How did Jesus appear? We have one sort of portrait available to us in the Passion story we just heard. Let’s consider that portrait. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On the front page of yesterday’s Detroit Free Press there appears an article entitled “Resurrecting Jesus’ Image: Scientists dig into history to find a credible likeness.” It tells about a recent effort to construct what Jesus may have looked like based on the skeletons of other people from his place and period. Nobody claims this process can yield an exact likeness of Jesus. But the effort has some value if it helps us understand that Jesus was a young Jewish man in the Holy Land of the first century and that he probably looked somewhat similar to the people around him.
Personally I am impressed with the tradition of how Jesus is portrayed in early Christian art. There is a consistency to this tradition, so that it’s easy, looking at early Christian art, to tell which face is Jesus. I like to think these portrayals are ultimately derived from the memories of someone who saw Jesus face to face. Even if it is not so, at least this early tradition depicts Jesus with a dark complexion and dark hair. It does not make the mistake of presenting him as a Swede with a suntan.
In picturing Jesus in any but the most general sense, we get no help from the Bible. This is because the Bible shows precious little interest in physical portraits. On the whole, we are left without physical descriptions of even the most important figures in Scripture. What we have instead are moral descriptions. People are described by their actions, their words, the decisions they make. This is true of numerous biblical figures and especially of Jesus.
Let us direct our attention then to a moral portrait of Jesus, one available to us in John’s Gospel when we reflect on what he says from the cross.
Three times he speaks, and each time he utters a short, simple sentence, the only sort possible for a man nailed to a cross, hanging from the beam, experiencing immense pain, with great strain on his heart and lungs, losing blood by the minute, a captive to weakness.
As John tells the story, these three times give us his last words. Often the last words of life give us a key to character, a moral portrait of the person drawn with a few bold lines. Certainly this is true for Jesus.
The first time Jesus speaks from the cross, he addresses two people standing below him. He says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he says to his young disciple John, “Behold, your mother.”
Jesus travels his irreversible trip to death, an agonizing death, but see what wonderful solicitude and care he shows to these two people! He knows he will not be with them much longer, so he unites them together in a new relationship. The widowed mother of Jesus now has a new son, a new home. The young disciple, barely an adult, has a new mentor and guide.
Here Jesus is concerned about the future of Mary and John. But he is also aware of the present moment, that he is about to enter his final agony. He would spare his mother the sight of that. For what is harder for a parent than to have a child die, and how horrible to watch your child die the long torture of crucifixion. The prophetic word from his babyhood must be fulfilled: a sword of grief will pierce the heart of blessed Mary. Yet she need not remain on Calvary to the final moment. Jesus courteously and gently commends her to the care of his closest friend. And so this woman––whom later generations call Our Lady of Sorrows––is taken to the comfort of John’s home.
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The next time Jesus speaks, he addresses no one in particular, but all who can hear him. From his dry mouth and parched lips come forth the words, “I am thirsty.” A simple statement of fact. A massive understatement, given the waves of pain that now flow through his flesh. This is the only time in all four gospels that Jesus speaks from the cross about his physical suffering.
This is what happens. In an act of kindness, one of the soldiers soaks a sponge in a nearby bowl of sour wine, puts it on a stick, and raises it to Jesus’ lips. Small comfort it seems to us, but refreshing to someone in such extremity.
This word about thirst and the act of mercy it elicits find their significance through reference to Psalm 22 and its words, “In my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.” Psalm 22 begins with the speaker sensing abandonment by God, yet concludes on a note of triumph and hope.
This word about thirst also recalls the cup of suffering Jesus prayed might pass from him, but which he accepted out of obedience to his Father. Now on the cross he is eager for this cup, eager to drain it to the dregs.
So we become more aware that he accepted his torment freely, not loving the pain, but loving the Father and loving the world for which he agrees to die. Thirsty is Jesus, even for sour wine in a sponge, but more thirsty by far for the redemption of the world.
Jesus receives the wine, then he speaks for the third and final time. “It is finished.”
This sentence indicates, not simply the end of something, but its completion, the goal accomplished, the purpose realized. But what is it that Jesus announces as finished just before he dies?
It is his life, all that the Father sent him into the world to do. It is the result of that life: prophecies fulfilled, sin’s power broken, the world overcome. All this is finally and definitively realized. The work of a lifetime. The salvation of the world. So Jesus goes out with a shout: “It is finished.”
These three words have been rightly identified as “the very centre and heart of John’s gospel.” [John Marsh, Saint John (The Pelican New Testament Commentaries, Penguin Books, 1968), p. 618] Why? Because they state succinctly the triumphant story announced by the evangelist. Here the cross is not a defeat that must wait for Easter morning to be reversed. It is already an instrument and sign of victory.
“It is finished.” Nailed to the wood, Christ is already triumphant. He reigns from the cross. As Jesus dies, he conquers.
“Woman, behold your son…. Behold, your mother.”
“I am thirsty.”
“It is finished.”
These simple sentences offer us a moral portrait of Jesus. See how he demonstrates compassion, and accepts pain, and crosses the finish line of life triumphant.
It may be useful to have a physical portrait of Jesus, how he may have looked based on skeletons from his place and period. But it is more important, more vital to learn from the pages of Scripture what he did, what he said, the decisions he made, to have a moral portrait of the man.
A physical portrait of Jesus answers some of our questions about him. A moral portrait of Jesus goes further: it questions some of our answers about ourselves. It leaves us unsettled, awakens us from death, and threatens us with resurrection.
I have spoken to you in the name of the God whose purpose is manifest through the cross: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).