August 21, 2020

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

Why didn’t Jesus smile?

Brandon A. EvansOne of the core Christian teachings about Jesus is that, being true God and true man, he is like us in all things but sin.

The Gospels certainly reflect this, putting on full display a range of emotions and behaviors from the Lord: warmth, gentleness, anger, wisdom, humility, indignation, confidence, prayerfulness, hunger, fatigue, pain, and even, shockingly, tears and mourning.

There is, though, something absent in that list.

G.K. Chesterton noticed it, and wrote about it briefly in his hallmark book, Orthodoxy, more than 100 years ago.

“He restrained something,” Chesterton wrote of Christ. “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Indeed, there is no recording from the eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus Christ that show him smiling, or laughing, or enjoying any of the good things that the world brings to us; likewise, there are almost no paintings of him smiling in the pre-modern Christian world.

It seems hard, almost disjointed, to picture Jesus laughing or grinning. We may even be tempted, blasphemously, to think that such things are beneath him; at a stretch, the best we can do is see beyond the stern and stoic figure of Christ the Judge to Christ the Merciful Savior.

But even then he is always quite a serious savior.

What Chesterton suggests is that Jesus himself threw a cloak over his own mirth to protect our mortal senses from being broken forever by the mighty weight of the unfiltered joy of the Messiah.

But, I think, Chesterton was quite wrong.

I don’t believe Jesus hid his joy from those who met him. I think he hid it from those who didn’t, that is, from all of us: from those who would come after and from all records of his life.

And with this, the mystery becomes not as deep as we may think, and the void not so wide as we may fear. The question that reveals the smile of Jesus becomes simple: What would he smile at?

The clues are hidden in plain sight, on the pages of the Gospels, though maybe not where we expect.

After all, it certainly seems like the mirth of Jesus isn’t in the times he instructed the Pharisees, nor in the healings he performed, or the sermons given, or the miracles, the multiplications, the mourning for his friends. Nor is it in his brutal Way of the Cross, or his death, or in the encounters after the Resurrection.

We fail to see it in any one of those things, and for a very good reason: it’s in all of them. What senses fail to recognize in the parts becomes obvious in the whole.

The smile of Jesus is present in the entire story: when told together, and taken together, and held together, it becomes apparent that his mirth is derived from the love he bears to all of us.

Just as Jesus died at once for the whole world and at the same time for each individual personally, so his smile to all mankind is uniquely his smile to each person.

His smile was not meant to be read about or depicted or hypothesized, it was meant to be seen—to be experienced.

That smile is meant for you, and you alone. It is Christ reveling in his creation, in the person he died to save; you are his delight, and perhaps he wished to have no record of him smiling at anything else.

And he smiles not because he is proud of you, or pleased; not because you’ve amused him somehow, or done the right things, or been a good person; his smile isn’t even earned by your virtues or your acts of mercy or your repentance.

He smiles because you are you. Your very self, your very existence, causes the King of Kings to smile, and smile always; that gaze of love crashes through your bad decisions, and your sins, it burns through the barriers you put up and is not deterred by your blindness to see it.

In the mirth of Jesus is the compendium of his person: the beginning and end of all the stories and miracles and things he ever did, and it cannot be portrayed as well as any of his other emotions because it is greater than any of them, and driven by the Love which is the very definition of God.

The face of a smiling Christ was not meant for pen or brush or paint or paper, but for a heart filled with faith, a heart that seeks him out and smiles in return, so that when the final veil between time and eternity is torn asunder, we will recognize him without hesitation.

(Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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