God’s Human Face
By Hieromonk Calinic (Berger)
H/T: Holy Cross Romanian Church (here)
The human face expresses all the nuances of the soul. The fact that we humans have a face shows that we were created to communicate with each other; we were not created to be isolated individuals. From this point of view, the human face and the human word share a common purpose – both are the means through which the feelings of our hearts and the thoughts of our minds are shared with others. The face, as much as the word, is a means of interpersonal communication and communion.
The human face not only has the ability to express the state of the soul in any given instant; but also, in many ways, the face can become a record of our lives. This does not mean that marks or lines created on the face over time can be interpreted correctly on first glance. For example, it could be that a person pure in soul has a stressful look due to certain sufferings which are unknown to us. Nevertheless, more often than not, a grace-filled soul can be clearly seen shining through a grace-filled face. This impression must be confirmed by the person’s words and actions, as other means of communion. The face and the word together communicate what is in the soul of a person.
The same is true for the incarnate Son of God. Since the Incarnation, God has communicated Himself to us in a new way: through a human face. Beyond the beauty, majesty and power of the created world (which indirectly reveal God’s wisdom and power to us), and beyond His words spoken to us both by our Lord and through the prophets (which reveal God’s thoughts directly), God now expresses Himself to us in the most intimate, personal, and human way possible: through his human face.
This is one reason why the veneration of icons in the Orthodox Church has such a central place in our worship and in our dogmatic beliefs. God’s presence among us is manifold: He is present with us through His words in Scriptures, through His body and blood in the Eucharist, through His uncreated energies as grace, through the beauty and majesty of the created world – and through His human face, as present in His holy icon. The icon of Jesus Christ is always recognizable. It always depicts the same face of God Incarnate.
One Orthodox theologian, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, has made several important observations on the interrelatedness of the icon with the other forms of God’s presence among His people. Divisions in Christianity have mostly taken place where one aspect of God’s revelation has been seperated from others and viewed in isolation from the rest. For example, wherever God’s words in the Scriptures have been taken as the only authentic revelation of God, there have Christians been subjected to a myriad of subjective, human interpretations and opinions. Only when all the means of God’s revelation and presence are held together is the Christian Faith itself held together in the One, Holy, Apostolic Tradition. The holy Mysteries and the Icon of Christ both prevent the subjective interpretation of Scripture, since both reveal a differentof Christ, as God and as deified Man. Only all taken together give us the full Christ. It is the same in normal human relations: the same words can be interpreted differently with a different expression of the face. The expression on the face (here, on the Icon) must be confirmed by the words (in the Scriptures) and actions (in the Sacraments) for usness of the Christ.
Thus, the icon of Christ conveys to us not only the fact that the Son of God became a man; but more than this, it conveys the infinite love and compassion that led Him to become incarnate, as well as His knowledge of our deeds, His patience with our weaknesses, and His sternness regarding His coming again as universal Judge. The genius of traditional Orthodox iconography (as executed by talented and godly iconographers) allows the face of Christ to be depicted in such a way as to express all of these dimensions of His personality simultaneously. The human face of Christ in His icon thereby becomes not only a reminder of God’s humanity but also an aspect of his actual presence among us. We commune with Christ not only in the Eucharist but also through His words in Scripture, His icon, and with all the meanings (logoi) of the created world, which has Christ Himself as its Creator (Eph. 3:9) and supreme Logos (Jn. 1:1). All these things together allow us to fully commune with the full Christ.
For this reason, the icon of Christ is inseparable from both Orthodox worship and dogma. The icon is not with us in our Church simply because it is dogmatically allowed. It is with us because it is necessary for dogma. In the Icon of Christ’s face, we see all of His saving actions at once: we are reminded of His nativity, His miracles, His passion and His resurrection (Sunday of Orthodoxy Kontakion). The Icon of Christ manifests Christ, and through it, He Himself continues to work, as the priestly prayer to bless the icon clearly states.
Furthermore, the icon of Christ connects His words and His Eucharist to His person, ensuring that neither one is disconnected or abstracted from Him. Jesus’ words are absolutely unique. His Eucharistic bread is absolutely unique, personal facial expressivity in His holy Icon. Through all these things together Jesus continues to communicate with each of us personally. It brings Him into our presence and brings us into His presence.
The Word of God assumed not just human nature abstractly but became a man, with a specific human face, His face, through which He wishes to communicate with us for all eternity. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Mt. 24:35) – and neither shall His unique and grace-filled human face. This is the very meaning of salvation: to have the “light of God’s face” shine upon us (Ps. 80:7, 19). If Western Christianity (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) considers salvation to be a beatific vision of God’s essence, in Orthodoxy it is rather a vision of the face of Christ. Thus could Father Dumitru Staniloae finish his great work, Orthodox Spirituality, with these words: “The incarnation of the Word confirmed the value of man… But it also gave man the possibility to see in the human face of the Logos, concentrated anew, all the logoi and divine energies. Thus, final deification will consist of the contemplation and experiencing of all the divine values and energies conceived in and radiating from the face of Christ.”