Thursday, May 07, 2009

Column: When Can I See the Face of God?

A few years back I took a course in illuminating manuscripts, including learning how to lay down the gold, and how to bind a simple codex. Looking at these manuscript pages, seeing where the hands had faltered, and yet the beauty of the whole was not marred, gave me hope that beauty is not always about perfection in the details, but in perfection of the whole vision.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 May 2009.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
— Ps. 42:3

I will freely admit it was not the depth of my piety, but the depth of my aversion for the 5:30 a.m. train that drew me to the contemplation of this psalm a few weeks back. To avoid a before- dawn walk to the train station, I went down to Washington the afternoon before my conference began. So I had a bit of time to spare to see the exhibit on illuminated manuscripts at the National Gallery.

Hanging on the dark blue walls, the gold letters and brilliant colors lit up the space, as they must have in the dim churches 500 years in the past. Aptly enough, it was a cluster of three manuscript pages in an alcove that caught my eye. Each featured a slightly different representation of the Trinity. God the Father was drawn as the bearded patriarch seated on a throne, and the Spirit, a dove.

I was fascinated with the three depictions of Christ: first, as a full grown man, but the size of a child relative to the Father, held in the Father’s lap; second, on the cross between the viewer and the Father; and third, to me the most poignant of the three, kneeling next to the Father, bent over His cross, the Father’s hand on His shoulder. The faces of the Christ figures were expressive, in turns serene, impassioned and distraught. Behold, the face of God.

It seems almost unimaginable in this day and age, when the fashion choices of the famous are news stories and a thousand photos can be conjured up with a word or two to Google, that we have no description of Jesus. In fact, for eight centuries, Christians argued over the wisdom of capturing the face of God, in His human garb. (Now there are over 8 million images of Jesus cataloged by Google — I looked!)

Does collapsing the fullness of God-become-man to an image risk denying the divinity of Christ? Or, if we believe the Word truly became flesh, surely this reality must be able to be described and depicted. In his book, “God’s Human Face,” Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn follows this controversy over the centuries. He concludes that art, as all human activities, was transformed in the Incarnation, and like ritual, expresses “the infinite contained in the seemingly irrelevant gestures and creations of man.”

As I wandered the exhibit, I kept returning to these images of Jesus, God made man. I wondered, what does Christ look like? Was He tall or short? Were His hands gnarled from manual labor? The Gospels do not tell us. The power of His words was what propelled His disciples, not the cut of His tunic. Have I fixed on what is least important?

St. Theodore, a ninth century abbot, suggests not. Jesus pitched His tent among us, as John’s Gospel tells us, not as some universally representative icon of a man, but as an individual man with characteristics that distinguished him from other people such as “kindly eyes” or “curly hair.” He concluded such images are “a reliable testimony to the fact that the Eternal Word has become one like us.” We profess in the Creed: He became man.

On my way home, I picked up a book of reproductions of the illuminated pages in the museum shop. I am still contemplating the face of God through the eyes and imaginations of these long dead artists, the mystery of God Incarnate. Our souls thirst for the living God, the God who dwelt among us, the God whose face we must imagine — and hope one day to know.

God our Father, Your only Son has appeared in our human nature. We have come to know that He is like us in external appearance; through Him, please grant us the privilege of being refashioned in mind and heart. We ask this through Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Alternate opening prayer for the Baptism of the Lord.

1 comment:

  1. I myself have also struggled for so many years over the concept of visual representations of Jesus. I could do the crucifix - it is really symbolic even though it has a body on it, but all those smiling Jesus shepherd pictures really bothered me. Didn't it say in the Old Testament not to worship graven images? Someone finally explained to me of having a picture of a family member, to remind us of them. That made sense to me. Also what you wrote about Him coming among us to live as one of us, to take on human form. Really every image of Jesus is a reminder of God's humility in becoming one of us...whether it is a picture that please me or not, it is a picture that for someone does encourage their faith. And I have found my own visual images of Jesus over the years that do encourage my faith...but it took many years to be able to let go of my aversion, which in some way was my dissatisfaction with "imperfect" images. Now I realize they don't have to be exact, they are just to help me lift my soul to God, to remind me of someone I love but I cannot see....