I visited the National Portrait Gallery recently in Washington, DC. In its elegant hallways, a wide range of well-lit paintings are displayed side by side: politicians, war heroes, athletes, musicians, presidents. It is a library of human faces—a silent, visual documentary of who we are. Artists and subjects sharing one human story, marked by the fingerprints of God.
In particular, I was moved by Robert McCurdy’s portrait of the late author Toni Morrison. The oil-on-canvas looks like a photograph. Morrison’s hands are swallowed in the side pockets of an oversized sweater. She reveals no discernible expression but radiates light from within. There is integrity, sorrow, and tenacity in her face.
When he paints, McCurdy meets with a subject and makes hundreds of photographic portraits, then chooses one image to paint from that to him seems to exist in the “eternal present.” McCurdy aims for the viewer to be able to have their own personal encounter with the subject. It is a powerful experience to be face to face with someone you’ve never met in a piece like this one.
God has designed us for face-to-face encounters. Victor Hugo hints at the deeper reality in Les Misérables when he writes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Which is perhaps why God orchestrated the ultimate face-to-face experience in the Incarnation. God himself took on flesh, born as a baby that we would see the face of God in Jesus Christ. He encountered us in the eternal present. He memorized what we look like that we might know that we belong to him and that he belongs to us.
We reenact this divine encounter every day in hospital maternity wards around the world. When my son, Sam, was born a few months ago, we studied his face intently in those first hours. I wanted to know which baby in the nursery was ours. I memorized his features. He is imprinted upon my heart. I know he belongs to us, even when no words are exchanged. No words are required.
Sam will smile and coo at us now. Attachment begins here. Babies are drawn to human faces from their first days. The longing for familiarity is universal. We are drawn to God’s image in each other. We want to see and be seen.
To know a face, of course, is also to know the joys and the hardships it records. A few years ago, I visited an art museum in Nashville with a children’s exhibit and I took the time to participate in a few of the interactive exercises. I pulled up a stool beside a little table with a mirror, linen paper, and charcoal pencils. The prompt was to sketch a self-portrait. Seemed easy. I should know my own face by now. But it was harder than I thought.
After a long time staring, I didn’t recognize myself. I had recently gone through some major life changes and I could see symmetry, sadness and some surprising toughness looking back at me. I could see my family resemblance. Belonging is written in the lines of our faces. An amateur self-portrait exercise made for a contemplative experience. I’m looking for the fingerprints of God.
1 Peter 1:8 acknowledges the mystery that, even though we have an unfulfilled longing to see the incarnate Jesus, we love him anyway: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”
While we can’t see Jesus today in physical form, we can know him as he is revealed in the Scriptures. If I were to paint a McCurdy-style portrait of Jesus, I would use the photographic poetry of Isaiah 53. “Surely he took up our pain, and bore our suffering” (Isa. 53:4). Here we see Jesus in the eternal present and here I can imagine what Jesus looks like.
Not only do his hands have scars from nail holes, but his face is etched with love and sorrow and beauty that we will one day see in glorified form, in his resurrected body. As Isaac Watts’ timeless hymn puts it, “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
Jesus wears our sorrows in the lines of his own face, yet he is transfigured by the triumphant light of humility and glory. His light illuminates our blindness. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Jesus came to dwell with us in the eternal present, encouraging our feeble attempts at a self-portrait and translating our babbling sounds of affection into the poetry of belonging.
Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter @Sandramccracken.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.