By Mac Stewart
Walker Percy, a 20th-century Catholic novelist, in a book called Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, asked this haunting question: “Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking into the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” It’s a great question, and it reminds me that there is something about being face-to-face with another person that is unlike anything else in the world, that there is something about faces themselves that is both magical and dreadful at the same time.
The Bible knows this very well. Cain, when he saw that the Lord regarded his brother’s offering and not his own, was angry, and “his face fell” (Gen. 4:5). The reality of God’s grace made it too bitter for him to be able thereafter to look his brother in the face, so instead he shed his blood. Even more important, though, is what the Lord says to Moses when Moses asks to see his glory: “no man can see my face and live” (cf. Exod. 33:20). If it’s a perilous affair to look into the eyes of another person, then we should expect that to try to hold the gaze of the Almighty would be to wither into the dust whence we came. Our faces, after all, are disfigured: they’re limited, incomplete, unfinished in our creatureliness; and they’re scarred, tainted, misshapen by our sin, our chronic self-absorption and lukewarm love. We aren’t strong enough and we aren’t good enough to lift up our eyes to the face that charms our fears and bids our sorrows cease.
Which is why what the New Testament tells us about Jesus Christ is such a big deal, why it changed everything for the world, and why it changes everything for you and me. St. Paul puts it like this: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6). No man had ever seen God … until now. The face of God is the face of Jesus Christ. God has come in the flesh to look us in the eye, to fix his harrowing gaze upon us, discerning the thoughts and intentions of our innermost self.
The earth-shattering surprise is that this is what we were made for. We thought that to look God in the eye, to stand face-to-face with the Almighty, was infinitely beyond the capacity of human beings, that it would effect nothing but our being pulverized into oblivion, not just because we’re sinners, but because we’re creatures: too much beauty for our smallness, too much goodness for our sinfulness, too much truth for our habitual self-deception; there’s too much magic and too much dreadfulness in this face. But the New Testament says again and again, this is what we were made for: “for now we see as in a glass, darkly; but then we will see him face-to-face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
I know a priest who says that when he thinks about what Jesus looked like, he tries to imagine him as being ugly. That sounds strange and even scandalous at first, but it’s actually very theologically profound. “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him,” as the prophet Isaiah said. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; he allowed his face to be disfigured by our tears that he wept. “As one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:2-4).
Jesus did not glitter. His whole life was, in a sense, ugly. He dwelt not in royal palaces, but in a stable; he strolled along no halls of majesty and power, but along hot, dusty roads; he traveled in no shiny new cars, but in rickety old boats; dressed in no fine, fancy clothes, but in the rags that were eventually ripped off his broken body. His life was not pretty; his face did not glisten.
Except for once. “And it came to pass about eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering” (Luke 9:28-29). Jesus spent his whole earthly life with “darkness wrapped about him” (cf. Ps. 18:11); but for a brief moment on that mountaintop, the disciples saw him for once in broad daylight, a daylight far brighter than the shining of the sun on a clear blue day. His face was transfigured.
This, however, was not a moment of glitter: it’s not like Jesus took an afternoon off from being a poor, homeless preacher to have tea out at a cool mountain villa, and this nice refreshment made his face sparkle like a prince; this was still a desolate place in the wilderness. No, this was a moment of glory. This was a moment when it became unmistakable to the disciples whom they were dealing with. In the Old Testament, whom did Moses and Elijah meet on a mountain but God? What was it that came down in a cloud that overshadowed the Holy of Holies as Israel marched through the wilderness, but the glory of the Almighty? And just in case they missed the point, the disciples then get a voice from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” This poor, unattractive preacher, whose knees are weak from fasting, is none other than the one whose face no man has ever seen and lived to tell the tale. His face was transfigured, and in the face of this man, the disciples realized they were beholding the face of God.
In Jesus Christ, the face of man and the face of God are closer to each other than the closeness of the most intimate kiss you’ve ever had with your beloved. They are so close as to be indistinguishable. In Jesus, God wipes every tear that falls from the downcast and shame-ridden faces of men, so that we can raise our eyes up to his, and hold his infinitely dreadful and infinitely magical gaze in our own. But he doesn’t heal us by putting a little glitter on our faces; he doesn’t freshen us up with a little makeup here and there. No, Jesus heals us by sharing our disfigured skin, and by leading us to his transfigured glory.
There’s a big difference between glitter and glory. Glitter is cheap, flimsy, superficial: it’s the sheen that we try to apply to our lives to make ourselves a little more comfortable, a little more attractive, a little more respectable. But ultimately it will wither away like the grass on a hot afternoon. Glory, on the other hand, is thick, substantial, reliable. You can stand on it, and it will never fail you. Glory is what you find when you seek the face of God in Jesus Christ. The thing is, on this side of the veil, it’s not going to look very pretty or shiny.
This is both bad news and good news. Here’s the bad news. If and where your life is glittering with glamour, shining with success, don’t get too cocky. It is far too easy to let the glitter distract you from the glory, to let the thick steak of worldly honors lure you away from the hidden manna of prayer and fasting, to let the comfortable security of insurance pull back your hand from generous almsgiving; to let pretty faces seduce you away from the one face that truly matters. So be careful: hold the glitter very lightly.
Here’s the good news. If and where your life is in shambles — your body is in chronic pain, your job is always tenuous, your marriage is a train wreck — remember what Jesus did almost as soon as he came down from the mountain: he set his face toward Jerusalem and started his hard road to the Cross. When I tell you, as the psalms tell you, to spend your life seeking the face of God in Jesus Christ, I can’t promise that it will get you any more than it got Jesus. I can’t promise it will bring you perfect bodily health, or a nice stable job, or a blissfully fulfilling marriage — the face of God in this world was set on a hard road toward a cruel death. What I can promise you is that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Because on the other side of his Cross was another Transfiguration: the beginning of the Transfiguration of all things by his resurrection from the dead.
That’s our glory. That’s our hope. Don’t look for that everlasting face in the glitter. Look for him on the dusty roads where people have been shoved aside by the world; look for him in the humble silence of your prayer closet; look for him in the mean sacraments of water and bread and wine; and look for him above all in all the desert wastelands of your life, the places where, if he’s true to form, he is most likely to lift up the light of his countenance upon you, so that you might look upon him and be radiant.
The Rev. Mac Stewart is a doctoral student at Catholic University of America and assisting priest at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase, Md.