04 April 2011

The Search for the Face

Joel 2:12-17& 2 Corinthians 2:1-6

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 3rd April 2011

Two images are placed before us in these two texts.  They hold up two, different, but related and important images.  The face and the heart; a movement of the heart and a turning of the face.  Heart and face.  The Joel text calls us to turn to the Lord with all our heart.  In scripture, the heart was understood as the center of the personality, the core of our being; all that you are is represented with the heart.  If your heart was not right with God, then something was wrong.  If our hearts are devoted to gods which are no gods, instead of the Living God, then our hearts have betrayed us.  Because the heart is the center of the self, the health of one’s hearts is dependent upon that which pumps life into the heart, is contingent upon one’s relationship with God.  God wants our hearts—meaning, God doesn’t just want a part of our lives, God doesn’t want our empty religiosity, and weak attempts at trying to be “good” or moral; instead, God desires the heart of our lives, the center of who we are, all that we are.

            This is at the center of Christian discipleship.  When the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) affirmed his faith (24th May 1738, in Nettleton Court, off Aldersgate Street, London), said that his “heart was strangely warmed.”  And it might even come as a surprise to some that our own beloved John Calvin (1509-1564) had a heart—a head maybe, Mr. Cerebral Theologian that he was, but not a heart.   When we actually read Calvin, howver, we discover a different story.  His conversion experience was very similar to Wesley’s.  In fact, later, Calvin developed a personal logo or symbol which was the shape of a heart with a flame above it, resting on an upturned, open-faced palm.  He gave the passion of his heart, a heart set on fire, the core of his being, to God. [1] Both Wesley and Calvin are rooted in the Biblical understanding that the desire to seek after God is first an experience of the heart, at the core of the self.  God wants our hearts.  That’s why Joel says, “rend your hearts, not your clothing.  Return to the LORD, your God, for [God] is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).

            Heart-to-heart, that’s what God wants.  It’s why we were created:  to be in communion with God.  The heart isn’t the only image that captures this idea of relationship.  We also have another idea that runs through scripture: the image of the face.  There’s a text, Psalm 27:8, that beautifully holds them together:  “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  ‘Come,’ my hearts says,’ seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek.  Do not hide your face from me.”  The psalmist captures one of the most important claims of scripture:  Not only does God want our hearts, but we learn the converse is also true, the human heart longs for God.  Indeed, the deepest desire of the human heart is to see the face of God, of finding ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with the Living God.  As St. Augustine (354–430) confessed long ago:  “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”  The heart’s desire is to see the face of God.

            Why is this so important?  There are many reasons, but one in particular is this:  to look at another and to be seen by another creates a bond, a connection, a communion.  And when God is looking upon you, looking at you, staring you in the eye, we need to remember that God is looking at you with delight, with eyes of love, a look that pierces your soul, your heart of hearts, a look that draws you into communion with God, a look that tells you, no matter what, you belong to God.  This is especially true throughout the psalms where the worst possible judgment of God is not some tragic event, but the withdrawal of God’s gracious glance.  To not be seen by God is the worse possible judgment because only from the perspective of God’s face can the psalmist and Israel see who they really are.  The price of sin is the face of God veiled, covered from God’s people.  Psalm 88:14:  “O LORD, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?”  The sign of redemption, of forgiveness is the turning of God’s face toward us with the look of love, with unveiled faces.  Listen to Psalm 80:3:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”[2]

            The truth is we’re all searching for a face.  Child psychologists have taught us that right from an early age, an infant finds his or her place in the world through the face of a parent.  Psychologist René Spitz (1887–1974) has show in his classic work The First Year of Life, that the primary means through which the personality is shaped is through the facial mirroring between parent and child.  By three months an infant seeks and responds to a particular face for security and identity, the infant seeks that face and smiles.  The work of two psychologists, the objects-relations theorist D. W. Winnicott (1896–1971) and Erik Erikson (1902–1994), who trained with Anna Freud (1985–1972), have both identified the need and the power behind this drive to find a face. This is especially strong from twelve to eighteen months.  The look of that face tells the child who he or she is.  “The face, then, is the personal center that is innately sought by a child and the focus of the earliest sense of one’s humanity.”[3]  Through the relationship, through the face-to-face interaction a child finds a place in the world and is confirmed as a self.  In fact, the round shape of the face is also a symbol of wholeness and completeness, particularly for followers of Carl Jung (1875-1961).  The face is an archetype of wholeness; it connects with something deep and primal within us.  The four points of the face actually bears the imprint of the cross.  Justin Martyr (c. 100–165), writing from the second century in his Apologia said, “The Cross is imprinted upon man, even upon his face.”[4]

            But as we grow up, the face in which we seek our identity starts to turn away.  Instead of one or two faces that center our lives we encounter many.  We see the faces of other children:  some that smile at us, some that don’t smile; some that tell us we’re liked, some that tell us we’re disliked; some that tell us we’re ugly or stupid or poor or don’t fit in or the wrong color the wrong gender.  We see harsh faces, angry faces, judging faces.  We see faces that won’t look at us or won’t notice us. We never outgrow the need for the face.

            We’re all searching for that face, you see, that will tell us who we are.  We’re looking for a face that will look at us and not turn away in shame.  We’re looking for the face that will look at us, dead in the eye, and see to the depths of our souls, who will see who we really are, really see us and not through us or past us.  We’re all looking for that face that will look at us and in whose eyes we will find unconditional love and acceptance. 

            The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) said that if you want to see the power of sin in the human heart, look at a city street and all the people who are afraid to look at one another.  That face-to-face interaction is what we desire, and yet, because we have all been hurt, we find it extremely difficult to look into another’s eyes without turning our hearts.  “The longing for the face that won’t go away persists” throughout our lives.  My mentor and former professor at Princeton Seminary, James Loder, put it so well when he said we are all looking for that experience, for that face in whose eyes “one is given a place in the cosmos, confirmed as a self, and addressed by the presence of a loving other.”[5]

            The loving other can be your husband or wife, your partner, a friend, your anam ċara or soul-friend, as the Celtic Christians used to say.  But even the best marriages and partnerships and friendships and even the best soul-friend cannot meet this deepest need, cannot fill this desire, cannot satisfy this hunger.  They cannot meet this most basic human need.  To look to another human being to completely satisfy this need puts too much strain on the relationship. 

            The deepest desire of the human heart, we ache and long for this, cry and pray and hope for this—whether we’re conscious of it or not, religious or not, Christian or not—is to be addressed by the presence of a loving other, a Wholly Other Who is God.  We long to see God, face-to-face, and to be known by such a face, to know ourselves in the face of the One Who is love, the one in whose eyes we are given life, given meaning, to see ourselves as reflected back from God’s face, affirmed for who we are and loved infinitely.

            For me, the place where all these images of heart and face come wonderfully together is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  Why?  Because “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord….  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone”—where?—“in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—where?—“in the face of Jesus Christ.”

            Jesus Christ is the face of God.  When we look at him we see God; when Christ looks at us, it is with the face of God, the face we are all searching for.  The face of mercy and grace.  The face that looks at us and will not turn away. The search for the face is satisfied in him.  When we look at him and dwell in his presence, when we sit at table with him and commune with him, we will know who are.[6]

            What do we see in his face?  The only one who can tell us who we really are.  He looks at us and sees us, looks us dead in the eye and sees us for who we are.  He doesn’t look through us or beyond us.  We’re not invisible to him.  At times the look might be one of judgment, a look of “No!” but only “No!” so as to allow us to see his glorious “Yes!” His affirmation.  In Christ, God turns God’s face toward us and we find in his face unconditional love and acceptance. 

            That’s what this table symbolizes, it’s what the symbol of this table means, it attempts to capture and make real for us the claim of the gospel:  here we commune with the living God, heart-to-heart; here we gather and experience the grace of God, face-to-face.

[1] See the new biography by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2011).
[2] A theme found throughout Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1989).
[3] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition, (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 163.
[4] Jolande Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1959), 172n.
[5] Loder, 165, 166.
[6] Cf. T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) poem “Ash Wednesday” from 1930.  “For those who walk in darkness/ Both in the day time and in the night time/ The right time and the right place are not here./ No place of grace for those who avoid the face./ No time to rejoice for those who walk among/ noise and deny the voice.”  The Complete Poems and Plays:  1909-1950 (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 65.

No comments: