He set his face…

Jesus Pantocrator, Sinai icon

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Luke 9.51-62. It has clearly been influenced by the fact that Canon William Gulliford and I are preparing to take the diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme interns from both last year and this on a much delayed visit to Jerusalem in early July. Please keep us in your prayers.  The picture that illustrates the blog is a very ancient icon from St Katherine’s monastery Sinai. It is said to be the oldest icon of Jesus still in existence. You can read more about the icon underneath the reflection.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe


This week’s lectionary Gospel reading, Luke 9.51– includes in its first sentence, ‘He [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem’. The words ‘his face was set toward Jerusalem’ are reiterated a couple of verses later, referring to the way that Jesus was not welcome in a Samaritan village due to his Jerusalem destination.

Such repetition in a Gospel text is, I am sure, intended as a sign that we should see these vivid words as having particular importance within the whole story. This is certainly true here. We are at a critical juncture in the life and ministry of Jesus, as now, after the transfiguration, he turns from his previous ministry in Galilee, to move with absolute determination to the dangers that he suspects will await him in Jerusalem.

Two interlocking themes speak to me powerfully from these phrases. The first is the importance of ‘face’ – the face of Christ, the face of God.  

Directly and indirectly the motif of Jesus’ face is more apparent in the Gospel of Luke than in the other Gospels. There are – as here, or in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9.29) – a number of times when the word is used explicitly. But also we have a sense of the ‘power’ of Jesus’ face, for example in the throw-away remark, unique to Luke’s Gospel, that after the third of Peter’s denials, ‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61).

One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite books on Luke’s Gospel comes from the German Benedictine Anselm Grun.In Luke’s stories the face of God shines out on us in the man Jesus. If we look at this picture we will be changed by it. Redemption comes about by reading the story. If I read it with all my senses, if – as Martin Luther puts it – I creep into the text, I will emerge from the text transformed. I have encountered the figure of Jesus, and this now shapes my figure.’   I find myself returning to this thought often when I engage with the Gospel of Luke. In my mind it sits alongside the remark by Professor David Ford, which though not explicitly linked to the Gospel of Luke very much fits with Luke’s vision of the hospitality offered by Jesus: ‘Christian mission is offering the hospitality of the face of Christ.’

But now to turn to the second half of that comment, ‘He set his face to go to Jerusalem’. I find myself wondering what Jesus’ face might have looked like as it gazed into that challenging future. His journey to Jerusalem is both fore-ordained in the purposes of God, ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up’… (as Elijah had been all those centuries before – the comparison with Elijah/Elisha is a strong motif in the Gospel of Luke) but it also required a conscious decision from Jesus himself which was made in the awareness of what Jerusalem as his destination would most probably mean for himself.

Although we don’t get the actual word ‘must’ (dei in Greek) in these verses, there certainly feels a ‘mustness’ about Jesus’ determination to set off on his way.  I read them alongside (as I think we are supposed to do) some words a few chapters later in which ‘must’ does appear, Luke 13.33-35, when, while on his journey Jesus laments:

Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.’

‘Must’ in the Gospels is a loaded word: it comes several times when Jesus is speaking of how ‘the Son of Man must suffer’ (e.g. Luke 9.22). Fascinatingly it also appears in the account of Jesus’ meeting with the tax collector Zacchaeus, when Jesus tells him, ‘Zacchaeus… I must stay at your house today.’ The Greek word also appears (though cannot be seen so clearly in the English translation) at the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life’ (Luke 15.32). Outside Luke’s Gospel one of the most thought-provoking instances of dei/must, comes in the introduction to the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well of Samaria, ‘But he had to go through Samaria.’ (John 4.4)

How and why do ‘face’ and ‘must’ belong together, and what do both have to do with Jerusalem? I think it is something like this:

Our faces are what make us fundamentally human, and they are also perhaps the most obviously vulnerable part of our body. Our natural instinct in a situation of danger is to try and protect our face.

Of course there are different ways of seeking to protect our faces. Jane Williams captures this brilliantly:

‘Jesus’s face is what ours is supposed to look like, if only we could be as human as God. Our faces are a series of masks that we try on and discard, always searching for the real “me”, always looking for the face that will make others love us or fear us, and all the time getting further and further away from the face we were made to mirror, the face of Jesus… How many different masks we seem to think we need – masks that make us powerful, invulnerable, beautiful, feared, acceptable, some that we have so deeply internalized that we don’t even know that they are just masks. But the irony is that, without these masks, we are made in the image of God.’.

In the Bible to see someone’s face is deeply linked to the possibility of reconciliation. When we approach reconciliation we are indeed making ourselves vulnerable.  Perhaps the place where this is suggested most powerfully comes in the story of the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, when Jacob rejoices with the words, ‘To see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such graciousness you have received me’ (Genesis 33.10, personal translation).

For human beings to see ‘the face of God’ carries with it the implication of reconciliation and relationship between God and human beings, and potentially between human beings themselves. That at its most fundamental was what the incarnate ministry of God in Jesus Christ was all about. We were being given the privilege of seeing the face of God in the most vulnerable way possible. In Jesus Christ God refused to protect his face. Rather Jesus ‘set his face’ to go to Jerusalem.

Why Jerusalem? Because throughout the whole of the Jewish and Christian story the city of Jerusalem has been an immensely powerful symbol both of why reconciliation is needed and how difficult it is to achieve it. It is the city with ‘Peace’ shalom written into its very name, but where peace has so often been so sorely lacking. The ultimate purposes of God, the ‘mustness’ of Jesus’ story, speaks of reconciliation – small and great, familial and cosmic. That is the reason for the ‘must’ in the story of Zacchaeus, and the tale of the Prodigal Son, in both of which the ‘must’ is interwoven with acceptance and reconciliation. It is the reason why Jesus ‘must’ go through the alien territory of Samaria in John 4, and Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is in part a story of reconciliation between two deeply divided peoples.  But reconciliation is costly, passion and reconciliation are intimately interwoven; as we discover from 2 Corinthians 5.19.

It is of course interesting that this Sunday’s lectionary reading also includes a reference to the Samaritans – and speaks of the hostility that greets Jesus in a Samaritan village precisely because he was travelling to Jerusalem, and of Jesus’ refusal to participate in a quid pro quo of enmity (Luke 9.52-56).

Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. That face of God which is shining out to us, especially in the Gospel of Luke. The face of God that is so hospitable and welcoming. A face however which is also profoundly vulnerable and will fill with tears when Jesus finally approaches the hard rocks of Jerusalem (Luke 19.41-44) a city which stones those who are sent to it. But that will not be the end of the story of this particular face. It will be shortly seen again mysteriously and cryptically by a weeping woman in a garden, by two travellers on a journey to Emmaus, by fishermen returned to their old trade in Galilee. It will continue to reflect ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ (2 Corinthians 4.6). It will invite us to gaze upon it in George Herbert’s exquisite poem ‘Love bade me welcome’. And we are challenged to continue to discover it whenever and wherever in our world today we need reconciliation and new vision:

The shouts are too loud

they so often deafen my ears.

War, famine, destruction, death –

the sufferings of the world glide past my soul.

I have heard too much to care.

But then you, O God,

you stand in the midst of the world’s woe,

and the shapes of those who suffer are no longer faceless,

for you have bequeathed to them your own face,

their pain is etched with the lines of your passion.

And I shall proclaim:

I had heard, but now I see.

The people are too many,

They blur together in my imagination,

Races, colours, faiths and languages –

their shifting kaleidoscope dazzles my vision

I am made giddy by their infinite variety.

But then you, O God,

you are the still point round which all revolves,

in you both light and shadow find an equilibrium:

you paint into life our many-peopled world,

your love refracts us into a rainbow of hope:

And I shall proclaim:

I had heard but now I see.


The icon at the head of this week’s blog is believed to be the oldest icon of the face of Jesus in existence dating from the first half of the 6th century AD. It is suggested that the icon has deliberately been created to display the two natures of Christ, both human and divine. On the left side (as the viewer gazes at the picture) the divine nature is being displayed, on the right side the human nature. I ‘think’ I accept this view of the icon. See further at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Pantocrator_(Sinai)

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