What Does Jesus Look Like?

Almost every parent has favorite pictures and memories of their children when they were babies, toddlers, and young children. Family get-togethers have shared laughs and sighs when remembering things like first words, steps, sports participation, and the like. I’m no different – not really – except that my son grew up far from my family, so all they can do is laugh politely when I recount some of his exploits (and disasters), not participate in remembering them.

My son was a chubby little cherub with blonde curls and big blue eyes. Granted, he was a bit too chubby as an infant, but he evened out as he grew into a toddler. Still, he was so cute and so clever. He’s all grown-up now, but I’m still in love with the little boy he was. 

I wonder if Mary looked at her adult son and saw him as a baby, a toddler, a child, or a teen? Did she see him play with his friends and hold her breath when he fell and scraped his knee? Did she remind him to be careful when he went out to play or went to work with his earthly father, Joseph? Did Mary wish she could keep him a little boy for longer than his growing up allowed? 

It is easy to think of Jesus as a child, probably nearly perfect in every way, kind, loving, obedient, and clever. He would be pictured as a cherubic little being with chubby cheeks, big blue eyes, and, quite often, blondish curls, much like my own little boy. We get that picture from all the western European art produced over the centuries that pictured him as Western Europeans would expect to see him. Mary and Joseph would wear robes and mantles, but they would probably have light skin and medium-brown hair. Again, the view we get is from the portraits and paintings we’ve grown up seeing. I remember one painting of Jesus as an adult, standing next to the Jordan River, on the wall behind the baptistry in my church when growing up. He was painted as fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and had light brown hair with golden highlights. 

What a shock it was to realize that all the images of Jesus were fiction. Part of the fiction was that there weren’t pictures of Jesus when he walked on the earth, that artists used either the sponsors of the paintings or some other human being as models, hair and skin color, and all. 

I remember seeing an image of Jesus as a Middle-Eastern man with dark skin, hair, and eyes for the first time. It took me a few minutes to take it in, but it somehow seemed more realistic than all the images I’d seen while growing up. Of course, it made sense that he would be Middle-Eastern in appearance since that was where he was born and grew up. Since then, I’ve seen Jesus as an African, a Native American, a Hispanic, an Asian, an Inuit, and from various parts of the Middle East. Remarkably, people can see a figure of Jesus that speaks to them and their race, culture, and ethnicity. I wonder if Mary would see those images and recognize her own little boy all grown up?

I think it is essential to recognize that for all his divinity, Jesus came as a human being, to live as one, and to learn to understand humanity from the inside out, as it were. He probably got into mischief when growing up – what child doesn’t? Jesus knew what feelings were and how to respond to them in himself and others. He expressed kindness toward others that he wanted them to see and imitate. He studied scripture, as a good Jewish boy would, to better understand what God wanted and how to present that to the people of the earth. 

Many of those with whom Jesus came in contact were not ultra-pious Jews but were Samaritans, Romans, and other Jews. Still, he treated all of them as God’s children and, as such, his brothers, sisters, and neighbors. 

How do you see Jesus? Looking somewhat like your own child as an infant or toddler? Like a little Black baby you saw in the grocery store? Perhaps as a Navajo girl holding a young lamb? An Asian child riding a carabao, pulling a cart full of reeds or rice? An Arab child sitting in a pile of rubble? A homeless child from possibly any city in the world?  

Perhaps we need to look for Jesus in every other person on earth, whether we like them or not. While Jesus was divine, he was also human, like any of us. He chose to live as he did because it was God’s will. Perhaps we need to look at ourselves a bit deeper than someone in competition for limited resources and learn to see ourselves as living the life Jesus taught about and lived himself.

Image: Christ in Glory, Ethipoic Gospels, commissioned by Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes of Ethiopia for use in his royal city of Gondar. Late 17th Century. British Library Or. MS 481, f.110v. Found at Wikimedia commons.

Linda Ryan is a mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.

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