What It Means to See Jesus

A young man once told me that he had seen the face of Jesus in the trunk of a chestnut tree, the bark moving as if it were flesh. An older woman told me that Christ had appeared to her in the afternoon light that poured through her hospital window. A father who was dying…

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A young man once told me that he had seen the face of Jesus in the trunk of a chestnut tree, the bark moving as if it were flesh. An older woman told me that Christ had appeared to her in the afternoon light that poured through her hospital window. A father who was dying of lung cancer confided that he had looked up at a crucifix years ago in a church and watched as the body hanging there writhed and wriggled, coming alive before his eyes; it had been so terrifying that he had never previously told anyone.

I cherish such stories, and collect them the way others do rare works of art or first editions or vintage cars. Even secondhand stories will do, which is why I took so much pleasure from Robert Hudson’s “Seeing Jesus: Visionary Encounters from the First Century to the Present.” Images of Jesus are all around us, but Hudson’s book is about people who claim to have really seen Jesus, the way the disciples did in the days and years after his death—crucifixion wounds fresh, descending and ascending from heaven onto hilltops, blinding rays of lights all about him: the sort of psychologically upending seeing we do in our lives from time to time, as when we see our ex-husband and go ashen, or see our future wife and blush.

Hudson’s book is organized according to two taxonomies: types of seers (disciples, ascetics, mystics, trailblazers, and moderns) and types of seeing (appearances, apparitions, and visions). The first of these taxonomies is essentially a chronology, which starts with those who saw Christ shortly after his death and ends with contemporary seers. It’s less useful than the second taxonomy, which is borrowed from mystical studies and offers a way of organizing these kinds of sightings. What Hudson calls appearances are communal visions, with more than one person seeing the same image of Jesus at the same time; apparitions are when Jesus seems to be present in the physical world, as though anyone can see him, yet only the visionary actually does so; with visions, the visionary alone can see Jesus, and is fully aware that no one else can.

Hudson begins with early witnesses, those who saw the risen Christ in the years immediately following his resurrection: the apostle Thomas, who touched his crucifixion wounds; the disciples who met him while travelling, first Cleopas on the way to Emmaus and then Paul on the way to Damascus; and John of Patmos, whose apocalyptic writings appear in the Book of Revelation. These are all canonical accounts, familiar to anyone who has even cursorily read the New Testament. But Hudson follows them with accounts of slightly more obscure ascetics, such as Anthony of Egypt, one of the so-called Desert Fathers, whose monastic life included visions of Christ as light that banished the beasts and demons said to torment him; Martin of Tours, who went on to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors after dreaming of Jesus and leaving the Roman army in order to become a monk; and Jerome, whose life as a scholar was altered by a vision of Christ, after which he renounced secular literature.

The section on mystics centers on four fascinating figures, the most familiar of which is Francis of Assisi. The other three are women, known today for their drawings, music, and writing: Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. Here, Hudson more directly confronts the academic literature on visionary experiences, including the straightforwardly physiological explanations offered by some scholars. Oliver Sacks, for instance, in his account of Hildegard, describes the ecstatic, multisensory visions that she had of lights, stars, blazing fires, and human figures as “a shower of phosphenes in transit across the visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma.” In layman’s terms, she suffered from migraines.

In addition to medical accounts, psychological explanations for such visions abound. Many of these explanations cite pareidolia, the tendency to impose meaning where there isn’t any—often by seeing faces in inanimate objects, such as a man in the moon. In this vein, and in the last few decades alone, Jesus has appeared in, among other things, apples, ice cream, grilled cheese, pancakes, potato chips, pizza, pierogis, pita bread, pretzels, fish sticks, Cheetos, and, perhaps most famously, a tortilla.

Hudson doesn’t bother with many of these culinary sightings, but he does convey the eagerness of Christians across the centuries for encounters with Jesus. And he has a knack for unearthing facts that animate the distant past—for example, the highest-earning athlete in world history likely isn’t Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods but Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a second-century Roman charioteer. Said fact is produced in service of an introduction to the hermits, anchorites, and stylites whose paradoxical celebrity attests to the fascination that the Christian world had for asceticism beginning in the fourth century.

The best chapters of “Seeing Jesus” are close considerations of single visionaries and close readings of the direct testimonies that they left behind, such as the four devoted to his quartet of medieval mystics—or the one focussed on John of Patmos, which is titled “Voom!” and begins, curiously enough, with a lesson on hermeneutics centered on “The Cat in the Hat.” Those stand in contrast to more hurried chapters, including one that contains a cursory account of Sojourner Truth’s visions, padded by boilerplate biography and stock political commentary, and another that, like a spiritual clown car, packs the lives of Emanuel Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, George Fox, Mother Ann Lee, Public Universal Friend, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross into a dozen and a half pages.

“Seeing Jesus” is more devotional than analytical. Hudson calls it an “anecdotal history,” one that will “take each story of seeing Jesus at face value, neither believing nor disbelieving and claiming no more for them than the person claimed for himself or herself.” The book, with its study-group-like prose, will strike some secular readers as too credulous and some devout readers as too incredulous; it lacks the revelatory strangeness of something like “Visions and Appearances of Jesus,” the philosopher Phillip H. Wiebe’s clinical account of twenty-eight contemporary “encounter experiences.”

For more than thirty years, Hudson edited books for Zondervan, one of the Christian publishing divisions of HarperCollins, and “Seeing Jesus” is published by Broadleaf Books, an imprint owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Other denominations have publishing divisions, too; Zondervan, which publishes some three hundred books and Bibles every year, was started by two nephews of William B. Eerdmans, whose own independent Christian publishing company still exists. It is not always obvious from the best-seller lists that run in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but Christian publishing is a billion-dollar business, with Zondervan selling some thirty million copies each of such titles as Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” and Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Hudson’s reluctance to legitimatize any or all of the visions that he has chosen to include is curious in a book with a markedly faithful tone, published by a religious press. He notes his own Christian faith, and confesses to yearning for a vision of Christ, yet he is skeptical of all such visions. He begins his book with a memory from childhood of a chalk artist—if not Esther Frye, then someone like her—who went around giving “chalk talks,” in which she used a handful of colors to draw and narrate stories from scripture on a chalkboard while also sharing her own testimony. As a young woman, the artist said, she had once prayed while looking at the trees in her back yard, only to have Christ’s face appear before her, blinding her to anything but his features, then hovering smaller and smaller in her field of vision for months after he’d first appeared. “I was gripped by her presentation but cautious,” Hudson remembers, “and the fact is, I didn’t believe her. And may God forgive me, I still don’t.”

Skepticism may well be the prudent response to such a presentation or any other visionary claim, but it sometimes makes “Seeing Jesus” a little tepid. Hudson seldom outright endorses and never outright debunks any of the visionaries in his book, even when his own characterizations of them seem to demand it, as with his description of the extravagant life style and scurrilous fund-raising tactics of televangelist Oral Roberts. Still, at its core, “Seeing Jesus” does have a theological conviction that may intrigue the doubters—and assuage the devout, since it comes directly from Christ. As Hudson writes in his epilogue, “Centuries of Christian thinkers—most of whom were not mystics—have told us that we see the face of Jesus every day, walking the streets of every city, in the face of every person.” He quotes Nicholas of Cusa, who wrote: “In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled, and in a riddle.” The riddle is the judgment that Jesus shares in the Gospel of Matthew, when he says that on Judgment Day the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. They will be judged, Jesus says, according to how they treated the least of their brethren, for, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer later explicated, “he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.”

Most Christians understand this to mean that if they were to see Jesus, he would not look like the man in Warner Sallman’s famous painting or the seated figure in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The visions of Jesus that Christians are explicitly told to look for are not supernatural or spectral but humble and human: we are commanded to look for Christ in the faces of one another. Even if Hudson isn’t sure what to make of all the visions in his book, he believes this, too, and ends “Seeing Jesus” with a story from the pandemic, when he meets a panhandler outside a café and cannot help but want to help him, partly because he has been thinking so much about what it means to see Christ.

After handing over a twenty dollar bill, Hudson asks the man his name: Josh, he says as he walks away—the Anglicized form of Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus. “The skeptic in me says, ‘How’d you know it was him?’ ” Hudson writes, in the last lines of the book. “The mystic in me says, ‘How do you know it wasn’t?’ ”

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