Those who’d followed Jesus from Galilee didn’t want to leave. The spectacle being over, everyone else went. But they remained, watching. The face they now looked at, though, was lifeless, the gaze a blank. How different from the attentive, loving gaze they’d come to know so well. What a contrast this bloody death mask was to the life-giving, healing look Jesus had so often given people.
Valentine Dikhoul was a circus performer who fell from a trapeze and broke his back. In his wheelchair he began experimenting on himself with various exercises, gadgets and electrotherapies. Eight years later he was back in the circus ring…but not fulltime because he was also starting the Dikhoul Rehabilitation Centre in Moscow. Here the techniques that had led to his own healing were offered, with extraordinary success, to other paraplegics.
I mention this today though because of one part of the technique he developed he couldn’t practise on himself. Whenever a therapist at the Centre worked with a patient, they maintained as near to constant eye contact with them as possible, ‘as if infusing them’, one of them said, ‘with willpower’. This was especially true when the moment came to try and take that first step. The powerfully built Mr Dikhoul would sit in front of the patient’s wheelchair, hold their hips and engage their eyes. It was that gaze which many afterwards said had enabled them to take that first cautious step.
Jesus’s look too was part of the process by which he brought people wholeness. It was the same look, we may imagine, that God gave each different aspect of creation as one by one he looked at them and saw they were good. People didn’t need to be ill to benefit from contact with Jesus. As his gaze searched the depths in people’s lives, they found new riches in themselves they hadn’t seen before. As T.S.Eliot puts it in relation to roses, they ‘had the look of flowers that are looked at’.
St John of the Cross wanted to emphasise that this gaze follows each of us all the time. ‘God’s gaze’, he wrote, ’works four blessings in the soul: it cleanses the person, makes her beautiful, enriches and enlightens her’. We all of us live all the time within the range of Christ’s loving, longing look. We may not always know it even though we may get an occasional reminder, like when in a restaurant you suddenly realise someone is looking at you.
This was the look those friends of Jesus perhaps mourned as they looked at his now lifeless face. They thought it was gone forever, though in fact in only a few more days they’d be bathed in it again. Maybe though, it wasn’t so much a look from the past they struggled to imprint on their minds for future recall but a more recent one, a look from the cross, from the midst of his suffering, Perhaps even in the midst of his own struggles to breathe, to bear the pain, he gave them one last longing look. If so, I suspect that look would have had a different, even more profound quality.
Back in 1994, the television dramatist Dennis Potter was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. He was dying of cancer and he spoke of how imminent death helped him see everything much more vividly. ‘The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous,’ he said. And of the blossom on a plum tree in his garden he said, ‘instead of saying: Oh that’s nice blossom, I see it as the whitest, frothiest, blossomist blossom there ever could be.’ Imminent death brought everything into a new focus, he looked with a new and deeper perception.
Jesus on the cross was about to end his human life. Perhaps he too, though his pain was not controlled as Potter’s was, saw what he was leaving behind more vividly. Maybe he looked at those he loved even more dearly. If so, there’s no reason to think that that intensity of gaze, even more profound than that during the rest of his earthly life, isn’t the look he gives each of us now in his risen life. It’s a gaze which embraces the nowness of everything about us and celebrates how wondrous we are.
As we came forward to the cross just now in an act of devotion, one of the things we might have imagined was that the one on the cross centuries ago might still look at us, and look with love, mercy and wonder. He does do that. We live all the time under the eyes of one who loves us with a passion and delights in who we are. His dying symbolises the intensity of that love and seems somehow to deepen the quality of his gaze. One reason he died was that people wouldn’t believe him when he said they were loved without having to deserve it. Today we say boldly that we know we are. And we delight today in the beauty Christ’s gaze both celebrates and elicits.