The deepest desire of the people of God is to see the face of God.
The Psalmist gives voice to this desire in the form of exhortation: “seek his face always” (105:4). The invocation of Israel’s priests answers this desire with blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). And the reading for the first Sunday in Advent thrice repeats the same refrain: “show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Ps 80:3, 7, 18). The countenance of the Lord is the source of every good gift that the Lord’s people can imagine; receiving his gifts, they seek the source itself. “Lord, show us the Father,” Philip begged Jesus, “and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8).
Moses made a similar request of the Lord: “Show me your glory, I pray.” The request is granted, but not in full: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you [my] name . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exod 33:18-20). Hence Moses’s merely partial vision of God: a glimpse of the Lord as he passed, as though from behind. While Moses speaks with the Lord “face to face” (33:11; Num 12:8), he may not see him with similar intimacy, or transparency; “my face shall not be seen” (Exod 33:23).
So God’s people long to see his face, for the glory of the Lord’s countenance imparts life and light, grace and peace; yet no one can see it and live. Such a state of affairs is bound to rankle: life with God appears to be only so much frustrated desire; God himself, by his word, prompts and provokes a hunger we cannot sate, an itch we cannot scratch, a yearning we cannot fulfill, a waiting we cannot conclude, a hope for what, in this life, we cannot have: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25).
The church has a name for the life thus described by these dialectics of desire: faith. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). That sounds rather airy and confident, as if faith were a sort of light: chasing away the shadows of sin, suffering, and Satan. And though it does chase those shadows away, faith is not light, strictly speaking. For faith concerns what we by definition cannot see and do not possess in full: “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:6-7). If we cannot see where we are going, then it is not yet day, but night. Faith is a kind of darkness: sunrise is coming, but we don’t know the hour. Faith is then the hope that morning is in fact coming, will come, even as our patience wears thin, and we wonder whether perhaps the earth has stopped turning after all.
Advent is the season when the church remembers—which is to say, is reminded by the Spirit—that as the people of the Messiah, we are defined not by possession but by dispossession, not by having but by hoping, not by leisurely resting but by eagerly waiting. We are waiting on the Lord, whose command is simple: “Keep awake” (Mark 13:37). Waiting is wakefulness, and wakefulness is watchfulness: like the disciples in the Garden, we are tired, weighed down by the weakness of the flesh, but still we must keep watch and be alert as we await the Lord’s return, relying on his Spirit, who ever is willing (cf. Mark 14:32-42).
The church must also remember, however, that just as we await the Lord’s second coming, so Israel awaited his first. And came he did. The children of Abraham sought the face of God always: and through Mary’s eyes, at long last, the search was complete. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8): so they shall, and so she did. Mary, all-holy virgin and mother of God, beheld his face in her newborn son. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). True, “no one has ever seen God” (1:18), yet “he who has seen [Jesus] has seen the Father” (14:9). And so Mary is the first of all her many sisters and brothers to have seen the face of God incarnate: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it” (1 John 1:1-2). With Mary the church gives glory to the God who “has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy” (Luke 1:54); with Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19), we contemplate with joy and wonder the advent of God in a manger.
The God of Israel keeps his promises. The hopes of Israel were fulfilled in him, David’s heir and Mary’s son. Faith in him is trust that the One who came then will come again, once and for all. Like our forebears, we too wait for the Lord’s advent. Unlike them, we live this side of Bethlehem, this side of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Our own Sunday is coming—the cosmic Easter of the new creation—but life in the meantime is a sort of extended Holy Saturday. Far from restful, all too often it means darkness, silence, and doubt.
This is the dynamic not only of faith but of faithfulness, the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. As St. Paul writes, although unbelievers cannot see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God,” nevertheless “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4, 6).
But. The glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus is manifested in rejection and death, not earthly wealth and might. The glory of God is revealed on the cross, in the foolishness of divine wisdom, in the face of the crucified Messiah (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25). It is his face that Israel seeks, his face that shows us the Father.
And so the fundamental challenge is not that we must continue to wait. It is that we must set our eyes not on worldly splendor but on Jesus alone, the One hanged and abandoned outside Jerusalem. He is indeed “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” but only inasmuch as he “endured the cross, despising the shame,” and therefore “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2-3).
Thus that Pauline disjunctive:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:7-12)
The waiting of faith is a waiting in weakness, then, not because the Lord is slow about his promise (2 Pet 3:9), but because the grace of Christ is sufficient for us: for his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). God became man in a stable in Bethlehem. To see his face there and to see it later, on the cross—both through the eyes of his mother (Luke 2:4-7; John 19:25-27)—is to see the face of God, yes, but to see it manifested through powerlessness, through dependence and dejection, through weakness. The weakness of an infant, the weakness of a victim. If we would seek the glory of God, if we would see the countenance of the Lord, it is there, and only there, that we may find it (cf. John 12:23-33).
Jesus is the coming of the Lord in person; his face is the Lord’s face. Advent is waiting for him, and no other. Waiting is weakness, it is true, but the weakness of the Lord Jesus is nothing less than the power of God. Because “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26), when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 12:10).
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