The towel of Jesus

John 12:12-16

What did Jesus look like? It’s an interesting question. We assume we know.

But what do we know? The Bible tells us about Jesus’ character. It contains what

we believe to be many of his teachings, his miracles, and healings. It reveals his

humanity, in several of the texts that we have studied in recent weeks. It offers us

a glimpse of who he was and why he walked among us. But it doesn’t really give

us a description of his physical attributes and characteristics.

It doesn’t really answer my opening question, so I’m going to pose it again,

and let you reflect on what you envision in your own minds. What did Jesus look

like? Was he a laughing, short-bearded Jesus with dirty blond hair and blue eyes?

Did he have darker skin and brown eyes? Was he a clean-shaven Jesus, arms

outstretched at the Last Supper? Or an Asian Jesus with his Asian mother at his

side? Take your pick.

Picture the face of Jesus in your imagination. What do you see? Does he

have a round button nose or a long hooked one? Does he have hair the color of

walnut wood, parted in the middle, hanging straight to the ears, maybe turning to

waves down to his shoulders? Does he have a beard, tanned olive skin, high

cheekbones, a narrow face filled with passion and kindness, and in his dark eyes,

fire and compassion? How do you picture him? What is his true likeness?

Many centuries ago, an icon of Jesus was painted with these very familiar

features. It is called The Mandylion Icon, from the Greek, meaning The Towel.

Orthodox Christian tradition claims this icon as the first painting of Jesus. It is

believed to be an accurate representation of his true likeness. Among early

Christian writings, there’s a story of how The Mandylion Icon came to be:

The fame of Jesus, the wonder worker and healer, had spread far beyond

the lands of Judea, where he taught and worked and walked. Across the

Euphrates River, in the city of Edessa — believed to be a city with a different

name in modern day Turkey — lived a governor named Abgarus who suffered

from an incurable disease that neither herbs nor doctors could heal. Hearing of

Jesus’ miracles, Abgarus wrote him a letter, as recorded by Eusebius, a noted

early Christian historian: 

To Jesus called Christ, Abgarus the governor of the country of the

Edessenes, an unworthy slave. The multitude of the wonders done by you has been

heard of by me, that you heal the blind, the lame and the paralytic, and cure all

the demoniacs; and on this account I entreat your goodness to come even to us,

and escape from the plottings of the wicked authorities who hate you. My city is

small, but large enough for both of us.

Abgarus convinced Ananias to deliver the letter and, while in Judea, to take

an accurate account of Jesus — his appearance, his stature, his hair and his words.

Ananias delivered the letter to Jesus, then stared at Jesus, trying to fix in his mind

the face of Christ. Try though he did, Ananias couldn’t memorize the countenance

of Jesus. Jesus, knowing Ananias’ heart, asked a disciple for a wash towel. A wet

cloth was handed to him. He wiped his face on the towel, then gave it to Ananias.

On the towel was the very image of the face of Christ. A miracle!

“Take this towel to Abgarus,” said Jesus, “and tell him I cannot come, for I

must fulfill my destiny here, but later I will send my disciple, Thaddaeus, to heal

him.” Ananias fell to the ground and worshiped Jesus, then returned to Abgarus in

Edessa, who was healed by means of the miraculous towel long before Thaddaeus

arrived. Orthodox tradition claims that it was from this Towel of Edessa that the

first ancient icon of Jesus, The Mandylion Icon, was later painted, which became a

prototype for the faces of Jesus down through the centuries.

Since the time when Ananias delivered the Towel of Edessa, thousands of

icons, western-style paintings and sculptures have been created with Jesus as the

subject. In the early 2000’s, an art show collected more than 100 paintings and

icons of Jesus. While it was not a depiction directly from that show, the image on

the screen behind me captures the same essence. This collection investigates the

image, or true likeness, of Jesus in art over time. From the symbolic images of

Early Christian catacombs to modern interpretations, iconic as well as narrative

images have served as objects of education, edification, devotion and aesthetic

appreciation.

These collected works illustrate how artists, especially in the Renaissance

and post-Renaissance periods, tended to use an established prototype for the

portrayal of Christ. Whether he is part of a story or an isolated figure, Jesus is

recognizable by virtue of his recurring facial features. Differences and variables,

obvious over time and style changes, only contribute to emphasizing a certain

“family air.”

It isn’t just his features we re-imagine. At times we re-imagine and

misunderstand his character, too. We aren’t the only ones who do this. His true

likeness, his character, has always been difficult to capture — even for those who

knew him personally. When Jesus was with his friends, teaching, laughing,

drinking wine and eating bread, visible, touchable and knowable, even then, he

was rarely seen or understood for who he was.

On the day of the big festival when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of

a donkey, everyone present seemed to misunderstand who he was and where he

was headed. Thus began a week in which the world, finally gaining a true likeness

of him, finally understanding him to a certain degree, decided they didn’t like

what they saw, preferring to put him away, permanently. The adoring crowd

expected a conquering king who could restore Israel’s ancient greatness, throwing

off the weight of Roman servitude. What they got was a humble servant Savior.

The religious authorities thought he was a dangerous, riot-rousing rebel

who’d lead the people astray. Little did they know that by killing him, he would

become far more powerful, leading generations to God. So what is the character

and true likeness of Jesus? Scripture teaches that we are made in God’s image,

but often enough we remake Jesus as a reflection of our own image — projecting

ourselves onto him. And so long as we don’t claim our version, our image of Jesus

to be the only correct one, imagining him in different ways is actually a healthy

thing.

Is this your image of Jesus? A kindergarten teacher was observing her

classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see

each child’s artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she

asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher

paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a

beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

Or is this your image of Jesus? New Testament scholar John Dominic

Crossan suggests that as Passover approached, Jesus came to Jerusalem

intentionally “to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control

over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the

temple. … In other words, against the (sub) governor Pilate and his high-priest

Caiaphas.” As Crossan explains it, Jesus intended his very public entry into

Jerusalem on the donkey as not only criticism of Roman power but a lampoon of

it.

Or is this your image of Jesus? Author Timothy Merril notes that

“throughout the week to come, we’ll see Jesus righteously indignant at the

materialism of the temple. We’ll witness him overturn tables while

simultaneously turning the table-owning merchants against him. We’ll watch

Jesus challenge his disciples while he faces their betrayal. We’ll see him prayerful

in the garden, in a very human moment, waiting, waiting, waiting, for the

proverbial shoe to drop, for the next and last phase of his earthly journey to

come. This and more is the likeness of Jesus.”

The truth is that the image of Jesus is each of these and so much more. It

was true in his day, just as it is true in ours. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into

Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. People saw him and believed what they

wanted to believe about who he was and why he was there. In today’s church and

world, we don’t see Jesus, but we read his words and witness his compassionate

acts in ministry. But more than that, we bear his image through our own

compassionate acts of ministry, our own spirituality and faithfulness, and our own

calls for justice and peace. In doing so, we join the metaphorical cheers of those

who lauded him by proclaiming, ‘Hosanna in the highest. Blessed in the One who

comes in the name of God.’ Amen.