Let me see your face! Terrorism and The Holy Face

“A human being instinctively senses that there is something about evil that seeks to hide its face.”

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Masked Boko Haram Terrorists

“Let Me See Your Face!” ~ Song of Solomon 2:14

What is the basis of a relationship? For a human person, it is recognizing a face and knowing a person’s name. The heart of every human being has an inexpressible longing to see the Face of God and a desire to enter into relationship with Him, to know His Name.

This is so integral to our Faith as to be indispensable. That is why Pope St. John Paul II dedicated the millennium to The Holy Face of Christ. That is why Pope Benedict has written so extensively on The Face of Christ throughout his pontificate, including in Lumen Fidei where he speaks of the light of the Face of Christ shining upon the faces of Christians and spreading as “the paschal candle lights countless other candles,” passing faith from one person to another. That is why Pope Francis directs us again and again to recognizing the Face of Jesus in one another. “Every sick and fragile person can see in your face the Face of Jesus, and you also can recognize in the suffering person the Face of Christ.”

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The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

Watching the many world crises unfold, a particularly terrifying image sends a chill through viewers of the nightly news programs as it recurs again and again. This image, with which most people are now sadly familiar, has several forms: ISIS terrorists, “Russian separatist soldiers” invading the Ukraine,  Boko Haram, and rioters in Ferguson. The first instance, the ISIS terrorist, is cloaked in black from head to toe, posed like a hunter with its prey, preparing to behead a man.  The second image, “Russian separatists,” if  that is what they are, most often appear with black stocking caps or hoods that conceal their identities. Next, Boko Haram in black masks and assault weapons are pictured with the young helpless girls they have kidnapped. Then there are the images of rioters in Ferguson, Missouri, with bare chests and t-shirts wrapped around their heads to hide their faces as they smash and pillage.

A human being instinctively senses that there is something about evil that seeks to hide its face. Evil, that nameless, faceless entity manifesting itself in the world, is not content with cloaking the individual identity of its own slaves, but, above all, evil seeks to mar, disfigure, destroy, and even violently behead, the image and likeness of God found in the pinnacle of His creation: man. It is present in the evil of abortion, refusing to recognize the face of a human baby in the unborn, or in the evil of euthanasia in disposing of inconveniently elderly or sick persons. It is present in the evil of pornography, with the hidden viewer  lusting after nameless human beings, thereby deforming the image of God in both.

The wicked facelessness of violence, hatred, and evil is the inversion of the Christian call to holiness, which is seeking the Face of God. Climbing the mountain of the spiritual life toward God, the Christian abandons selfishness and vice, and then sacrifices even little attachments that hold him back, to grow closer to the summit of the mountain: unity with God, to reflect more perfectly His image in one’s heart. St. Paul said it best: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image” (2 Cor 3:18). This journey requires self-denial, courage, determination and zeal.

Evil, however, goes the opposite direction. In pride, in hatred, in violence, men who devote themselves to the destruction of the image of God in other men scale the upside-down mountain of pride toward the faceless evil that absorbs their identity and destroys their souls, like the fallen angels in G.K. Chesterton’s poem Gloria in Profundis:

For fear of such falling and failing,
the fallen angels fell,
Inverted in insolence, scaling,
the hanging mountain of hell.

We are not helpless, however, against the faceless foe. St. Pope John Paul II has stated, “It is the Church’s task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make His Face shine also before the generations of the new Millennium. Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated His Face.”

Pope Benedict XVI has characterized devotion to the Holy Face as having three separate components: “1) Discipleship—an orientation of one’s life towards an encounter with Jesus, to see Jesus in the face of those in need; 2) the Passion of Jesus, expressed by images of the wounded Face of Jesus. 3) the Eucharist—which is woven between the other two. The eschatological element then builds on awakening to Christ by contemplating His Face in the Eucharist.”

This is not merely a pious devotion, but a powerful weapon against the enemy. Its power does not, however, result in destruction. In his prayer to the Holy Face, St. John Paul II asks that The Holy Face, through The Holy Spirit, “bring to maturation your work of salvation.” The fruit of using this mighty weapon is peace. “From contemplation of the Face of God are born, joy, security, peace,” writes Pope Benedict XVI. As we are gazing at God, in the scriptures, in His images, in our neighbor and in the Eucharist, God is gazing at us. By this mutual gaze of love between the Face of God and the soul of man, God restores His Image in our souls. Moreover, Pope Benedict wrote, “To rejoice in the splendor or His Face means penetrating the mystery of His Name made known to us in Jesus, understanding something of His interior life and of His Will, so that we can live according to His plan for humanity. Jesus lets us know the hidden Face of the Father through His human Face; by the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts.”

This, as Benedict says, is the foundation of our peace, which nothing—not even nameless, faceless evil—can ever take from us.

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