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Seeing the Face of Jesus

Homily from Stephen Sundborg, S.J.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 26, 2023

Let’s take seriously the question of Jesus in today’s gospel; he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Each of us here today is a disciple, so let him ask us personally “Who do. you say I am?” Or more simply let Jesus ask us, “Who am I for you?” It’s a good question, but not an easy one. Our answer of who Jesus is for us changes over the course of our lives.

I recently read a book called Freeing Jesus by Diana Butler Bass. It’s about rediscovering Jesus. Diana Butler Bass shows how over the course of her life Jesus has changed from being friend, then teacher, then savior, then Lord, then Way, then presence. It made me ask who has Jesus been for me and who is he now. I wonder if a simple way of putting what as believing Christians our faith journey is about is to say we are seeking to see the face of Jesus, that we now see his face in different ways till one day we shall all see him face to face.

I once got to know a Christian Arab man from Bethlehem named Khaled Jaraysa. he told me that on his mother’s side they could trace their family living there in Bethlehem back before the birth of Jesus there! As I looked on Khaled it struck me that Jesus probably looked more like him than any image I had of Jesus: not tall, a bit stocky, olive skin, dark curly hair, reddish full cheeks, thick smiling lips, and deep-set, dark, suffering, compassionate eyes. Somehow ever since them seeing the face of Khaled has changed and made more real to me who Jesus is for me. As in the Ignatian tradition, __________ - like this of the face of Jesus – supports our faith and relationship with and love of him.

The poet Denise Levertov also seeks to see the face of Jesus in order to know who he is for her in her faith journey. She writes of Jesus in a poem on the way of the cross:

Maybe he looked indeed

much as Rembrandt envisioned Him

in those small heads that seem in fact

portraits of more than a model.

A dark, still young, very intelligent face,

a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.

That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth

in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.

Seeking to see the face of Jesus helps us to know who he is for us, helps us to put ourselves with him. Where in all the gospel stories can you most easily and fully put yourself with Jesus and see him, be with him? For me, for example, it is when Jesus asks Peter to put his boat out a short distance from the shore and sits down teaching the crowd on the shore about the kingdom. I love being Peter seated at the other end of that boat, my boat, and to watch Jesus and to see how the crowd looks on him. It’s somehow about being a small but necessary part of his ministry. That helps me answer the question of his this Sunday, “Who am I for you?”

Sometimes the face of Jesus is hidden from us as it almost always was for the great Carmelite, who writes under the name of Ruth Burrows. Nine days ago, she turned 100 in a London care home. She did not have the kind of religious feelings I’ve been speaking about, yet when she wrote her autobiography, she said at the very end of it “One long, searching look into my past and I see there in its depths the face of Christ gazing back at me.” Jesus for her is personal presence yet totally hidden. She could have responded to Jesus’s question “Who am I for you?” with both “I’ve never seen you,” and “I’ve always seen you.”

And we see the face of Jesus and answer who he is for us in another way in which he makes himself present. He is present and seen in the Body of Christ which we are; seen best in who he is when we gather on Sunday as the Body of Christ. And as another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so unforgettably, Jesus is seen in our sisters and brothers:

for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces.

There’s how that Jesuit poet answers Jesus’s question of today, “Who am I for you?”

I think we need the courage, the faith, the trust to let Jesus be who he is personally, uniquely for us as we respond to his question, “Who am I for you?” We each have our way of seeking to see his face as we are called and are promised that one day together we shall indeed see him face to face.

Stephen Sundborg, S.J. is an American Jesuit and theologian. He served as the 21st President of Seattle University from July 1997 to July 2021.


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