On the whole I’ve settled in to the new English translation of the liturgy. One line still startles me each time I hear it, though. In the second Eucharistic prayer, when we intercede for the dead, the priest prays, “Welcome them into the light of your face.”
I’ve a fond memory from a night in college when I introduced two of my buddies to one another. We were up late yakking and one friend asked the other – sleepily mis-speaking – if he had always been of the Catholic face?
“Facially, I’ve always been Catholic,” came the facetious response.
I’ll probably remember those two friends at Mass for the rest of my life. I hope they reciprocate at least once or twice.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on the significance of the change from the old text, which sought that the faithful be brought into the light of the Lord’s “presence” to the new “light of your face.”
Such a strange and arresting turn of phrase.
I’m reflecting here not as a theologian, simply as a pray-er, but it strikes me that in the arts, when we want to demonstrate that someone is sinister, we hide or distort his face. When Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, he masks his face, and we never see it again until his conversion. We find Lord Voldemort’s lack of face disturbing. Tolkien’s terrifying Nazgul are hooded from sight, and Sauron is merely an eye. Gollum and the orcs are hideous in differing respects, but somehow their faces give scale to the threat they pose. They aren’t as frightening as the faceless ghouls.
Of all the wicked deeds men do to one another, among the most heinous we can imagine is disfiguring a person’s face. When Time magazine wanted to highlight the depredations of the Taliban, they put a photo of what must once have been a pretty girl on the cover: with only slits where her nose had once been.
Perhaps that one line of the Mass can punctuate for us the significance of the Incarnation, which we’ve just been celebrating. Pope Benedict XVI once gave an amazing homily on the relationship between Christ’s face and ours.
He said that the face is “the expression of the person par excellence.” It is what makes us recognizable, and it transmits our emotions, thoughts, desires and intentions.
The Pope also described the Old Testament as the gradual revelation of the face of God.
The face of God is a source of blessing, especially in the Psalms, and in the famous invocation in the book of Numbers: “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” But the face of God is mere metaphor in the Old Testament. No one in Biblical times actually wanted to look God in the eye, though. Only Moses did that and lived.
In Christ, however, the Pope says, “God's Face took on a human face, letting itself be seen and recognized in the Son of the Virgin Mary.” What an expression of boundless love! God wants to be known, he wants us to recognize him, he has a face!
Can you imagine the joy of the saints in seeing the longed-for face at last, after a lifetime of seeking it in the dialogue of prayer? What a moment that will be.
Perhaps we find in that one word, “face,” an intuition of our own glory, too. When Moses came down from seeing God on Mt. Sinai, his face was so radiant no one could bear to look on him. He had to drape a cloth over himself.
When we come into the light of the Lord’s faith, his radiance will transform and glorify us as well.
Perhaps like my college buddy, we’ll be truly facially Catholic at last.