'For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.'
(Jacob, upon reuniting with his twin brother, Esau, Genesis 33.10)
when we awaken each morning, why is it that one of the first things we usually do is look at ourselves in a mirror?
when departing an airplane and wandering into a crowded terminal full of strangers, why is our first instinct more often than not to try and find a familiar face?
when we perform in front of a group of people or are recognized for an achievement in the presence of others, why do we feel most satisfied and at peace once we find the face of that special person in the audience?
what is it we are looking for in these situations, and why do we seek to find it in a face?
i wonder if it's because we are looking for something precious to us that has been lost.
from the moment we are conceived in the mind of our Creator and the womb of our mother, we have an innate need and desire to know and be known. the traumatic miracle of birth thrusts us into a cold, uncomfortable and unfamiliar environment, and the deep physical and emotional needs that were once met in the intimate connection with mom in her womb must now be met from outside of us, including our need to know who we are and whose we are.
in the early months of our lives, we experience our new context for existence embodied in the nurturing presence of our primary caregivers, usually our parents (and especially our mothers). as children, out of our deep longing for intimacy, we perceive the presence of our primary caregivers as our entire reality, the universe in which we exist. and that presence for us is encapsulated specifically in the face of those caregivers as they mirror back to us smiles and displays of love, affection and delight, and so, give us our sense of security and belonging in the world.
Dr. Jim Loder, my favourite prof at Princeton Seminary, once observed that 'children seem uniquely endowed with a potential capacity to sum up all the complexity of the nurturing presence in the figure of the face.'
but at around the age of six months, something traumatic happens. we begin to realize that the face that has defined reality for us is not constantly present to us. sometimes the face goes away, and when it does, we are left in a state of confusion and despair, because without the face, we don’t have any sense of who we are or whose we are. and so, we come to recognize the loss of the face that defined our existence and value as people, and we grieve that loss largely through the negation we display (especially all the 'no’s' we proclaim during our 'terrible twos'!). this is a survival tactic on our part, enabling us to begin to recognize the world around us and our place in that world. but in the process, our innate need to know and be known in intimacy is pushed down deep within ourselves.
however, it certainly does not go away. rather, it drives us on through our lives in search of that nurturing, life-giving presence in which we find our true identity and our ultimate reality. this deep desire fuels our quest for the Face that will never go away.
given the power of faces in multiple aspects of our selves and our lives, it's not surprising to discover that the meaning of the words for 'face' in Hebrew (panim) and Greek (prosopon) is 'presence'...not merely a physical 'face', but a formational and transformational 'presence' that not only reflects our identity and value as people, but also enlivens and empowers us to live out of that identity.
periodically, in the coming weeks and months, i'll be posting some of my own thoughts and experiences of faces...of family, friends, strangers...in all their captivating and complex qualities, trying to describe the ways in which i've experienced in these faces, however faintly and fascinatingly, transiently and transcendently, the presence of that Face that is ever-present, whether we know it or not, 'always leaving us room to recognise it or not recognise it', as dear uncle Fred Buechner once wrote.
i invite you, as you go through your life today and in the days ahead, to stop periodically to look at the faces that pass you by, the faces that engage you in play and pondering, conversation and celebration, grief and grace...even to consider your own face, and to see if you can find the traces, always at least slightly hidden, of the Face who knows you and loves you and is with you through all of life's adventures and anxieties.
like Jacob, may you look upon these faces and see, however dimly, the face of God.
(some faces through which i've experience the Face...
my fam w/ our Kenyan fam...Ann & her children, Pauline and Hope :)