A Meditation on the Theology of the Face

“Thou hast said, “Seek ye My face.
My heart says to Thee,
“Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)

Do our faces reflect the divine signature of Christ?

Genesis declares that man is “made in the image of God.”  Humanity is set apart from the rest of creation with an eternal soul capable of reason, will, and self-giving love; that is, God created man with divine attributes.  These preternatural gifts bestow on us a rational and spiritual nature, elevating us above our mere physical natures.  Man is separated from animal, person from non-person, primarily by our rational souls.

Yet, as Christians, we do not believe that we are just spiritual beings.  We are more than just incarnate spirits confined to a body and then freed upon death.  This is an ancient gnostic heresy, a Manichean dualism, unfortunately still prevalent today.  Rather, our true human nature is a composite nature of spirit and body.  The Catechism calls the flesh of the body the “hinge of salvation.”  In the beginning, God created the flesh of the body; in marriage, man and woman become one flesh; in the Incarnation, the Word became flesh; in the Eucharist, Jesus gives us His flesh; and in the resurrection, the flesh is raised glorified and incorruptible. (CCC 1015)  Christ, the Bible, and the Church are all in agreement: The body is good.

There is a sacramentality to the body.  The body is the sacrament of the human person.  It is a sign and symbol, making visible a hidden reality.  Pope John Paul plumbed the depths of this mystery in his “Theology of the Body” series, referring to the body, “It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be its sign.”  The body is a sign of divine mystery.  Pope John Paul also stated “the face reveals the person.”  It is the gateway to the soul.  All of our senses are found in our face: our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth.  They are the means by which the material world is translated by our human bodies to the spiritual world of our mind and soul.  The face is the mediator between material and divine.

According to our Christian faith, the whole economy of salvation rests upon the bodily crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  For, through the wounds of Christ we are healed, and through His death and resurrection we are saved.  We can speculate, in conjunction with this definitive event in human history, did God mark our faces with Christ’s redemptive act?

Imagine, for a moment, Jesus’ Cross transposed on our faces.  Our two eyes seem to correspond to the nail wounds of Christ’s two outstretched hands on the horizontal beam; our nose, the vertical beam of the Cross; our nostrils, the piercing of Christ’s side; our mouths, the nail wounds of both feet, placed one atop the other.  Of all the shapes our faces could have taken, they assumed the perfect symmetry of a cross.  The human face is clearly arranged in a “T” shape of two perpendicular lines.  It is like a symbolical seal of Christ and His wounds.

In contemplating the face as a sign, all that we perceive, and all that we know of the world, is through our senses: In effect, analogously through Jesus’ hand wounds, we have eyes and sight; through the piercing of Jesus’ side, we can breathe and smell; and through the wounds to Jesus’ feet, we can taste, drink, breathe, and speak.  His suffering was our grace.  The face is not just the means of our perception, but also brings in life.  The nose intakes air, and breaths oxygen into our lungs and blood.  The mouth too provides sustenance through breathing, and nourishment through eating and drinking.  Moreover, the face also conveys outwardly our divine faculties.  We express emotions, words, language, singing, love, and worship all through our face.  It reveals our rational and conscious nature.

The face is the icon of the person.  This is God’s primordial claim upon us, through the imprint of Christ on the flesh of our face.  The personal “I” of each one of us is made present to the world by the portal of our face.  We can almost broaden Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy that “with His stripes we are healed” (spiritually), and extend it, metaphorically, to the body: So that, through His wounds, we have our senses, life, and access to the whole universe around us.

There are hints in scripture to the supernatural significance of the face.  St. Paul calls Christ the “head of the body.”  Would it not be fitting that our heads should bear the stamp of our Savior?  When God spoke with Moses on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh hid His face from him saying, “you cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live.”  When Moses returned to the Israelites, they were afraid to come near him because “the skin of his face shone.”  Moses then put a veil over his face, which St. Paul later interpreted to mean they failed to recognize Christ; In effect, the unveiling of the face is related to recognizing Christ.  Just before His Passion, Jesus did unveil His divinity on Mt. Tabor in His Transfiguration when “His face shone like the sun,” giving us a brief glimpse to the glory of the face of God.

In the climax of Dante’s Paradiso, the face of God is finally revealed in full to man in the Beatific Vision, and he is amazed to see that God’s face “seemed to be painted with our human likeness.”  Perhaps more aptly, we are being painted with the likeness of God.  St. Paul alluded to this, saying “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18)  Our ultimate hope is to behold God “face to face” for all eternity.  At last, as St. John wrote of this blissful destiny, the redeemed “shall see His face,” and “we shall be like Him.”

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Brian Kranick's latest book is Burning Bush, Burning Hearts—Exodus as a Paradigm of the Gospel. Brian is a freelance writer focusing on all things Catholic. He has a master's degree in Systematic Theology from Christendom College. He has spent years working as an analyst in the Intelligence Community, and currently resides with his wife and three children in the Pacific Northwest.  He is the author of the blog: sacramentallife.com.

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