When John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents was first displayed at the Royal Academy, the public response was near-universal revulsion. At that time it bore no title but Zechariah 13:6: “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then shall he answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”
The intense and earthy detail of Millais’ depiction of the Holy Family scandalized press and public alike. One critic decried its “painful display of anatomical knowledge, and studious vulgarity of portraying the youthful Savior as a red-headed Jew boy, and the sublime personage of the virgin a sore-heeled, ugly, every-day sempstress.’” While even John Ruskin—later a supporter of the pre-Raphaelites—could not bring himself to praise the painting, he merely defended its public display. The most virulent criticism, however, came from Charles Dickens, who described Millais’ Christ child as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown.”
Today, of course, the place of Christ in the House of His Parents in the English artistic canon is undisputed; currently displayed in the Tate Britain, it is celebrated as a pre-Raphaelite masterpiece and an exemplar of the use of biblical typology in Victorian art.
The biblical symbols set amongst the dirt and detritus of the carpenter’s workshop—from the dove of peace, to the ladder, to the half-finished woven basket—allow us to perceive the Christ child’s wound as a foreshadowing of his sacrifice on the Cross, while the spatial construction of the picture, with the workshop representing a church sanctuary and the carpenter’s table an altar, prefigures the re-presentation of that sacrifice in the Eucharist.
The picture guides our senses through everyday and familiar aspects of embodied human life up toward an understanding, however small and incomplete, of the wonder of the mystery of our salvation in Christ. It is a small but powerful demonstration of the fact that our physical, sensate existence is not a barrier between us and God but instead has an integral role to play in our human response to him. The ultimate and definitive proof of this is the Incarnation, where God does not simply speak through human nature but himself fully assumes it, in order that we might “know God’s love” (CCC 457) and become “partakers of the divine nature” (CCC 460).
Why, then, did the picture provoke so much hatred? We might be tempted, as enlightened moderns, to laugh at Millais’ reviewers and dismiss their reaction simply as Victorian prudishness. But in fact, it speaks of a paradox at the heart of the divine economy that every age, in one way or another, struggles with. In the Incarnation, God chooses to meet us on the level we are most familiar with and can best understand: our own humanity. But do we have enough love and gratitude for our own humanity to accept that God would want to meet us here—here in this human nature, in a body like yours and mine, amongst the limitations and weaknesses with which we are all too painfully familiar?
God and Bodies
Several years ago, one of my fellow Dominican sisters delivered a course of pre-evangelization to a group of non-Catholic spouses of local Catholic parishioners. (She intended it to be a course of mystagogical catechesis on the Mass for practicing Catholics, but, due to a poorly worded parish newsletter and culminating waves of miscommunication, quickly had to change tack when she turned up for the first session). The course was received well, and all the participants grew steadily in their knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of their spouse’s faith. Until, that is, the final session, when my sister mentioned the resurrection of the body. One man—who had been open to the Church’s teaching on the Holy Trinity and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, among other things—was flabbergasted. No amount of explanation or clarification could reassure him: “Even after I die, I have to take my body back? God will want my body with him in Heaven?”
This man was receptive to almost everything he had heard about the Catholic faith until the point where it required him to be receptive to the goodness of his own body. The issue for catechesis, of course, is that the goodness of the human body, and of the human person per se, is not an optional extra to the Catholic faith. It’s a crucial thread in the tapestry of the Church’s teaching, and without it very little makes sense: why would God become incarnate unless there were a fundamental compatibility, an affinity, between the (finite, limited) goodness of the creature and the (infinite, unlimited) goodness of God? Why establish the sacramental economy, by which grace is communicated to us through sensate species, if the physical and the spiritual are ultimately at odds with each other?
The problem with this kind of spiritual squeamishness—this reluctance to accept that God values our embodied human nature enough to not only create it, but also assume it in order to save it—was even known to the Early Church. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote of the problem of trying to catechize those reluctant to accept “the salvation of the flesh,” and who “treat with contempt its regeneration.” After all, if all these things are impossible then “neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made.”
So much of the faith becomes impossible and incoherent unless we accept the goodness of embodied human nature. Nevertheless, the temptation to disregard it, and its importance in the economy of salvation, shows itself early. I see the small, subtle beginnings of it in my own catechesis. When preparing children for their First Holy Communion, after reading a passage from Scripture I will occasionally ask the group where we meet Jesus nowadays. In his earthly life, Jesus was seen by crowds of people, and spoke to his disciples, and touched the eyes of men who were blind; but where do we see Jesus today? Where do we hear his words? How does he meet us and touch us? At the beginning of the year, their answers are almost invariably disembodied and non-sacramental: in our hearts, in our soul, in our spirit, in our mind. It takes a couple of months of catechesis before they are comfortable with the idea that meeting Jesus isn’t something wholly interior and disembodied: it also takes place in the Eucharist and in Reconciliation, in things that call for the involvement of our mouths, ears, eyes—our whole physical selves—working together with heart and mind.
From the Early Church to Victorian England to the present day, the idea that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (Jn 1:14) is one we struggle to fully accept: not necessarily because of a faulty view of God but because of a faulty view of ourselves and our own worth in God’s eyes. How, then, can we encourage the people whom we catechize to accept that God loves our humanity and wants to speak to us through it—so much so, in fact, that he fully assumed human nature in his Son, Jesus?
Christ’s Humanity in a Visual Culture
The new Directory for Catechesis warns that our “current situation” in the Church is “marked by a great distance between faith and culture.” While this is broadly true, I’d like to suggest that there are some ways in which our modern world actually provides us with very effective means to catechize on Christ’s sacred humanity, perhaps more than catechists had in previous generations. Why? Because of our highly visual media culture.
A recent edition of The Catechetical Review (issue 7.2) explored the relation between faith and culture, with one contributor, R. Jared Staudt, arguing that “just as grace builds upon nature, faith builds upon culture”: culture is healed and elevated by faith, while faith requires the receptive seedbed of culture to flourish. The Directory also emphasizes the importance of culture in catechesis, stating that “catechesis has an intrinsic cultural and social dimension, in that it is situated within a Church that is incorporated into the human community” and thus should be “fully at the service of the inculturation of the faith.”
Many catechists reading this journal will be working in cultural situations marked by the ready availability of—some might say an immersion in—visual media. So how can we make use of this in our catechesis? To use a recent example, the television series The Chosen, an online, crowd-funded show that focuses on the disciples and their journeys of conversion, is an excellent (though, of course, by no means perfect) example of how to portray the Incarnate Lord in a way that fully emphasizes his sacred humanity. Watching The Chosen, I am increasingly struck by how the accumulation of Jesus’ small moments of weakness, vulnerability and humor, of sharing chores and meals with his disciples, of allowing his mother to wash his feet and help him to bed after an exhausting day of ministry, are a subtle but highly effective catechesis on the sacred humanity of Christ.
Very often, Jesus is portrayed in film and television as an otherworldly figure, perhaps for fear that too full or intense a portrayal of his humanity might somehow undermine his divinity. “We believe that Jesus is both God and man,” Dallas Jenkins, The Chosen’s director, has said. “However, the ‘man-part’ has seemed to be diminished in most Jesus portrayals, in favor of the piety of the ‘God-part.’” This is a very theologically imprecise way to put it—the hypostatic union does not have “parts”—but his basic point is certainly true: think of Robert Powell’s ethereal, wide-eyed Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. Jim Caviezel’s Jesus in The Passion of the Christ certainly emphasizes his humanity, not only in the crucible of the Passion but in small moments of joy and tenderness with Our Lady, such as the flashback scene in which Jesus leaves his carpentry work to playfully flick water at her. But, as one would expect in a film limited to two hours running time, these moments are transient and few in number.
This is a shame, for while the understanding we gain of Jesus’ humanity from contemplating the pain and suffering of his sacred Passion is significant and profound, we can also benefit from contemplating his humanity on display in times of joy, fellowship, labor—in short, everyday normality. This is an aspect of our Savior’s humanity that is not often seen on film but which The Chosen presents very effectively. This is largely because, being a multi-series show, it is under no obligation to cram its portrayal of Jesus into a couple of hours, and therefore can take its time in exploring the fullness of his humanity. Of course, The Chosen is only one example of visual media that does not shy away from portraying the fullness of Christ’s humanity in a context other than the pain of the Passion. But for any catechists looking for ways to help foster a deep devotion to Christ’s humanity among children and young people immersed in a visual culture, it is certainly a good place to start.
Just like the art critics of Victorian England, twenty-first century Catholics often struggle to come to terms with the idea of God made man. In a culture marked by profound confusion around the meaning and the dignity of human nature and, in particular, the meaning and the dignity of human bodies, this struggle becomes yet more profound. Theologically accurate visual portrayals of Jesus that do not shy away from the fullness of his humanity may be the most culturally appropriate means to guide others to a spiritually healthy understanding of both Christ’s humanity and, relatedly, our own. If we are to give the people we catechize the best chance of opening themselves to the Good News of Jesus and the grace he offers us in the sacraments, we must ensure that the God we are introducing them to is not a distant and disinterested figure, but the true Incarnate Lord.
Sr. Carino Hodder, O.P., is a Dominican Sister of St. Joseph based in the New Forest, England. She is a First Holy Communion catechist and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Divinity in Theology at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham.
 “The Royal Academy Exhibition,” Builder, June 1850, transcribed and cited at www.engl.duq.edu/servus/PR_Critic/TB1jun50.html.
 Charles Dickens, Household Words, June 1850, quoted in Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents,” Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents/.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.2.2.
 Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2020), no. 44.
 R. Jared Staudt, “Recovering Nature and Building Culture in Catechesis,” The Catechetical Review 7:2 (April 2021), 10.
 Directory for Catechesis, no. 319.
 Dallas Jenkins, “The Immense Weight of Playing Jesus,” conversation between Dallas Jenkins and Jonathan Roumie, The Chosen YouTube channel, Apr 11, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZdB7H8ty8g
This article originally appeared on pages 6-8 in the print edition.
Art Credit: John Everett Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons