By Rev. Jean-Pierre Ruiz
One of my favorite assignments in a course I often teach invites students to “describe, from your perspective, your image of God, what you picture or imagine (with or without a visual image) when you consider ‘God’.”
Because this assignment is scheduled early in the semester, it provides me with fascinating snapshots of the preconceptions my students bring with them. By semester’s end, some of these have been challenged, some transformed, others validated, still, others expanded a little or a lot.
One recurring image that my Catholic students submit is of God as “an old white guy with a long white beard.” As for Jesus, many say he looks like a younger white guy with blue eyes, well-groomed long brown hair, and a brown beard. Many insist that this is what the Catholic Church taught them.
Nothing could be further from the truth! The most careful perusal of the Catechism of the Catholic Church won’t yield a word about the looks of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels don’t help either: none gives us a clue about his height or weight, the color of his eyes, the hue of his skin, or anything of the sort.
Consider what Luke’s Gospel says about Jesus’ baptism: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying.” The evangelist then writes that “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased’.”
Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit looked like a dove but says nothing about Jesus’ appearance! Not long before this fleeting reference to Jesus’ baptism by John, Luke recounts the Baptist’s announcement of the imminent advent of one mightier than himself, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
We are left wondering whether John had any clue that the one who waited his turn for a dunking was the Christ, the thongs of whose sandals he declared himself unworthy to loosen!
Luke tells us something important by the economy of his words: Jesus looked just like the others who were baptized by John. He wasn’t any taller, stronger, or more handsome. He fit right in.
While the Church doesn’t teach what Jesus looked like, it teaches that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Christ’s humanity isn’t a costume worn while modestly tucking his halo into his pocket. The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God the Son became human in every respect except for sin, completely immersed in the complexities of our condition.
So how can we recognize him today? Many of my students are deeply moved when I invite them to view the icon by Kelly Latimore called “Mama.”
It depicts the Blessed Mother as with love and sorrow she cradles her Son after his body was taken down from the cross. Yet Christ’s face resembles that of the murdered George Floyd, for surely Jesus identifies with the victims of violence past and present.
By the grace of the Holy Spirit we received at our baptism, may we recognize Christ in the faces of those who suffer.
By the power of the Spirit, may we reverence Christ by attending to their needs and by working for justice in Jesus’ name.
Readings for the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Acts of the Apostles: 10:34-38
Luke: 3:15-16, 21-22
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.