Thursday 21st September 2017

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Seeking The Face Of God

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Our whole lives as Catholics, our daily battles to do God’s will, to sin no more, to fight evil and falsehood, to uphold, defend, and promulgate truth, are all ordered to one supreme destiny — to behold the face of God in Heaven, as promised in the Book of Revelation: “. . . his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face” (Rev. 22:4).
The Old Testament is replete with aspirations to see the face of God. Psalm 42 expresses this most eloquently: “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God….When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2). This quest is likewise voiced in Psalm 27: “Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not thy face from me” (Psalm 27:8-9).
The great patriarch of Israel Moses was revered above all else for having been granted the sacred privilege of conversing with God “face to face,” whereby it became necessary to veil his face due to the radiance that such sacred converse imparted to his countenance (Exodus 34:29-30, 33-35; Deut. 34:10).
In the light of these Old Testament intimations of what it is to encounter the face of God, and the sight of Christ’s transfigured face shining like the sun on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17:2), one is left almost speechless at the thought of what the Temple guards and the Roman soldiers did on Good Friday to the face of Christ, a face both divine and human. For these men spat upon the face of God; they struck the face of God.
But for the faithful the face of the suffering Christ, the Holy Face, has become an object of consummate and loving contemplation. In her poem Canticle to the Holy Face, St. Therese of Lisieux writes:
“Dear Jesus! ’tis Thy Holy Face / Is here the star that guides my way. . . / Thy Face is now my fatherland, — / The radiant sunshine of my days, — / My realm of love, my sunlit land . . . / Thy face, in its unearthly grace, / Is like divinest myrrh to me” (Poems of Sr. Teresa, Carmelite of Lisieux, known as the “Little Flower of Jesus,” trans. Susan Emery, Boston, Angel Guardian Press, 1907, p. 7).
In the sacred liturgy, there are certainly moments that impart a tangible intimation of what it shall be to see God face to face. Whenever we raise our eyes to the elevations of the Host and the chalice following the consecration, or to the elevation of the monstrance during benediction, we gaze upon our as yet unseen God with the eyes of faith. In Holy Communion we converse intimately with Him as Moses did, albeit with the veil of our mortality interposed.
And in the Good Friday ceremony of the unveiling of the cross, the solemnized withdrawal of the veil from the crucifix anticipates that moment to come when leaving Earth and Purgatory behind us we shall pass into the bliss of beholding God in Heaven. It is little wonder that medieval theologians saw in the unveiling of the cross a dramatization of the Passion as a theophany, a revelation of Christ’s divinity.
The anticipation of seeing God is also referenced in the papal funeral liturgy. It was for the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II on April 8, 2005 that newly revised rites for the death of a Roman Pontiff given in the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis (promulgated in 2000) were employed for the first time. Before the closing of the casket a silken white veil was spread over the face of the deceased Pontiff, an action explained in an introductory locution delivered by the cardinal chamberlain:
“Reverently we shall cover the face of the deceased, supported by the hope of his being able to contemplate and delight in the face of the Father, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints” (translated from the Latin text in Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis, © Libreria Editrice Vaticana, chapter 2, n. 95, p. 135).
Similarly the prayer for this ceremony declares, “May his face, which has searched through thy ways that he might show them to the Church, see your paternal face. May his face, which departs from our sight, contemplate your beauty and commend his flock to you, the eternal Shepherd” (ibid., n. 98, pp. 135, 137).
Of course our attempts to imagine the face of God while here on Earth pale by comparison with what awaits us in the Beatific Vision, for as Dom Anscar Vonier explains, “. . . it is not a mere image of Him, a mere idea of Him, however clear; it is Himself. It is a direct, uninterrupted gazing on God’s beauty” (The Human Soul and Its Relations With Other Spirits, London and St. Louis, B. Herder, 1925 ed. p. 299).
Simply the anticipation of the Beatific Vision can serve as a compelling incentive to endure all things for Christ. In his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, St. Thomas More writes:
“. . . We shall by the little sipping that our hearts should have here now, and that sudden taste thereof, shall have such an estimation of the incomparable and uncogitable joy that we shall have (if we will) in Heaven, by the very full draught thereof, whereof it is written, ‘. . . I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form’ (Psalm 17:15).
“I shall be satiated, satisfied, or fulfilled, when thy glory, good Lord, shall appear, that is to wit, with the fruition of the sight of God’s glorious majesty face to face; that the desire, expectation, and heavenly hope thereof, shall more encourage us, and make us strong, to suffer and sustain for the love of God and salvation of our soul, than ever we could be made to suffer here worldly pain, by the terrible dread of all the horrible pains that damned wretches have in hell” (Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, book 3, chapter 26, in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, p. 1258).
An attempt to express in music what it must be to behold the face of God can be found in the Third Act of Richard Wagner’s 1882 opera about the Holy Grail and the spear that pierced the side of Christ, Parsifal.
In the course of a supplication addressed by the character Amfortas to the soul of his virtuous and pious father Titurel, sublime chords accompany the words, “O you who in divine radiance behold the Redeemer’s very self” (Richard Wagner, Parsifal, Act III, as translated into English by Lionel Salter — translation © Lionel Salter, — published in libretto booklet for Richard Wagner: Parsifal, cond. Herbert Von Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon, 413 347-2, 1981, compact disk, p. 131).

The Veil Of Time

To be worthy to see the face of God in Heaven, we must keep alive the state of sanctifying grace within our souls here on Earth; we must keep our hearts, minds, and bodies pure. Recall the words of our Lord, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Speaking of the beatific vision, St. John observes, “. . . we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
Throughout the course of the day, we should repeatedly remind ourselves, especially when temptations threaten, that we must keep ourselves ready to behold the face of God.
Sin makes us ashamed to be seen by God, as Adam and Eve were after they had sinned, hiding themselves upon hearing Him approach (cf. Gen. 3:8). At the Crossing of the Red Sea, the charioteers of Pharaoh were terrified when “the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:24). And Satan in his wicked and infernal pride has no choice but to flee from the face of God.
Prayer predisposes us in this life for the vision of God in Heaven. Reflecting upon the effort of the rich man Zacchaeus to see Christ by climbing up into a tree (cf. Luke 19:3-4), the English Jesuit Fr. Bernard Vaughan writes, “Be resolved, no matter what it may cost you, to get sight of Jesus…swing yourself up into the branches of prayer and contemplation, where, above the dust and noise of the passing city, you may rest your soul on the beauty of Jesus” (Loaves and Fishes: Extracts from Father Bernard Vaughan’s Notebooks, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1932, p. 102).
As we who are en route to the Heavenly Jerusalem await and prepare for the day when we shall look upon the face of God, we can ask our Lady, who already enjoys the unutterable bliss of this sublime sight, to look upon Him, to behold Him, on our behalf, until at long last the veil of time and of mortality is lifted and we see Him face to face.

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