The Face of Jesus

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My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me.

Psalm 27:8-9.

I traveled recently, and passing through airports, thought about how the experience of seeing the faces of people differs from seeing anything else. There’s a quality in seeing the face of a person that’s unique: we recognize and accept every face as familiar and somehow (for lack of a better word) “correct,” whether child or adult, male or female, attractive or disfigured.

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We process the experience of a face differently from other things. Seeing a face—even the face of a stranger—evokes a certain welcoming I don’t find anywhere else: a waterfall, a sunset, a mountain, an eagle in flight may all be stunning spectacles, but there’s an otherness to them. We note the key features of a face instantly and effortlessly, without any thought of having missed what is important.

Hernán Piñera's Cyclops

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There’s something about the face that speaks to the heart in a way nothing else does;

Of course, we draw much information from people’s faces. From a glance at a face we surmise the character, intelligence, and disposition of a person. In a sense, we capture, or “own,” the essence of the person through those glances: “I get you.”

God defies this process by his nature. We can never capture or own him because, unlike everything else in the universe, he is not a creature. I heard Bishop Barron speak recently about this, and he noted the danger in trying to master God, as Adam and Eve learned when they tried to be like God by eating from the forbidden tree. Because of this danger, when Moses sees the burning bush and decides to examine it to see how it is not consumed, God tells him, “Come no closer!” At Exodus 33:20, he tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live.”

Still, as the Psalmist says, God has put in our hearts a yearning to see his face. We were created to be drawn to him and be with him in the Trinity for all time. He put in our hearts the need, the desire, to know him, and he designed us to look to the face as an opening to the reality of his being, the same way we have been taught from our earliest moments in our mothers’ arms to look at others.

God has given us his son as a way to satisfy this yearning. Philip asks Jesus, “Lord, show us the father, and it is enough for us.” John 14:8. Jesus answers that whoever has seen him has seen the father.

So, how is this possible? If God says no one can see his face, how can we look on his face when it is worn by Jesus?

I think the answer is that our Lord controls what we see when we look at his face.

A year or so ago, I saw a television program that tried to show what the face of Jesus would probably have looked like, based on the physical characteristics of men from that region in that time period. As I watched it, I had the sense there was a fundamental flaw in the methodology. The premise of the program was that the face of Jesus was a natural and fixed phenomenon; that it presented the same image to everyone who looked at it.

We see in scripture, though, that Jesus appeared—before and after the resurrection—in different forms to different people. He reveals himself in ways that communicate a needed truth at that moment. When Simeon holds the infant Jesus, he says to God, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” as the Messianic figure of Christ radiated through the face of the child. Luke 2:30.

Scripture tells us that when the child Jesus was lost in Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary searched for him for three days. Is it possible they could have seen him during their search—even looking into his face–but did not recognize him because he chose not reveal himself? Perhaps we see in this mystery a kind of divine game of hide-and-seek, that by withdrawing himself, he produces an anxiety that can greatly motivate us to search for him.

We can find Jesus when he reveals himself. We see the dazzling effect of his self-revelation very clearly at the transfiguration. We see it, too, in the Gospel of John, when he asks of the soldiers who have come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They reply, “Jesus the Nazorean,” to which he says, “I AM.” At those words, the soldiers “turned away and fell to the ground.” John 18:6. What a sign of the power of our Lord who can overwhelm a military force just by giving it a glimpse of his glory.

The same question that he asked of the soldiers he asks each of us: who are you looking for? When we contemplate the face of Jesus, we give the answer that the soldiers gave: we’re looking for you, Jesus.

We can search for his face in prayer, behind closed eyes, calling forth images of our Lord. Or by praying before an Icon, a statuette, or a crucifix. We can seek him in the faces of people we meet, especially those in need. What is important is that we take the time to contemplate his face.

In my breviary, I mark my place in the psalms and readings with a prayer card of the Holy Face of Jesus from the shroud of Turin. On the back of the card is this promise, received from Jesus by Blessed Marie Pierna di Micheli in 1936:

“Each time that anyone will contemplate my Face, I will pour my love into hearts and by my Holy Face they will obtain the salvation of many souls.”

In the beatitudes, Jesus tells us “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matt. 5:8. The promise of our Lord to Blessed Marie Pierna offers the inverse of the beatitude as something that is also true: that by contemplating the face of Christ, we can purify hearts—ours and many others.

Because of his love for us, Jesus values the time we spend contemplating his face. We were created with the desire to seek the face of God, and he wants to satisfy that yearning. I don’t wish to suggest an automatic process of divine response to any devotion, but we can see that he reveals himself when we look for him in our hearts.

He is calling us to do that.

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