Holy Face and Ten Names of God, Dirc van Delf, circa 1404
For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God.
- I Corinthians 13:12, The Voice
If you're like me, it can be wearisome to have only a dim and blurry picture of things. Particularly in prayer, as we strive to experience a face to face encounter with God. Therein, I believe, lies the difficulty: picturing His face.
"To say he had a face is to say that, like the rest of us, he had many faces, as the writers of the Old Testament knew who used the Hebrew word almost exclusively in its plural form. To their way of thinking, the face of a man is not in front, for him to live his life behind, but a frontier, the outermost, ever-changing edge of his life itself in all its richness and multiplicity, and hence they spoke not of the face of a man or of God, but of his faces. The faces of Jesus then---all the ways he had of being and of being seen. The writers of the New Testament give no description of any of them, because it was his life alive inside them that was the news they hawked, rather than the color of his eyes. When you think the world is on fire, you don’t take time out to do a thumbnail sketch. Nobody tells us what he looked like, yet of course the New Testament itself is what he looked like, and we read his face there in the faces of all the ones he touched or failed to touch: in the apostle Peter’s face as he sat at dawn by the high priest’s fire and heard the cock crow all the ghosts back to their rest except his own, or in the face of Judas leaning forward to plant his kiss in the moonlight garden; in the face of the leper, the wise man, the centurion, Mary’s face."
- Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus, A Life Story
Kahlil Gibran imagined the many descriptions of Jesus by his contemporaries in Jesus, the Son of Man, including this account from Mary Magdalen:
I would speak of His face, but how shall I?
It was like night without darkness, and like day without the noise of day.
It was a sad face, and it was a joyous face.
How shall we speak of, or even experience, His face? Even can we? I have always appreciated the film Ben Hur, which chooses to portray the face of Jesus only by the reactions of those who encounter Him.
I imagine that those fortunate (or cursed) enough to have seen Jesus face to face would have trouble describing it later. As Buechner goes on: "Like the faces of the people we love, it has become so familiar that unless we take pains we hardly see it at all. Take pains."
I had a similar experience following the death of my mother, frustrated that I had the hardest time picturing her face. In fact I had trouble grieving her loss entirely, and did not cry for her until five years after she died, with the help of group therapy. Our therapist was attempting to help me get in touch with my grief by role-playing a conversation between my mother and myself, face to face. But I could not imagine her face, and therefore couldn't make an emotional connection. So the therapist asked me about the memories of my mother that were most vivid. The ones I recalled were the times my mother would comfort me when I was upset. I would turn my head away from her in embarrassment, and she would stroke my hair as she offered comfort. With my permission, the therapist asked one of the other members of our group, a woman, to act out the memory, stroking my hair while I was turned away. The grief (and tears) flooded down.
C.S. Lewis had a such an experience with grief in the loss of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, recounted in his journal A Grief Observed (in which he referred to her as H.):
“Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes- like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night- little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes- ten seconds- of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”
For that is what we seek: the cleansing tang of encountering the Divine Other. No imagination or projection of our own can mimic or assimilate it. We cannot create God in our own image, though (Lord knows) we try. Artists have been doing their very best, quite beautifully, for centuries.
And how will we react when we truly can get the opportunity to fully experience God face to face? The prophet Isaiah warned us before Jesus' life on earth that we might be surprised by what we find:
The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum. Isaiah 53:2-4, The Message
Yet, as we have experienced with those we truly love, we are able to see beyond what the eyes merely behold. It is with the development of the inner eye, the eye of the heart, that we can, even now, begin to see clearly, face to face. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)
Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return.
All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved,
And be humbly glad.
George MacDonald, Phantastes
Grant that we may grow eyes to see and ears to hear, dear Lord, and behold Your true faces. Amen.