An Ohio woman’s over the moon after seeing what she describes as Jesus’ face in her pistachio nut. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Ohio, a man claims Jesus and his mother Mary both revealed themselves in a piece of candy. Why do people keep seeing Jesus in their food, and what would he want us to do about it?
Jesus and his famous family have a habit of “materializing” in human food. From Christ’s 1977 cameo in a tortilla to Mary’s miraculous 2005 appearance in a pizza pan, there’s a long litany of modern instances in which the holy brood “revealed” themselves in our edibles. To the devout, these cases are nothing less than divine intervention. To others they’re nothing more than optical illusions.
Scientists refer to this phenomenon as pareidolia, in which banal images are given great significance. Whether it’s transforming a cloud into a lamb, or a piece of dry bread into Jesus, pareidolia’s considered nothing more than a mental projection.
When cloaked in the sacred, pareidolia can be called “simulacra,” or similarity, in which the viewer exports spiritual meaning onto something that, from a more secular person’s perspective, could be seen as something else entirely. The aforementioned Ohio woman’s co-workers, for example, didn’t see Jesus. One thinks the “Jesus face” resembles George Washington, while another likened it to Freddy Krueger.
In all cases, however, people saw a face, because, as scientists contend, we humans are programmed to organize patterns into an image, most often a face. The abundance of religion in our various societies, meanwhile, often translates those “faces” into sacred celebrities. And of course Christians aren’t the only devout people who project prophets onto their edibles: Allah has also been seen in fish, bread and animals’ fur.
University of North Carolina Professor Gregory Price Grieve explains that this habit arose from an overabundance of religious imagery in our various cultures: “What you see is not always what you get. Instead, what we see depends on mediation,” he wrote in a paper called “One and Three Bhairavas: The Hypocrisy of Iconographic Mediation.”
“Because our descriptions of religious images are culturally located, our ‘naïve’ descriptions are neither innocent nor objective. Rather, all social objects are mediated by intervening socially grounded, culturally generated, and historically particular mechanisms.”
The harsh light of science explains away holy sightings like those seen in Ohio, yes, but let’s assume for a moment that Jesus and Mary have indeed presented themselves on toast, tortilla and other perishables. What then? What would Jesus want people to do?
James Burrows, the man who found Jesus in his sweets, says he’ll first try to sell the sacred sweet, and if that fails, he’ll donate it to a church. Capitalism above salvation, he thinks. Either way, that confection won’t be ingested. It’s been elevated to the ranks of culinary saint.
Rarely do people consume their “holy snacks.” If you’re devout enough to see Jesus in everything, you’re surely not going to eat him when he shows his face. But is that the right method? Surely Jesus, Mary and the rest wouldn’t want one to waste food, particularly when there are so many poor, a population Jesus championed, who would benefit from the miraculous morsel.
And then there’s the Catholic Church’s “body of Christ” imagery. While other Christian denominations define the term more loosely, such as the Protestant belief that “body of Christ” refers to the congregation, the Catholic Church uses their Eucharist sacrament to claim that the body of Christ encompasses not only the Church as an institution, but also their messiah.
The communion wafer, then, represents his holiness, and must be ingested. In taking the wafer, you are absorbing Christ’s wonder and power. “Transubstantiation” turn the physical bread into spiritual fulfillment and wisdom. If that idea’s to be believed, then, Christ’s scrumptious likenesses should be consumed. Perhaps with a bit of wine?
There’s likely to be no end to reports of “Jesus’ face found in X,” and as oddball as they seem to some, to others they’re reminders of religion’s miraculous nature. Regardless of where you stand, these stories, rumors and legends point to a larger cultural debate: whether science and pareidolia have the answers, or whether there are less comprehensible forces at work.
The ongoing debate over “reason versus religion” remains so universal, not even our refrigerators are off limits.