It is on our face we express our joy. Who among us has not been drawn in by the hint of a smile or the sparkle in the eyes when something wonderful has happened to them or their family? Who among us has not turned away when grief or sorrow or pain made it impossible for us to look at others and who have not watched as people turn their faces away because they did not wish to be seen? An example of this is something far too uncommon today -- the face of shame. Among us, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. You see this even among infants and small children -- long before they learn why, they have the deep instinct to hide or cover the face in shame. They cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of a parent. That represents the unbearable aspect of shame and how it is expressed in the face, or the hiding of the face.
God's countenance or face is associated both with His blessing and His anger. When He looks upon us, His face means blessing but when He turns away from us, the lack of His face is associated with the anger of God over our disobedience and the shame we ought to bear for that sin. Face to face is not the norm for God but the mark of His mercy and the expression of His gracious favor. Nothing expresses this more than the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6. Our expectation of heaven is that it is always and only face to face. Nothing will prevent it -- no more sin, no more death, no more shame, and no more pain.
Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)
As St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ). Because of sin, the gates of hell are written on our faces – to be sure. But because of our baptism into Christ, the gates of paradise are also written on our faces. Face to face is where we behold and confront the mystery of our true self – the one that was marked by the rebellion of our first parents and the one that was and now is being re-created in the image of Christ through the means of grace. Our sacramental life means precisely behold the Lord face to face -- seeing His mercy in the face of His Son and seeing in His Son our own redemption and new and everlasting life. God reveals Himself to us, the face of His mercy and grace, and bids us to see ourselves in His face. This is the prelude and promise of what is to come and what we know now in part, but then shall know fully -- face to face.
Moses saw it fleetingly, the back and the shadow, just as Elijah saw before His glorious assumption. The icon is an image not in the sense of Norman Rockwell or VanGogh but in the face. Have you looked at the face on the icon -- it is out of proportion with the body. The icon is primarily an image of the face. It is a particular religious work of art that puts into practice this theology of the face. Soon we will enter into a time in which this image is no longer painted but incarnate. Tomorrow Advent begins. It is the season of hope and expectation in which we remember the longing of Israel to see the face of God and it is the season of revelation and incarnation as we acknowledge how this longing was fulfilled in the Son of Mary. In His face, we saw the face of God and still see that face. It is not the face of condemnation or judgment but of mercy and redemption, seeking not to punish but to save. Peering into the Manger we see what we see in the Cross -- the face of God who loves us and whose love to look upon our faces moved Him to become our Savior.