gentiles were free of Jewish traditional prohibitions against graven images, they copied the features of Christ and the apostles “in this uninhibited way” (7.18). As a result, a plethora of pictures of Jesus spread throughout the ancient world.
In the watercolor-on-wet-plaster depictions of Jesus in the catacombs, for example, our Savior appears sometimes with short hair and sometimes with long, bearded and smooth-shaven, tall and lithe and short and stocky, with dark, drawn, Semitic features often stark with suffering, or bright, fair, and youthful Latin features like a Roman pagan god. Those who painted the former were following suffering servant passages like Isaiah 53:2–3,
which warned he was neither attractive nor filled with splendor, but was despised and forsaken, suffering and knowing pain, while the latter artists were attempting to capture the victorious Son of God glowing through his human incarnation with the glorious, majestic grace that is described in passages like Psalm 45:2 (3, Hebrew), which they took as extolling the one anointed forever as “handsome (yapah) among men” (my trans.). For these artists, as for those who knew Jesus, what he actually looked like was of little importance; who he was as God-Among-Us and what he did to liberate humanity from sin was what really mattered.8
Still, as the years go by, we do lament with Tertullian and Augustine that the image of Jesus Christ has been so modified as to have been lost to us. In the meantime, we follow his commands in that interim stage described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12, feeling as though we are indeed peering through a poor reflection, and we treasure the accounts of those who encountered Jesus face to face. In such a context, this issue of our journal discusses New Testament women and the impact meeting Jesus had on them. As with everyone who encounters Jesus today through the work of his Holy Spirit, our subjects received an indelible impression for the rest of their lives. The significance of their accounts has also proved to live on to instruct our lives, as day by day the Holy Spirit effects our sanctification, which we might image as the turning of the holy countenance of God, which can look on no evil, ever more fully toward our own progressively purifying faces.
Whom, then, do we meet? The first woman is often overlooked, but she sounded a transitional prophetic voice as one of the first prophets to see the incarnated Christ: Anna, as she is recovered for us by Prof. Larry Helyer of Taylor University. Priscilla Papers associate editor Deb Beatty Mel follows with a careful exposition of the encounter of the Canaanite woman with Jesus, drawing out the implications for her time and then for ours. Professor Lyle Story of Regent University then provides insightful analysis with a “pair of fours”—four women who encountered Jesus and the anointing stories recounted by the four gospel writers. Professor Aída Besançon Spencer of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary next takes us through a directory of woman leaders in the New Testament church. A perceptive review by seminarian Jordan Easley examines Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits by Mignon R. Jacobs. And Professor Spencer provides a careful analysis of a new book that answers conversely to our theme, Jesus’ attitude toward the women he encountered: liberating or restricting? A poet new to our pages, Adele Hebert, completes the issue with a poetic meditation on one of the women who anointed Jesus. Our beautiful cover art was painted by one of Christianity’s major living artists, Bruce Herman, Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College, who has graciously allowed us to introduce to a wider viewing public this beautiful detail of Jesus’ mother Mary from his outstanding new series of paintings (2008). Readers as moved by this sample as I am may view the entire work at its location of permanent display in the monastery San Paolo in Orvieto, Italy.9
May God bless each of us with the love of Christ so that all we encounter will see the face of Jesus shine through the compassion in our own.
- Aurelius C. Prudentius, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” trans. John M. Neale (1854) and Henry W. Baker (1859).
- Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” Hope Publishing Company, Worship and Service Hymnal (Chicago, Ill: Hope, 1957), 220.
- Glenn Kaiser, “Lovin’ You,” from the album, Resurrection Band, Mommy Don’t Love Daddy Anymore (Waco, Tex.: Light Records, 1981).
- Jeromy Deibler, “One of These Days,” from the album, FFH, I Want to Be like You, (Brentwood, Tenn.: Essential, 1998).
- Martin Wampamba, “Presence,” from the album, Miracle Teens of Uganda, Let There Be Joy (Kampala, Uganda: Shoem Productions, 2001).
- Che Cowan, “My Turn,” from the album, Carlene Davis, The Author & Finisher (Kingston, Jamaica: Glory Music Ltd., 2004).
- Paul Baloche, “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (Mobile, Ala.: Integrity’s Hosanna Music, 1997).
- Those who wish to peruse my full discussion of Christ’s appearance, including a description of the earliest depiction of Jesus we have unearthed and an evaluation of the most probable quality of his features and skin tone, along with a theological assessment of and guidelines for depicting Jesus, please consult pages 23–30 in my book Dread Jesus (London: SPCK, 1999).
- In the meantime, Bruce Herman’s Magnificat, a beautifully produced, 9½ by 11'', 78-page program guide of full-color photographs of the entire work, with detailed commentary by Rachel Hostetter Smith, John Skillen, and the artist himself, which includes a compact disc of the making of the murals, is available for $20 (plus a minimal shipping cost) from The Gallery at Barrington Center for the Arts, Gordon College, 255 Grapevine Road, Wenham, MA 01984 (978-927-2300; www.gordon.edu).