News about a baby is always good news. For me, as an uncle, undoubtedly the most exciting moments came when I finally got to gaze upon the faces of my darling niece and nephews.
For months, we had been waiting. With each of my sisters’ pregnancies, we had prayed that all would go well. We prayed for a healthy mom and healthy babies. And then we got to see their little faces.
It wasn’t until we could see their faces that we especially felt we knew these babies. When we saw their faces, they were present to us as themselves. No longer anonymous, we knew them unmistakably unique and lovable.
In the Bible, the desire to know God is often expressed as the desire to see the face of God. In no book is this as remarkable and as clear as in the Psalms. The psalmist prays: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” (42:3). In another place it is written, “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face’; your face, Lord, do I seek” (Ps 27:8). The longing for God is expressed as yearning to see his face.
The contest comes in the Psalms, however, when the psalmist perceives God is distant. It is then that he prays, “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1). Just as the desire for God’s presence is characterized as wanting to see his face, distance from God is described as having his face hidden from us.
In Advent, we meditate on the mystery of the Holy Face. God is not distant, faceless or hidden: He is Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the Christmas mystery, God takes a face — the face of Jesus.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a particular devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. In one of her prayer poems dedicated to the Holy Face, she writes: “Your Face is my only homeland. / It’s my Kingdom of love. / It’s my cheerful meadow. / Each day, my sweet sun.” Thérèse, like the psalmist, recognized in the mystery of the face of God, the encounter with a God who had become very near.
Meditating on the Holy Face, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Your Face O Lord I seek — seeking the Face of Jesus must be the longing of all Christians, indeed, we are ‘the generation’ which seeks His Face in our day, the Face of the ‘God of Jacob.'” We are seekers in this life, not for the glorification of restless wandering, but by the nature of this life itself.
St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). On this side of heaven, God has deemed it enough for us to know him through Jesus. This is the face of God that we must seek. But the Christian promise is that we shall one day see him as he is.
Dedicate these Advent days to the desire to see his face. Let the words of the psalmist fall from our tongue, dropping again and again from our lips. After all, this Advent pilgrimage to see the face of the child in the manger is the very pilgrimage of life.
Here and now, we kneel at cribs and contemplate the mystery of the face of Jesus, God born in human flesh. And yet, one day, we will see God forever, face to face.
Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.