When I was a kid, I liked to read the copy of The Children’s Bible, which was first published by Golden Press in the 1960s. Even before I learned to read, the pictures depicting the Bible stories fascinated me, especially those of the Old Testament. In my mind I can still see the picture of the animals entering Noah’s Ark as the rains began, the picture of the blinded Samson collapsing the Philistine temple by pushing on its supporting pillars, and the picture of David defeating Goliath. But one thing I thought was kind of strange, even as a little boy, was how Jesus looked. The artist who drew the images depicted him as blonde and blue-eyed. I never thought of Him looking that way, and I wondered about it.
There’s a lot of noise these days about depictions of Jesus in art and in churches. Some rather confused people suggest that depictions of Jesus as European are somehow racially insensitive, if not outright expressions of white supremacy. Even if we were to assume these are good faith assertions, they’re still kind of silly. Our Lord was born into a Jewish family not far from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Physically, He almost certainly looked like the people around Him. He would have resembled His Mother most of all. It is highly unlikely that He had blonde hair and blue eyes. But the gospels provide no physical description of Jesus. What the scriptures do tell us, what we know beyond doubt, is that He had a human nature, a human nature just like every other human being who has ever lived – except without sin.
Because God made Himself visible to us through the Incarnation, “graven” images depicting God were suddenly permissible, whereas previously they had been prohibited under the Mosaic Law. Over the past 20 centuries, Our Lord has been portrayed in a multitude of ways, usually resembling the people of the culture that produced the piece of artwork. In the Mediterranean, Our Lord looks Mediterranean. In northern Europe, He looks northern European. In the far East, He has Asian features. In Africa, Our Lord is depicted with dark skin. In the Americas, we see the same thing. This is, in fact, a beautiful expression of the universality of our Faith. Christ Jesus did not enter the world only to save a particular ethnicity, or speakers of a particular language. He took a human nature for Himself as the means by which He would save human beings who were under the power of sin and death. It is something that transcends language, ethnicity, and culture – but which at the same time does not deny the goodness of language, ethnicity, and culture. Our Lord spoke a particular human language (probably more than one during His life on earth), He had a particular ethnicity, He was raised within a certain culture. These things enrich the human experience and they reveal the universality of our Faith.
I’m not a fan of the tearing down of statues by mobs. I think the removal of statues and other images that depict historical figures that people find offensive should be subject to existing peaceful and legal processes. To do that well, we need to be able to distinguish between a statue that honors someone for something evil they did (these, I would argue, should come down), and a statue that honors someone for something great that they did, despite their human failings (which we ought to acknowledge as we acknowledge our own struggle with sin). But images of Christ as European, Asian, American, African are good because they serve to remind us of our shared humanity, which we also share with the Son of God. Moreover, images of saints from every part of the world remind us that the Catholic faith is universal, and that no matter what we look like or the language we speak or where we come from, all of us are capable of great holiness with the help of grace. Indeed, these images should foster peace among us by helping us to recognize the image of God in our neighbor.