We know ourselves by what is reflected back at us. We see ourselves in the reactions, labels and facial expressions of others. In fact (oh, what danger!) this is primarily how we know ourselves. In a very real sense, we are always naked and helpless before others’ eyes. We depend on them for meaning, for naming. This is the state of things, perhaps, because facing, naming and reflecting are at the very heart of the triune God. Father and Son face and name, and from that mutual reflecting there comes even more Personhood and life. Too bad that we, in our fallen world, have to screw it all up.
So because we screw it all up – because none of us feel truly seen – we have to look in the mirror a lot, peering and preening. Or we have to almost ritually photograph ourselves – capturing (we think) our true selves – or at least the way we want to be perceived. We may inwardly beat ourselves up for it, but in part this vanity, this narcissism, is a corrective for the warped reflections around us. It’s a way of combatting social gazes that tell us our whatness but always feel wrong. So we fight and fight, brandishing swords of self-fashioning in either hand, slicing at the lies all around us, growing weary. And when we’re honest, the selves we see even in our hearts, in the dark without competing reflections, are not the selves we desire, but harrowed ones covered with scars.
Because nobody is fully seen – not one person since God left Eden, where He’d looked full upon Adam and Eve. To live in this fallen world, then, is to endure perpetual ontological insult. (That is, insult to our being, our core.) Only God sees us as we should be. And God – that Puck, that mirage, that fleeting breath of wind – chooses to act mainly through us, his little images, peering from our dull and clouded eyes. What recklessness! What impossible conditions! What dearth and famine as souls – spirit-plants, tender – wilt under myriad dying suns.
Every day we push through crowds whose members label us with their eyes. Mostly those eyes are sleepy and distant, though sometimes they glitter with life. But when they do – when they awake to us – then a new struggle begins. We feel hostility or lust directed toward us. Or maybe anger, or admiration. And even the admiration has an edge of need, of quid pro quo, suggesting that nothing is ever free.
Of course Christ, whose life was paradigmatic in every way, experienced the full range and intensity of that pendulum swing – from the stillness of indifference, to the upward swing of worship, to its reversal toward crazed loathing. In less than a week, he felt the full range of irrational human projection – and the gleeful demonic mockery that lay behind even that Palm Sunday praise.
In the Lower Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi, the early Renaissance artist Pietro Lorenzetti depicted the golden adulation of what we call Palm Sunday – when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a donkey’s back. Lorenzetti’s Christ is utterly splendid – a personage gloriously worthy of every attention. With little concern for historical accuracy, Lorenzetti made Jesus larger than life (he seems a head taller than everyone around him) and clothed in blues and purples lined with gold. His face limpidly shines. The people crowd around him, gazing solemnly with supplicant, upraised brows, bowing slightly. Some of them lay robes and palm branches at his feet (others harvest more branches from a nearby hill). They are reverent, sober, pious. They seem to know what’s going on. They seem to know what they’re looking at. They’re not screwing up.
But perhaps this was only projection – a wishful location, on Christ’s fragile body, of what they wanted. Perhaps they were swept up in crowd-logic, feeding off a shallow optimism that said, “here, at last is our king – and now everything will be all right!” Wise Jesus knew how quickly the worm would turn. He took it all with a rueful grain of salt. But he loved them – all of them – tenderly. He must have smiled despite himself at faces that, in their shining regard, echoed his divine Beloved’s, even if just for a single, deluded moment. Innocent, loving and yearning, He couldn’t help but melt like a new father melts at an infant’s unknowing smile.
Then a few days later the worm did turn. Many of the same people who laid palm branches must have mocked Jesus as he pushed through the crowds in a different way: on foot, with a cross on his back. Pietro Lorenzetti painted this scene, too, and his Christ of the Via Dolorosa is a sad figure indeed – one might say crestfallen. It’s notable that Lorenzetti doesn’t focus much on Christ’s physical agony in this scene. Jesus is still big and hale and clothed in purple. He isn’t visibly bleeding or stumbling or pained; there isn’t even a crown of thorns on his head.
Instead, it’s his face – his face – that says everything. He looks perplexed and heartbroken, like a Dickensian waif who doesn’t understand some schoolmaster’s elaborate punishment. And he looks earnest, almost hopeful, as if this surely couldn’t be – it couldn’t be. He had known what had to come all along, of course. He had been ready for it in spirit. But to experience it in that little human body, both brittle and soft – with the poor, dear dust in his face (from which his Father had sculpted it all) – how surprising, how stabbing it was! And to hear his little beloveds cry out for blood – his blood? How confusing! How terrible, how inconceivable, that they didn’t see!
To be mistaken, misunderstood, taken for granted – he knew it best. And he knew it deepest, because his heart was the most permeable and tender of hearts. One moment of hate was enough to shake his whole, pulsing reality – to slice it to bits. It was a wasp’s bitter sting on the child-face of Eternity. But he didn’t react immediately to that soul-affront, that ontological violence. There was nothing knee-jerk about him. Instead he held the hurt and waited, until just the right word came, just the right response to this fact of identity denied. And that response, wonder of wonders, was a new identity, a new Word. It was stabbed and pierced yet still walking: his Resurrection Self, invulnerable and bright.