2 Corinthians 3:17-18
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
It is Lent and I have a confession to make. I have become a Facebook friend! I had long resisted the temptation and felt proud of the fact. Facebook, I said, was for the vain, those who splashed selfies across the internet, and boast about how many friends they had. Yes, I fell into temptation just at the time when Lent dawned and I should have doubled my resistance. Some people I know even gave up on Facebook for Lent, and here was I taking up Facebook during Lent. But I am not really sorry. I have reconnected with lots of old friends, and made new ones. I can even see their faces and they can see mine, and I can, if I want to, enter into virtual conversation with them if not actually face to face. Well, like all converts, I can go on about this, but I will refrain. I have said enough to get into my meditation stride that will lead to the words of St. Paul that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Faces are fundamental to our identity, to who we are. When we think about people, we immediately see their faces. Faces may change through accidents or illness, and inevitably as we grow older, but our faces are unique even if we are look-alike twins. They are the way in which we relate to others from the moment we are born, the moment our parents see us and we begin to recognise their faces and learn to relate to them and others. All our emotions are expressed in our faces: love and fear, anger and hatred, joy and pain, compassion and indifference. When we look at another’s face we can usually tell what they are feeling and maybe even thinking.
One of C.S. Lewis’ lesser known books and yet one that some regard as his best, is entitled Till we have Faces. Lewis retells the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s elder sister Orual. Orual doesn’t love anyone more than she loves beautiful Psyche. But her love was selfishly protective, not by serving Psyche’s happiness in serving and healing others, but her own. On Psyche’s death as a sacrifice to appease the gods, Orual is forced to examine her motives and is forced to acknowledge that unlike beautiful Psyche who unselfishly serves others, she is self-centred and unattractive. In fact, her father tells her that her she will never find a husband because her looks could knock down a horse. She eventually becomes too embarrassed to show her face to anyone. She puts on a veil, and decides never to take it off. Then, as queen after her father’s death, she becomes famous for her generosity, courage, and wisdom. As her fame spreads, so do tales that she wears the veil to cover a beautiful face, because certainly no one whose acts are so lovely can be ugly. And when, finally she does take off the veil, no one notices that her face is ugly. Through her actions, her authentic, hopeful actions we might say, Orual’s face is transformed into one of beauty which fits her personality and unselfish love for others.
Lent is a time when, like Orual, we are brought face to face with ourselves again. We have to take off the veils that hide our true selves. But we unmask ourselves not to denigrate ourselves, but in order that we can be set free to become more truly the person we can and should be. The reason is that Lent brings us face to face again with the crucified One whose suffering love unmasks us. We stand unveiled before the cross and discover that God loves us irrespective of our looks. We discover a look that does not condemn us, or reject us as ugly, not the look that shuns us but one that accepts us just as we are in order to become what we are truly meant to be. This love sets us free to embark on the journey of life without the need to hide our faces from the One who loves us. A journey from birth to death which, St. Paul tells us in his ode to love, begins when we see ourselves as we really are as in a mirror, but then come face to face with ourselves and know ourselves as God already knows us in Christ. (1 Corinthians 13:11-13)
In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus celebrated this week on the way to the cross, the inner circle of disciples see Jesus’ face in a totally new light. They had already come to recognise him as a great healer and teacher, a man of compassion and wisdom, and possibly the promised Messiah. But on the Mount of Transfiguration they see the beauty and glory of God in the face of Jesus and the truth dawns on them that Jesus is the human face of God, the One who reveals who God truly is. “This is my beloved Son,” are the words that confirm what their eyes now see for the first time even though they do not grasp its full significance. That comes later when, after the resurrection Christ is acknowledged as the icon of God. As St. Paul puts it: “Christ is the image (icon) of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) And again, God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
After that experience on the mountain top the disciples still had a long way to go before they came to that conclusion. And along that way they would betray, deny and desert Jesus. They had yet to come face to face with the suffering face of the crucified One, a face from which people turned away in horror as the prophet Isaiah had said: “A man of suffering… from whom others hide their faces.” (53:3) But it was in that face, marred and scarred by suffering and pain, that they would come to see the very heart of the God who love and redeems us, and who suffers in solidarity with the suffering and struggling peoples of the world.
In journeying deeper into the mystery of God revealed in the face of Jesus, in seeking to follow him in love and compassion, in seeking justice and embracing the outcast, without our knowing it, our faces are transformed says Paul into the image of Christ “from one degree of glory to another.” Yes, it is still us, still the same face with which we were born, however beautiful or ugly it seems to us or others, but by God’s grace we somehow begin to reflect something, if only a smidgen, of God’s glory in our own faces. Let’s face it, our faces will probably never be beautiful enough to win a beauty pageant, but neither was the face of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Yet in her love for the outcasts of India she became something beautiful for God. “May the beauty of Jesus be seen in us” we sang as Sunday School children. That sums up the journey into the mystery of God. For “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 February 2016