“He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
The other day I was reflecting – with an odd emotional combination of gratitude, amazement, and fear – on the undeniable reality that my nineteen-month-old son looks exactly like me. My own mother had recognized it first, prompting her to share pictures of me when I was his age. But there is one difference: Daniel certainly has his mother’s eyes. Indeed most of us carry some degree of family resemblance (for better or for worse), and we each have something of both our parents whether we like it or not. To play a potentially blasphemous riff on Chalcedon: what’s clear is that Daniel is fully the son of Cal and fully the son of Denise.
There is a striking scene at the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Canto 31:58-142, in which Dante is greeted by none other than Bernard of Clairvaux. Dante has come up from the Inferno and Purgatory and is now about to see Christ himself. But first Bernard points him to the Virgin Mother. “And did you look even thus, O Jesus, my true Lord and God? And was this semblance your own?” The point made is that, by looking upon the face of Mary the mother of Jesus, one might prepare to see the one in whom God and man are joined, that one who is fully God and fully man.
A simple question. Does Jesus have Mary’s eyes? Does he have her smile? Does he have that same odd expression she makes when she can’t quite get the jelly jar open? Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, likely did and does look like his mother.
What does that, something so simple and so familiar and so quotidian, mean for us?
William Porcher Dubose and Adolf von Harnack, writing now about a century ago, both claimed that all heresies can be categorized as either Ebionite or Docetic, that is, some give us Jesus the man and some give us Jesus the deity, but not the Incarnation in which the creator of heaven and earth has joined with his own handiwork. After all, sometimes heresy is easier on our dim, rational minds. But salvation and new creation stream from the mystery that Christ is fully God and fully man, that God’s fullness, wholeness, and holiness has met our broken and wounded nature. Eric Mascall even went so far in his short book Via Media (1956) to make the union of God and man the sole irreducible bedrock of the faith. He wrote (117-118):
The two fundamental facts about my relation to Christ are that he evokes from me that consciousness of absolute and unconditional allegiance and adoration that no one but God can rightly claim, and that he and he alone restores me to union with that God from whom my sins have estranged me. That Christ is Lord, and that he is the one Mediator between God and man, are the fundamental facts of the Christian religion.
Again, what does it mean for Jesus – the one who is the image of the invisible Father (Col 1:15), the one who shows us the Father (John 14:9) – to have Mary’s eyes? What does it mean for us?
“He did not pass through the Virgin, as if through a channel; rather he truly took flesh from her and by her was truly nursed, really eating and really drinking just as we do. For if the Incarnation were a mere appearance, such would be our redemption as well.” – Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses
The image above is “2004 Theotokos of the Passion cartoon” by the Flickr user Duckmarx and is licensed under Creative Commons.