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Who is the Son of Man?

son of man

Fabrice Florin | Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 10/18/21

Magritte's surrealist painting leads believers to reflect on that which is hidden, that which remains obscure.

René Magritte’s iconic 1946 surrealist painting Le fils de l’homme (the Son of Man) depicts the artist, a modern man. Painted wearing a suit and bowler, on a gray day, with his face obscured by a green apple, the subject — and Magritte’s use of vibrant colors — arrests the viewer.

Magritte, commenting on the apple, writes,

At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. 

The careful viewer of the painting will notice the subject’s eyes peeking out, subtly visible over the top of the apple. The largely hidden nature of the eyes has a haunting effect. It feels as though the man isn’t fully visible. If the eyes were completely hidden, the effect of the painting would be different. The subject would feel no longer human. 

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Windows to the soul

A Dominican friar I once knew was very fond of the saying, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” For him, to look someone in the eye engages who they are, touches the depth of their being. Some even say that this idea that “the eyes are windows to the soul” has a root in Scripture. Jesus says in the Gospel, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6:22-23).

Magritte continues to reflect on this theme of hidden eyes, saying,

There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

For the religious person, for believers, these words, this painting are packed with significance. But among the many observations that might be made, I want to focus on just two.

Sin obscures humanity

The first is that the apple obscures the man’s eyes and his face. His humanity is hidden. For Christians the apple is the symbol of the first falling away from God, of the original sin which marred God’s harmonious creation. 

The first sin, the original sin, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, inflicts four wounds on humanity. He says, 

In so far as the reason is deprived of its order to the true, there is the wound of ignorance; in so far as the will is deprived of its order of good, there is the wound of malice; in so far as the irascible is deprived of its order to the arduous, there is the wound of weakness; and in so far as the concupiscible is deprived of its order to the delectable, moderated by reason, there is the wound of concupiscence.

Sin obscures our minds, inflicting us with uncertainty and doubt. Sin invades our hearts, deterring us from pursuit of what is really, truly good for us. Sin infects us with a kind of tepidity, which injures our ability to persevere to accomplish difficult things well. And finally, sin affects our ability to moderate our pursuit of sensual pleasures, like food, drink or sex.

In short, sin obscures our humanity. It hides us from even knowing ourselves completely. Gaudium et Spes teaches, “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Christ fully reveals human beings, teaching us what it means to be fully human, to be fully alive. Only Christ can pierce the hiddenness, the shadows, the darkness of our hearts, and lead us to be most completely the sons and daughters we were made to be.

Faith reveals the Son of Man

In the Scriptures, the title of Jesus “Son of Man” is a poetic reference to the one who is the perfect man, the ideal man, the complete man. In the Old Testament it is used to describe men as righteous. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, is addressed as “Son of Man” some 90 times in his book. Readers of the Gospel notice it is a title frequently used by Christ to describe himself. It is a title that evokes the simplicity, the humility of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh.

Jesus declares, “The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man is a servant, the one who lays down his life, who suffers that others might have life. This work, though, is only accomplished because Jesus is a divine person, one who has, in fact, a fully human nature and a fully divine nature.

The eyes of faith pull back that which obscures, in order to be able to see Christ’s divinity, veiled or hidden, as it were, by his humanity. As Magritte says, “There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us.” We long to plumb the depths of the mystery of Christ, to see clearly all that which is hidden. We long to share in Christ’s complete knowledge of the Father, to see the plans that the Lord has for us, reigning as he is now, on high.

And yet, as wayfarers, we must constantly push the veil aside. As St. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12).

We push away the apple, the veil, the sin that clouds us. We must reach out in faith to see beyond Christ’s humanity, to recognize his divinity. The Son of Man comes, revealing us to ourselves, revealing to all who he truly is.

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