Contemplating the Face of Christ
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In his Apostolic Letter Novo
Millennio Ineunte, His Holiness John Paul II tells us: “’We wish
to see Jesus’ (Jn 12:21). This request, addressed to the Apostle
Philip by some Greeks who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the
Passover, echoes spiritually in our ears too during this Jubilee
Year. Like those pilgrims of two thousand years ago, the men and
women of our own day — often perhaps unconsciously — ask believers
not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him
to them” (no.16).
Apostolic Letter, with which he concluded the Jubilee Year and
directed the Church of the Third Millennium, the Holy Father made
reference to the Face of Christ thirty-seven times, calling us to
contemplate the Face of the Savior and to make known His true
countenance. As a fruit of this Jubilee, for some reason, the Holy
Spirit has wanted to direct our attention towards the Face of the
Redeemer. “But if we ask what is the core of the great legacy it
[the Jubilee Year] leaves us, I would not hesitate to describe it as
the contemplation of the face of Christ…Our witness, however, would
be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first
contemplated his face. The Great Jubilee has certainly helped us
to do this more deeply. At the end of the Jubilee, as we go back to
our ordinary routine, storing in our hearts the treasures of this
very special time, our gaze is more than ever firmly set on the
face of the Lord” (NMI, 15:16).
I have asked
myself why the Holy Father wanted to direct this letter to the
contemplation of the Face of Christ, and the Lord has helped me
understand that to contemplate His Face is nothing more than to
contemplate His Heart. Our face is a mirror of the heart; it is the
photograph of our heart; it is the expression of its most intimate
sentiments and loves; it is the manifestation of all that is carried
in the heart.
After the fall,
man hid from the Face of God. Paradoxically, his eyes were opened to
evil, but he wanted to hide from God. This is so because sin caused
him to lose sight of the love of God, and therefore, he was now
afraid of being seen by Him. From that moment on, he was no longer
able to see the Face of God.
The face of God
is not physically known in the Old Testament, but nonetheless, there
is a great desire to seek and know it: “Lord, I seek your face”
(Psalm 27:8); “When can I go and see the face of God?” (Psalm
42:3). All of this shows that man was created for God.
seek the Face of God (His presence, will, and sentiments) is a clear
call in the Old Testament. Psalm 105:4 says, “Seek Yahweh and
his strength, seek his face constantly.” Furthermore, “Look to the
Lord in his strength; seek to serve him constantly” (1 Chronicles
similar passages reveal the longing for the Face of God.
However, in the
Old Testament it was impossible for man to look upon the face of God
and stay alive: “Then Moses said, ‘Do let me see your glory!’ He
[God] answered…‘But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and
still lives’” (Ex 33:18-20)
This is why the
Jews did not allow images of God and rejected all forms of
representations of God (Exodus 20,4) even though the neighboring
nations adored images of idols in different temples.
It was also
understood that if God were to make His Face shine upon them, Israel
would receive peace and blessings (Numbers 6:25). This was the
blessing that was adopted by Saint Francis of Assisi: “May the Lord
bless you and keep you. May He let His face shine upon you and be
gracious to you! May He look upon you kindly and give you His
The hidden face
of God signified that God had retracted his grace from the sinner
(Is 59:2; Is 64:6; Ez 39:24). Furthermore, both the wrath and the
goodness of God were revealed with symbolisms concerning the face –
His wrath was abated and his countenance softened when sacrifices
were offered. (Mal 1:8; Psalm 119).
epiphanies of the Old Testament, more value was given to the actual
words proclaimed than the manner in which they were proclaimed.
Even though the ancient Jews considered it impossible to see the
face of God, they still desired it. They desired to see it because
it was a sign of being close to Him, of benefiting from His
presence. This face, however, would one day reveal itself in
the fullness of time – by becoming man and taking on a body, a heart
and a human face.
“And the Word
became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father's only Son” (John 1,14). The Word took on
a human face.
indescribable Word of the Father became descriptive, becoming
Incarnate in the womb of Mary. “He is the image of the invisible
God, the first-born of all creation” (Col 1:15).
Athanasius: “He has become man so that we could become divine-like;
He has become visible, in human form, so that we could have an idea
of the invisible Father.” How many times did Jesus not tell us,
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9)?
“What was from
the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked upon and touched with our hands… for the life
was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it” (1 John 1:1-2).
The face that
was so long desired by the Israelites manifested itself; they saw
it; they touched it. That inaccessible Face – that brought death to
those who saw it – stripped itself of its glory so that man could
see it. He took on a face similar to our own; in Christ, the Face
of our God became visible. It is the Face of God, hidden in the Old
Testament, and now manifested in Christ. He took on a Face so that
He could be close to man, so that He could be seen and known by the
human person. Furthermore, this Face of God-made-man, who humbled
Himself to the point of becoming one with us, was also transfigured,
thereby revealing His glory and shining as the Sun on Mount Tabor
(Mt 17, 2). There Christ manifested His Face and His glory,
brilliant as the sun, before entering into His Passion in which His
Face would become disfigured.
In the fullness
of time, man, who so desired to see the Face of God, would
contemplate it for the first time as the face of a small child – the
face of humility, poverty, and total self-forgetfulness. This is
the same Face that, in the supreme hour, would eventually reveal
itself to men as scorned, beaten, wounded, flogged and disfigured.
His look was
marred “beyond that of man and his appearance beyond that of
mortals…He was spurned…and we held him in no esteem” (Is. 52:14;
“In order to
bring man back to the Father's face, Jesus not only had to take on
the face of man, but he had to burden himself with the "face" of
sin. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in
him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21)” (NMI,
The agony that
we see in the face of God was caused by the sins he assumed upon
Himself. Through this face, we are able to see the face of sin and
all its reality. He who did not sin took on our sins as if they
were His own. He assumed them freely, and He bore them upon His
“Yet it was our
infirmities that He bore, our sufferings that He endured. While we
thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted” (Is
wounded for our rebellion and struck for our sins. In His Face,
Christ revealed the sin that disfigured and continues to disfigure
the heart of man; for sin robs us of our likeness to God and damages
the good in us. The disfigured face of Christ reveals to us the
state of the human heart. Nonetheless – even though the blows were
able to disfigure His Face and the flogging he received in His Head
(according to the Servant of God Ann Catherine Emmerick) caused a
hemorrhage of blood in His eyes – sin was not capable of
changing the expression of His countenance. His flesh and
his appearance were marred – nose out of joint, forehead with open
wounds, lips burst open, cheeks purple – yet His countenance
represented the love in His Heart: serene, prayerful, patient,
humble, obedient, meek. Sin did not touch His Heart, and His eyes
were able to reveal it. His eyes, like bright lamps, shone
powerfully in the midst of the darkness of sin that disfigured His
face, manifesting the light of love that was never extinguished in
His Heart – regardless of the horror that our sin brought upon Him.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole
body will be filled with light” (Mt. 6:22).
of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Fac
It was precisely
this passage of Isaiah that so strongly moved the heart of St.
Therese of the Child Jesus and led her to ask permission (that she
later received) to add to her name, “of the Child Jesus and the Holy
Face.” In a letter to Pauline, she reveals how her devotion to the
Holy Face is fundamental for her spirituality of the little and
hidden way, a spirituality for which she was eventually proclaimed a
Doctor of the Church. She says, “Through you I have entered into the
depths of the mysteries of the hidden love in the Face of our
Spouse. I have come to understand where true glory is. He whose
‘kingdom is not of this world’ has shown me that true royalty
consists in being ‘unknown and not taken into account.’ It is in
finding ‘joy in being forgotten.’ I wished that my face, like the
face of Jesus, should be, as it were, ‘hidden and despised,” so that
no one on earth would esteem me. I thirsted to suffer and be
forgotten” (Story of a Soul, chap. 7).
wore within her habit, very close to her heart, an image of the Holy
Face with these words: “Make me to be as you, O Jesus.” For St.
Therese, to contemplate the Face of the Lord meant to imitate all
that she saw in Him – a God that was hidden, humble, meek, and poor;
a Heart that was revealed in His Face.
For her this
contemplation also necessarily led her to consolation, and she would
encourage her sister Celine to be another Veronica that wipes the
Face of Jesus that is full of Blood and Tears. This is the same
Blood and Water that flowed from His Heart when He was pierced.
invited her sisters to console the Face of Jesus by converting
sinners. She exhorted them to console our Lord in His Agony, the
agony revealed in His Face; but most especially, she wanted them to
quench His thirst for souls. In one of her poems she wrote, “Oh! To
console you I want to live unknown on earth! Your beauty, which you
know how to veil, discloses for me all its mystery…Your Face, O my
sweet Savior, is the Divine bouquet of Myrrh I want to keep on my
heart! Your Face is my only wealth. I ask for nothing more. Hiding
myself in it unceasingly, I will resemble you, Jesus. Leave in me
the Divine impress of your Features filled with sweetness, and soon
I'll become holy. I shall draw hearts to you” (Excerpted from “My
Heaven on Earth!”).
For St. Therese,
holiness must be revealed in the face, for the abundance of the
heart is reflected in the face. And just as holiness is reflected
in the face, holiness also represents the true Face of Christ. Pope
John II tells us in NMI, “Holiness…is the living reflection of the
face of Christ” (no.7).
On the Feast of
Transfiguration, August 6th of 1896, a day on which the
Feast of the Holy Face is celebrated in the Carmel of Lisieux, St.
Therese, with other two novices, made an act of consecration to the
Holy Face. The three of them asked to be “hidden in the secret of
the Holy Face” (from the Act of Consecration to the Holy Face).
With this request they expressed their desire to imitate the hidden
life and the suffering love of Christ. In doing so, they aimed to
exercise so much love that they would soon be consumed in love, and
thus, by not attaching themselves to the things of the world, they
would soon see Jesus face to face. In that consecration they
expressed the desire to convert themselves into other Veronicas,
consoling Jesus in His passion and offering their very souls as
consolation. The prayer concludes, “O adorable Face of Jesus!
Until that day in which we will contemplate your infinite glory, our
only desire is to hide ourselves under your divine gaze and to not
be recognized on earth.”
Her devotion to
the Holy Face was the result of her great desire to spend her heaven
doing good on earth. She carried that great desire within her, but
she did not know how to unite it to the great reality of Heaven as a
place of eternal rest and eternal contemplation of the Face of God.
The Lord led her to meditate on the Scripture passage that spoke of
the angels who eternally contemplate the Face of God and who also
have missions in favor of man. It was there where she was able to
find the answer to her desire to remain in eternal contemplation of
the Face of God and to spend her Heaven doing good on earth.
the Face of Jesus is to contemplate His Heart – the most intimate of
part His Heart that is manifested in His Face. In an inspiration
the Lord showed me His disfigured and suffering Face, but with eyes
full of such serenity that it transmitted strength. In the midst of
suffering and great pain, His Heart remained fixed on Love and that
was His strength and His serenity
I ask the Lord
that we may be able to contemplate His Face and that like Saint
Therese, we too may say, “Make us like You, O Face of Jesus.”
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