God has a face! 

This is an utterly unique Christian claim.  Only Christianity makes this claim among all the world’s religions and it is a claim made possible only through Jesus Christ – who is God incarnate for us.

In many ways this claim hits on the scandal of the particular that is at the heart of our faith.  It is a scandal that can never quite be shaken from the Christian message although many have tried.  It is one thing to talk of “God” in a general and (often for many people) abstract sense.  But to really say that God walked among us, talked to us, ate, slept, laughed, that he even looked a certain way … well, this all starts to make quite a few people antsy and uncomfortable.  Often many people will scoff at this point and respond to what they determine to be the the naivety and even childishness of the faith but I have come to realize that this is often just a cover for their own nervousness. 

Why is this?

I think that part of it might be rooted in the old saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul.  When God is held in the abstract there are no eyes to look into.  Yes, God has his decrees and commandments and these bring life but there is still fundamentally a safe and semi-comfortable distance between me and the Divine.  But, when God has a human face all of a sudden the safe distance is gone.  It means that I have to look into his eyes (into his soul) and he into mine… 

Jesus Christ had a human soul.  This is a truth of the faith that was thrashed out in the great christological controversies of the Church.  The soul is that place of volition within the human person where will is found and choices are determined.  In the eyes of Christ we see the soul of someone who lived completely in obedience to the will of the Father.  For us, this is both beautiful and utterly terrifying at the same time.

When God is particular that means that God can and will make particular demands on me.  When God is abstract and general then it is enough to be guided solely by “principles” which are also easy enough to dismiss if one so determines.  But there is a trade-off.  A God in the abstract can neither warm nor inflame the heart.  Life remains quite cold.  Only in a God with a human face can we be caught up in the gaze of infinite love and tender mercy.

I just finished reading, “The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus” by Paul Badde.  In the book Badde carefully lays out the argument that the relic of the Holy Face of Manoppello (a small city in Italy) is in fact the veil laid over the burial shroud of Jesus in the tomb.  The image on the veil (seen above) matches that found on the Shroud of Turin and likewise is inexplicable in its making.  This veil is what came to be known over time as the Veil of Veronica.  It is all quite intriguing.

I am making no claims here in this blog.  I will leave that to those with more knowledge than I.  But I now hope that if one day (God willing) I am able to travel back to Italy I will plan on a visit to the now minor papal basilica of the Volto Santo di Manoppello. 

(On September 1, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Manoppello to personally view the image and pray before it.  Two weeks after his visit he elevated the church to the level of a minor papal basilica.  Below is an excerpt of the Holy Father’s address on this occasion.)

What I can say for now is that this book has brought out for me the unique beauty of the particular that is at the heart of our faith as Christians. 

God has a human face!  It is Jesus Christ!



Friday, 1 September 2006

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

First of all, I must once again say a heartfelt “thank you” for this welcome, for your words, Your Excellency, so profound, so friendly, for the expression of your friendship and for the deeply meaningful gifts: the Face of Christ venerated here, for me, for my house, and then the gifts of your land that express the beauty and generosity of the earth, of the people who live and work here, and the goodness of the Creator himself. I simply want to thank the Lord for today’s simple, family meeting in a place where we can meditate on the mystery of divine love, contemplating the image of the Holy Face.

During my pause for prayer just now, I was thinking of the first two Apostles who, urged by John the Baptist, followed Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River, as we read at the beginning of John’s Gospel (cf. 1: 35-37).

The Evangelist recounts that Jesus turned around and asked them: “”What do you seek?’. And they answered him, “Rabbi… where are you staying?'”. And he said to them, “Come and see” (cf. Jn 1: 38-39).

That very same day, the two who were following him had an unforgettable experience which prompted them to say: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1: 41).

The One whom a few hours earlier they had thought of as a simple “rabbi” had acquired a very precise identity: the identity of Christ who had been awaited for centuries.

But, in fact, what a long journey still lay ahead of those disciples!

They could not even imagine how profound the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth could be or how unfathomable, inscrutable, his “Face” would prove, so that even after living with Jesus for three years, Philip, who was one of them, was to hear him say at the Last Supper: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?”. And then the words that sum up the novelty of Jesus’ revelation: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14: 9).

Only after his Passion when they encountered him Risen, when the Spirit enlightened their minds and their hearts, would the Apostles understand the significance of the words Jesus had spoken and recognize him as the Son of God, the Messiah promised for the world’s redemption. They were then to become his unflagging messengers, courageous witnesses even to martyrdom.

“He who has seen me has seen the Father”. Yes, dear brothers and sisters, to “see God” it is necessary to know Christ and to let oneself be moulded by his Spirit who guides believers “into all the truth” (cf. Jn 16: 13). Those who meet Jesus, who let themselves be attracted by him and are prepared to follow him even to the point of sacrificing their lives, personally experience, as he did on the Cross, that only the “grain of wheat” that falls into the earth and dies, bears “much fruit” (Jn 12: 24).

This is the path of Christ, the way of total love that overcomes death: he who takes it and “hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12: 25). In other words, he lives in God already on this earth, attracted and transformed by the dazzling brightness of his Face.

This is the experience of God’s true friends, the saints who, in the brethren, especially the poorest and neediest, recognized and loved the Face of that God, lovingly contemplated for hours in prayer. For us they are encouraging examples to imitate; they assure us that if we follow this path, the way of love, with fidelity, we too, as the Psalmist sings, will be satisfied with God’s presence (cf. Ps 17[16]: 15).

“Jesu… quam bonus te quaerentibus! – How kind you are, Jesus, to those who seek you!”. This is what we have just sung in the ancient hymn “Jesu, dulcis memoria” [Jesus, the very thought of you], which some people attribute to St Bernard.

It is a hymn that acquires rare eloquence in the Shrine dedicated to the Holy Face, which calls to mind Psalm 24[23]: “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (v. 6).

But which is “the generation” of those who seek the Face of God, which generation deserves to “ascend the hill of the Lord” and “stand in his holy place”?

The Psalmist explains: it consists of those who have “clean hands and a pure heart”, who do not speak falsehoods, who do not “swear deceitfully” to their neighbour (cf. vv. 3-4). Therefore, in order to enter into communion with Christ and to contemplate his Face, to recognize the Lord’s Face in the faces of the brethren and in daily events, we require “clean hands and a pure heart”.

Clean hands, that is, a life illumined by the truth of love that overcomes indifference, doubt, falsehood and selfishness; and pure hearts are essential too, hearts enraptured by divine beauty, as the Little Teresa of Lisieux says in her prayer to the Holy Face, hearts stamped with the hallmark of the Face of Christ.

Dear priests, if the holiness of the Face of Christ remains impressed within you, pastors of Christ’s flock, do not fear: the faithful entrusted to your care will also be infected with it and transformed.

And you, seminarians, who are training to be responsible guides of the Christian people, do not allow yourselves to be attracted by anything other than Jesus and the desire to serve his Church.

I would like to say as much to you, men and women religious, so that your activities may be a visible reflection of divine goodness and mercy.

“Your Face, O Lord, I seek”: seeking the Face of Jesus must be the longing of all of us Christians; indeed, we are “the generation” which seeks his Face in our day, the Face of the “God of Jacob”. If we persevere in our quest for the Face of the Lord, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, he, Jesus, will be our eternal joy, our reward and glory for ever: “Sis Jesu nostrum gaudium, qui es futurus praemium: sit nostra in te gloria, per cuncta semper saecula”…

© Copyright 2006 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana