I sat behind an older woman at a conference the other day. Her face looked like a mountain range, beautifully contoured all the way from hairline to chin. I have no idea who this woman was, but she was more interesting than the lecture. I glanced her way every time I sat tall and tried to see the podium from the back row.
Her face bore the stamp of an expressive life. If you wear happiness and pain on the front of your head for a lifetime, the terrain of your skin is bound to reveal certain things. Every ridge and valley on this woman had a story behind it. At face value, she was beautiful, even though we know that beauty can have sorrow and pain woven beneath its surface.
There is a reason I noticed her vibrant face, and scores of others that day. Our faces give us away. We recognize each other and get a sense of one another’s character through the human face. Some people burdened with a particular lesion that grows on one cortex of the brain suffer the incapacity to recognize other faces. Prosopagnosia is the name of this cruel disorder that makes for a very hard life. Imagine having no facial recognition of your best friend from one moment to the next.
When child psychiatrist Robert Coles asked nearly 300 children to draw a picture of God, all but 38 of them drew a face. No child spent crayon energy on the elbow of God. It was the face that captured their imagination.
When a couple sorts through hundreds of wedding photos trying to decide which ones to purchase or print, they first go to facial expressions for determining the winners. The slightest twist of a jaw, or shuttering of an eyelid, can make an otherwise spectacular photograph ripe for the wastebasket.
Flakes of light caked the face of Moses as he descended Mount Sinai. “He had been talking with God,” we’re told – an encounter that would seem impossible to hide. Indeed, the skin of his face radiated light. Borrowing from a book title in our day, Moses was “wearing God.”
It could be that our faces reflect more than just who we are at any given moment; they also share something of the face of God. What a remarkable idea that God could be revealed through a human face. This may explain why the word presence in Hebrew is literally the word for face (paneh). God is tucked not just into the face of Moses but into your face and mine as well.
Another woman I met recently – not in person, but through a photograph – was sitting on a street curb outside a café in central Paris. With watery eyes and cheeks resting in her hands, she looked up and out with a blank and sad stare. A journalist took the photo the day after the Paris killings last month. This woman, who must have been in her 30s, was wearing the face of God. God appeared both sad and dismayed on this day, bearing a face curiously older than 30-something. I can only guess at what she was thinking. “Can it be true that people actually blow themselves up with dynamite? On purpose? Not in a farm field but as close to as many other people as possible?”
Yes, it’s true. And God’s eyes get wet every time. I saw it on the face of that young woman sitting on the curb.
Christians have long claimed that Jesus Christ is the face of God. From this Nazarene we gain access to the character and personality of God. Study the great Renaissance paintings of the birth story in Bethlehem and all of the focused light is on the Christ Child’s face. It radiates light.
Jesus looks up and out at his mother’s face, as every infant does, hoping to learn trust and discover love. It turns out that those who peered back at him in the manger began to look strangely like Moses. Their faces “wore God,” which may beg the question of us: What do our faces reflect these December days? Is there any chance your face resembles the joy, delight, and anguish of God all comingled? If it is possibly that expressive, you have one stunningly beautiful mountain range taking shape on the front of your head.
Peter W. Marty, senior pastor