A Letter on the Face of God

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The Holy Face of Christ. (Source)

Dear Miriam,

Forgive me for my delay in replying to your message. You pose an excellent question, one that deserves an honest and well-considered answer. Indeed, I am not sure that I’m entirely qualified to speak on the matter. Not being a Biblical scholar, I can’t discuss the critical questions of authorship, Hebrew grammar, and culture that could be so useful. Alas. Nonetheless, I shall try to tell you what I understand the verse to mean, and why I saw fit to use it.

You ask me about what the Priestly Blessing meansespecially what we are to understand by those mysterious words, “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:25-26 KJV). You are right to note that there is something odd about this passage.

I believe the prayer is best understood through meditation. Let us look first at the beginning and bulk of the passage:

The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee…

What do we learn from these words? What does it mean to say, however poetically, that God has a “face,” a “countenance?”

First, it means that God is personal. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not an abstract, nameless force. He is not the Tao of the Chinese mysticsor not just that. Rather, He is someone, a who, an infinite yet utterly unique spirit. This truth entails another; God is relational. The face is the chief organ and sign by which we communicate with other people. The full range of our emotions find expression in the human face. The face becomes a symbol or synecdoche of our individual souls. It is the way we share our hearts. It is the bridge between our interiority and the other. Through speech, a kiss, an exchange of glances, the face mediates our personhood and thus becomes the location of communion.

The use of the word “countenance” in English sums up all these ideas, with one rather startling implication. God Almighty desires to be in a relationship with us. More than that, He wishes to dwell with us. The words of the blessing are not that of a God who will reign remotely. If the metaphor of the “face” suggests personality and relationship, it also suggests presence. God wants us to be wholly His, that He may be wholly ours. That is why He goes so far as to establish multiple, connected covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

But covenants, like great love stories, are exclusive. You are right to point out the negative implication in the verse. If we pray for God to turn His face towards us, then surely God’s face could be turned away from us as well? I think the certain answer of the Bible, not to mention ordinary human experience, is yes. The ancient Israelites believed that they were a privileged, priestly people, subject to a totally unique relationship with God. Yet the whole of the Old Testament’s historical and prophetic corpus also shows that the Nation of Israel repeatedly caused God to “turn His face” away from them, not in loving them less, nor in breaching His covenant, but in permitting them to suffer chastisements that they might return to Him. The Holy only communes with the holy; God cannot abide with sin. And the Israelites often sinned. We all do. Speaking from my own life, I can testify that mortal sin is a terrible thing. To fall away from the face of God, to want to hide from His face as Adam did in the Garden, to feel Him turn His holy face away from yousuch is the interior darkness and desolation wrought by sin.

Yet the ground of your questionwhy God’s face would be turned away from anyone reveals that whether you realize it or not, you already have a basically Christian idea of God. To the ancient Jews who composed the Priestly Blessing for the liturgies of Tabernacle and Temple, the Face of God only turned towards the Nation of Israel. The idea that God loves all, and loves them unconditionally, is a notion that did not exist anywhere before the coming of Christ.

Indeed, the prayer receives its perfect answer and fulfillment when God takes on a human face. Jesus Christ is the Face of God, a divine person who wishes to be in an eternal and perfect communion with all men. That is why He is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is our eternal high priest (Hebrews 7:23-28; 9:11-14; 10:10-14).

And as our high priest, He has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing in three ways, all of which were unimaginable when it was written.

First, in His coming. In Christ, God has turned His face towards usin the manger at Bethlehem, in His ministry among the poor and sick, in His companionship with sinners, in His Transfiguration, in His ceaseless prayer for us, in His cruel and unjust death upon the cross, and in His glorious Resurrection and Ascension.

Secondly, in the heart of the Godhead. By assuming human nature, God the Son becomes a human. By His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven, He has brought a human face into the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. God the Father gazes upon the human face of His Son, and He desires to see all mankind in and through that face. God the Spirit, eternal love, is born forth out of this mutual gaze. The Father and the Son only behold each other in the absolute love of the Spirit.

But what is the fruit for us today? The rest of the prayer tells us:

…and give thee peace.

Peace is not the absence of suffering, but the absence of disturbance. The peace of Christ, the peace “which passeth all understanding” is not to be taken as earthly ease and comfort (Philippians 4:7 KJV). That would merely be the false and facile peace of the world. The peace of God is a foretaste of Heaven, an inner rock upon which we may stand when suffering assails us, a seed of the Kingdom that may render us more perfect imitators of Christ. With the peace of God in our hearts, we may hope to know the true joy that, paradoxically, only grows from the cross. This peace is not a quiet meekness. It is the liberating freedom and security that comes from the knowledge of His love. Peace does not paralyzeit propels. It makes us undertake great adventures for God. Why? Because true peace is communion with God.

That is why I made use of the prayer at the end of my “Letter on Loneliness.” It occurred to me that the torment of loneliness is in some way redeemed if we remember the presence of the God who is love, and thus attain to His peace.

I don’t believe we can hope for the fullness of that peace without the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is simply impossible to be a Christian without the Eucharist. Any grace, any glory, any goodness in the world is only granted and sustained by Christ present with us in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Indeed, the graces of all the other sacraments flow from the Eucharist, since it is Christ Himself.

And it is in the Eucharist that we find the third way that Christ has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing and extended its meaning to all peoples and all epochs. In the Eucharist, we once again come face to face with the God of Israelquite literally. His Eucharistic Face can be found in any Catholic Church on earth. Go to a service of Benediction. Chant hymns of adoration as the incense flies up like a ghost into the shadowy heights of the sanctuary. Let your soul rise with it, high above the little lights of the candles that line the altar. Then, as the bell rings and the priest lifts the Host, you will see God. Or at least, you will see His veil. He hides Himself under the sight of mere matter. No matter what, He will see you.

Better yet, go to Mass. Go to the Easter Vigil. Go on any Sunday. There, you will not only see God, but hundreds of perfectly ordinary people communing with Him in the most intimate way imaginablebody and soul. That holy act is the true fulfillment of the Priestly Blessing. It is the seal and crown of all the covenants. Not everyone in the world partakes of itbut happy are those who do! They alone know the Peace that was promised, the Peace that is He.

Forgive me if I have rambled. One could, in theory, write whole volumes on the verses you have asked me about. I am sure someone with more learning and a deeper life in Christ could give you an altogether better explanation. But what I have written is drawn ex corde meo. I hope, at the very least, that I’ve answered your question. I’d be happy to continue discussing the matter.

Until then, I pray that the Good Lord blesses you in all your works and ways.

In Christ,

Rick

And After the Fire

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“The Morning After the Deluge,” J.M.W. Turner, c. 1843. (Source).

I am still shocked and furious about the events of the last few days. Fascists of various sorts have descended upon Charlottesville, Virginiaa town I loved and called home for four years—and caused immense pain for the entire community. One woman, a Wobbly protester, died at the hands of a Neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowded alley. I had friends in the counter-protest. I had friends who feared for their lives. And all I could do was watch and pray. The Rosary, the Imprecatory Psalms, Invocations to St. Michael. But how I wish I could have done so much more.

I was following the news across Facebook, CNN television, and Twitter. I observed mixed responses. Some, even among baptized Catholics, sympathize with the Alt-Right fascists. They point the finger of blame at Antifa, the several Socialists who showed up in counterprotest, the Media, and Black Lives Matter activists. Likewise, some Christians equivocated. They were happy to condemn the Alt-Right briefly, while also complaining at length about how the Media wasn’t focusing on Antifa, or the Police didn’t do enough, or, incredibly, how all of this is really just the fault of the Democratic Party (here’s looking at you, John Zmirak and Dinesh D’Souza). Then, there were those brave Catholics like Chad Pecknold, Robert George, and Bishop Barron who condemned white supremacy and racism outright. And they received backlashshameful!from those who should know better.

But I haven’t lost hope.

The Liturgical Providence of God is so calibrated to our salvation that we receive the graces we need at precisely the moment we need them, even when we could never have anticipated needing them in the first place. It works even through a deficient calendar, such as we have in the Novus Ordo. For today, we read and hear about a great many disruptions and turbulent tumults. We turn first to the Prophet Elijah at Sinai where, having cast down fire from heaven upon the Prophets of Baal, he hides and waits for the Lord to speak.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a

The wind rises high all about Elijah; it howls and screams like the very demons of Hell. It rushes up the mountain like the chariots of the wicked King who sought the prophet’s life. But the Lord was not in the wind.

The earthquake causes the whole mountain to tremble. Rocks shake as if they are about to be torn asunder by invisible hands. The trees seem to dance in an unholy rhythm, threaten to crack and topple over. But the Lord was not in the earthquake.

The fire courses across the plain and up the slopes, hungrily devouring the short desert grasses that line the path to Horeb’s cave. The smoke fills the air; the sweltering heat traps Elijah, and threatens to make a furnace of his narrow cell. But the Lord was not in the fire.

The Lord came, instead, in a “tiny whispering sound” that followed all that tumult and trial. The frightful violence of nature may have been sublime, and it may have sorely threatened Elijah. But it was empty. God does not dwell in the frenzy of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. He comes in peace, and He meets His servant in peace.

This week’s Psalm takes up the same theme.

R. (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14

The peace and salvation of God is near to those who fear Him. A great mystery hovers within these lines: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.”

Justice. Peace. Those are words that scare a lot of us traditionalists. After all, haven’t so many abuses of doctrine and the liturgy occurred precisely in the name of “social justice?” Haven’t whole orders been gutted by their worldly capitulation to liberal standards of “social justice” work? And aren’t the proverbial “Social Justice Warriors” the very people who most oppose the Church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, gender, and so many other issues?

All of these criticisms are valid. But they are not complete. Justice is a cardinal virtue. To quote one of the better Anglican principles, “The abuse of a thing doth not take away the good use of it.” Consider what the Psalm teaches us of God’s Justice. Here is a picture of the Last and Eternal Day, when the New Heavens and the Earth will united at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But we also find a practical insight for the here and now. When we read, “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps,” we recognize in this a prophecy of Christ. Our Lord, whose way was prepared by St. John the Baptist (that man so like an icon of Justice), is never far from Justice. The wind and earthquake and fire of injustice will one day yield to the peace of Christ. But in the meantime, we must do what we can to realize that justice in our own communities. Indeed, in our own hearts.

This can only begin when we faithfully repair to the sacrament of penance, confessing our sins with compunction, and seek to live always as Christ would have us. For some, this may mean abandoning deep bigotries like white supremacy or a hatred of the poor. It will be difficult for those caught in such snares to relinquish their demonic ideologies, so we must pray for them. But is there anyone among us who does not cherish some prejudice, some little parasite of pride, some vice that blinds us to the manifold ways we are complicit in the oppression of our brethren? Even I am no saint in this respect, and I pray that God’s mercy might change me to better reflect His love for all people.

For some, direct action may be the right course. I am not an activist. I started this essay confessing that I wish I could have done more to help those standing against white supremacists yesterday. Yet I recognize that I have a temperamental aversion to any kind of on-the-ground activism. The task of marching, picketing, and chanting songs of justice may be what some are called to. Dorothy Day provides a wonderful Catholic example of this kind of work.

And there are other strategies, which theologians and activists have pursued for years, that aim at incarnating Justice. It would be redundant to attempt any kind of review here. But no matter how we go about the task of Justice, we musn’t lose hope. Let us hear the commiserating words of St. Paul to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Rom 9:1-5

Even amidst the anguish we feel for our brethren, we must not lose sight of the Holy Face triumphant. Nor must we forget that Justice is not itself the highest good. God is. With these two truths in mind, we turn to the Gospel.

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Mt 14:22-33

We learn from the Psalm that “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” So Our Lord sends forth His Apostles, His Church, to “precede him to the other side” of the sea. The Church mystically incarnates Justice at every Mass. And it can only hope to sustain Justice, a Cardinal Virtue, with Faith. For when Peter, Prince of the Apostles, goes out of the boat to walk towards His Lord, he only sinks when he loses his Faith in fear.

But all is not lost. Christ comes through the storm and shows that He is master of it. He walks on water. No tempest can withstand Him, just as no wind, earthquake, fire, flood, protest, or violence of this world can drown out His voice. No slogan of oppression, no act of terrorism, no brawl in the summer streets can overcome the peace that Christ alone brings in and to and through His Church.

I hope that my friends in Charlottesville will take heart. The last few days have been tempestuous, to say the least. But Christ will conquer the waves of this world. Have faith, and He will grant us both justice and peace.

A Corpus Christi Meditation

GasparroTransustanziazio

Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. He’s one of the best Catholic artists working today.

In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.

I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.

This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.

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Russian icon of The Holy Face of Jesus “Not-Made-by-Hands”(Source).

St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.

What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.

The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.

The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.

What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.

But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.

As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.