The remarkable power of a smile

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" - painting by Caravaggio, public domain

By Peter Oliver, Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry

The remarkable power of a smile is like Jesus hanging naked on the cross. If you are wrapped in darkness, your life shattered, apparently beyond repair, this will make sense to you. Granted it is a strange language, a language you could not grasp when you were strong, vital, sure of yourself – blind.

Have you ever seen God’s smile? The remarkable power of Jesus hanging naked on the cross is a smile.

I know a beautiful woman named Sue and a wonderful man named Jim. Their marriage is a smile that shows in their eyes and the kindness of their words as they speak with each other. I invited them to come to the prison where I was a chaplain. They came in great simplicity and gentleness. Imagine them speaking with a deeply disturbed man, perhaps a man who has lashed out in a psychotic rage, harming another person, murdering her. The smile of their marriage is real. It is not diminished in the presence of the man; instead, it becomes more radiant. The man speaks of his regret; his hope is uncertain. He reveals his wounds and the wounds he has inflicted. Jim and Sue’s presence is Jesus naked on the cross. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke. 23.34).

Jesus’ nakedness, his smile, is disarmingly honest. Not all smiles are so honest. I met a man in prison. He was a pimp and he used his smile to seduce young girls. Then he groomed them until they were hooked on drugs. This became leverage that he could use to pressured them into prostituting themselves. When this man sees his smile in a mirror, he sees the nakedness of prostitution, the nakedness of seduction – charm infected with purulent self-loathing. Jesus does not use his nakedness to manipulate; his nakedness is fidelity, marital intimacy. “Come, my love, let us go to the field; let us spend the night among the henna blossoms” (Song of Songs 7.11).

I recently had an operation that left an imperious scar across my abdomen. When my brother visited, he asked to see my scars. One senses the intimacy of this request. I was reluctant. My wounds are personal.  The artist Caravaggio beautifully conveys an intimacy of this kind in his painting, The Incredulity of St. Thomas (above).  In it, Jesus’ hand invites Thomas into His wounded side.  This is Jesus nakedness on the cross, His tenderness, His smile.

A smile such as this is born in a cauldron of pain, real nails ripping holes in real flesh. Real thorns crowned his head. Helplessness. Rejection. Abandonment. Such is the redeeming smile of God. Not just on Calvary but in the swollen and disfigured bodies of His little ones who starve to death today. Not just 2,000 years ago but here in all the beautiful ones writhing in pain as their life slowly ebbs away; their elegance stolen by diseases that leisurely, mercilessly, rob them of their dignity.

This is the meaning of Jesus’ cross, His smile. God is not an attendant at their side; God is wounded in their woundedness. God is not abstractly present; God bears in each one of us the agony we endure. It costs God everything – loneliness, grief, doubt, horror, fear, insult, monstrous revulsion, hatred – everything. Not a long time ago, but here and now. That is God’s love redeeming us, God’s naked smile in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We want there to be more. There is more! Behold His mother crushed at the foot of the cross. See in her face the reflection of Jesus’ smile. This love of God is a communion of life that overpowers death.

Though the swirling dust of the tomb seems to obliterate everything, the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Golden Echo are truer, “See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost” and all of this is kept with “Fonder a care…. than we could have kept it… Far with fonder a care.”

In Mary, who knew better than any of us the love that Jesus’ smile ignites, we encounter “togetherness,” and it is in this “togetherness” that no good, no grace, no fleeting caress, nor lovely morning ease is lost. Faith is a “we” not an “I.” Not Jesus the superhero on a rescue mission, but Jesus, all his not-so-sure disciples, those who know-not-Him but love nonetheless, the rag-tag lot of those who barely show up – in short, all of us – invited into an extraordinary self-forgetting nakedness, an unending gladness, a mirth much-more-serene than the Mona Lisa’s countenance.

It is an Exsultet discovered in the here and now, an Easter song sung in every being throughout the entire universe.  It is the remarkable power of His smile!