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.
Heart Speaks to Heart