You have said, "Seek my face."Yes, the Lord calls out to us, he seeks us, even as we seek him! When Adam and Eve hid themselves from the Lord, he called out to them, "Where are you" (Genesis 3:9)? Are these not the very words we so often cry out to him? How often do we cry within our hearts, "O that you would tear the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake in your presence - as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil - to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence" (Isaiah 64:1)!
My heart says to you,
"Your face, LORD, do I seek."
Hide not your face from me (Psalm 27:8-9).
King Solomon has sung other words that may be both addressed by us to the Lord and at the same time by the Lord to us: "O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is comely" (Song of Solomon, 2:14).
And yet, despite his longing to see us and our longing to see him, the LORD said to Moses, "[Y]ou cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Generation after generation longed to look upon the face of God but none could, because they were not pure, they were not holy and without sin; King David knew that only "he who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully," "shall stand in his holy place" (Psalm 24:4, 3).
Even so, David sensed that he would come to know the satisfaction of the deepest desire of his heart: "As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding your form" (Psalm 17:15).
In the fulness of time, the only Son of God took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary; he who was invisible made himself visible and said to the Apostle Thomas, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Man could now look upon the face of God and live.
Now that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father we still call out to him, "Your face, LORD, I seek!" And he has left us his face to be seen in the Shroud of Turin, the cloth in which he was buired and is housed now in Turin; in the Veil of Saint Veronica, which she used to wipe his face as he made his way to Golgotha and is housed in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, ; and in "the napkin, which had been on [Jesus'] head " in the tomb and which Peter found "not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself," which is housed in the Basilica of the Holy Face in Manoppello (John 20:7).
The history of the Holy Face is fascinating and is well-recounted by Paul Badde in his excellent books The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus and The True Icon: From the Shroud of Turin to the Veil of Manoppello (both of which are also available as e-books; the physical and e-books are currently on sale at Ignatius Press). I cannot tell you how much your faith will be strengthened by reading these books, both of which would be excellent spiritual reading during Lent.
Yesterday another priest who lives here at the Casa Saint Maria, and who is a classmate from our time at Mundelein Seminary, joined me on a pilgrimage to Manoppello to pray before the image of the Holy Face.
|The Basilica of the Holy Face, Manoppello, Italy|
|The sanctuary of the Shrine of the Holy Face|
The face which we see is very clearly that of a man who has greatly suffered, and yet one who lives, with his eyes and mouth both open, as if to look upon and to speak to us. The face is visible on both sides of the cloth, with very subtle and mysterious differences.
In the image visible from the pews, the eyes and mouth of Jesus seem almost stern, as if to call to mind the words of the prophet, "But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears" (Malachi 3:2)?
|The Holy Face as faces the pews|
Yet in the image on the opposite side of the cloth, which is visible by climbing a set of stairs at the back of the sanctuary, the mouth seems to conceal a gentle smile and the eyes look with a calm serenity.
|The Holy Face as seen from the stairs|
Knowing my own sinfulness, I felt very unworthy to look upon that face but at the same time I felt compelled to look upon it, to see the love present within it. Tears welled in my eyes even as a smile came to my lips. As I looked into those eyes, I remembered a passage from the encyclical of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Spe salvi:
The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy (47).As I continued to contemplate the image it seemed to shift ever so subtly as people moved behind it or the light hit at a different angle. At one point, I could see very clearly the image of the Lord's face from the Shroud of Turin imposed about it; the face on the two cloths is the very same face.
In the end, all I can find to describe what I experienced and saw is simply this: I have looked upon the eyes of Love, and I long for the day when "his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 20:3-5).
It would, though, be fitting to conclude this simple post with the prayer Benedict XVI sent to the Shrine after his pilgrimage there in 2006:
Lord Jesus,If you ever have the opportunity, go to the Holy Face!
As the first apostles,
Whom you asked: “What do you seek?”,
Accepted your invitation to: “Come and See”
Recognising you as the Son of God,
The Promised Messiah for the world’s redemption,
We too, your disciples in this difficult time
Want to follow you and be your friends,
Drawn by the brilliance of your face much desired yet hidden.
Show us, we pray you, your face ever new,
That mirror, mystery laden, of God’s infinite mercy.
Grant that we may contemplate it
With the eyes of our mind and our hearts:
The Son’s face, radiance of the Father’s glory
And the imprint of his Nature (cf. Hb 1,3),
The human face of God that has burst into history
To reveal the horizons of eternity.
The silent face of Jesus suffering and risen,
When loved and accepted changes the heart and life.
“Your face, Lord, do I seek,
Do not hide your face from me” (Ps.27,8ff).
How many times through the centuries and millenia has not resounded
The ardent invocation of the Psalmist among the faithful!
Lord, with faith, we too repeat the same invocation:
“Man of suffering, as one from whom others hide their faces” (Is.53,3),
Do not hide your face from us!
We want to draw from your eyes,
That look on us with tenderness and compassion.
The force of love and peace which shows us the way of life,
And the courage to follow you without fear or compromise,
So as to be witnesses of your Gospel,
With concrete signs of acceptance, love and forgiveness.
O Holy Face of Christ,
Light that enlightens the darkness of doubt and sadness,
Life that has defeated forever the force of evil and death,
O inscrutable gaze
That never ceases to watch over men and people,
Face concealed in the Eucharistic signs
And in the faces of those that live with us,
Make us God’s pilgrims in this world,
Longing for the Infinite and ready for the final encounter,
When we shall see you, Lord, “face to face”(1Cor.13,12),
And be able to contemplate you forever in heavenly Glory.
Mary, Mother of the Holy Face,
Help us have “hands innocent and a heart pure”,
Hands illumined by the truth of love
And hearts enraptured by divine beauty,
That transformed by the encounter with Christ,
We may gift ourselves to the poor and the suffering,
Whose faces reflect the hidden presence
Of your Son Jesus,
Who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen!