Icon of Christ the Bridegroom – M. Kapeluck
#18 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.”
It’s an expression that we say to people when we want them to confront something they don’t want to look at. It means confronting oneself with the truth about something that is (seemingly at least) bad, and we are reluctant to look at. As human beings (unlike horses or prey animals[i]) our eyes are on the front of our face so to really focus on something we must look directly at it. Hence the facial orientation is important and shows up in all kinds of ways, culturally, in literature and communications. Your face is the key to your heart – and metaphorically, it’s the key to God’s heart as well.
Of late, I’ve done a little reading on autism[ii] – a developmental disease that usually presents itself early in life. The symptoms of the disease are psychological, neurological, physiological and social, including behaviors we would often call disruptive (like outbursts of emotion), social detachment and self-fixation. Researchers are finding that it is much more common than originally thought – and observable in some ways even in otherwise seemingly well-adjusted and even highly successful adults. The wide variety of behaviors and expressions of it have led to what is called the autism ‘spectrum’ which implies that wide variation in breadth and depth of symptoms. Autistic people sometimes have unusual abilities in some areas, and skills and knowledge rightly applied can bring forth remarkable capabilities.
I mention autism because one common diagnostic characteristic of autistic people is that they are extremely uncomfortable looking someone in the eyes, face to face. This is part of the social distancing which is seemingly innate in their being, even from an early age. It can either come from, or foster further, an inner sense of inadequacy and self-weakness, which the ego directs into avoidance behaviors. Confrontation of that behavior may lead to an explosive outburst in self-defense.
Over the years, when I’ve found myself in a ‘bad’ place spiritually[iii], my own behaviors will mimic this in some ways. The eyes avoid contact with others. I am unable to face someone – directly and personally and literally cannot look them in the eyes in peace – especially those to whom I am directly accountable. It actually becomes noticeable within and other people pick up on the behavior as a mirror of the inner state. With repentance (especially Confession) one can be set back aright and ‘look forward’ again, not just down. Sometimes people confuse humility with being unable to look someone in the eye. It’s probably a sign of the opposite – an inner weakness perhaps due to the wounding of sin.
Now there is another way to meet someone face-to-face. That is in confrontation – where the ego is exerting itself in a dominance battle with another person. This is described almost universally in societies when we use the phrase, saying someone “blinked first.” In a stare down, whoever looks away first capitulates and crumbles before the other who then exerts dominance in other social ways.
The Glorious Face of God
In this verse, David implores God to turn away His face from his sin. David is essentially asking God to do what he has done, because the sin is so hideous to David that David must turn his face away from it. Looking at the sin burns David’s heart, and it would seem that God must see David only as sin. To David, he has ‘become sin’. By God’s turning his face away from his sin, David has the possibility of separation from this fire consuming his identity – He can exist beyond and outside of his sin. God can then look at him, and not see the sin anymore – if God turns His face from David’s sin.
The Face of God
The Face of God is oft-expressed in the Bible, as God’s manifestation[iv] of His personal being to human beings. Because God in His essence is unknowable to us, His gaze is like a consuming fire. In the Book of Exodus (Ex. 33:18-34:9) Moses longed to see God. God instructs Moses that he cannot, but was only given the blessing to look at God’s ‘back-side’ as He passed by in the vision on Mt. Sinai.
“I will cause all My goodness to pass before you,” the LORD replied, “and I will proclaim My name—the LORD—in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” But He added, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” The LORD continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
Moses, like every human, could not bear to see the face of God and live.
It might be helpful to see how the Transfiguration of Christ[v] begins to shift some of this teaching and understanding in the New Testament. The same Moses (now deceased) appears in the vision with Christ and Elijah. St. Matthew describes this saying,
“And His face shown like the sun”
Now as we know, the sun is too bright to look at – and if somehow we do for very long we go blind. These words describe the glory on the face of Jesus, as described in St. Peter’s epistle, as a personal testimony. (2Pt.1:16ff)[vi] The glory of the moment was too great for the disciples to cast their gaze upon the glorious Christ, but they had to hide their faces. In a powerful (but perhaps overlooked?) verse from St. Luke at the end of the scene:
So, the passage really is about seeing the face of Jesus – first in his glory (His original form radiating His divinity) and secondly, in His human form, where He is recognizable as a man (only). Looking at the face of Jesus allows them to identify Him, and allow his gaze to identify themselves as He sees them.
Behold, the Lamb of God Who Takes away the Sins of the World
In the Crucifixion narrative that follows shortly, the quote from Isaiah 52, which is read at Great Friday Vespers:
“Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”
It can be said that one reason the Orthodox Church so values its iconography is that it gives the Christian an opportunity to view, mystically by grace, the face of Jesus.[vii] Of course we know that the pigments and paints are not the face of Jesus but just as a photographic print or even digital pixels can form an image of the face of someone that can speak to us inwardly and powerfully, and inspire, or even convict us of our sin. When we pray before the icon of Christ, we are approaching Jesus – God Incarnate, face to face.
Looking at Sin?
As I mentioned above, its so difficult, even impossible, to look at sin. The horrific visions of human suffering wrought by sin in every age and so many cultures cause revulsion. Seeing this (and sensing through our senses) causes us unbearable sickness. I can’t imagine what anyone who experienced first hand the atrocities of the Holodomor, Auschwitz, the front lines of war or even the 911 bombings can bear it. Or watching the death of one’s child through violence. Those who have born this must look upon this ‘sin’ daily – as the images are brought back to them in vivid suffering especially through experiences like PTSD. They know the power of Evil.
Behold Your Son
These words speak of the horror of the experience of Mary, the Theotokos, looking upon Her crucified Son. In what ways does this not also reveal perhaps how God the Father ‘beholds’ His Son? Crucified by sin, Crucified in love. God would look upon His Son. This may shed a ray of light on one of the most mysterious passages of scripture, and also misinterpreted, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2Cor.5:21) [viii]
Because the Son, as the Lamb of God, had taken upon Himself the sins of the World, so those who beheld the Lamb of God, would have to look at the sin. Confront its horror and injustice. God would not turn His face from His Crucified Son, and hence would not and could not turn His face from the sins He bore. And He would not turn His face from us. In doing so, He would be unlike us – who cast our eyes away from our sins because we cannot bear it.
In the Crucifixion, lies the only path to forgiveness and resolution of the sin of David, my sin, and the sins of the world. It is only when God looks upon us, even in our sins, and heeds to the words of the Son, “Father forgive them!” that the power of sin over the soul of man is broken. But the price requires a total payment in love – The Death of the Son. God deemed the restoration of the heart of man as worthy of the ransom price paid.
It is perhaps, if any of this is true, possible to glimpse how the one who is on the path of salvation, Mary, is invited to do the same as the Father – to Behold the Son! (Jn. 19:26) In all of the unspeakable grief and sorrow wrought by sin. How was it possible to not turn her gaze away. But Jesus gives these words as a command – Look! Don’t turn away. You have within your heart the love sufficient to bear this with all its horror and sorrow. And through the humanity of her who did this, emerges a path to truly ‘behold’ Christ for all who would follow. It is for this reason that the Vigil of Pascha/Easter in the Orthodox liturgy is grounded in the profound lamentation of Mary, and all who are beginning to open their hearts to the possibility of bearing the grief and love at this depth in their hearts. And to see sin for what it really is and has done to humanity.
They Shall Look Upon Him Whom They Have Pierced
St. John’s gospel effectively concludes the Crucifixion narrative with this quotation, cited from the prophecy of Zechariah 12. Following the piercing of Christ, and the image of the blood and water of the death of Christ (symbolic of the new life in Baptism and the Eucharist), St. John offers these words as another invitation to ‘Behold’ and to ‘Look upon Christ’ who was so pierced.[ix] The followers of Jesus must look upon Him – and stop casting away their gaze, or amusing themselves with other things, or distractions – but shall take up the burden of the spiritual struggle with sin.
The Christian life means to look upon the face of Christ, as the first step in learning to look upon ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are, and even perceive what sin has done to us. The light shining from the face, and from the tomb of Christ is the only way that we can possibly really look at our sins. It’s because God has not turned away from us, even in our sins, that we can begin to see things as they truly are in a spiritual way.
Closing Thought – Setting His Face to Jerusalem
In St. Luke’s narrative, adjoining the Transfiguration narrative, we hear these words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Lk.9:51) In this passage we see the mission and ministry of Jesus destined to fulfillment in glory (taken up in His Ascension), setting his face upon us in a new and total and loving way of self-sacrificing embrace of us all, and bearing the cross and pain of our sinfulness as the only way to be completely joined to us.
He set His face not just upon Jerusalem, but upon you and me, and would not cast his gaze away until He could no longer – when He would say, ‘It is finished.’ And his eyes would close. Ω
[i] The sight capabilities and their link to their behaviors as prey animals is a fascinating study of equines.
[ii] A growing body of research is coming available on this syndrome and the CDC can serve as a good starting point. What has been called ‘Asperger’s’ disease is similar but presents slightly different criteria for diagnosis.
[iii] What I describe here personally has no reflection on the spiritual state of people with autism or anyone else.
[iv] I hasten to note here that we are in the realm of profound, mystical and theological teachings that I offer in only the most inadequate, incomplete and cursory way. The patristic teachings on the biblical passages on the human and mystical encounter with God is the place to explore this, as discerned through Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church and deemed worthy. Two references that come to mind are St. Gregory of Nyssa’s, The Life of Moses and St. Simeon the New Theologian’s, On the Mystical Life.
[v] The Exodus passage above is read at Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the presence of Moses with Christ (and Elijah) implies a change in the way that God relates in His awesome glory to humankind.
[vi] Many of today’s biblical scholars tell us that 2Peter was not authored by the Apostle. Yet I find this passage so compelling as a testimony – he wanted his listeners to hear his story and discern its meaning from him. Authorship has different aspects to it.
[vii] The Icon of Christ Not Made with Human Hands (Gr. Acheiropoieta) is one of the most ancient, according to Tradition given by Christ Himself to the pious Prince of Edessa, Abgar, which brought healing to him. The tradition of ‘Veronica’s Veil’ bears this same type of image in Roman Catholic piety.
[viii] Space does not allow a treatment of this verse which was interpreted in certain Protestant traditions in such a literal fashion as to imply that somehow in the essence of Jesus’s being (which in Orthodoxy means his divine and human natures) that He transformed into the nature of sin itself. Such an understanding does is not compatible with the Church’s understanding. Because the mystery of the working of the divine and human natures in Christ is an utter mystery, this must be passed by for now.
[ix] In light of this, Rev. 1:7 speaks powerfully of how the entire world will come to do the same thing –
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him–even those who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen” The implications of this are profound.