If you have visited the sanctuary or been in worship on Sunday morning, you will have noticed the addition of pieces of art that represent what Jesus looks like to various artists. This is a gentle effort to realize that He was born for all persons, all people, not only one race or ethnic group of people; thus, we see representations of Jesus at the hands of artists that represent images in addition to the ones I was raised with as a middle, class, white girl, in a protestant faith community. Those images were exclusively a European, white-skinned, sandy haired, young man. What we know is that he was born into and lived within a culture of people who lived in the harsh sun of the desert in the area we today know as Palestine, Israel, and Syria. We also know that his mother, Mary, theological historians reflect, was from the Tribe of Judah; some suggest she was descended from Solomon (which means she could have come from any number of countries or ethnicities if you can believe that he had hundreds of wives! (First Kings 11:3). The point is that skin color was not what distinguished folks back in the ancient of days – but from a biblical point of view, the only distinguishing characteristic was that they were Israelites, or not. Which means Jesus’ physical description was not important except to say he blended in with the dark-skinned people of the region.
The Bible nowhere gives a physical description of what Jesus looked like during His incarnation. The closest thing we get to a description is in Isaiah 53:2b, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.” All this tells us is that Jesus’ appearance was just like any other man’s – He was ordinary-looking. Isaiah was here prophesying that the coming suffering Servant would arise in lowly conditions and wear none of the usual emblems of royalty, making His true identity visible only to the discerning eye of faith.
My educated guess on his appearance is that it so much did not matter, that when you were in His presence, something other than his appearance was what moved you. You were moved by His authenticity, His ability to see you, to hear what you needed; you saw him because he offered the gifts of peace and love.
Generally speaking, the artists in European ancestry and tradition are celebrated because the skill is amazing and moving. Religious themes were often the focus of great works, because the Roman Catholic church has the money to support the arts as something of beauty and sacred to the expression of God’s grace. Think about famous works like the Pieta or the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, depicting European images of God, Jesus, Mary, and heavenly bodies – because that is how people looked to one another in their context. And like wise for artists all over the globe, who have depicted the stories of scripture in the context of their images because they want Jesus to feel like their brother, too. So, perhaps he looked like them!
In the USA experience, we celebrate the differences of our ethnicities in our communities, and thus, the images of the Christ as we appropriate what our friend, brother, and Savior, Jesus – might have looked like. We will never know until we reach heaven’s doors, but we do know that when he walked the Earth in his human body, he was not light skinned with sandy blonde/brown hair. If he had been that different from his peers and neighbors, it would have likely been written. Also, how would they have hidden in plain sight fleeing to Egypt in the days after the birth of Jesus, if he had been born blonde? The fact that they blended in is highly suggestive of the dark-skin of Mary, and of course, the baby she bore.
I am prayerful that the images of Jesus in different skin, representing differences in our American ethnicities, make our house of worship welcoming in one more way to all who enter the sanctuary. It is that we know Jesus loves all people, of all races and ethnicities and since we do not know what he looked like, we celebrate that many ways visual artists have embraced the challenge of depicting the most influential human (and divine) person that walk the Earth: Jesus Christ.