Face to Face

falleneveNothing about the human body is as intimate as the face. We generally think of other aspects of our bodies when we say “intimate,” but it is our face that reveals the most about us. It is the face we seek to watch in order to see what others are thinking, or even who they are. The importance of the face is emphasized repeatedly in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, it is the common expression for how we rightly meet one another – and rarely – God Himself – “face to face.”

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the language of the face to describe our transformation into the image of Christ.

The holy icons are doubtless the most abundant expression of the “theology of the face,” and perhaps among the most profound contributions of Orthodoxy to the world and the proclamation of what it truly means to be human. Every saint, from the least to the greatest, shares the same attribute as Christ in their icons. We see all of them, face to face. In the icons, no person is ever depicted in profile – with two exceptions – Judas Iscariot and the demons. For it is in the vision of the face that we encounter someone as person. It is our sin that turns us away from the face of another – our effort to make ourselves somehow other than or less than personal. It is a manifestation of our turning away from God.

In human behavior, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. The feeling of shame brings an immediate and deep instinct to hide or cover the face. Even infants, confronted by embarrassment or mild shame, will cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of the one holding them. It is part of the unbearable quality of shame.

Hiding is the instinctive response of Adam and Eve. “We were naked and we hid…” is their explanation. Readers have always assumed that it is the nakedness of their intimate parts that drive the first couple to hide. I think it more likely that it was their faces they most wanted to cover.

In an extended use of the story of Moses’ encounter with God after which he veiled his face, St. Paul presents the gospel of Christ as a transforming, face-to-face relationship with Christ.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to 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 Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)

The veil of Moses is an image of the blindness of the heart and spiritual bondage. Turning to Christ removes this blindness and hardness of heart. With unveiled faces we behold the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed into the very same image which is Christ.

In Russian, the word lik (лик) can mean face and person. Sergius Bulgakov plays with various forms of the word in his book Icons and the Name of God. It is an essential Orthodox insight. The Greek word for person (πρόσωπον) also carries this double meaning. The unveiled or unhidden face is a face without shame – or a face that no longer hides from its shame. This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our transformation in Christ. The self in whom shame has been healed is the self that is able to live as person.

We are restored to our essential and authentic humanity – our personhood. We behold Christ face to face, as a person would who looks into a mirror. And, as St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ).

The sacrament of penance boldly walks directly into the world of shame. Archimandrite Zacharias says:

… if we know to whom we present ourselves, we shall have the courage to take some shame upon ourselves. I remember that when I became a spiritual father at the monastery, Fr. Sophrony said to me, “Encourage the young people that come to you to confess just those things about which they are ashamed, because that shame will be converted into spiritual energy that can overcome the passions and sin.” In confession, the energy of shame becomes energy against the passions. As for a definition of shame, I would say it is the lack of courage to see ourselves as God sees us. (from The Enlargement of the Heart).

This is not an invitation to toxic shame – nor an invitation to take on yet more shame – it is a description of the healing from shame that is given in Christ. That healing is “the courage to see ourselves as God sees us.” It is the courage to answer like the prophet Samuel, “Here I am!” when God calls. God called to Adam who spoke from his shameful and faceless hiding.

Some of the mystical sermons of the fathers speak of Christ seeking Adam out a second time – but this time, in Hades, when Christ descended to the dead. There, Adam, hid no longer, turned to face the risen Lord. And so the traditional icon of the resurrection shows Christ taking Adam and Eve out of the smashed gates of Hades.

The gates of Hades are written in our faces – as are the gates of paradise. It is the mystery of our true self – the one that is being re-created in the image of Christ – precisely as we behold Him face to face and discover that no shame need remain. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Sweet liberty!


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


17 responses to “Face to Face”

  1. Jane Avatar

    In light of what you wrote in this beautiful post, I wonder if you could comment on the injunction in 1 Timothy 2:9 for women to adorn themselves “in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.”

    A pastor from my youth claimed that “shamefaced” translated “with downcast eyes” and that therefore women should avoid making prolonged eye contact with people.

    I have felt there must be something wrong with this, but– so far have never had an occasion to ask for commentary from someone more knowledgeable.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, “shamefacedness,” is a rather unfortunate translation (KJV). It is accurate, but misleading. The Greek is aiodos. It’s root, if one were doing an ancient word study, comes from a meaning of “downcast eyes.” But by the time of the NT, that root meaning would have been largely lost. By then its common meaning was no more than “modesty.” In the passage it is combined with the word, sophrosune, almost untranslatable, but perhaps the most important virtue a woman can have (rendered “moderation” in the NKJ). My college Greek professor did his dissertation on sophrosune, so I had many impromptu conversations on the word. 🙂

    It would be a tragic misuse of the Scripture to take the deep origin of a word and extend it to actually recommend a godly behavior. I’m very leery of such things.

    Interestingly, there are some who suggest that people not make eye contact when preaching (or listening to sermons). It’s a pious idea that I’ve heard repeated at very high levels (one seminary professor of preaching offered this caveat). I think it is extremely distracting and slightly bizarre, both for a preacher and for listeners in an American setting. Making eye contact is deeply human. Some cultures have codes of behavior surrounding it. Americans tend to value eye contact (we also smile more than most cultures).

    In my Southern Appalachian culture, I learned to distrust anyone who avoided eye contact. Anyone who does not look at me when I’m speaking (such as staring at the floor or closing their eyes) would be interpreted instinctively as saying that I’m boring or that they are simply rude and not raised correctly. Sometimes I am boring and I find it very helpful to notice the fact being registered on the faces of those to whom I’m speaking. It tells me to pick it up or quit. 🙂 I serve a very multi-cultural parish, and so I see a wide variety of behaviors and know that my own Appalachian Southern culture is not the standard. But neither are some of the pieties that are passed on.

    I do know that the eye contact of “face to face,” at least with certain people in certain circumstances is universal. It is deeply intimate and deeply revealing (which is why it has strictures around it in some cultures). It can be a way of protecting ourselves (hiding our faces).

    But we must all, with unveiled face, look to Christ and the glory of God revealed in His face. The icons invite us to their gaze.

    A last thought on the “modesty” of the eyes. In some Orthodox contexts there is a teaching about avoiding eye contact, as a form of modesty – it’s also found in some Western monastic traditions. The eyes, as intimate windows of the soul, can provide a source of emotional temptation. It can be alluring, or taken as an invitation to greater intimacy, etc. Thus, some carefully avoid it with others. My own experience is that people rarely make true eye contact. We look away slightly when we talk. Direct contact can also be seen as aggressive. It’s amazing how powerful the face is.

  3. Charlie Avatar

    interesting, your ‘eye-to-eye’ remark. _It’ midnight here so you can look up the verse citations yourselves…-(: -but in ICor 13 does not St. Paul say something about “seeing now through a glass darkly but then face-to-face? ”
    Answer, of course, yes he does….

  4. Yannis Avatar

    Aidos is a beautiful word, and hard to translate – “demureness” or “modesty of manner” may be good renderings. I am somewhat sympathetic to the “shamefacedness” translation; shame may be negative (at least in the context of the article) but the word “shamelessness” is also negative, and a good translation of “Anaidia”, the lack of Aidos.

    The word also reminds me of its occurrence in C.S. Lewis’ poem “A Cliché Came Out of Its Cage”, which I read recently!

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the translation thoughts. “Demureness” is a pleasant rendering. You can understand how problematic it would be to take the verse in St. Paul and say that the Scriptures advise women to go about with a “shamefaced” appearance. 🙂

  6. Andrew (@cathfacingeast) Avatar
    Andrew (@cathfacingeast)

    The human face is an “icon” that points to the eternal light of Tabor. “Demureness” would seem to be more in keeping with such a unique and holy gift.

    (St. Paul’s admonition of the prophetess in 1 Corinthians 11:5 is the application of the same rigorous standards of humility expected of OT prophets; see Numbers 12:3 (KJV) where Moses appears as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth”).

    Great piece!

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The veil of Moses is an image of the blindness of the heart and spiritual bondage. Turning to Christ removes this blindness and hardness of heart. With unveiled faces we behold the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed into the very same image which is Christ.

    It would seem to me this also relates to the veneration of icons. We are not venerating the wood and paint nor the saint in and of themselves, but the fact that they are transformed and transfigured in and by our Lord Jesus Christ
    Unless I am mistaken.

  8. Andrew (@cathfacingeast) Avatar
    Andrew (@cathfacingeast)

    “…And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations!…”
    (Revelation 15:3)

  9. kelly Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    This “theology of the face” seems very deep to me. I’ve enjoyed what you’ve written, it’s been eye opening, and it’s given me a lot to ponder. However, I’m having a difficult time wrapping my mind around it. I’d appreciate it if you could expound upon this topic even further in a future post.

  10. drewster2000 Avatar

    Ironically I’m unsure how far we should venture into this topic. Just as there is only a certain amount we can look people full in the face (in this life) before it becomes too dangerous, too raw & real, so is there only a certain amount we can talk about the subject – or at least only in certain directions – before the conversation itself becomes dangerous.

    As Fr. Stephen said, there is Heaven written on our face (that may be too much for some) and also Hell (which we should normally not dwell upon). The subject is fascinating, partly because it is so real & volatile.

    just my 2 cents

  11. Andrew (@cathfacingeast) Avatar
    Andrew (@cathfacingeast)

    Man is given “sovereignty” over but one face, his own, and his spouse’s, if married. Anything else (unless custody of the eyes is practiced) is subject to the dark forces of voyeurism, which as you rightly suggest is the very “stuff” hell is made of. Very easy to tell the difference. The former attracts the transfiguring light of Tabor, the latter utterly repels it.

    Hope this helps…

  12. Dino Avatar

    That healing that comes from “seeing ourselves as God sees us.” That courage to answer like prophet Samuel, “Here I am!” (irrespective of the shame that comes from the deep and constant awareness of our broken sinfulness), is always connected to the courage to “hate” our (‘old’) self. [Luke 14:26]
    The mistake we make is that we say we ‘love’ Christ, we ‘seek’ Him, rather than seeking martyrdom! Christ is found by those who seek martyrdom in every aspect of life, those rare, ‘healthy souls’ who (like St Ignatius of Antioch) do not “love themselves” [Revelation 12:11] (in the perverse selfish manner that we all do).
    This is the life that we see Christ and all his true followers lived.
    As the Elder Aimilianos would often repeat: “desiring martyrdom we find Christ, desiring Christ [which doesn’t cost anything] we do not go further than finding “mortal” life…” Those who desire martyrdom are the ones who find and love Him, while the ones who -in their weakness- “…desire Christ” rather than martyrdom, demonstrate that they do not know the love with which He loved us. A love that costs its Subject death of self.
    The road to true personhood invariably passes through that stage.

  13. Jane Avatar

    I’m sorry it has taken me so long to come back and say thank you to Father Stephen (and others!) for the very interesting and helpful response(s).

    My mind has been full of half formulated thoughts about faces, and eyes, and icons, and theology, and I have been waiting to see if they would coalesce into something that would make for a more engaging return reply than, “Thanks!”, but apparently not. 🙂 Anyway, I’m new at all this and may as well keep my mouth shut.

    I did want to say that I have been learning so much from this blog and the conversations that take place in the comments. I appreciate you all a lot, even if I don’t often say much.

  14. Jamie Avatar

    When I read Yannis’ comment that “demureness” or “modesty of manner” is a good translation of the word in question, I thought of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. Those faces and inclined heads teach me what demureness looks like.

  15. Dino Avatar

    I agree completely Jamie with that, and demureness seems to be one of the best translations I could ever think of.
    Interestingly Elder Sophrony used to say that, in that icon, the inclined heads also show very clearly the noetic prayer of “mind in the heart”. It can teach (that icon) even children what many words would struggle to.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I apologize for my own slowness. I am out of town, speaking at a conference, and have not been able to write this week. I’m working on something and should be able to post tomorrow. Today is liturgy and then travel.

  17. Paul Avatar

    Hi Father,
    Fascinating piece!
    How do you think the Asian concept of `saving face’ relates?

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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