Face to Face: Reflections on the Theology of the Face

 

James J. Pinto

 
 
 

Thou hast said, "seek ye my face." My heart says to thee, "thy face Lord, do I seek." Hide not thy face from me.

Thou hast said, "seek ye my face." My heart says to thee, "thy face Lord, do I seek." Hide not thy face from me.

Theology of the Face, the Incarnation and Sacramental Living: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father" (John 1:1; 14).

A holy hush comes over us and the knees of our lives are bowed in humble adoration in response to these words and the miracle of the Incarnation -- the "infleshment" -- of God in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation has the most profound implications for one's faith and life and has been the chief agent in the extension of compassion, mercy, justice, kindness and salvation throughout the earth. We are called upon to embrace His Incarnation, to live it and to see His presence in the face of every human person, especially the least.

The Word made flesh: Incarnation, Immanuel, God with us, God made poor, God with skin, God with a face! Like countless others the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation has been paramount to my belief and practice of the Faith. It is the primary reality that compels me to: "Love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself." While the most immediate and frequent opportunities to live incarnational theology take place in my marriage and family. This reality has also led me and my family to live as neighbors in a minority setting for the past 23 years and to radically identify ourselves with "the least" (Mt. 25:31-46) and in particular the preborn.

The Theology of the Face offers another way to behold and articulate the greatness of the Incarnation, and its implications (compassion, mercy, justice, ethics, the final judgment, etc.) for all of humanity. This "theology through encounter" with the Incarnate Deity Jesus and with the Image of God and the Face/face of Jesus in "the Other," is a mysterious, holy and practical adventure with eternal consequences.

John Paul II introduces me to the "philosophy of the face":

In his book: "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," and in the chapter on "The Defense of Every Life," John Paul II propounds the humanity and sacredness of every human being. He introduces us to Emmanuel Levinas, his "philosophy of the face," and its implications on relationships both human and Divine. On page 210 of "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" the Holy Father writes:

I cannot dwell here on contemporary thinkers, but I must mention at least one name -- Emmanuel Levinas, who represents a particular school of contemporary personalism and of the philosophy of dialogue. Like Martin Buber and Franz Rosezweig, he takes up the personalistic tradition of the Old Testament, where the relationship between the human "I" and the divine, absolutely sovereign "Thou" is so heavily emphasized.

God, who is the supreme Legislator, forcefully enjoined on Sinai the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," as an absolute moral imperative. Levinas, who, like his coreligionists, deeply experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust, offers a remarkable formulation of this fundamental commandment of the Decalogue -- for him, the face reveals the person. This philosophy of the face is also found in the Old Testament: in the Psalms, and in the writings of the Prophets, there are frequent references to "seeking God’s face" (Ps.26[27]:8). It is through his face that man speaks, and in particular, every man who has suffered a wrong speaks and says the words "Do not kill me!" The human face and the commandment "Do not kill" are ingeniously joined in Levinas, and thus become a testimony for our age, in which governments, even democratically elected governments, sanction execution with such ease.

Perhaps it is better to say no more than this about such a painful subject.

The Face Reveals and Conceals the nature of the person: "In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled and in a riddle." (Nicholas of Cusa)

The face is mysterious: "exciting wonder, curiosity, or surprise while baffling efforts to comprehend or identify."(Merriam and Webster Dictionary)

The face is sacramental: "it is an outward and visable sign of an inner spiritual grace." (Augustinian Formulation)

Humanity and the face share in the mystery of being made in the image and likeness of God. "Let us make man in our image after our own likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)" Here is the pinnacle of God’s creation, humanity. This unique creature (man/humanity) is not God, animal, or inanimate creature, but a sacred human being. Made in the very image and likeness of God, man is endowed with inestimable and transcendent worth, value, dignity, honor and inalienable rights.

As we ponder the mystery and riddle of the face of man, (from conception to death) by God’s grace, we shall behold the "imago Dei"- the image of God. We shall be "Face to face." Indeed there is a mysterious sense in which the Face of all faces is shining through the face of the other.

The face of Jesus and the Face of God in all humanity: "He who has seen me has seen the Father." (Jn.14.9) "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me" (Mt. 25.40b).

While the "Theology of the Face" can be seen in the Old Testament, it appears full face, in the Incarnation of Jesus and the teaching of the New Testament. Once again in Jesus the sacredness and dignity of the human person is affirmed and the divinity of the Father is revealed. In the nature and person of Jesus both Divinity and perfect humanity, are radiating through his face. The face of Jesus calls humanity to the grace, judgments and will of Almighty God. God is speaking to his people not simply through creation, conscience, nature, scripture, or rituals, but through encounter with the face/Face-of Jesus.

In his Apostolic Letter: "Novo Millennio Ineunte" ("At The Beginning of the Third Millennium"), The Holy Father bids us to ponder the face of Jesus and the revelation of his life:

To look upon the face of Christ, to recognize the mystery amid the daily events and sufferings of his human life and then to grasp the divine splendor definitively revealed in the Risen Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father: this is the task of every follower of Christ and therefore the task of each one of us (1 Section 9).

The Pre-born Face: "No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed she began to sense his presence and to picture his features" (Rosarium Virginis Marie, I-9). The starting point of the contemplation of the face begins at conception and in the womb and continues (not begins) at birth and the various stages of development visible to the eye. We must not miss the solidarity of the face of our Lord with the face of his pre-born brethren and the implications of justice, mercy, and love they are due.

The Sorrowful Face: Jesus bears the sins of the world, is beaten beyond human semblance and is crucified that we might have life. "The mystery within the mystery, before which we cannot but prostrate ourselves in adoration" (N.M.I.-25).

The Risen Face: "But her contemplation of Christ’s face cannot stop at the image of the Crucified One. He is the risen One!" (N.M.I.-28). The sorrowful face of Jesus now gives way to the glorious resurrected face of Jesus.

As the hymn "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" so eloquently states: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel (God with us)." Our Lord has radically identified himself with humanity from the womb to the tomb; from conception to death. Any kindness shown to the human person is kindness to Him and any violence against the human person is violence against Him: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me."

Facing "the Other":

In his article: "Levinas and the Other Side of Theology," Terry Veiling states that the "cornerstone of his (Levinas) thought is the ethical responsibility for 'the Other.'" Veiling says in his Notes: "For Levinas, the Other, is in the first place the other human being who calls forth ethical responsibility, yet the Other is also the "Most High."

In every person we encounter, and in particular the least (the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned, preborn, aged, defenseless), we are encountering "the Other." As we behold other human beings there is revelation from beyond made manifest in "the Other." We not only recall the words: "I am hungry, naked, thirsty, weak, human, made in the image and likeness of God." We see, hear and tangibly encounter them in "the Other." We not only recall the commandment: "thou shall not kill" or "as you did it to the least you did it to me." We see, hear and tangibly encounter them in "the Other" who looks into our face and declares from earth and on high: "do not kill me," "do justice to me," "give mercy to me," "what have you done to me." This is theology as incarnational or sacramental encounter with "the Other," who is my neighbor, my kin, and my Lord.

In "the Others'" presence we are kept from limited, introspective, self-centered philosophies, theologies or beliefs. "The Other" brings to us revelation from beyond, from "on high" as well as revelation from the here and now. "The Other" calls me, cries out to me, "What have you done? Do not hide yourself from your own flesh and blood! I am your brother. Respond! Repent! Stop! Begin!" "The Other" rouses me from my selfish slumber and says: " Wake up! You are your brother's keeper and shall be judged for the deeds done in the body." Saul of Tarsus, once spiritually asleep, was brutally yet wonderfully awakened as he encountered the suffering Jesus in those he persecuted: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (Acts: 9:4b)." This "alert" to St. Paul now exhorts us to awaken from our slumber as he says: "…you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us know than when we first believed" (Romans 13: 11).

Face Them:

As we gaze upon the "Face in all faces" especially in the face of the least. We may see several faces in a single face. With the eyes of grace we may see and say:

 

1. "I see another’s face. This is not my body but someone other than I. This is a human being, with rights and privileges like mine. I should love my neighbor as my self. This one who is "Other" stands in judgment of me. He is interrogating me, questioning me. He is calling upon me to respond."

2. "I see my own face. He is of my own kind and makeup. We are all made of one blood. What if this were actually me? What would I desire to be done for me if I were he? I am the face of the faceless and voice of the voiceless."

3. "I see the Face of God. Man is made in the image and likeness of God. This is Jesus in a "distressing disguise." This is Jesus in the least. We will all stand before the Face of all faces on That Day and render account. ‘As you have done it unto the least you have done it unto me.’ Behold the Face of God in the Other. O Lord have mercy and make me love what you love and hate what you hate."

The Face and His Friends Return: "We believe that Jesus died and rose and that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him" (1Thess.4:14).

History as we know it will come to an end and we shall be Face to face with Jesus and his friends. So we are working out our faith in "fear and trembling" as well as assurance and hope. As we ponder this return, the Face of our Lord and the faces of His friends (our friends too) let us consider and be inspired by the lyrics of this song:

Face to Face

Jesus is returning like a thief in the night. He told us all we shall not know, the seasons or the times. He just said we must be ready for there’ll be no place to hide. Make straight the paths of righteousness and shine your light.

Refrain: Face to face all of creation shall be. Face to face with the light of the world. Face to face, every nation shall see Jesus face to face.

And so we shall see Jesus and all the ones who’ve gone before, such a great cloud of witnesses coming with the Lord. The poor and afflicted, the needy and the hurt, the lowly and the humble are coming to inherit the earth.

And for everyone who called His name while injustice raised its head, for the ones who cried in hunger and yet could not be fed, there shall come a new beginning, they shall all be glorified. We’ll see every murdered unborn child standing by His side.

Refrain: Face to Face all of creation shall be. Face to face with the light of the world. Face to face, every nation shall see Jesus face to face. We shall see Jesus face to face.

Revealing and Embracing the Face/face:

Our Lord sacramentally (the sacred manifested in matter) broke into our world through his physical and divine presence in the Incarnation. By his grace filled conception/incarnation we have his sinless life, death, resurrection, ascension and await his coming in glory. The mystery of our salvation and the call to love as He loved is revealed in his face/Face. He continues to work His desires in and through all faces and in particular "the least" (including the pre-born and aborted) who resemble the suffering face/Face of Jesus that secured our salvation upon the tree. Let us reveal this truth and give opportunity for the grace of God to break in, lift the veil, and solve the riddle, that all God’s children may behold and embrace the Face in every face.

"All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

 

Bibliography:

Terry Veiling. Levinas and the Other Side of Theology

Christopher Nugent. The Face as Theology

Bishop Rino Fisichella. The Face of Christ-Reflections…on ‘Novo Millennio Ineunte’ -- www.ewtn.com/library/Theology/FACECHRI.HTM

Pope John Paul II. Novo Millennio Ineunte

Pope John Paul II. Rosarium Virginis Mariae