It is a notable fact that our Lord and his Mother lived in a time long before photographs, even at a time, and among a people, where drawings and portraits of people were almost unknown. Also notably absent in the Sacred Scriptures are any details regarding the physical appearances of most Biblical figures, unless a detail is necessary for the story (e.g. Zacchaeus being short, Goliath tall, Leah being less attractive due to her misshapen eyes). But generally there seems to be an almost complete lack of preoccupation with such things in the Biblical narrative. And even when we are told that David was handsome or Bathsheba was beautiful, we are not really told how.
We live in a polar opposite world when it comes to images. Everything is visual, and we are quite obsessed with appearance and looking acceptable and good, and how other people look.
We attach great meaning (for better, but usually for worse) on our physical appearance. We divide out over race, skin tone, hair etc. We also prize thinness and ridicule fatness, we worry if we are tall enough, pretty enough, if our hair is too straight or not straight enough, if we are tan enough or too dark skinned, and when age sets in many head for the cosmetic surgeon.
Instructive! Thus when we wonder as to what Jesus or Mary “looked like,” it may be instructive for us to reflect on why the Lord would have them live in a time and place, where this data would NOT be supplied us. For, in the end, they look like us. And some historical sketch or painting, had one ever been made, would only tend to limit our vision, rather than allow us to identify with them.
To the question what did Mary look like we may garner five possible answers:
- None of your business.
- Why do you care?
- She looks just like you think she looks.
- She looks like you, because she is your mother.
- She is far more beautiful than you ever imagined (My favorite answer).
But answer four is probably the most helpful when it comes to accepting the diverse ways she is depicted.
Most of us American Catholics see her in very European terms. Historically this may be dubious, by why shouldn’t we see here as looking like us. She is after all our mother.
As I walk though the dozens of chapels in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, I see her as Chinese, American, Lithuanian, Mexican, Filipino, Korean, African, Lebanese, Irish, Ethiopian, and so on. And why shouldn’t these various Ethnicities see her as looking like them, she is, after all their mother.
In her various apparitions her look varies too. La Virgen de Guadalupe “La Morena” (= dark skinned) is surely different than the descriptions we have from other sights such as Fatima or Lourdes. But here too, why can’t the heavenly beauty of Immaculate Mary, so brightly reflective of God’s glory, not refract through the prism of human experience in different colors and ways?
What does Mary look like? She is our Mother, she looks like us. Jesus is our brother (and Lord), he looks like us.
Happy Feast Day