That wonderful line from the wonderful poem of John Gillespie Magee, Jr called High Flight became familiar to most Americans when President Ronald Reagan used several of its lines memorializing the crew of the space shuttle Columbia. It is a remarkable sonnet and the story of its author is equally impressive. I believe that we are indebted to Peggy Noonan, Reagan's primary speech writer, for placing these lines into such prominence.
To touch the face of God has long been the pursuit of mankind. From the days of earliest pagan religion to the mystical experiences of the God's theophanies in the Old Testament, our longing to touch God is part of that likeness that was placed within us in creation. Sin has kept us from fulfilling that longing and even Israel grew so tired of waiting that they created a golden calf to serve as an accessible God whose face could be known.
It stands to reason that we are curious. Consider all the fuss about a possible painting of William Shakespeare -- a figure so larger than life that his history is more mythology than fact. If this author of so many of our favorite lines is the subject of our great curiosity then even more so our passion to know what God looks like since we were created to know Him. But knowing Him has been hidden in the darkness and distortion of fearful hearts because of sin. That is until God desired to reveal to us what had been hidden.
That is the significance of the Incarnation of our Lord. God has revealed to us what was long hidden to us -- His very face. Unlike our mythical images of God, His face is none other than the face of a man, of mortal flesh and human frame. He comes to us as one of us -- yet without sin. He was born not only as our God but as our Brother through the Virgin Mary and the power of the Holy Spirit.
What the commandments had long restricted -- speculation about God's image and likeness was not to be tolerated in art -- now has been revealed to us. Since God has made Himself known to us in the face of the human flesh and blood of the God-man Jesus Christ, we now see His face. "Whoever has seen Me, has seen the Father," said Jesus to Philip. To portray the image of Jesus is no violation of this restriction against graven images -- just the opposite -- God invites us to look upon Him through His Son.
Every race and ethnic distinction has fashioned the face of Jesus to look like them. In Africa the image of the Savior is black, in Asia, it is Asian, and so on. This is not wrong but so very right. All of us need to see in the face of Jesus our own face -- for He comes to us as one of us.
But the icon has a different history and theology. In the icon Jesus image is purposely distorted from an accurate painting. The child Jesus looks like a small adult in iconography. The fingers and feet, head and torso, not fully in proportion. It is as if we are being reminded that this is not a photographic image but a sacramental one. We see Jesus, like us and yet not like us -- what the Athanasian Creed describes as
we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood; Who, although he is God and man, yet he is not two but one Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God;. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man,
so God and man is one Christ...
For all our yearnings to know God, to touch His face, and for all that art helps us see, the one image of God that is fully accessible to us and the place where He is most fully known lies most certainly in the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar. There we touch Him and He touches us, in the visible and concrete forms of bread and wine, with the spiritual reality that transcends even death, rich with gifts and the Giver of grace sufficient for all our needs. This Sunday think of that journey to the altar rail as your "high flight" to touch the face of God, where He has come down to us. It is a powerful moment of grace.