Seeing Jesus

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | January 18, 2022

It’s hard not to see Jesus the way we are used to seeing him on holy cards and church statues we’ve seen since childhood.

Close your eyes and visualize Jesus. How does he look? I often see our family Bible’s images of Jesus with pale skin and light brown eyes and hair.

Yet, we really don’t know how he looked. There are no Gospel descriptions. Jesus most likely looked like many Middle Eastern men with black, curly hair and dark skin. I can sometimes forget that.

This challenge to see Jesus in varied ways came to mind three times during Christmastime.

The first was with The Compass’ Just for Kids coloring contest. I was struck by the diversity of shepherds and angels the children drew: tan, white, brown, black.

Next was when I spotted a small image of the Holy Family by the ambo of my church. It was so small I had to go up after Mass to see everything clearly: the star, manger, animals. The Holy Family was black. It was a beautiful, loving image and I hoped many people stopped to see it.

The third time I was challenged to see Jesus in new ways was with two Catholic News Service stories (Nov. 29 and Dec. 28) about an icon of Jesus and Mary, portrayed as black, that was stolen from Catholic University of America (CUA).

The icon of the dead Christ in his mother’s arms was entitled “Mama,” by Kelly Latimore. It is in the Eastern Orthodox style: Mary wears blue, with stars on her head and shoulders, and the Greek letters for “Mother of God” and “He who is” are on the image. Visit kellylatimore.com to see a copy.

Once there, you might see another icon: “La Sagrada Familia,” with the Holy Family as Hispanic refugees. The icon has been used often, including on the cover of Pope Francis’ book, “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me” (Orbis, 2018).

The Mama icon was, the artist acknowledges, commissioned in memory of George Floyd, after his May 2020 death. And, yes, copies were carried in many Black Lives Matter marches.

In February 2021, Black History Month, CUA placed a copy of the icon at the entrance of its Columbus School of Law chapel. Months went by without incident. However, this changed when the icon was mentioned on social media in late fall. It was stolen just before Thanksgiving.

James Garvey, president of CUA, issued a Nov. 24 press release, citing the social media comments, and saying, “Many see the male figure as George Floyd, but our law school has always seen the figure as Jesus.”

“Some comments that we received were thoughtful and reasonable. Some were offensive and racist,” he added.

A second image of the icon was put up. It — after more phone calls, letters, social media comments and emails — was also stolen. CUA has not replaced it and has said they will choose something else.

Reading this, and seeing the Holy Family images at my church and on the pope’s book, reminded me of a Christmas carol, “Some Children See Him.” It was written in 1952 by Wihla Hutson, an organist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Mich. The music was composed by the pastor’s son, Alan Burt.

Some of my friends had never heard this carol. It has been recorded by people like David Archuleta and James Taylor. In different verses, it speaks of the Holy Infant as both “lily white,” with “dark and heavy hair” and ““almond eyed with skin of yellow hue.” To see a video of Kenny Loggins singing it, visit: bit.ly/3Gs5UTG.

The Burt website alanburtcarols.com explains the carol’s genesis: “With the U.S. engaged in the Korean War … the simple but moving lyrics of this carol affirmed that children of any nationality could imagine Jesus to be like them, with the underlying message that love is more important than any claim of race or nationality.”

We need to remember this, both at Christmas, when carols remind us that we all can see Jesus as he appears to our inner child, and during the rest of the year, when we can see Christ’s image in many people. St. Teresa of  Kolkata often said she saw Christ in every sick person she met. 

Maybe the reason we don’t have any physical description of Jesus from the Gospels is because he wants us to see him with our hearts and not our eyes.

Try again. Close your eyes. How do you see Jesus?

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