Each year when Advent begins, my heart circles back to the Incarnation, to the mystery that is God’s body. As a part of my practice of Advent this past year, I spent time contemplating icons and paintings of Christ’s face. I must have looked at hundreds of images spanning centuries: from highly venerated icons made by the ancient church, mosaics, and baroque paintings, to works made by contemporary iconographers.
One aspect kept catching my eye: Christ’s forehead. The depth of emotion and experience captured by these artists in the brow and the eyes of Jesus moved me. Of course Christ had a forehead, and moved His eyebrows like the rest of us — I’d just never thought of it before.
I began to notice patterns in these likenesses of His face. Again and again I saw pain, plea, pity, and peace in that brow, depending on the moment or theme the artist was depicting. Meditating on the icons, I began to feel a more visceral connection with the humanity of the Son of God.
Pain: Christ on the Cross
Here is the furrowed brow that first caught my eye: his intense agony, his sorrow, the sense of the pain dragging on minute by minute. When I look at Christ like this, I can’t help but knit my eyebrows together in empathy. I am drawn into that moment with Him. I become more aware of my own brow: how often it is tense with grief and pain of one kind or another.
I begin to feel how real Christ’s body was, how vulnerable to pain, how broken, how humanly fragile. He willingly took on every part of us, even our sorrow-etched foreheads. Every time my brow wrinkles with pain, I’m given the opportunity to remember that He had a body like mine. He has made the same face, and worse.
Plea: Christ in the Garden
Here is Christ’s face contorted with questions: the face of Gethsemane, the face that is looking death and horror in the eye. In many of these images His hands are lifted up, forehead creased with the appeal, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Sometimes He simply looks exhausted, utterly spent, staring at nothing, absorbed with inner turmoil.
I have seen this expression in person: the eyebrows drawn tightly together to show double lines, the slight shake of the head, eyes gazing intensely into middle space. I saw Gethsemane on the face of my dying friend last year, and it combined an unanswerable and heartbroken “Why?” with a steely “Nevertheless…”
I sat with her on the couch one evening and rubbed her forehead, as if by my touch I could erase that agonizing question, that feeling of being forsaken, of being given an undrinkable cup. But I couldn’t erase it. The Lord did not take that expression away from her face either, at least not then. The only way I could bear the fact that He didn’t take it away in this life, is the fact that He took it on. Jesus didn’t remove it from her, He came down and wore it with her.
Pity: Christ the Good Shepherd
Here is the mildness of compassion, the face of The Good Shepherd, full of tenderness. His gaze is gentle, head tilted to the side perhaps, holding His sheep with a firm, careful grip. I think again of my own face: the way I look when one of my children comes running to me after getting hurt. How I instinctively draw my eyebrows together and lean my head to the side when listening to a friend who is telling me about her sadness or worries. How concern over my husband’s poor night’s sleep moves my brow without my conscious thought or effort. Here is Christ again in my day — His empathy is in my face, His kindness and concern in the look of my eyes. How many times have His brows knitted over the sorrows of one of His lambs? And how often has He done so through my own face? The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says that each Christian:
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Peace: Christ the King
I have saved the best for last, the most beautiful and comforting of all the icons I’ve seen: the Pantocrator, the All-Ruler. It is the face of the risen and ascended Christ surrounded by glorious, golden light. In these images He faces us straight on, with broad shoulders, a kingly bearing, and a smooth, serene brow. He has conquered death, sin, and hell. He has laid waste to everything that despoiled His good creation, and He has wiped away our tears. In these icons He is our Sovereign: all things are under His feet, and every knee bows. His confidence is supreme; all suffering is past; Love is the final word. Our hope of eternal life is in the serenity of that brow: how dear it is to me, how dear is His hard-won peace. If He is our King, our Shepherd, and our Savior, we have nothing to fear.
One of my favorite ways to relax is to have my husband rub away those lines and creases of care that my forehead seems to wear much of the time. My brow is tired: tired of suffering, tired of grief, tired of work, tired of worry, tired of bearing the weight of others’ sorrows and needs. In those peaceful moments of getting a face rub, my cares are set aside, and I sink into the feeling of being loved. I relax into hope: Someday my brow will be as clear and serene as Christ’s. Someday there will be nothing to trigger its pity, worry, and grief. Someday I will no longer be troubled by unanswerable questions. Someday my brow will reflect the peace of Christ my King, instead of the pains of the world. “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Psalm 42:11). When Christ’s kingdom comes, every line of grief will be smoothed away, and instead our foreheads will bear a new mark:
“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the city], and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads… the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3-5).
I think of my friend in heaven now, and the smoothness of her brow; her face shining the way the moon reflects the light of the sun. Because God became man and suffered alongside her, and rose again so that death would die, now she can reign in joy with Him. She shares the look of peace on His face, as do all of His dear ones who have been gathered up. I need to remember that my God has a face. And I want the expressions of my face to mimic the love in His, which is somehow lovely even in the ugliness of suffering. I am grateful for artists and iconographers who can assist my meager imagination, and remind me of how very real and human the body of our Lord is.
Forth today the Conqueror goeth,
Who the foe, sin and woe, death and hell, o’erthroweth.
God is man, man to deliver;
His dear Son now is one with our blood forever.
All My Heart This Night Rejoices by Paul Gerhardt (1656),
trans. Catherine Winkworth (1858)