The Face of Christ

Sometimes when I pray, whether it be meditating on the mysteries of the Holy Rosary or doing Lectio Divina, biblical scenes colorfully unfold in my mind. I can imagine with great detail the scene of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, for example, or Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from the tree. The trouble is that, in my imagination, none of these characters have faces. They look kind of like those popular ‘Willow Tree’ figurines with faceless heads.

Is there anything special about the face? The face, especially the eyes, can reveal a lot of what’s going on in us interiorly. When we’re sad, angry, or confused, we furrow our brow, and when we’re happy, our whole face lights up, especially our eyes. The old saying goes that the “eyes are the window to the soul”, and I think there’s something right about that. When we genuinely smile (called a ‘Duchenne smile’), our eyes show it; the muscles at the corner of the eye contract. A smile with only the mouth and no contraction of the muscles around the eyes is often perceived as insincere or suspicious. The pupils of our eyes also reveal our interior state of interest by changing size, as when our bodies detect a threat or opportunity in our environment. For instance, our pupils tend to dilate in situations of social interest. And, the thing is, while we can fake a smile, we can’t force our pupils to dilate so as to feign interest in a neighbor’s boring story.

The point here is that we give and receive a lot of information with our faces. We reveal our inner states of interest (or lack thereof), and, perhaps most importantly, we manifest our love with a penetrating or empathetic gaze.

Pope Francis, in a recent homily about the importance of petitionary prayer, urges us to “[have] the courage to speak directly to the face of the Lord.” We don’t petition the faceless Willow Tree Savior but, rather, the human face of the Incarnate Christ. One way that we can speak directly to the face of the Lord is to pray with the icon of the Holy Face of Christ. This puts eyes, a nose, and a mouth on Christ and is a window to the true face of the glorified Christ. When we speak directly to the face of the Lord, we can encounter His loving gaze.

Pope Francis goes on to say that “[w]hen God sees a person who continually prays for something, He is moved.” There’s something about talking to a person and asking for something face-to-face that is deeply moving. In today’s tech age of mediated, impersonal communication, we can forget the power of face-to-face communication—or maybe we know it all too well and fear it. To be looked in the eye can make one feel exposed, at one extreme, and loved, on the other. In the case of Christ, when we speak directly to His face and petition Him over and over again, He can’t help but be moved, like when a grandmother’s heart melts when her grandchild repeatedly asks her, “Please, please, please, can we go to the park?” The mutual gaze between the grandmother and the grandchild and the repeated petition move her to acquiesce to the child’s request. Pope Francis is suggesting something similar: God’s heart melts, in a way, when we come back to Him time and time again, speaking directly to His face, and ask for the desires of our heart. It’s not to say that this is some magical formula for getting from God exactly what we ask for. Maybe God will grant our petition just as we ask, and maybe He won’t. One thing is certain, however: by gazing upon the Holy Face and repeatedly coming to Him with our requests, we’ll be changed by Him for the good.

* Featured image is the Acheiropoieta from the Sancta Sanctorum of the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome.