Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition
November 29, 2017 // The Human Condition

Christ’s human face in glory

Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition

It is a doctrine of the faith that, at the Incarnation, the Eternal Son of God, without the loss of His divinity, took upon Himself a complete human nature. That human nature, we can be sure, came from none other than His mother, Mary. I think it fair to assume that Jesus’s physical features — His facial appearance, eye color, hair color and texture — are likely to have resembled closely His own mother’s. I like to imagine that at some point in His childhood or young adulthood, someone commented to Him that He looked a lot like His mother.

As the body of our Lord was taken down from the cross, it was entrusted to His mother. Artists have variously depicted this scene, whether called the “deposition from the cross” or (more famously) the Pietà: the sorrowful mother holding in her arms the body of the Son she bore, nursed, cared for, and loved more than her own life. It strikes me that the face of Jesus, in the throes of agony on the cross, and the face of His mother, like any mother heartbroken at her Son’s suffering and utterly powerless to assuage it, must at that awful moment in human history, have looked stunningly alike. As the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (1236-1306) wrote so beautifully in the hymn we all have likely heard during the Stations of the Cross, the “Stabat Mater,” “through her heart, his sorrow sharing, all his bitter anguish bearing, now at length the sword has passed.” The “sword” being, of course, a reference to the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:25-35).

As they bore (at least in my meditative imagination) such a striking resemblance to one another, I often envision their faces looking nearly identical in that moment of pain and grief: the mother who shares so much in her Son’s own suffering that she experiences His agony. But, as another, more contemporary hymn reminds us, “If the song had ended then, our eyes would fill with tears. But ah, the song had just begun to echo down the years.” God’s identification with humanity in the person of Jesus, the eternal Son made flesh, is “mirrored” in the face of His mother, from whose own flesh and blood He was Himself nourished. Christ’s human face reflected that of His own mother.

But the “song” had not yet ended. We know that Jesus “trampled down death” by His death (as an ancient Easter Christian hymn celebrates). Risen and glorified, He revealed Himself to His disciples (always, it should be noted, on His terms and in His own way; no one simply “ran into” Him or discovered Him by their own powers or initiative). It is striking that nowhere in the Scriptures is it recorded that He revealed Himself as risen to His mother. This, of course, does not preclude such a manifestation; it simply isn’t recorded by or known to the evangelists.

If indeed this was the case, it means that Mary’s last glimpse of her Son’s face was in death. She saw Him no more “according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5.16). We also know that, at the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken body and soul to heavenly glory. She experienced at the end of her earthly life the fullness of the redemption for which we hope, and she is truly “the beginning and image of the Church’s coming to perfection” (preface for the Assumption). And this would mean that, it was at that very moment that she once again saw the face of her Son, now in glory. And as His glory was bestowed upon her, she shares in His risen life. Their faces once again look so much alike; before in agony, now in glory.

She bestowed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, her humanity upon the Eternal Son. Her Son, now in glory, bestows His risen and glorified life upon her. As the Fathers would say, “He became what we are, so that we might become what He is”: the mystery of what the Fathers were not too timid to call our divinization or deification, to be given by grace a created share in uncreated life, to become by grace what the Eternal Son is by nature.

This began for Mary at the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Anne, when she received the fruit of the saving work of her Son whom she was to bear; and this gift was consummated for her at her Assumption. What Mary received “up front” so to speak, at her conception, and now experiences in glory, we receive piecemeal, bit by bit, incrementally and by grace, over time, and by sacraments; no less a gift, but bestowed and experienced differently. All this begins for us in our baptism, when we are made sons or daughters in the Son.

Envision Our Lady, gazing upon the face of her newborn Son as He lay in her arms. “Doesn’t He look just like you?” her friends and relatives might have said to her. Imagine her again holding that child now grown, defeated by the brutality of the cross, again in her arms, this time bloodied, bruised and lifeless; their shared and pained expression so similar in appearance. And picture her entering into glory, seeing that same face now in risen majesty, bestowing upon her a share in His own divine glory. He took what was ours and made it His own, so that He might bestow on us what could never be ours, by nature or merit, apart from His gift.

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