HOMILY for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (C)
“It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face” (Ps 26:9). These words from psalm 26, cited in the entrance antiphon, and repeated in our responsorial psalm express the fundamental longing of the human heart: to see God’s face. St Augustine famously put it this way: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you”. And the philosopher Roger Scruton, in his 2011 Gifford Lectures, argues that this existential restlessness, experienced as a deep loneliness, is intensifying because we, as a society, have tried to hide from God’s face. But God, Scruton says, is “avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face – not the human face only, but also the face of the world”.
What Scruton has in mind is the modern stripping away of our human personhood and relations by institutions – banks, government, shops and corporations who see us merely as faceless consumers and customers; the loss of public spaces and the faceless architecture that isolate us from one another; the consumption of people as faceless objects of sexual desire through the endemic spread of internet pornography. The result of all this, Scruton says, is a “godless void” that confronts us. But Lent, I think, if it is practiced well, tries to seek again the face of God, saying: “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; let not your face be hidden from me”. And today’s Gospel reveals how this happens.
At first glance, this seems improbable because when Peter, James and John look upon the face of Jesus on the mountain, we’re told that “the appearance of his countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29). So, instead of God’s face being revealed, it is hidden once more. Jesus’ face changes as he prays on the mount of the transfiguration, and his clothes become dazzling so that he cannot even be looked upon; his face is hidden from us, even altered, so that he cannot be recognized. This is because, traditionally, God’s face cannot be seen. As the Lord said to Moses in Exodus: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Rather, God revealed himself by entering into Covenantal relationship with his people as he did with Abram in the first reading, and through the Law and the prophets. Hence, in the transfiguration, Christ is revealed in glory as God between Moses and Elijah, revered in Jewish tradition as the ‘living ones’. The fact that this occurs up on a mountain also reminds us of the hiddenness of God’s face, for it is on a mountain that God tells Moses that “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen”. And it is on a mountain that Elijah encounters God, but he does not see his face, but only finds him in a “still small voice”. God is heard but unseen just as in today’s Gospel. For, God’s face is, typically, hidden from us.
But the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity changes all this. Now, God has a face, the face of Jesus. Hence, when Peter says he would like to remain on the mountain he is rebuffed, or at least, ignored. For humanity is historically more familiar, and so, more comfortable with an unseen God – the faceless God of our modern post-Christian society. But the incarnation challenges this. We’re now to listen to God’s Son, and, although it’s not explicit, the demonstrative “This is my Son” indicates that we’re to look at him; look at God’s face in Jesus Christ.
The problem is that we often do not see Christ’s face today; we fail to recognize him, and even avoid looking at God’s face. Let me explain what I mean. In today’s Gospel, mention is made of Jesus’ “exodus, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem”, and a few verses from the end of today’s Gospel passage, St Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It is for this reason – going to Jerusalem – that Peter, James and John had to come down from the mountain of the transfiguration with the Lord so that, in Jerusalem, God might reveal his face to them, to all humanity.
For it is on another mountain, Calvary, that God’s face is seen; not between the ‘living ones’ Moses and Elijah but between two condemned men, the ‘dying ones’; the face of Christ – God! – on the Cross, in anguish, in suffering, in desperation, alongside painful, condemned, and dying humanity. As Scruton says, then, “Suffering is made available to God himself by the act of incarnation, and it is the way – perhaps the sole way – in which he can show that he loves us with a humanly intelligible love, by suffering for our sakes”. The temptation has been to sugar-coat and sanitize this suffering love, to make it manageable and respectable, and so, to render it faceless; we hide our faces from the grief and misery of the Crucified One. As Isaiah says, Christ was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (53:3).
But during Lent, we’re challenged to look, to see the face of God, to confront and not avoid the face of Christ crucified. We’re called, really, to recognize the face of God in the face of our fellow human being, our brother and sister, who is suffering and in need, who is worried sick about work, mortgages, and making ends meet. Christ’s face is contorted in the anguish of one who grieves, furrowed in the worry of a mother over her sick children, or downcast in one who labours under the weight of depression. But the voice of the Father also calls us to listen – to hear the cry of the oppressed, to listen to the experience of the marginalized and disempowered, to dialogue with those whom we’d sooner avoid. All these, I believe, are the fasts that are more desired during Lent. And our prayers and almsgiving, then, are to be related towards those persons who reveal the face of our poor, naked, hungry, imprisoned and suffering God. For, as Jesus said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
What this asks of us, ultimately, is love, which is a sacrifice. Every act of sacrifice, of seeing and loving the other demands a little death from us; some self-gift which costs us. Which is why it’s still true to say that “no one can see the face of God and live”. For when we see God in those who suffer and are in need, and we dare to respond with love and generosity, we necessarily die to ourselves. Like Christ, our God, we die so that others may live. But, as Scruton says, “in the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. Thus, in those moments of sincere self-gift, we bridge the “godless void”, the existential loneliness, and emerge from the dark cloud that would otherwise consume us.