Seeking God’s face as a theme in the psalms

I know that face

How do we recognise people? By their voice, by their touch, but above all by their face. Where does that leave our relationship with God? Every now and again, there is great internet excitement about someone finding ‘the face of God’ in the inside of a fruit or vegetable, or a picture of Our Lady, or Jesus. Sometimes it’s the letters which spell the Holy Name.   What always intrigues me, though, is how do people know that it’s God (or Jesus, or Mary) and not somebody else?   We have no contemporary photographs or even portraits; it is easy to demonstrate that people’s idea of God’s appearance (or the appearance of anyone else in the story) is culturally conditioned (all those blond Jesuses in long white nighties, all those Marys with peaches and cream complexions – and long blonde hair).

Pregnant BVM
a beautifully pregnant Mary, but the hair is surely wrong

Till we have faces

God is a spirit and he doesn’t have a face.  Jesus offers his own : ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).  Clement of Rome (died about 95 A.D.) said,’Through him we see as in a mirror the spotless and excellent face of God’.  We don’t have even a sketch of Jesus;  any sort of pictures of people (recognisable portraits) are rare until quite recently, historically speaking.   The existence of the Turin Shroud and the Veil(s) of Veronica indicate how desperate people are for a true image of the Lord.  They are a fascinating and relatively rare example in the Western Church, of the ‘not made with hands’ holy objects which are much more frequent in the Eastern Church.  I think this is partly why our own Church treats such images  with gentleness, like relics.  They are very important to lots of good people, even if their provenance is so unclear.  Jesus’ face is an understandable concept for people to focus on.  He was born, lived and died as a human being, and we all have faces;  unique to us, familiar to and loved by those who know and love us.  God is different.  He is not human.  The God of the psalms is from before Jesus’ arrival on earth.  What about his face?

The Psalms : God has a body
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

The idea of God’s face recurs in the Psalms like a bass note or a bell. It’s partly because of the almost shocking physicality of the psalms (look no further than Psalm 3 : ‘you [God] who smite all my foes on the mouth, you who break the teeth of the wicked’,v.8).  God is a mighty man, a warrior, definitely human in his Biblical image, as I’ve said before.  God is as physically present in the psalms as the psalmist himself.  He is shown in very corporeal terms; even his clothes are described, his cloak made of sky (most beautiful concept), his hands and feet, his strong right arm.  Of course he has a face.  In the Psalms  it stands for the answer to all questions, to all yearning.  

Burning bush
Moses sees God’s face (note his bare feet, and the shoes in the foreground)

I haven’t got time to develop it here, but seeing God’s face is an important part of Moses’ story, and there are rules and prohibitions about it because it is so important.  The  foundational Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6.25ff  talks about God’s face twice, first shining upon his people and second being lifted up in their direction.  According to my commentary, the Hebrew verbs for ‘lifting up’ and ‘shining’ are closely related, so we expand the lines to translate them. 

May the LORD bless you and keep you; may the LORD cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the LORD lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace.

This is the context of the psalmist’s understanding of God’s face.  ‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord’ (Psalm 4.7).  He combines the two lines from the blessing.

face to face with Adam
God and Adam,  face to face
‘The light of your face’

This is a beautiful expression, and brings its own explanation with it.  Often and often you can see the light come into someone’s face : when they catch sight of someone that they love, when they see a baby for the first time, when they see again someone dear to them after absence.  We say, ‘her eyes lit up’; ‘his face shone’ ; we talk about somebody ‘beaming’.  A loving face is full of light.  This may be one reason why the sun (in children’s picture books) is so often given eyes and a smile.

Stories about faces

Seeing someone’s face is important.  This is why it is a motif in so many stories.  Not always positive, either : the sight of Medusa’s face turns men to stone; the stone faces of pharaohs and sphinxes have a stern appearance.  The wicked queen in Snow White looks into a mirror to find out who is the fairest, hoping to see herself,  and then talks to the mirror which reflects other faces back to her.  Dorian Gray and the picture in the attic.  Beauty and the Beast.  Shrek, even. 

….all she wants to do is see his face

My favourite is Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid, here a young man rather than the baby archer, falls in love with the nymph Psyche.  (This is a very short version of the story, which was developed in every conceivable direction.  For longer versions, check  with wiki, but you could be there for some time.)  He carries her off to a palace of delight and woos her with every pleasure, but she may not see his face (so she does not know who he is).  Her jealous sisters nag and try to frighten her about her invisible lover until she lights a candle (or a lamp) to look upon him while he is sleeping.  He is so lovely that her hand trembles, a drop of wax (or oil) falls on him, he wakes up, and flees, and she has to go through suffering and trials before a final happy ending.  Seeing someone’s face can be dangerous; but the human desire to do so is overwhelming.

The Dream of Gerontius : seeing God’s face

J.H. Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, shows the eponymous hero (it just means ‘old man’ in Greek/Latin), at the point of death, and what happens next.  It is intensely dramatic.  Elgar set (much of) it to music,  and I find that I can never have it on in the background because it is too immediate and distracting.  Gerontius dies, or goes to sleep, and wakens to a different reality.  He is being carried by his Guardian Angel, to God and judgment.  When ‘The Soul of Gerontius’ realises who is carrying him, he describes the Angel as one who ‘has had a strong and pure celestial life,  And bore to gaze on the unveil’d face of God’, so he is thinking of heaven already in terms of the Beatific Vision, the sight of God’s face.

the angel takes the lead because he knows the way

But Gerontius can feel and hear; he cannot see.  Everything seems dark, and he asks the Angel whether he will ever see anything again. They have quite a lengthy theological discussion about this (one of the parts of the poem which Elgar omits).   The Angel tells him that he will see God, but only for a moment :

Then sight, or that which to the soul is sight,                                                                    As by a lightning-flash, will come to thee,                                                                     And thou shalt see, amid the dark profound,                                                                     Whom thy soul loveth, and would fain approach,—                                                    One moment; but thou knowest not, my child,                                                                      What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair                                                             Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too

and it is precisely God’s face that will cause him pain :

It is the face of the Incarnate God                                                                                     Shall smite thee with that keen and subtle pain

– but even knowing that, Gerontius presses on.  The music sweeps forward in a great crescendo, until there is a mighty crash of cymbals as Gerontius darts from the Angel’s restraining hold, and is described as ‘scorch’d and shrivell’d’, –  but it’s all right :

O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe                                                                            Consumed yet quickened by the glance of God.

This is what ‘seeking God’s face’ is all about : a longed-for close encounter, a ‘face-to-face’ meeting.

As for me, I shall see your face (Ps 16/17)

Just like Gerontius, the psalmist looks forward to seeing God’s face after death.  ‘As for me, in my justice I shall see your face / and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory’  (end of Psalm 16/17).  And this looking is mutual : ‘They walk with ever-growing strength, / they will see the God of gods in Zion.[…] Turn your eyes, O God our shield, look on the face of your anointed’  (Ps 83/84 v.8f).  God’s face is like a reward; seeing it is a physical expression of what heaven is about.  But it’s not the after-death vision of God that the psalmist means most of the time.  He is talking about seeking God’s face as a rule of life, as a basic orientation which changes everything.

Bearded woman
Such are the men who seek you, seek the face of the God of Jacob

In Psalm 104/105, one of the long retelling-of-salvation-history psalms, this is the crucial message to be gleaned from all the stories passed on down the generations : ‘Consider the Lord and his strength; / constantly seek his face’ (v.4).  The saints are defined as ‘the men who seek your face’ (Ps 23/24),  in the psalm we use every year for All Saints, and ‘the people who walk in the light of your face’ are described as happy or blessed (Ps 88/89).

Two different sorts of seeing
Close up of the Arnolfini mirror

This fits with the psalms’ usual emphasis on life here and now, rather than an afterlife of which we know nothing definite.  There are two sorts of seeking God’s face : there is the daily striving to do God’s will,  something we have to keep working on (not always successfully); and there is the seemingly vaguer, more mystical aspiration to gaze at God for ever.  This corresponds to St Paul’s two different sorts of seeing in 1 Corinthians 13.12, ‘now […]in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

Lighten our darkness

Because God’s face is light, it is dark when he turns his face away, and darkness in the Psalms is always frightening and dangerous (‘The Lord God is our light’, Ps 117.27).  So there are several pleas for God not to hide his face (Pss. 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).  But in Psalm 50/51, the great penitential psalm, the speaker implores God to turn his face away from his sins, because if God is not looking at them, there is no light and they cannot be seen.  God’s glance is full of power :’the boastful cannot stand before your face’ (Ps 5); ‘may [the wicked] perish at the frown of your face’ (Ps 79/80) – but in the same psalm we have the refrain ‘let your face shine on us/ and we shall be saved’.  God’s face is salvation itself.

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
Do not hide your face

When God hides his face, the psalmist is distraught (Pss 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 29/30, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).   He wants God to look at him as much as he wants to look at God.  He is afraid to be out of God’s sight (Ps 30/31), because God’s power is such that a man cannot be out of sight unless God chooses to turn his face away : ‘Where can I flee from your face?/  If I climb the heavens, you are there. /If I lie in the grave, you are there’ (Ps 138/139).  This is a comforting, not a terrifying thought, because the whole psalm is a celebration of God’s infinite power and reach, even into the recesses of the psalmist’s own being.  He ends by opening his heart to God without reserve : ‘O search me, God, and know my heart’ v.23.

God’s eyes are always open; ‘he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’ (Ps 120/121).  He is contrasted with the idols that other races worship : ‘they have eyes but they cannot see’ (this comes up twice, in Ps 113/114 and in Ps 134/135).

Sicut cervus
stag in a stream
desiring the waterbrooks

What the psalmist longs for is to look peacefully upon God’s face and have God look upon him.  This is at the root of all the yearning psalms.  ‘When can I enter and see the face of God?’ (Ps 41/42).  ‘My body pines for you […] so I gaze on you in the sanctuary ‘ (Ps 62/63).  In Ps 68/69, the psalmist complains :’My eyes are wasted away /from looking for my God’, a striking image even in this psalm of so many (it’s the one that begins ‘Save me, Lord, for the waters have risen to my neck’).

This watching is sited in a place of calm, of tranquillity.  Like the weaned baby in Ps 130/131, the soul is at peace on its mother’s breast, needing nothing, trusting for everything.  This attitude makes all these psalms natural prayers in contemplation or adoration, words for when words stop.  We can of course look at God when we think he isn’t looking at us, as it says in Ps 122/123 : Our eyes are on the Lord till he show us his mercy;  but what we seek, what we long for,  is the mutual gazing.  As the old farmer is supposed to have answered St John Vianney, who asked what he was doing when he looked at the tabernacle, ‘Nothing; I look at him, and he looks at me’.

‘Let us fix our gaze on the Father’ (Clement of Rome, first century)

There’s another high Victorian poet I would like to quote in this context. F.W. Faber, often called ‘Father Faber’, wrote a lot of hymns.  Many are too sentimental for modern taste, but some are still sung (There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Faith of our fathers (with arguments about the original version of the words), O come and mourn with me awhile, Souls of men, why will ye scatter, and many others less common today).  The language is unbounded and can be cloying;  he has all the faults of his time, he is hopelessly non-inclusive and Counter-Reformation (though he was himself a convert); but he was always trying for simplicity and not afraid of strong feeling.   I admire the way that he is not afraid to tackle the mysteries of God in a simple hymn.  And he admired the Wesleys, so he understood the power of a good hymn.

Faber at the front, Newman at the back, helpfully together

We used to sing his hymns at school (that probably dates me), which means I know many by heart.  For years I have had a very soft spot for his My God, how wonderful Thou art, simply because of the last verse : Father of Jesus, love’s reward / what rapture will it be/ prostrate before Thy throne to lie / and gaze and gaze on Thee!     Some of the other verses are a bit twee, but I have always loved that one, and it is saying precisely the same thing as the psalmist of thousands of years ago.  Immortal, invisible, God does not change;  nor does our longing for him, our desire to see his face.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Presentation/Candlemas : two feasts in one, and a palindromic date to match

The Presentation of the Lord

Scarcely have we reached the calmer waters of Ordinary Time than we have to pause for the feast of the Presentation.  This is celebrated every year on February 2nd, but this year that is a Sunday.  It’s also a really neat palindromic date, 02.02.2020.  When the Presentation falls on a Sunday,  there are (surprisingly recent) rules about what we do liturgically, and nowadays the Presentation is a serious enough feast to bump the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time out of the sequence.

Simeon gets a cuddle, Joseph carrying the pigeons

The Presentation, third Epiphany

It used to be one of the most important feasts of the Church’s year, because it’s another ‘epiphany’ or showing-forth.  For a long time it was regarded as the last feast of Christmastide (and that’s why you will still find Christmas trees up until February 2nd in some places, including for example this year St Asaph’s Cathedral in North Wales).  First we have the showing to the shepherds, the Jews; then to the Wise Men, the Gentiles; then the baby is brought to the Temple where Simeon reveals him to be the Messiah for everyone and the key to God’s eternal plan.

one king, two king, red king, blue king

Travelling in time

This does lead to a certain amount of chronological confusion in our Sunday readings.  Jesus is an adult at his baptism by John (which we celebrated on January 12th), and the two weeks of Ordinary Time that we have just experienced are a development of the Baptism (2 OTA) and the calling of the first four apostles (3 OTA) as Jesus gathers his team for the work of his public life.  Indeed, the Gospel we would be having if Presentation hadn’t bumped it, is the Beatitudes; so we are already squarely into the middle of Jesus’ adult life, with healings, miracles and Sermons on the Mount.  But because this year February 2nd is a Sunday,  we’re back again with the Lord as a small baby in Mary’s arms, being presented in the Temple, like any other little Jewish first-born boy, with his pair of pigeons.

The Baptism of the Lord

It is in fact the feast of the Baptism as a separate operation which is the latest of the arrivals and the source of the confusion.  It has become an increasingly important feast only over the last few Popes.  It wasn’t even celebrated in its own right for the early centuries of the Church, then it became a sort of sub-feast attached to the Epiphany. John XXIII fixed it to January 13th, Paul VI tweaked its date slightly, and John Paul II instituted the tradition of baptising Vatican babies on that feast every year, which the current Pope has just happily repeated.  More information on the date for other denominations from the ever-helpful wiki  here.   The Eastern Orthodox tradition is different, still combining the Baptism with the Epiphany as different aspects of the great ‘showing-forth’ or ‘Theophany’.

No infant baptism here

The Presentation and Candlemas

But we’ve moved on from the Baptism, although we’ve gone back in time as far as Jesus is concerned, and I’m trying to look at next Sunday rather than a couple of weeks back.  The date this year is highly appropriate, because it is   two feasts in one : Candlemas and the Presentation.  Like ‘Christmas’,  the shape of the word ‘Candlemas’ indicates that it’s been around for a long time.  It refers to the blessing of the Church’s candles for the rest of the year.  It was/is celebrated on this feast because of the words of Simeon about Jesus being ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel’.  It is another celebration of the power of light in the darkest part of the year (Northern hemisphere, check your privilege).  In the days when people made their own candles for lighting, they would bring those candles also to be blessed.  Nowadays we use candles just for special occasions and celebrations (candles on birthday cakes are a fascinating tradition which we hardly think about), so we don’t tend any more to take our own candles for blessing.  Maybe we should.

Not holding a candle, but he could be

Psalm for Candlemas : 23/24

Those words are in the Gospel, as part of the Nunc dimittis, which the Church uses every night as part of Night Prayer (setting here).   The psalm we have for this feast is not one of those where the imagery of light is used,  which I discussed recently.    Instead it is Psalm 23/24, the toe-curlingly exciting one where we sing to make the gates grow high enough to let in the King of Glory.  This is Jesus’ first entrance into the Temple, God’s house;  – but God’s house  where the Son is given the name of King of Glory.  This is why I tried to make the setting as trumpetty as I could, because this is almost like a coronation.  And I’ve tried to set it high enough that you feel the reach, but not so high it’s uncomfortable to sing or listen to.

Christ in glory ceiling mosaic
Coronation and glory, thrones, dominions and powers

Presentation and Purification

Epiphany clearly used to be a much more complex feast, with all these potential extras celebrated at the same time, but today we have simplified it and we think of it as the arrival of the Three Kings first and foremost.  The Presentation however remains a complex feast.  Its first significance is the arrival of Jesus in the Temple and the testimony of Simeon and Anna (and I am grieved every year by not having Anna’s words).   Candlemas and the blessing of candles for everyone was grafted on;  but yet another major part of the feast is the Purification of Our Lady, because of the requirements of Leviticus.

A male first-born had to be presented in the Temple (with the pigeons as a sacrifice) forty days after birth.  The mother, forty days after the birth, is supposed to come to the Temple with a lamb as a burnt offering and another pigeon as a sin-offering, ‘and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean’ (Leviticus 12, 1-8).

Purifying something that wasn’t impure anyway

I know this is all about ritual and ceremonial, rather than morality and ethics, but I think the terminology is unfortunate.  I am delighted that the modern version of this (basically since Vatican II) is a special blessing (and it’s usually replaced by the blessings given to both parents at the child’s baptism).  It’s the same thing as ‘churching’ for the Anglicans.  Pollution is not usually a helpful or positive idea to bring into the debate, especially when used by one group (in this case, celibate men) to denote another group to which they cannot in any circumstances belong (new mothers).  At the moment I am probably feeling a little over-sensitised to this, and it’s all the fault of English rhyme words.

Rhyme words influencing association

The words for human offspring in English are peculiarly tricky, in this language normally so rich in alternatives.  We have ‘child’, ‘baby’, and (at a pinch) ‘babe’.    None of them is an easy rhyme (search your Christmas carols; thank goodness at least for ‘boy’ and ‘joy’).  When we are talking about the Christ-child, the preference is often given to ‘child’ as somehow being more serious and less babyish.  What rhymes with ‘child’?  ‘Mild’, which is wussy and exactly fits all those dreadful pictures of Jesus as a little boy with gold curls and a white nighty, too Fotherington-Tomas for words.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,/Look on me a little child ….. and so on. ‘Wild’ is not a helpful alternative, so it is not used much in this context as a rhyme word.

small blond child
see what I mean?

The danger of collocation : pregnancy as ‘defilement’

The other regular option is ‘undefiled’, usually applied to Jesus’ mother, which is really peculiar.  Sing of Mary, pure and lowly/Virgin Mother undefiled. Sing of God’s own Son most holy, /Who became her little child.   The idea appears to be that unlike all other mothers, Mary has not been contaminated by conceiving, carrying and delivering a baby.  I think the contamination here is from the Levitical purification concept : you only need to ‘purify’ something which has become impure.  Then you have the sin-offering as well.  What sin are we talking about here, precisely?  And why only the mother?  From here it’s only a small step to translations like ‘Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’ (from Adeste fideles), which has overtones from the word ‘abhor’ absolutely not there in the Latin.  ‘Gestant puellae viscera’ simply means ‘Born of a young girl’.   As a mother myself, I do object to the defilement notion, and I firmly reject the idea that  ‘purification’is necessary after having a baby, though I like the idea of a special blessing, and I’m all for expressing thankfulness after surviving childbirth.

Moving back to the main timeline

It is interesting to see how fast the tone changes, even during the Gospel itself.  We move from the excitement and joy of Simeon and his prayer, to the sombre words he says to Mary, where he predicts rejection and suffering.   It would be so fascinating to know what Anna said, especially if she spoke to Mary, as Elizabeth and Mary are the only two women who ever have a conversation in the Gospels (see the Bechdel blog here), but all we know is that she spoke, not what she said.   The story is moving on very quickly again.  At least we can think of the peaceful years of Jesus’ early life, after this great event, when the family lives peacefully together as the little boy grows up.

Jesus learns to walk, as Joseph planes and Mary weaves

I have thought of another rhyme for ‘child’.  ‘Smiled’.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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