The Face of Christ

Author: Bishop Rino Fisichella


Bishop Rino Fisichella

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millennio ineunte’ - 7

"We cannot come to the full contemplation of the Lord's face by our own efforts alone, but by allowing grace to take us by the hand" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 20). John Paul II's words create a meaningful setting for reflection on the second chapter of NovoMillennio ineunte. These pages offer a rich Christology, expressed in the form of an attractive spirituality. Indeed we are gradually introduced into the richness of the mystery of Christ, by the wisdom of God's Word, by the teaching of the Councils, by the great Fathers and teachers of previous centuries and by the witness of the saints. The various sources allow the creation of a harmonious vision that brings together the facets of the single mystery of Christ. Moreover, we are able to reach the contemplation of the face of Christ to the extent that we make room for his grace, which, by shaping our hearts and strengthening our reason, leads us on paths that would otherwise be inaccessible.

The vision of pastoral planning requires contemplation of Christ

The Holy Father's Letter at the end of the Great Jubilee prompts us to take seriously a kind of pastoral planning which is effective not so much on account of the multiplication of means, but much more by following the way of evangelical simplicity. John Paul II uses strong words: "Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, I masks' of communion rather than its means of expression and growth" (ibid.,n. 43). In order that the particular Churches become more living expressions of a proclamation that reaches everyone, we need to "set out anew from Christ", to present the most pronounced features of his Countenance to our contemporaries. The Jubilee, besides, was lived "contemplating the mystery ... of the Son of God" (Incarnationis mysterium, n. 1) and "the Church's joy was great this year, as she devoted herself to contemplating the face of her Bridegroom and Lord" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 1); this is why, "as we go back to our ordinary routine ... our gaze is more than ever firmly set on the face of the Lord" (ibid.,n. 16). As can be seen, the face of Christ is a recurring theme in the Pope's most recent documents; for this reason it deserves to be presented again with conviction and in such a way as to provide solid theological foundations for pastoral planning so that with the support of the understanding of the faith (theology), it may not deteriorate into an accumulation of discordant projects.

Incarnation brings the revelation of the face of God

The history of salvation could easily be described as the gradual discovery of the face of God. The Psalmist's words: "your face, Lord, do I seek" (Ps 27,8), show the yearning of a journey on which man has set out that will only end when he comes "face to face" with God in definitive contemplation. The most significant stages of this journey are well known. Its starting point could be Moses' bold request: "Show me your glory" (Ex 33,18), which will only be granted in part, because "man shall not see me and live" (ibid.,33,20). The old Covenant exists under the commandment to make no images of God; God's voice can be heard, but his face cannot be seen. In this context, the theophany described by the Prophet Isaiah is certainly full of meaning. His eyes "have seen the Lord" but, strangely, the seraphim with the burning coal purifies the prophet's lips and not his eyes (Is 6,6).

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God interrupts God's invisibility. In Jesus of Nazareth, God acquires a personal language, but also a personal countenance that enables him to be identified. Certainly, the New Testament writings are concerned with his words rather than with describing his physical features, but this conveys the fact that who he is is certainly more important than what kind of face he had. On the one hand, he is the logos of the Father (Jn 1,1) but, on the other, we should not forget that he is also his "image" (Col 1,15). In this case the term takes on the strong semantic meaning that it implies, it brings out into the open the scandal of the Christian faith. In fact, an icon is a historical image by definition; it is not by accident that Greek culture meant by this word a portrait, hence a real, concrete and historical face, which leaves no room for fantasy.

Therefore if Jesus is "the alphabet of God"—to use a favourite expression of von Balthasar—he is also the one who can affirm: "Whosoever sees me, sees the Father". To refer to his words and his face is not to choose between two alternatives, but states that there are two complementary approaches that reinforce each other in a way that makes up a more coherent vision of his mystery. The beauty of Jesus Christ cannot be limited to the content of his message but must reach beyond it to his person. Jesus' beauty has a theological force that is primary because it not only has an impact on the imaginative dimension which we are used to, but it has the ability to attract people to him, to give credibility and spiritual unity. The truth of God and about God shines forth from the face of Jesus of Nazareth. He can "speak" of the Father, because he bears a perfect resemblance to him in his facial features. In Jesus, "the whole fullness of the divinity dwells bodily" (Col 2,9); so his face, the form of his personal identity, says what words alone could not fully say. His forehead, nose, ears, eyes and lips form an instrument of communication that is compressed in the expressive harmony of his countenance.

It would be unforgivably irresponsible for theologians and pastors to underrate this dimension. The controversies of previous centuries that (in 787) led to the condemnation of iconoclastic teaching by the Second Council of Nicea do no more than repeat the dilemma : "Who then is this Son of man?" (Jn 12,34). His word is as important as his loving way of looking at us, because both refer to the concreteness of the logos in becoming flesh in the world. The two portraits that John Paul II presents, the "sorrowful face" and the "face of the Risen Christ", plunge us into the heart of the mystery of faith and demand our assent. The countenance of the Crucified One, transformed by pain, is unrecognizable; the description of the Fourth Song of the Servant in Isaiah fits him well: "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance" (Is 52,14). Nevertheless it is to his face that faith addresses the Psalmist's words: "you are the fairest of the sons of men" (Ps 45,2). The Risen One's face takes the characteristics described by the Evangelist (Matthew) in the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor as "shining like the sun". In this case the splendour of the light does not blind but takes one into the rapture of contemplation; his face becomes a brightness of light which introduces us into eternal life.

Eyes of faith discern the mystery of Christ

Aware that we are dealing with the mystery of Christ, we recall John Paul's wise warning: "in fact, regardless of how much his body was seen or touched, only faith could fully enter the mystery of that face" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 19). In many ways the Pope's words echo St Augustine's: "habet namque fides oculos suos" (for faith indeed has its own eyes). It is precisely the eyes of faith which enabled a theologian of Rousselot's standing to grasp the value of the supernatural grace of faith as a form of spiritual attunement with what is seen, which then asks about the reasons for such great love. It is therefore not by chance that the Gospels juxtapose the "not believing" with the "not seeing", and condemn those who "see" for staying with the appearance or" phenomenon" without wishing to delve into the meaning that the sign conveys (cf. Jn 6,26). Thus believing cannot just be accepting the message, but must come about by "seeing" Jesus as the Son of God in our midst.

In his History ofthe Church Eusebius left us an account of the first portrayal of Jesus: "I do not think it right to pass over a story also worthy of being recorded for our posterity. For it is said that the woman 'troubled with an issue of blood', who, we learned from the divine Gospels, found relief from her suffering at the hands of our Saviour, came from here and her home is pointed out in the city, and wonderful memorials of the Saviour's benevolence to her still remain. For (it is said] that a brazen figure in relief of a woman, bending on a knee and with outstretched hands like a suppliant, stood on a high stone at the gates of her house, and opposite this there was another of the same material, an upright figure of a man, clothed modestly in a double cloak and extending his hand to the woman... They said that this statue bore the likeness of Jesus, and it survived even to our own time, so that we ourselves saw it with our own eyes when staying in the city. And it is not at all strange that those of the pagans who were benefited by our Saviour made these objects, since we have observed that likenesses of his Apostles, Peter and Paul, and indeed, of Christ himself are preserved in pictures made with colours, since, as is probable, the ancients were accustomed without restraint to honour them, according to a pagan practice, as saviours, in this fashion" (VII, 18).

Icon brings together vision and hearing the Word of God

East and West have both retained the desire to express the face of Christ. But the East has been better able to preserve the tradition of the icon; in the image it has expressed the privileged form of prayer and of worship. The East remains essentially Johannine because it focuses on seeing the Son, whereas the West is Pauline, since it gives pride of place to hearing the Word of God in faith (Rom 8,14). To put it in John Paul's words, are not these the two lungs with: which the Church must breathe? The icon represents a synthesis of both needs; indeed, to understand the mystery it, represents it must both be seen and heard. Seeing and hearing, in the end, must be concentrated in celebrating, in which the evocation and contemplation of the mystery reach their highpoint.

The face of Christ introduces us into the mystery of his divine person, which guides and directs our search for meaning. His face sums up that of everyone but replaces none. If we can recognize in the face of the Crucified One our own suffering, in the splendour of his glory we can see our limitation and even our death taken away, giving way to the life that will last for ever.

(Orig. Ital. in O.R. 9 June 2001, n. 9)  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2001, page 4

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