Face to Face

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 classical tradition of iconography, 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.



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24 responses to “Face to Face”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Their is a woman in my parish whom I know quite well that when people look at her they see the face of Christ. Even when she is in the midst of physical and emotional struggles and hardship the Face of Christ shines through her face.

  2. Randy Avatar

    Much appreciate this article Father, much wisdom. One thing though, after 22+ years as an Orthodox Christian, being able to see the depth and beauty and warmth of God’s unfathomable and personal love for us, for me, in Christ’s icon, is often fairly elusive. My only human frame of reference for genuine love for me is my family, my wife of 47 years, my three daughters, grandchildren, and long term relationships in my parish, many of which go back 15 or 20 years before Orthodoxy. When we greet each other, especially after a time apart, their face, and mine speak so clearly and warmly of their love for me…not referring to them smiling which no icon of anyone shows, but just a definite but often subtle warmth and affection which communicates so much without words. So when I pray in front of Christ’s icon, I find myself going “to my head and theology” to mentally remember the Gospel of my salvation and my union with God in Christ. But His gaze in the icon often “feels” somehow disconnected from what I believe and know about Him. I read this to my dear (honest) wife, and she said among other wise thoughts about what the face of love can and does look like, plus “well this says more about you than about how icons are drawn.” I of course know that, have and do often wrestle with totally abandoning myself to Christ, but at 74 and 52 years of loving and serving Christ, one would think my experience of gazing at Christ’s beloved face would bring me a deep sense of being loved transrationally, i.e. mystically. Thanks in advance for anyone’s reflections on my reflection.

  3. Byron Avatar


    It may be helpful to remember that people are also icons, made in the Image of God. The Saints also have said “my brother is my life”. If you see God in their faces, give thanks. Many people, myself included, have more difficulty in loving our neighbor and seeing God in them; I would not worry overmuch in your situation. Venerate Icons, in whatever form they present themselves to you, with thanksgiving. Just my thoughts.

  4. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    Thank you again Father Freeman…wonderful stuff here, much Iḿ sure beyond by grasp. But thank you for the parts of it I do partly ¨get¨. Lord have mercy.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Randy, I can only speak of myself so take it for what it is worth:
    Matthew 4:17 esp. but the entire Gospel of St. Matthew, gives me good insite on the hardness of my heart. Especially when I actually repent. It seems to me that you are already on that path so keep going.
    May God’s mercy flower in your heart that you may see.

    Forgive me, a sinner

  6. Randy Evans Avatar

    Thanks Michael…many layers in our heart. All we have
    Is God’s mercy.

  7. Dean Avatar

    Looks like you and I run parallel in some ways. I too came to Christ at 22. We’ve been Orthodox 27 years. Yes, the love in other believers’ face is sweet and deep. I look forward to seeing them each week.
    Perhaps, like me, you were evangelical before becoming Orthodox. Some of the icons of Christ at first jarred me. They did not look like Jesus meek and mild. We sang songs such as…What a Friend We
    Have in Jesus. He was a kind friend, and He is still that. But He is also King and Lord of the cosmos, the King before whom we tremble with reverent awe…work out your salvation with fear and trembling. As I heard Fr. Josiah Trenam say,
    there is little trembling in evangelicalism.
    Ours is not a cringing fear of God, but one of awe, perhaps a little of what I felt when overlooking Niagara and feeling the earth tremble and hearing its roar. Or C.S. Lewis saying this of Aslan, “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King. I tell you.”
    I love gazing into the face of Christ of Mt. Sinai, Pantocrator. I especially fix on His right side, but know that the left completes His being.
    In Hebrews Christ calls us brothers, yet in the same book we see that God is a consuming fire.
    Hope this helps.

  8. Randy Evans Avatar

    Hi Dean, thx alot for your encouragement, and yes, our paths to Mother Church are similar. A little fyi. I was a priest in the Indianapolis Evangelical Orthodox Church for 23 years until 2,000. I became a licensed addictions counselor in 2003 and almost 100% of my clients have been incarcerated with serious addiction histories. So much toxic shame goes with that territory and unhealthy fear of God.
    In the late 90’s I read (and underlined almost all of it) John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. Very much looking forward to Fr’s upcoming book on the topic.

    To Fr Josiah’s comment about “no trembling in evangelicalism” is absolutely true, but not to defend it, it seems like it’s a reaction to the horrible view of God the Father seen in the Satisfaction view of the atonement.
    Bringing that over into Orthodoxy where much of the emphasis is on how deep and horrific our sinfulness is (I know, I know – balance, etc.)
    But all that to say that Dr Peter Bouteneff’s book “How to be a Sinner” is and has been such a helpful and healing perspective for me. Our Father in heaven, revealed by Christ, is nothing like Zeus, ever ready to launch thunderbolts at our least missteps. Sorry for the length, somehow it ties into the face of Christ comment I shared. I love St Isaac’s quote, something like “All of the sins of mankind are as but a grain of sand in the ocean of God’s love.”

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Randy, et al
    How we experience icons will likely vary from person to person. They’re there to help. But even when the experience is “negative” – it is revealing.

    Randy, glad to hear that you’re familiar with Bradshaw’s work. It has been very important for me and pointed me to a number of other resources as well. The book is in its last editing stages (editor sent it back to me for some changes, and I’ve just completed them). I pray that it will be useful. As time goes one, I’m always thinking of something else that I could have included in the book – but you have to stop somewhere. I hope that it will be useful for the healing conversation within the life of the Church.

    I liked Bouteneff’s book, as well. Indeed, I did a book cover “blurb” for him! I hope he’ll return the favor.

  10. Dean Avatar

    Yes, Randy. Thank God we do not see Him as wanting a pound of our flesh, demanding satisfaction, justice for the sinful affront against His majesty. We hear the refrain again and again in liturgy that He is the lover of mankind. The Church is a spiritual hospital where our sin and shame can be healed by our loving God…mercy triumphs over judgment. We see Christ even now, in His icon. His Mother also tenderly points to His face and bids us, come. As we gaze upon Him, if we are patient, eventually we will apprehend that He is gazing back. Face to face.

  11. Helen Avatar

    Hi Father,
    From what I’ve read in this and your other posts there is a difference between the shame in this post and toxic shame. Is that correct? Will your book talk about toxic shame? Thank you for your writing. For me, it’s very encouraging. (Can you tell I grew up with lots of toxic shame masquerading as Orthodoxy?)

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I spell the distinction out pretty clearly. Much of what I do ultimately turns towards what to do with healthy shame for the benefit of the spiritual life. But toxic shame needs to be healed so that it does not dominante our existence.

    Essentially, when shame becomes an “identity,” or settles in as a major force in our identity, then it is toxic. We tend to lose ourselves – indeed, often having a sense of being estranged from ourselves. The “identity” that shame creates is never a comfortable existence – it’s something of an abiding hell within us. Recovering ourselves – in the various ways of letting the toxic stuff go – to be healed from it – is necessary so that “normal” or “healthy” shame can perform its God-given role in our lives. It’s an essential part of our body’s emotional system – dubbed by some as the “master emotion.” If the master emotion is out of whack, then it throws everything out of whack, which is sort of how life goes when you’re bound with toxic shame.

    I write about it from the inside – I’ve fought my battle, and continue to fight my battle against it. We’re not alone. God is for us.

  13. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Byron,
    I’m with you in your response to Randy. I find it harder to love my neighbor. And if I do not love my neighbor as I ought, then I know I do not love God as I ought. I struggle with this. As a general rule, at this point in my life, I do not trust easily. Simply stated, the life experiences I’ve had do not fashion such a trust. I pray for God’s love in my heart that I might fulfill his commandment. And admittedly, I wait for God’s hand in helping me to do His will in this regard.

    Father, I’ve heard a priest say that God asks us to love, not to like, differentiating sentimental feelings from a deeper source. And I’ve seen specific words used to describe what is asked of in love, such that one doesn’t wish someone else ill. To that, I can say that I do not wish ill on others. However, loving, in the sense that it is usually meant in this culture, doesn’t come easily for me.

    I wonder, Father, does it seem too extreme to distinguish love from sentimentality? Is it appropriate to consider that we might conflate the two?

    I reflect on the fact that Christ laid down His life not just for His friends, but for all.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that love, distinguished from sentimentality is on target. There is, however, a supernatural love (for lack of a better term), in which we do the impossible – and this transcends sentimentality. It is a work of grace and, if you will, an instance of the resurrection. The pain we carry from our hurts that makes love difficult is a “death” of sorts. To love in the face of it is a taste of the resurrection.

    The advice to love, defined by action, is our offering to God. It is giving Him our dead body (and damaged emotions). He is able to do what we cannot. But this is not automatic – and is likely a surprise whenever it does happen.

  15. Dino Avatar

    It is worth observing that in a very real sense, God asks us to ‘love our enemies’, because, to the narcissist (which potentially lives in every single person), every single “other”, is an enemy! So, when an existential atheist philosopher like Jean Paul Sartre exclaims that ‘the other is my hell’, he is actually quite right in the sense that, all creatures (while without God’s Grace) are living in a ‘mode’ of continuous existential threat from others.
    {Of course, with Grace, man exclaims quite the opposite – as many saints have – ‘the other is my paradise’…}
    So, without Grace, we have an experience akin to that of the devil attracted back to non-being: We are created from nothing, and yet called to be gods, however, this “nothingness” is has a default deathly draw upon our created being, it lies there as a threat, and when we live, as we do to various degrees, in a fallen-godlike ‘mode’ of self-centeredness, all similar ‘others’ (especially those living in similar fallen-godlike ‘mode’) are potential deathly threats to our selfish selves.
    The mode of being that the Crucified and exulted Christ shows us on the other hand, is one that utterly transforms the death we are so threatened by, into a resurrection unto eternal, all conquering love. With His Grace therefore and “in Him”, self-centeredness is vanquished and turned into unbreakable communion with the source of Love and Life.
    It is also worth noting here that, perhaps the most common ‘method’ for encountering God’s great and transformative Grace in unmistakeable experiential force, is by going utterly against our natural narcissistic self-centeredness in the sacrament of Confession as if to Christ, and exposing our most shameful moments. This inverts Adam’s sin (“the woman You gave me”) in an instant. The greater the shame offered to Christ, the greater the Grace.
    I know there are no ‘techniques’ that can “enforce” God’s Hand, but, if something comes rather close, anthropomorphically speaking, this is probably at the very top.

  16. Nikolaos Avatar


    In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 5:5) Peter gives us the key for acquiring the Grace, by giving God the space and chance to act in our lives: “at your word I will let down the nets”. Remaining self-centered we end up “toiling…and taking nothing”.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father, Dino and Nikolaos,
    Thank you all for your helpful reflections.

    It is giving Him our dead body (and damaged emotions). He is able to do what we cannot. But this is not automatic – and is likely a surprise whenever it does happen.

    Father I appreciate your wisdom by saying that it isn’t automatic. Sometimes I sincerely want to be a faithful servant in the heart and see that I am not. And seeing that adds to the stress of the moment. I’m grateful also that you mentioned on another occasion that ego, wanting an immediate response from God to relieve us of our passions, is not the approach to Christ that heals. Sometimes it is waiting for God to act patiently.

    And I agree with Dino, confession, laying bare one’s failures, helps in the healing process.
    And I agree with Nikolaos that obedience is key. When you think the simplest and most immediate thing we might do is not going to work— but giving God the space to act– a miracle might be borne, such as true repentance and the abatement of the passions. May our Lord grant this to us. This holy bread.

  18. Esther Avatar

    Dear Father,
    it’s just since this month that I know of your podcasts and blog. I’m 51 years of age and it is since this year that I go to the liturgy in a Dutch orthodox parish in the Netherlands, as a catechumen since two months. Your podcast on ‘orthodoxy and shame’ means a lot to me, I listen to it again and again. I have received your blogs and talks about this subject as a huge gift on the right time, it is exactly what I need.

    After reading this blog and the comments, I think again about your remark in the podcast that toxic shame may need professional help. I feel a tension though between having patience while repenting, and praying and being comforted for the healing I need, and the sense of need for physical and emotional treatment.
    I came across systemic work, about healing the relationship with parents and about taking responsibility for life; I also came across craniosacral therapy as a means of treating toxic shame and trauma. These therapies I resonate with, even thought the therapists themselves don’t seem to be christians.
    In the Netherlands it is hard to find christian therapists, let alone orthodox therapists. I am looking for a way to handle this, perhaps you are willing to give your thoughts on this?

  19. Richard Strube Avatar
    Richard Strube

    Thank you for your writing, which I have read for years. This is the first time I have commented.
    I wonder if you are familiar with the work of the phenomenologist and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas. He developed his philosophy around the ethics of the human face and its revelation of the infinite.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Orthodox therapists are pretty rare in most countries. As far as emotional care and healing go, it’s possible to find non-Christians who can be of help. I suggest that you talk with your priest about this. It might be worthwhile to wait until you’ve begun making confession regularly. My book on shame and the spiritual life will be coming out in February. I hope you might find it to be of help. God give us grace!

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That’s sounds interesting. I’ll check it out.

  22. Esther Avatar

    Father, thank you very much, I understand better now what (not) to do, and to be patient.

  23. Aaron Lechtenberger Avatar
    Aaron Lechtenberger

    Thank you, I appreciate reading through your articles.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, the other existential reality that is inevitable that has made me come face to face with my shame is death.
    So far in the death of others which leads to contemplation of my own death.
    Each death is truly unique, but the mercy is always there waiting to be accepted by those who mourn and by those for whom they mourn.

    Yet, in my experience, only our funeral service gives Mercy a central place as well as the opportunity to the release and healing of toxic shame for all connected to the person who has reposed.

    I hope, Father, you touch on the role toxic shame has in our fear of death.

    Glory to God for His Holy third day Resurrection: trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

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