Face to Face – Beholding God

catholic_idolatry-childMy mind wandered back to these thoughts as I pondered the growing phenomenon of “selfies.” Even the President cannot resist making them. Of course, the “selfie” is the passion-driven distortion of the theology of the face – existence as ego. For the mystery of the face is not to look at myself, but to look at the other. You are God’s “selfie.” Ponder it.

Nothing 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.


14 responses to “Face to Face – Beholding God”

  1. Ruth Ann Avatar
    Ruth Ann

    “You are God’s ‘Selfie.’” I will definitely ponder that!

  2. deacon john vaporis Avatar
    deacon john vaporis

    At the Transfiguration of Our Lord – His face shone like the sun, and His garments became glistening white. But why Moses, and Elijah? Obviously Moses represents the law (and he died) and Elijah was a Prophet (and he didn’t die.) The Law and the Prophets, but Elijah was hardly the greatest of the Prophets. Why Elijah? Because Moses, and Elijah, both sought to see God’s face.

    Gregory Palamas maintained the disciples were given Grace to perceive the uncreated light of God. Although we cannot know God in His essence, we can know Him in his energies, as He reveals Himself.

  3. C.M.C. Fulmer Avatar

    Indeed, it is bearing shame that keeps me from being face to face with God, which only leads me to commit more acts of shame, eventually leading up to the revulsion of my own face.

    The same evil occurs for the “ugly ducklings” of society. They are mistakenly ashamed of their own appearance, so their face is shadowed by wretchedness rather than the glorious image of Christ.

  4. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Thank you for this, which significantly expanded my understanding of icons. In addition, it is a profound reflection of our modern predicament, so much without Christ and thus without mooring, where each individual seeks to claim that he, ultimately, IS the center of all things!

  5. BL Avatar

    “For it is in the vision of the face that we encounter someone as person.”

    Fr. Stephen, do you have any thoughts on how this — and the “theology of the face” — fits with the experience of people who don’t really encounter other people through the vision of the face? The most obvious example is blind people. But I’m also thinking of the experiences of many autistic people, who (for sensory processing and other reasons) may rarely or only with difficulty look at other people’s faces.

  6. John Avatar

    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…this is such an amazingly powerful image in and of itself.

    Forgive me for being overly concrete: how do I behold the face of Christ? He is not physically before me. The only place I can imagine him to exist is in my inner world. When I close my eyes; how do I find the face of God? My mind holds a multitude of images- all of them anthropomorphic depictions of Christ. Do I wait for Him to reveal Himself? Thank you as always.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course there is very little information that we can retrieve about the experience of someone with autism – though what we have learned is genuinely fascinating. Doubtless these various sensory distortions or impairments serve as handicaps. But the mercy of God is renewed day by day – and it is thus not surprising to hear (as in the case of blindness) other ways of perceiving that serve as “the face.” “Voice” is deeply significant in Divine Revelation, and is among many things that take on a greater significance for some.

    It is interesting, thought, that the voice has a different quality when it is not “face to face.” The difference is subtle but significant. So is its volume and pitch which change when not “face to face.”

    Another aspect of being “face to face” is actually paying attention. We frequently “face” one another without actually looking each other in the face – and this is not “face to face.”

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    It begins first by revealing your own face. This comes when we are truly attentive (neptic – or “watchful” in the language of the fathers). It also comes when we have encountered our shame and allowed it to be removed. This comes from repentance and honesty. Shame, even in its mildest forms, specifically and instinctively hides the face or makes us look away. Thus the prayers of the Church speak of being “unashamed” at the great judgment seat of Christ. This also involves trust (faith), for only when we trust someone can we dare to look directly at them. Those are examples of the preliminary, internal things to which we must attend.

    The Scriptures teach us the importance of Icons (and the Church affirms this and draws our attention to it). These holy images are given to us to help us see what we might otherwise only imagine (which is the least trustworthy of all activities). The icon of Christ’s face, for example, gives us in painted form an accurate presentation of the inward revelation of the face of God in Christ. Looking upon His icon (outwardly) slowly, over time, helps us to more clearly see the inward revelation of His face.

    Another very vital Icon of the Face of God is Holy Doctrine. The Fathers tell us that the teaching (doctrine) of the Church is a “verbal icon” of Christ. In words it paints an image of Christ that we can see. The Scriptures do the same. The 7th Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

    The liturgical worship of the Church also presents a “liturgical” and “sacramental” Icon of the Face of Christ. Being attention and open within that also, over times, presents and clarifies the face of Christ within us.

    I would lastly suggest that we avoid imagination (creating our own imagined image within). Yes, we attentively wait. We use the outer images (Icons, Doctrine, Scripture, Liturgies, etc.), repent of our shamelessness (refusing to be healed), etc.

  9. Dino Avatar

    The first and most concrete step towards seeing God’s face is ( …and his ‘authority’ comes from the hesychastic tadition), putting myself under His gaze, “standing before the Lord”. It is often lost in translation, but the Septuagint Psalms often come back to this notion of ‘being seen’ by God as a (perhaps peculiar in one sense) method of seeing Him. (The sun of righteousness shines on me and then I see – is another notion we find in the Fathers that explains this further). Most especially doing this in the middle of the night…

  10. Dino Avatar

    * this ‘authority’ comes from the….

  11. PJ Avatar

    “It is interesting, thought, that the voice has a different quality when it is not “face to face.” The difference is subtle but significant. So is its volume and pitch which change when not “face to face.””

    I believe it was Marshall Macluhan who suggested that the advent of the microphone doomed traditional Latin liturgy, especially the low Mass. An interesting insight, if only part of the story.

  12. John Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen

    First, thank you so much for responding. This is a question that has bothered me for a long time. I have a definite calling into the Orthodox Way and have been attending the liturgy for a while; it always makes such sense and feels true. I mention this because I feel so much of what you wrote is congruent with my understanding of things theological.

    The points that struck home are your comments about shame. I realise I want to know God, I don’t want to be known by God. This is a real sticking point for me. I do not/ cannot approach Him without shame. This comes from years of stubbornly forging my way through much of my challenges and it feels inconceivable that this aspect of my psyche will soften. I guess this is the truth I bring to Him. This is where I have to start. Again thank you; your comments have given me somewhere to begin. Best wishes.

  13. John Avatar

    Thank you Dino for your comments.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Questions motivated by a recent news story: Do other creatures have faces or only humans?

    I assume it to be axiomatic that no machine-robot-android no matter how endowed with artificial intelligence or networked could have a face.

    So how to counter the arrogant hubris of those who proclaim the replacement of human beings as the dominant life form on the planet by 2045 with such things.

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