Monday, February 11, 2013

The Face of God

A few years ago I had the pleasure and honor of traveling to Rome, Italy. Rome is an amazing place for anyone with even the slightest interest in history (or architecture, or art), but it's even more amazing and interesting if you are a Christian. Aside from Jerusalem, I can think of few other places so meaningful in Christian church history.

As I walked the streets of Rome and visited various relics and cathedrals, I recall searching earnestly for the face of God--for the presence of Jesus--in the things I saw. Surely, I thought, I should feel a sense of awe or stillness in Mamertine Prison, where St. Peter and Paul are said to have been held before their executions. I gazed at the "footprints of the risen Christ" in the Domine Quo Vadis, strolled the roads of the ancient Roman Forum, and wandered the halls of the amazing Basilica of St. John.

In all of these wanderings I felt amazement at the age and the beauty of the ruins and cathedrals...but I didn't feel changed by them. I didn't feel the sense of presence I expected to feel. Stunning stained glass portraits of the Savior graced heavily ornamented walls; extraordinary artwork and statuary lined the halls of the Vatican Museum---all of it breathtaking...but none of it as revealing of the nature of Christ as I had expected it to be.

We visited the Santa Maria in Trastevere, said to be the site of the first place of Christian worship in Rome, the Santa Maria Maggiore where St. Jerome (author of the Latin translation of the Bible) is buried and where pieces of the "true cross" are contained. And, of course, we visited St. Peter's Basilica with its enormous monuments, alters, and confessionals and the tomb containing the bones of St. Peter. I stood in the Sistine Chapel and gazed at the Last Judgment, the face of God as imagined by Michelangelo.
The Footprints of the Risen Christ

Of all of the places we visited, I expected to be most affected by the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase. The Holy Staircase is said to be the stairs Jesus ascended to his trial before Pontius Pilate, brought from Jerusalem to Rome in 326. The stairs may only be climbed on your knees, and they purportedly contain blood stains from Christ himself. The stairs are protected by wood that is worn and soft from the millions of knees over hundreds of years that have climbed them. I remember crawling up them slowly behind scores of tourists and nuns who had come to pay their respects. And at the top I saw.... nothing. Nothing but more frescoes and a kind sister helping visitors find their way out.

The Scala Sancta
All of the memorable places I visited in Rome were fascinating, beautiful, historically irreplaceable. But despite the beauty, I did not see the face of God I had been seeking in the halls of the Vatican or the nave of the Maggiore or the tomb of St. Peter.

That isn't to say that God was absent in Rome. Oh, I saw Jesus. I saw Him everywhere. He was in the stooped passage of a beggar asking for alms outside of the Vatican museum. He was in the upturned hand of the dirty, homeless woman in the plaza in front of the Maggiore. He was there, passed by, ignored, while Christians seeking His face snapped photographs of what we would think He should look like.

This was a long story all to get around to saying this: I didn't see Jesus in the glorious artwork and architecture and relics in Rome because Jesus will not be contained in the works of man. Jesus is alive! If you want to see the face of Jesus, open up the search page at and look into the eyes of the children there! THAT is the face of the living Christ. Jesus is not a stained glass window in Rome, or a pile of moldy bones under glass in a church. We've poured billions of dollars into erecting fabulous cathedrals to celebrate a living God, but have neglected to feed and clothe and care for the face of Jesus in our midst! We don't need to climb worn-out stairs on our knees to respect Jesus...we need to come to the cross on our knees by stooping to serve the smallest among us!

Jesus made it very, very clear in Matthew 25 that we can see His face all around us. "Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me...Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:34-36;40).

When I look at the pictures of my Compassion Kids hanging on my wall, I see Jesus. Where is Jesus in your life?


  1. Thank you very much for that. I enjoyed it a lot Sonja.