On the Face of Jesus, for Christmas
Note: For the season of Advent and Christmas, I've decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel.
The Jews understood that no one could see the face of God and live to tell about it. “I pray thee,” Moses once pleaded with God, “show me thy glory!” In a beautiful passage, God proceeded to show Moses “all his goodness” but insisted that Moses could not see his face, “for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:18-23). The difference between God and humanity is too great: “God is in heaven; you are on earth,” the Book of Ecclesiastes says (Ec 5:2). Bridging that gap ― encountering him face-to-face ― would simply overwhelm us.
But the Jews were far from satisfied with this arrangement. “Show us your face!” (Ps 4:6) they pleaded all throughout the Old Testament. It was the constant petition of their psalms. When priests offered blessings, they’d say “may the Lord bless you and keep you, and may the Lord make his face to shine upon you” (Nm 6:24-25). In times of pain, they could be sharp: “Are you sleeping, Lord? Wake up! Why do you hide your face from us?” (Ps 44:23-24)? Their conclusion is a beautiful one. Humanly speaking, they cannot see the face of God. But, as it says in one of their psalms, “my heart says, ‘seek his face.’ And so your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps 27:8-9). Even if God has hidden it ― even if finding it would kill them ― they will seek the face of God.
The birth of Jesus is the definitive moment. Christmas changes all this. Christmas celebrates the fact that, in Jesus, we have seen the face of God and lived. Mary, of course, was the first to see this, the first to peer into that face. We must not miss the extraordinariness of that first glance. God looked at Mary and Mary looked at God. Think about that! Their eyes rested upon each other. And what did Mary see?
How fascinating that Mary looked into the face of God and saw a face much like her own, a face that had inherited her features: cheeks like hers, eyes like hers. Indeed, it is Mary “of whom Jesus was born,” (Mt 1:16) and so it is Mary of whom Jesus received his human features. As he grew, she would’ve noticed it more. When he laughed, did he toss his head like she did? Did he lick his lips like she did? Sneeze like she did? Wouldn’t she have been the first to understand the emotions on her son’s face ― frustration, curiosity, joy ― because she knew how they played out on her own?
In a sense, the human face is for communicating emotion. Indeed, the face conveys our personality most intimately. This is why the Jews wanted to see God’s face so badly. In the face of Jesus, God has revealed his divine personality to us. How surprising that God’s face is a human face ― a baby’s face! How surprising that he carries himself just like his mother!
Mary knew the tradition of her ancestors ― that looking into God’s face meant death. But this was her son. “Blessed is she,” St. Jacob of Serugh (d. 521) once wrote of Mary. “She has born the mighty giant who sustains the world.” In her son’s eyes, Mary did not find a death sentence, but “infinity dwindled to infancy.” Today God blinks and smiles at the caresses of his mother. That is the marvel of Christmas ― the fact that the same God whose face made the patriarchs tremble now lies gurgling in his mother’s arms. Christmas means that God is not just blinding light and unquenchable fire, but a baby in need of his mother’s tenderness. “Blessed is she,” St. Jacob insisted, “her lips have touched Him whose blazing made angels of fire recoil…. She has embraced Him and covered him with kisses.”
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