The Face of God
by Fr. Joseph Hallit
Office of Educational Services
THE FACE OF GOD
By Fr. Joseph Hallit
The icon of the Holy Face is the symbol of the great mystery of God’s graciousness towards us. God is grace: that is, an inexhaustible and ceaselessly abundant self-giving Source of goodness, Giver of life, sustaining, strengthening and communicating His gifts. And the greatest of these is to be His image, His face. Therein is the great meaning of the Incarnation.
To be the face of someone is to be that someone. In effect, the face is the meeting point of the person. It is the person. It is at once that which sees and that which is seen.
Our icon is a face: it is the Face par excellence. God is face. He sees, He foresees, He provides. The glance of God is tied to His creative Word right from the beginning of Scripture. The divine Word creates. His face looks and sees that it is good, that it is beautiful. “How great are Your works, O Lord; in wisdom You have wrought them all. Bless the Lord, O my soul.” (Psalm 103)
Before this image of the Incarnate God, we must pause for a moment to recall the theology of the face. The face-to-face of human encounters symbolizes and enkindles the interior meeting of hearts, for the face is the mirror of the heart. In effect, “A man’s heart molds his expression, whether for better or for worse.” (Sirach 13:25).
To seek the face of God was the obsession of the Psalmist, expressing himself in the name of his people. They were convinced that this divine face lived in the midst of Israel. Invisible, it was nonetheless full of the extraordinary vitality of the living God. Also, this presence of the divine face is the strength of its people (Ex 33.14: Is 63:7): it gives rise to the cultic aspiration to see the face of God (Psalm 42:3) and to seek the face of God (Amos 5:4). But because the face of Yahweh is that of God, holy and just, only “the upright will contemplate his face” (Psalm 11:7).
Always in the Old Testament, that contemplation would remain something exceptional. a favor granted to Moses and Elias. Moses himself would be allowed to see only the back, after God’s passage (Ex 33:20-23), although he longed to see God face-to-face. No one could see the face of God and live, because of sin.
With the Incarnation, the face of God is found in ours, and ours in that of His Son. In the face of Christ, God showed His own face, in effect. We can see on that face the glory of God who shone there (2 Cor. 4:6). The glory of the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:2). is the sign that, in Jesus, God Himself took on a face (Rev. 1:16) and that in Him is seen the face that “no one has ever seen” (Jn. 1:18): “He who sees me sees the Father” (Jn. 14:9).
All of this is summed up in the icon of Christ Pantocrator. it is a theological and historical coming together as well as a recapitulation of all the elements of nature: wood, stone, sun, water, air, colors, the elements which directly or indirectly enter into the iconographic composition. This icon stands in the tradition of the Holy Face “not made by human hands.” It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Further, for the Fathers of the second council of Nicea in 787, “the Holy Spirit is the first iconographer.”
A harmonious blend of colors, lights and shadows, our icon “of Beauty and Light” naturally appears to the believing and loving contemplator as an invitation to come to know the prototype it represents: “Of all men you are the most handsome. Your lips are moist with grace”. (Psalm 45:2)
To tell the story of the Icon: The gold nimbus surrounding the head is circular in form. svmbolizing incarnate perfection. Often the nimbus reaches to the edges of the icon, indicating the unlimited and uncontainable fullness which emanates from Christ. The merciful fullness of Christ, the Lover of Mankind, is abundantly communicated to his members, that is, to us.
In the two upper corners of the icon we read the monogram of Christ, IC XC, formed from the first and last letters of the two words making up the name of Jesus Christ in Greek (Ihsous Christos). The inscription of this name is very important in iconography, containing in effect the entire theology of the name. To give a name to someone is to create him, to situate him, to know him, to possess him, to communicate with him, to seize him. And in the case of the icon, the inscription gives a spiritual dimension, a holy character. Thanks to that, the icon is linked to its prototype in such a way that, for whoever looks into it, it becomes the place of a celebration of love between two beings. In it they mutually contemplate each other and the means by which heaven is found within our reach, and our earth sees itself captured by heaven. Thus the icon is justly titled “a partial presence of heaven on earth”.
On the inside of the nimbus one may see the discreet shadow of a cross, a clear reminder of the mystery of redemptive love which is seen on the face of Him who died for our salvation. The cross signifies that it is the loving kindness of God, incarnate in Jesus, which holds first place. The cross is simply an external proof assumed by love in witness to divine Love.
The wide brow in this balanced face symbolizes the great vision of the God– Man in the history of our creation – redemption. Truly, God sees on a large scale. He confronts our reality with courage, indeed insistence, for therein is the privileged place of His epiphany of goodness and love.
The eyes, open wide on the infinite and on the totality of our history, are all-seeing, all-embracing, all-present, all-knowing. The look is penetrating and fascinating, visible and seeing, seized as well as seizing, loved and loving. Turned towards the Infinite, it is at the same time turned to the interior. Because of that look, we feel ourselves immediately in the “inner depths” of Christ, meek and humble of heart. We feel ourselves adopted, loved, cared for, redeemed, saved, inspired, illumined, adorned, sanctified, christified, deified. That look is truly the resumé of the theology of Beauty and Light of which we spoke before.
Dostoyevsky once wrote, “There is not and cannot be anything more beautiful than Christ”. However, the contemplation of beauty, a contemplation purely aesthetic, even of Christ, is not all-sufficient. It demands an act of faith, an active participation in and incorporation into the transforming beauty of the Lord.
The beauty of the Son is the Image of that of the Father, source of Beauty: it is also the example and cause of our own beauty, which is contained therein. Because where the Son is, the Father is, and there also are the brothers of the Son, sons of the same Father: “Who has seen me, has seen the Father”.
Physionomy of peaceful serenity, photogenic, eloquent testament of a silent yet efficacious divine presence, living communion with the Distant-yet-Near and Invisible- become-Visible, mystical yet real integration with the Incorporeal-become-Corporeal: this icon is a reflection of the Light of Tabor. Thus we may, through it, say with certitude: “Emmanu-el” ( “God is with us”).
“A theologian is one who knows how to pray,” said Evagrios of Ponticus and St. Gregory of Nyssa. And we may add: “A contemplative is one who knows how to see and discover the Beautiful and the Divine.” It is not a question of knowing how to speak, to analyze, to discourse. More simply, it is a question of feeling that “God dwells there among us”, with a dwelling that is beautiful and, because it is beautiful, ravishes souls and bears them to the heights of understanding and love.
Thus, what the Word proclaims, the icon shows silently. It is that experience which caused the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea to explain, concerning icons: “What we have heard spoken of (in the Gospel), we have seen”. Hence for us the vital relationship between reading the Gospel daily and contemplating the icons. The Gospel leads us to the icon, and from the painted icon to the icon which is our neighbor, and from there back again to the Gospel.
A saint is not a superman, but rather one who lives his truth as a liturgical being. That is to say, he is a being “of the Holy One” in communion with the angels who, in an “eternal movement around God, sing and praise with triple blessings the one God” (St. Maximos the Confessor). Further, it is for this that we are created. The psalmist again: “I will sing to my Lord as long as I last” (Psalm 104: 33).
“When grace sees us aspire with all our strength towards beauty, it grants to us the gift of resemblance”. Thus, in becoming capable of seeing the glory of the face of Christ. Christians, through the Holy Spirit, which dwells in them, remain illumined and transformed with the light of life and salvation. “And we, [unlike Moses, whose transformation was passing] with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect: this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
It is that “glory of God” on the face of Christ, which makes shine on each of the faithful the grace of contemplation.