The story of the Old Testament is, in a sense, the search for the face of God.
In Psalm 31:16, David cries out, “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your mercy,” a plea that is repeated throughout the Psalms. Here again is Psalm 67:1, “May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us.” Sometimes the entreaty is framed in the negative, as in Psalm 102:1, “Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.”
In the Old Testament, the desire to see the face of God was never quite fulfilled.
Abraham came close—he once entertained three mysterious men that some have seen as a type of the Trinity. Jacob came close too. After a nighttime of wrestling with another strange man, Jacob named the place “Peniel” “because I have seen God face to face … yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32). But some commentators say that the tussle was really with an angel in human form.
Moses is said to have spoken to God “face to face” in Exodus 33:11 but later, in the same chapter, when he asks to see God’s glory, the Lord responds: “When my glory passes I will set you in the hollow of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen.” Likewise, Elijah only heard the “still small voice” or the “gentle blowing” as God passed by him on the mountain.
So there’s a tension in these texts between the intimacy these righteous men enjoyed with God and the fact that His true human face was not yet revealed. As Pope Benedict XVI explained in one of his Wednesday audiences, “On the one hand, then, there is the face to face dialogue as among friends, but on the other, there is the impossibility, in this life, of seeing the face of God, which remains hidden; the vision is limited.”
The face of God revealed: the Incarnation
The long-wished-for face of God was at last unveiled in the Incarnation. “Something new happens, however, with the incarnation. The search for the face of God undergoes an unthinkable change, because now this face can be seen: that of Jesus, the Son of God who became man,” Benedict said in the same Wednesday audience (January 16 of this year).
Yet, even then, the disciplines initially did not realize what they were seeing.
In John 14, Philip asked Jesus, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
The identity of Jesus gradually became clearer. Peter, James, and John witnessed it in the Transfiguration. And all the apostles recognized it after the Resurrection. Even St. Thomas eventually put aside his doubt. After touching the wounds to confirm what he was seeing was really there, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
Seeing God in the Eucharist
All this leaves us in a bit of a quandary. The face of God has been revealed in the Incarnation, but how are we who live after the Ascension of Christ to see the face of God? Where might we go searching for this most intimate and spectacular of visions?
According to Pope Benedict, the answer lies in the Eucharist.
He points to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, which occurred after the Resurrection. Two disciples are walking and discussing the extraordinary recent events. Jesus approaches them, but they do not recognize Him. He then explains how His passion, death, and Resurrection were all foretold in the Scriptures. Still, they do not recognize Christ.
At nightfall, Jesus accompanies the two to dinner. At the table, Jesus says a blessing and then breaks the bread. Only then do they have their epiphany: “With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24: 31).
It was only through the Eucharist that these disciples were able to see the face of God. This should be of great comfort to us: unlike those on the road to Emmaus, we do not have Christ in human form, but, like them, we do have the Eucharist. “For us, too, the Eucharist is the great school in which we learn to see the face of God, we enter into an intimate relationship with Him, and we learn at the same time to turn our gaze towards the final moment of history, when He will satisfy us with the light of his face,” Benedict said.
This teaching is reinforced by one of the great Old Testament types of the Eucharist: the “Bread of the Presence” in the tabernacle. This bread has a number of striking parallels with the Eucharist. First there is its name: the “Bread of the Presence” which means what it says—the bread was a sign of the presence of God. Also, the bread was put out every Sabbath, it was surrounded by continually burning lamps, and the priests were directed to always eat it in a “sacred place” (Leviticus 24). Also: when taken out of the tabernacle, the bread was covered by a violet cloth and only those who had abstained from sexual relations recently could eat it.
For Catholics, who speak often of the Real Presence, the “Bread of the Presence” is an obvious parallel to the Eucharist. But another way of translating the Hebrew word for presence, panim, is face. In fact, this is the same word that is used in the above-mentioned accounts of Jacob and Moses. The implication is clear: to be in the presence of God is to see the face of God.
Our search for the face of God
But the question still remains: how exactly do we “see” the face of God in the Eucharist?
First and foremost, the holy bread of ancient Israel is a lesson in the essential connection between the “presence” and “face” of God. It reminds us that our encounter with the Real Presence of Christ, fully man and full God, in the Eucharist is so intimate that we see, in a sense, the face of God—not with our physical eyes, but the eyes of faith.
For the saints and monks of the Middle Ages, this vision was so real and extraordinary, that it transformed their lives, Notre Dame theologian Ann Astell writes in her book, Eating Beauty. For them, the faceless host was not a barrier to sight—it instead lit up their whole world. As Astell writes, “The very blankness of the bread makes the Host, as it were, a pure mirror … capable of reflecting different images and forms of Christ’s beauty into the world.”
In this way, Astell says the Eucharist shaped the different spiritualities of the medieval orders: “The monks, therefore, receive Christ in the Eucharist as the one who is ‘meek and humble of heart.’ …The Franciscans beg for the Bread of Angels and eat the Christ of poverty. The Dominicans taste and savor the Eucharistic word that they proclaim with their lips. The Jesuits maintain company with the obedient Jesus through their reception of him in Communion.”
In the process, those eating the Eucharist, are transformed into the image of the Christ they see in the Host, Astell says. She quotes St. Albert the Great: “For thus … we are fashioned and refashioned according to that image, and thus refashioned, we are assimilated to the Son of God, who is our food in the sacrament.”
These medieval saints and monks are, of course, models for how we should receive Communion. As we approach the Eucharist, we would do well to remember that we are having a face-to-face encounter with God—a heavenly vision so extraordinary that it can transform our lives. The words of the Psalmist then assume a new meaning for us, becoming a Eucharistic prayer: “Do not hide your face from me… Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your mercy.”