The 1959 film, Ben Hur, contains two related scenes in which the main character has an encounter with Jesus. Judah Ben Hur is falsely accused and sentenced to the galleys as a slave oarsman. On the way to the ship, chained to fellow prisoners, he is brutalized and almost dying from thirst. When he falls, a man stoops down, offering a cup of water. We never see this man’s face, but we do not need to because Judah’s face says it all: it is Jesus. Judah has no clue who this man is, but his face bespeaks awe in the light of Jesus’ boundless mercy and love. The encounter is brief, but its effect remains deep within Judah. A mirror image of this scene takes place near the end of the film when Jesus is carrying His cross to Golgotha, and Judah, confused and consumed by anger and grief, is somehow caught up in the crowd. He sees Jesus and cries out: “I know that man.” He rushes over in an attempt to give Jesus a cup of water and once again their eyes meet. Judah’s face expresses awe and wonder in seeing the same mercy and love for him in the eyes of the suffering Jesus. Again, we never see the face of Jesus. But both encounters change the life of Judah. The point here is that the filmmaker opted to keep hidden the face of the actor who portrayed Jesus. The effect is powerful because of Charlton Heston’s performance, but it also leaves it up to our faith-imagination to ‘see’ the face of Jesus, a powerful reminder than even in suffering and death, the face of Jesus is more than an icon of love and mercy; in Him is the beauty of God. *
Of course we know that the true ‘story’ of Jesus (and the fictional story, Ben Hur) does not end in death, but rather in glorious resurrection. In the Gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus it is clear that when His closest friends and disciples saw Him, they did not readily recognize Him. In Luke’s gospel the first encounter with Jesus is that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two, Cleopas and an unnamed person, talked with Jesus for hours, at first bemoaning the death of the one they thought was the Messiah. As they walked, Jesus explained how the Scriptures had been fulfilled, and yet they still did not know who He was. But once Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. (Luke 24:13-35) Similarly in John’s Gospel, the first recorded encounter with the Risen Jesus is that of Mary Magdalene. She was weeping by the tomb, thinking thieves had stolen His body when Jesus approached. She did not recognize Him until He said her name, “Mary!” (John 20:11-18) These people knew Jesus intimately, yet when they first saw Him after His resurrection they had no clue as to His true identity.
One might argue that grief clouded their vision or that perhaps they did not expect to encounter one who they knew to be dead and so the shock kept them from truly seeing. While these things may have contributed to their lack of recognition, it is also clear that after the resurrection Jesus’ appearance was remarkably different. The gospel writers attest to this when they wrote that Jesus could walk through locked doors, yet He had a body which could be touched. His wounds were part of Him, but no longer were inflicting pain. He ate, not out of hunger, but to show the incredulous apostles that He was not a ghost. Oh yes, and He could be present in the form of bread and wine, which in reality was (is) His Body and Blood. Luke attests to the moment when the two disciples in Emmaus were startled as they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread and Jesus vanished immediately from sight: it made no sense for Jesus to be in two resurrected forms at once and so He remained equally present in the bread and wine. They were so overjoyed at recognizing Jesus who remained with them in the Eucharist, that they were totally revitalized and were able to run all the way back to Jerusalem.
It is easy to wonder what Jesus looked like during His lifetime. Great artists have been trying to portray His image for hundreds of years. Any image of Jesus is actually rather symbolic and not a true likeness, but like an icon, it can draw us into the reality of who He is. In the film, the expression on the face of actor Charlton Heston gave all the information we needed about the love and mercy of Christ. Thus, when we pray our faith and imagination can fill in the gaps until we see Jesus face-to-face in Heaven. And even if there had been a portrait painted while Jesus was in His earthly life, it would not begin to give us an idea of His Resurrected appearance. However, paintings and icons are wonderful spiritual tools because they help us to enter into the beauty of Jesus. We can see as did Ben Hur for example, the love, mercy, compassion, healing, peace, and even the challenge of His gospel message as we look to great works of art. We can see Jesus in our study of the Scriptures and in our prayer, too. But no matter how we ‘see,’ in this life we will always long for Christ. In truth, the longing to see His face should be the driving force behind our life as Christians: a true desire to see Jesus is not the result of curiosity, but rather it arises from our love for Him.
The Good News is that like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus we see Jesus every time we are in His presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Whenever a priest prays the consecration, the elements are no longer mere bread and wine, but rather become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. He is visibly present. Jesus is as present to us at this time as He was to those who saw Him prior to the Ascension: we see the Risen Christ in all His beauty and we have an intimate encounter when we receive Him at Communion. If we really want to contemplate His true face, we need to watch carefully and listen intently while the Eucharistic prayer is being prayed. Further, we can spend even more time beholding His beauty through Eucharistic adoration, coming before the Body of Christ in silent prayer and worship.
But let’s not forget that we also witness the beauty of Jesus every time we encounter one of His children, that is, our brothers and sisters. We see Jesus every time we reach out in love, whether it is to Jesus in His “most distressing disguises” in the poor, the suffering and the ill, or in the one who is downtrodden, marginalized, ostracized, bullied, or depressed. We see the beauty of Jesus in our friends and relatives, as well as in our Church family; we see His beauty residing within the brokenness of our own humanity, and we see His beauty in nature which can move us with awe at its magnificence. We see the beauty of Jesus when we love and when we are loved, and we see His beauty especially keenly when we forgive and are forgiven.
Truly, the Risen Christ is among us. Like the first Christians sometimes we do not recognize Him right away. Sometimes we fail to notice that the one to whom we are speaking or the one whom we are with is filled with the presence of Jesus. Therefore, we need to greet each one as if we were greeting Christ. And when we worship, we need to welcome the presence of the Risen Christ and open ourselves to a true encounter with Him. If we truly encounter Him there, and if we allow ourselves to realize the enormity of the gift we are receiving, then perhaps a similar transformation as that which took place in the apostles will take place in us. Perhaps like the fictional Judah Ben Hur we will realize we stand before Jesus when we give a cup of cold water to one of His little ones. And perhaps the experience will enable us to see Jesus everywhere. If we truly recognize Jesus, seeing the beauty of His face, and therefore the beauty of the mercy and love in His eyes, we, too will become what we see, what we eat (Eucharist), and Who we encounter.
Jesus opened the eyes of the blind during His ministry and He opened the eyes of those who encountered Him after His Resurrection: may we also learn to see the Resurrected Christ in the blessing and breaking of the bread! May the expression on our faces and the love in our actions give others “all the information they need” about the love and mercy of Christ! May we be courageous in our desire to recognize Jesus in all those whom we meet! May we offer the cup of cold water to all His little ones, and thus to Jesus, in the form of mercy, compassion, love, and kindness! And may we always seek Jesus in every moment of every day! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Risen Lord Jesus! Peace! Alleluia!
©Michele L. Catanese
* There were five film versions of Ben Hur. The first two movies were silent films made in 1907 and 1925. After the 1959 version with Charlton Heston, the remaining two renditions were a 2003 animated version and finally a 2016 attempt which was truly terrible. The movies are based on the book by (Civil War General) Lew Wallace, which is titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written in 1880. In my opinion the 1959 film is excellent, but if you decide to read the book, be aware that it is rather different: the 1959 screenplay is powerful, however, and captures the essence of Lew Wallace’s original story and intention.
Note: Next post is on May 7.
1. This is one of my photos, taken in the northeastern coast of the North Island in New Zealand. This is a bay of the Tasman Sea. I chose it because it symbolizes the journey out to sea taken by Ben Hur.
2. This painting is called On The Road to Emmaus by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena. I chose it because Jesus looks rather ordinary. He does not appear to be in glory, perhaps drawing us into the lack of awareness of the two disciples, seeing Him as they did.
3. This is a painting by Julian Merrow-Smith (2015). He paints many stills of food, and there are multiple paintings of bread on a site called Postcards from Provence. I liked the simplicity of the painting. You can find it at https://shiftinglight.com/2015/10/bread_demo.html.
4. This image is called The Galilean Jesus, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it because it depicts Jesus in a way that feels informal and real. What I mean is that, while it is not intended to be a portrait for the very reasons I mentioned in the post, this image has a sense of the everyday reality of what Jesus must have been like. There is nothing outwardly spectacular about Him, but yet, there is great beauty. It seems to draw the viewer into the mercy and love which are in His eyes. You can find this image, and can purchase copies in a variety of mediums, at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. This is a painting by Vincent van Gogh called At Eternity's Gate painted in 1890 which was also the year of his death. Van Gogh had many inner struggles with depression and so one wonders if the subject in this painting somehow expresses his inner anguish. I chose to use it here because it depicts what I think is Jesus in a 'distressing disguise.' (St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta originated this expression.) The posture of the man seems to speak of suffering and yet one wonders if he is deeply in prayer. Either way, he is one of God's children, broken and in need, yet beautiful.
6. This photo was taken by my husband in Schulenburg, TX, during a wonderful street festival. I chose to use it here because Jesus is present in His people. Each of these people is someone in whom we can encounter Him.
7. Finally, another of my photos, this one taken in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. It seemed to be an appropriate finish to this post. It speaks of beauty, the cup of cold water we might offer, and opening our eyes to see all that surrounds us at every moment.
These days it is difficult to know what is true and what is fabrication, so it is not surprising that we have become wary of just about anything we see and hear. Thinking things through and applying common sense should reign. Spiritually we should also exercise the common sense called discernment and therefore test everything to ascertain whether it is in keeping with the Gospels and to make sure that what we choose leads us closer to God rather than away. This is not always easy; we continuously need to work at ‘knowing what is right.’ The issue of recognizing the truth is not new and in fact, it arose on Good Friday when we heard Pontius Pilate ask Jesus: “What is truth?” Unfortunately, Pilate was less interested in the truth as it is, God’s spoken Word, than he was in the truth he preferred to hear. Fearing to lose power, he let the Jewish authorities have their way regarding the fate of Jesus. But since Jesus won the victory by rising from the dead, we know that everything He promised and all that He taught is truth and that indeed He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The answer to Pilate’s question was standing right before him and he refused to accept the answer. He could not tell truth from falsehood and thus he remained in fear.
The apostles also wrestled with truth in those first days after the Resurrection. But unlike Pilate, they had already allowed truth to ‘take residence’ within them. They had an immense struggle at first, hiding when they should have been at Jesus’ side, fearful of being arrested. They were probably horrified at what they had done, no doubt praying for forgiveness, all the while struggling over the truth of who Jesus had said He was in the face of His resounding ‘failure’ and death. Even so, the apostles teach us that there is no shame in wrestling with difficult issues so long as we are open to the truth no matter how challenging it may be. Because they stayed in the process, their hearts were open to the Risen Jesus and their subsequent behaviors were those of men transformed by Easter joy. Like them, we also need to act like it if we have accepted the truth of the Risen Lord. This means that we need to put our faith into action so that others may come to know Christ because they see Him in us. Our behavior, then, should be Easter behavior.
I have always had a heart for the apostle Thomas who is often singled out and labeled as a doubter. If one compares him to the other ten apostles gathered in the Upper Room, he is no more a doubter than they are! All of the apostles had trouble believing Mary Magdalene when she first showed up saying that she had seen the Risen Jesus. Peter and John did go to the empty tomb, and while they witnessed the rolled up burial clothes, they still struggled to understand. (John 20:1-10) Like Thomas they needed more evidence before they could accept what Mary Magdalene had told them. And all of the apostles were in hiding for a while after the Resurrection: even after Peter and John told of their experience at the empty tomb, (John 20:1-10), the testimony of the two men from Emmaus, (Luke 24:13-35), and Peter’s encounter with the Risen Jesus, (Luke 24:34), they still hid. Although the apostles seemed to believe their friends, their behavior indicates that they still struggled with what was true because most of them had not yet seen. So we need to give poor Thomas a break and stop identifying him as ‘The Doubter’ as if he was the only one.
It is interesting that the evangelist John included the struggle of Thomas in his accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. It may have been that John wanted to help future generations understand that truth is often difficult to discern. It could be that this was his way of describing to us that he, too, struggled at first. Perhaps in making us privy to Thomas’ interior battle, John was helping us to realize that it is normal to wrestle with our faith so long as we remain open to truth in our study, prayer, and reflection. Ultimately Thomas’ mind and heart were open, and so when Jesus came to the Upper Room again, he dropped to his knees and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” The joy of the experience changed him forever and he not only believed with all his heart, but the truth empowered him to let go of his fear and to dedicate his entire life to sharing the message of Truth.
However, it is also important to look at the response of Jesus: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” This may not have been the rebuke it appears to be. Jesus may have been pointing out that those to whom they would be sent and all future generations, (that means us), would not see Him in the same way as they had. Thus, He may have wanted to emphasize how difficult it would be to present the truth to those who would struggle to accept it. Not only would the apostles have to share in word, but also in deed; they would have to live what they taught through mercy, love, and joy. It reminds us that if we profess to believe the glorious truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if we sing with joy our Alleluias at Easter, then our actions should reflect what we claim to believe. If we leave our joy and the message of Christ on the pew when we leave the church, then we are not living as Easter people. Simply put, if we believe that Jesus rose, we need to act like it. The truth which was revealed to us at the Resurrection is that Jesus freed us from fear and overcame the power of sin and death. The truth is that nothing can separate us from Jesus and we will be with Him in Heaven one day.
Years ago I read this quip: “If you are feeling joy in your heart, inform your face.” If we accept the truth that Jesus is Lord, arisen from the dead, and we accept all that He revealed as truth, our actions should reflect it. We cannot hide behind ‘closed doors’ in our heart just because we are wrestling with some aspect or another of living the Christian life. We are not meant to understand everything, and some matters of faith will present challenges to us during our lives. But faith is acceptance of that for which we have no proof, and the mysteries of our faith are just that: mysteries. What enabled the apostles to truly believe was not just that they saw Jesus. The joy in their hearts was kept alive because they now accepted that Jesus could still love them despite their previous abandonment, betrayal, and brokenness. They accepted this gift, becoming empowered by the depth of Jesus’ mercy and the joy of being in His presence. In short, they believed because they loved Him and therefore they allowed His love to transform them. Hence, they were able to go forth from the Upper Room and go into the Temple praising God. They let their joy be seen, and ultimately, after the Holy Spirit came upon them a bit later, their words and deeds converted many. If not for them, we would not be the Church that we are: alive and vibrant.
To fully embrace the truth, we need to remember that we are not any different than the apostles. We, too, have seen the Risen Lord: we have seen Him via the blessing and breaking of the bread. Every time we partake of the Eucharist we are face to face with the Risen Jesus and we do touch Him. Like Thomas our response should be: “My Lord and my God!!” If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that all of His words are true; if we believe in the Body of Christ, the Church; if we believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and that we will resurrect on the last day; if we believe that Jesus suffered and died and rose from the dead so that we can spend eternity in Heaven with Him, then our actions need to reveal what is in our heart. If we believe in Truth and if we are full of Easter joy, we need to share it, not solely with emotion, but with actions which reveal our joy in knowing Jesus. One who loves wants to share the wealth with others; therefore we need to bring the Truth and the joy of knowing Jesus outward through little acts of kindness, aid for the suffering, patience in our own suffering, generosity with the poor, and working for justice in our communities. We need to act like the Easter people that we are, bringing Christ to others as He has come to us. This is our faith; this is the Truth.
May we accept the Truth of all that Jesus taught and live it with joy! May we give glory to the Risen Jesus through our actions! May we give witness to the love of Jesus as we share it with others! May we accept the gift of faith, and if it is challenged, may we open ourselves to the gift of the Holy Spirit who will give us the graces we need! May we ask the intercession of St. Thomas the Apostle when we are challenged in our faith! May we always recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine as it becomes Eucharist! Let us meet at the table of the Risen Lord in gratitude for such a great gift! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post April 23.
1. I took this photo in a vineyard near Schulenberg, Texas. The light that appears to be around the trees was not intentional on my part and I did not see it until I printed the photo. I chose to use this photo here because it makes us ask what the truth in what we are seeing is: were the trees glowing or is it simply a trick of the light? It represents the need to find out what is true. The second reason is that this is a vineyard, and hence there is a Eucharistic reference. The wine does become the Blood of Christ at Mass even though we cannot understand how.
2. This is the famous Resurrection panel which is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald. (1512) I chose to use it here because it is stunning in how it depicts light overcoming darkness. You can find it at https://www.wikiart.org/en/matthias-grunewald/the-resurrection-of-christ-right-wing-of-the-isenheim-altarpiece-1516.
3. This painting is called Three Women at the Empty Tomb by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. I like this painting because of the vibrant colors. The angel's wings remind me of Fra Angelico's painting of the Annunciation. Perhaps Carolsfeld was paying homage to Fra Angelico, but the angel is making a momentous announcement, so it seemed fitting to use this particular painting here.
4. This icon is called The Risen Lord Appears to St. Thomas by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It draws us into the moment when Thomas sees and witnesses to the truth of his faith. You can find it at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-risen-lord-appears-to-st-thomas-257-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. This is one of my photos, taken at Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand. This is actually Mt. Tasman, the second highest mountain in NZ. These mountains moved me to feel great joy simply in viewing their beauty; therefore it seemed appropriate to use this photo here.
6. I took this photo of the Eucharistic bread and wine at the Mass of Thanksgiving said by a Jesuit friend the day after his ordination. This is actually a cropped version of the photo and so the ciborium and chalice containing what will soon be the Body and Blood of Christ are the focus. (Sorry Fr. Marc.) I chose to use it here because it was the moment when the bread and wine were about to be consecrated. "My Lord and my God!"
7. This is an icon called The Risen Christ by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It seemed the perfect ending for this piece. You can find it at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-risen-christ-014-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Heart Speaks to Heart