Frederick Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story, published in 2005 by Paraclete Press, is an intense, dense poetic meditation on the life and person of Jesus.
A Presbyterian minister and theologian, Buechner is also a novelist of such highly praised works as Godric and the four volumes of The Book of Bebb. And he writes about Jesus with such sharp focus and deep understanding that I’m tempted to quote extensively from this short book of fewer than 25,000 words.
And I will.
But, first, it should be noted that Buechner is one of a long line of novelists who have taken upon themselves the task of writing their own version of the gospel story. It’s quite a list, including such luminaries from the literary past and present as Nikos Kazantzakis, Leo Tolstoy, Philip Pullman, Christopher Moore, Jim Crace, Reynolds Price, Anne Rice, Gore Vidal and Charles Dickens.
Most have written novels. Not Buechner.
The purest of ore
This is a book a pastor would write, a pastor with an artist’s eye for detail and an imagination for finding the story behind the story. That’s what gives this book its density. It is prose and poetry at the same time. Highly concentrated, highly refined. The purest of ore.
And it’s not the first time Buechner has written it.
Nearly four decades ago, in 1974, an early version of this text — accompanied by more than 150 photographs by Lee Boltin of artworks portraying Jesus — was published in a large-format book by Simon & Schuster.
I read that 1974 book, probably 20 years ago, but only recalled doing so after I’d finished Buechner’s 2005 book. What happened was this: In the newer book, Buechner mentions several interesting-sounding works of art, so I went to my bookshelves to find a photo book I knew I had that showed many images of Jesus. Lo and behold, its text was by Buechner!
I wasn’t all that surprised that I hadn’t made the connection. For one thing, when I read the first version of The Faces of Jesus, Boltin’s photographs, most presented on full pages, were impossible to ignore. They were beautiful and striking in their recording of the variety of ways that artists have sought over the centuries to depict Jesus and his life.
For another, Buechner’s initial text made direct references to scores of those images. In the 2005 book, by contrast, the text is presented without photos.
And Buechner, it appears, has trimmed out many — but not all — of his discussions about artistic portrayals of Jesus and the insight those portrayals give about the man who walked, talked, ate, breathed, laughed, cried and sang among the men, women and children of his time.
I promised above that I would quote extensively from the 2005 version of The Faces of Jesus, and I do so below. The book is so rich I could easily have found many, many more passages to include.
Maybe I’ve gone overboard in presenting these ten, but, if you read one, I suspect you’ll want to read more.
Jesus on the cross: At the end, he is dimly appalled at how little he understands of what is happening to him. Understands that the tongue he used to talk with is dry and thick as a stone. Understands that there are faces he once knew watching him, that there was a holy man in a river once, a woman somewhere who drew water from a well. Understands that there is a wine-soaked rag being held up to him as to a woman in labor and understands he also must labor now to thrust and anguish out into the howling world himself.
The 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple: It is a very Jewish story — our son the theologian, the parents’ discreet but fathomless pride in the accomplishment of their first-born. You can see it in Mary’s face, in the way Joseph scratches his head in wonderment, in the rapt attention of the elders themselves, one of whom is checking out the boy’s answers in a copy of the Torah.
Regarding free will and evil in the world: But, as Christianity understands it, God does not want us related to him as an invention to an inventor or pawns to a cosmic kibitzer. He wants us related to him as children are related to their father. He wants us in other words to love him, and if our love is to be spontaneous and real, we must be free also not to love him with all its grim consequences of human suffering. Evil exists in the world not because God is indifferent or powerless or absent but because man is free, and free he must be if he is to love freely, free he must be if he is to be human.
At the Last Supper: Whatever else it was not, it was at least human, this final feast. One hardly knows whether to laugh or to weep. They were no better and no worse than they had always been, the twelve feasters. They were themselves to the end. And if there is a kind of black comedy about them, the way the Gospels paint the scene, there is a kind of battered courage about them too….God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of. God makes his Messiah out of a fierce and fiercely gentle man who spills himself out, his very flesh and blood, as though it is only a loaf of bread and a cup of sweet red wine that he is spilling.
Around the table at the Last Supper: But Jesus is more fully present at that table than any of the rest of them. The disciples all have the air of men lost in their own thoughts, but Jesus belongs totally to this time, this place. His gaze begins to move slowly from face to face around the table — those great heavy-lidded eyes that have seen everything, the bearded mouth, the porous stone cheeks with pools of darkness in them. You can see in his face both how it was that these men had had no choice but to follow when he first called them to him and how it is that they cannot bring themselves to look directly at him now.
The foolishness of Jesus: Paul [was] the only one who ever dared speak of the foolishness of God, of the crucifixion itself as folly, of the folly of his own preaching. If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own — and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love.
The punishment of crucifixion: Death was usually a long time coming. Cramps started in the muscles of the forearms and then spread into the whole upper body, the abdomen, the legs. With this enormous burden on the heart, the pulse was inevitably slowed and the blood carried less and less oxygen to the lungs so that the victim slowly suffocated. Poisoned by waste matter that the heart was no longer strong enough to eliminate, the muscles were affected by spasms that caused excruciating pain. The ordeal often lasted as long as two or three days before the criminal finally ran out of strength and breath and died.
Jesus dying: The outer pain, the inner pain — in depicting the crucifixion the artists tend always to emphasize one at the expense of the other. Only the greatest of them manage somehow to do justice to them both, like a twelfth-century crucifix where the cross has been lost, and all that remains is the body. With his arms winged out wide and his head bent, Jesus is dying but at the same time flying through the royal purple night. He looks Semitic with the shape of his nose. He is Abraham, Shylock, Dreyfus, the Baal Shem. He is a Jew here, all Jews.
The body of Jesus in the arms of his mother: Down through the ages the great Pietas of Western art show the dead body of Jesus lying across the lap of his mother. The one who said he was the light of the world has gone out like a match.
The empty tomb: In the canonical Gospels no story is told of how the body of Jesus disappeared from the tomb. All that is said is that by the time the women got there, the stone had been rolled back and it was empty. What followed was chaos — dim figures flickering through the dawn, voices calling out, the sound of running feet. When the women got back to Jerusalem and gasped it all out to the disciples, Luke says that the disciples considered these words “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”…John says that when Mary Magdalene saw [Jesus] at the tomb that early dawn, she thought at first that he was the gardener. Maybe for the rest of her life she was never entirely sure.
Patrick T. Reardon