The Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (A)
Dear brothers and sisters:
Today the Lord Jesus says, “blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear” (Matthew 13:16). He said these words to his disciples – to those who followed him seeking to learn from him – to those who questioned him about the meaning of his parables. They are those who saw and heard what the prophets of old longed to see and hear: the face and the voice of God (cf. Matthew 13:17).
Throughout the Old Testament – and, really, throughout all of human history, even to our present day – we find this desire to look upon God’s face. King David sang in the psalms, “Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks; your presence, O Lord, I seek. Hide not your face from me” (Psalm 27:8-9). Another psalmist sang, “O Lord of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us then we shall be safe” (Psalm 80:20). Another psalm resonates with the fundamental desire of every human heart: “Athirst is my soul for God, the living God. When shall I go and behold the face of God” (Psalm 42:3)? They knew that “the splendour of the divine face is the source of life, it is what makes it possible to see reality; the light of his face is guidance for life.”
It sometimes seems that this desire to see the face of God stands in opposition to the first of the Ten Commandments as expressed in the Book of Exodus: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus20:4). Here it should be remembered that this prohibition was not absolute; it was the Lord himself who commanded the forging of a serpent of bronze (cf. Numbers 21:8), the fashioning of two golden cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Exodus 25:18), and the embroidering of cherubim on the cloth of the Dwelling Tent (cf. Exodus 26:1). Still, no image of God could be made.
His Holiness Benedict XVI noted that this prohibition against the making of images “seems totally to exclude any ‘seeing’ from worship and from devotion.” He continues with an important question:
Yet what did seeking God’s face mean to the devout Israelite, who knew that there could be no depiction of it? The question is important: there was a wish on the one hand to say that God cannot be reduced to an object, like an image that can be held in the hand, nor can anything be put in God’s place; on the other, it was affirmed that God has a face — meaning he is a “you” who can enter into a relationship — and who has not withdrawn into his heavenly dwelling place, looking down at humanity from on high. God is certainly above all things, but he addresses us, he listens to us, he sees us, he speaks to us, he makes a covenant, he is capable of love. The history of salvation is the history of God with humanity, it is the history of this relationship of God who gradually reveals himself to man, who makes himself, his face, known.
Yes, in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, God has taken on our flesh and revealed his face, the very face that his disciples saw, the very face upon which the prophets longed to look.
With the Incarnation, “the search for God’s face was given an unimaginable turning-point, because this time this face could be seen.” Prior to the Incarnation, it was impossible for man to attain in this life the fulfillment of his desire; as God himself said, “my face is not to be seen” (Exodus 34:23).
Even so, do we not also long to look upon his face? Do we not also beg with the Apostle Philip, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). As he answered Philip so does Jesus answer us: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
But what of our eyes? Are they not also to be blessed? Are they not also to see what they long to see? Can we not also see his face?
After the Crucifixion of Jesus, many of the disciples, like those two on the road to Emmaus, lost faith in the truth of Jesus’ identity and were overwhelmed by his death (cf. Luke 24:21). But this doubt was soon restored to faith, certainly by the presence of Jesus himself, but also with a small cloth, a napkin.
When Saint Peter entered the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, he “saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered [Jesus’] head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place” (John 20:6-7). When Saint John entered the tomb, he, too, saw the cloths “and believed” after seeing them (John20:8). Saint Luke adds that Peter “went home amazed at what had happened” when he saw the cloths (Luke 24:12). They must have seen something more than simple cloths to believe in the Resurrection after seeing them.
We know the burial cloth as the Shroud of Turin, which shows - in a remarkable and inexplicable fashion – Jesus in death. It is an image that has, since the invention of the photograph, taken on greater importance as photographic negatives have shown aspects of the image heretofore undetectable, aspects that have confirmed its authenticity. Seeing an image of the dead Jesus would surely not have brought John to faith in the Resurrection. What, then, was that other cloth?
Two hours east of Rome, one can travel by car to a tiny village in the mountains called Manoppello. Up until the recent construction of the highways, arriving at this quiet village was no easy task. There, in a church formerly dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, is housed il Volto Santo, the Holy Face.
|Photo: Paul Badde|
It is a cloth woven of byssus, a type of silk made from mollusks that, depending on the light, can be both transparent and opaque, and can be neither painted nor dyed. The cloth contains the image of a man with long hair parted in the middle where there is also a small tuft of hair, with a broken nose set aright, a swollen cheek, open eyes that look out with love and mercy, and a slightly-open mouth, which sometimes shows the upper row of teeth. It is an image that can be neither reproduced nor explained and that subtly changes as the light around it, in front of it, or behind it changes.
The veil, called the sudarium, arrived in Manoppello more than four hundred years ago from Rome, where it was called the Veronica, the true icon, and venerated as the face of Jesus. Unlike the Shroud of Turin, it is not an image of Jesus in death but of Jesus alive, seemingly at the moment of the Resurrection, or very soon thereafter. This veil seems to be that cloth that Saint Peter found “not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.” Seeing this veil with the image of Jesus not dead but alive explains why John “saw and believed” and why Peter left “amazed at had happened.” With these cloths, the shroud and the sudarium, they had a witness to the truth of the Resurrection that Jesus was dead and yet now lives!
With full knowledge of our constant and deep-seated desire to see his face, Jesus has left us the imprint of his face, an image that testifies that he is alive. Seeing this image, the Holy Face, we become keenly aware that “the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18).
Yes, even now, our eyes can see what they long to see, though only partially. The Holy Face kept in Manoppello is the face of Jesus, but it is not Jesus himself. Still, though we do not know what awaits us in the life to come, seeing the veil of Manoppello we know who awaits us: Jesus awaits us, whose face we long to see, and who gives himself to us in the Eucharist.
As it was for the those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “the Eucharist is the great school in which we learn to see God’s face, we enter into a close relationship with him; and at the same time we learn to turn our gaze to the final moment of history when he will satisfy us with the light of his face” and we shall indeed be safe. Amen.