Your Face Shine
Whenever I find myself sitting in the boarding area of an airport, I notice that so many people around me look blank. Their face is set either in a meaningless squint or a scowl of surliness. It could be explained away by fatigue or travel stress, but I notice this not only in airports, but also in grocery lines, restaurants, and even churches. The result of these surly looks is an inability to connect in any real human way because such a look creates an unhappy space that prevents contact. Yet, in the midst of this sea of scowls someone will be smiling, laughing even, and an entirely different space is created around them—a space of joy, openness, and love. So often we are simply not aware of what impact our face has on the lives of others.
In our Collect this morning, we prayed that we would be illumined by God’s Word and sacraments so that we might shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. I was presiding at the Christmas Eve service a few years ago in one of Idaho’s small, isolated towns. Even though the weather was grim, the people still seemed to know how to enjoy Christmas. Except for one person. There was one elderly woman in the last pew and she was scowling. I mean really scowling. It seemed to me that she had been scowling for many years. Throughout the service I wondered about her. Had life been so ungracious and painful that all joy had been stripped from what had once been a lovely face? Had she merely developed a bad habit of scowling? Or did she simply not know she was scowling?
When it was time for communion, the woman made her way forward to the communion rail. She knelt down and held out her hands. I approached her with the Bread of Life. As I said the words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” she looked up and smiled. I mean really smiled. It was the kind of smile that makes your eyes sparkle and your face glow. A woman disfigured became transfigured right before my eyes. In the act of communing with God her scowl disappeared and the radiance of Christ’s glory shone through her.
Now you probably think that I am exaggerating in order to make a point, but if you’re thinking that, you are wrong. The change in this woman was so dramatic, so profound, that I have carried the image of her glorious face in my mind’s eye for over ten years. The song recorded by the Monkees [and written by Neil Diamond] seems to describe my feeling about this woman.
You see, in the moment that woman’s spirit brushed up against God’s Spirit, her face shone so brightly that she became a new woman—a new creation. And that radiance made a believer out of others. Just as it happened in her, so it can happen in us.
Some might think the Biblical authors were overstating the radiance of glory on Moses’ face after he had communed with God on the mountain, or the radiance of glory around Jesus after he had been transfigured before Peter, James and John. Surely one’s face cannot shine with glory that is so powerful that one must turn away. We really have so little understanding of the power of God to shine through our lives. Carl Jung once remarked that one of the greatest difficulties for people in moving to psychological wholeness is that they “have not the slightest faith that anything useful could come out of their own souls”
It doesn’t take 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai to have the radiance of the shekinah glory show through our face. What it requires is to talk with God—to spend time in God’s presence—to be illumined by God’s Word and the sacraments. We simply cannot enter into the Divine Presence and not be changed—changed from glory into glory. And what your face portrays to others says everything about the quality of your life with God.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages those seeking a holy life to develop the habit of the half-smile. To greet each day, each event, each moment, each being, with a half-smile. When you start to practice this, the first thing you are aware of is how sore your face becomes. We are so habituated to frowning that it is real exercise for the facial muscles to engage continuously in a half-smile. But the more we practice the half-smile, the more available we are to the transfiguring glory of God.
The Hebrew word for face, panim, is also the word used to describe God’s presence. Its root lies in the verb ‘to turn’, because it is towards a person’s face that we turn in order to acknowledge their presence. Some people have been turned toward God’s face so intently that their own face becomes pure—so pure that evil is driven away and only the power of God’s glory remains. So what your face portrays really does say everything about the quality of your relationship with God.
Father Zossima, the holy staretz in Fyodor Doesteovsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, asks the reader to think of a child walking down a street, rather bewildered by the evil in the world and searching for signs that there is meaning in life. If, through our years of life, we have allowed our hearts to become embittered and resentful, that bitterness and resentment will be reflected in our faces. If the child looks at us, the image that will remain in their heart will be an image of evil and meaninglessness. Even more than that, it may be that our face has sown an evil seed in the life of the child, which may, one day, overgrow the child’s whole heart. If, on the other hand, we have, over the years let our hearts be filled with God’s love that also will be reflected in our faces. What the child sees then will give hope and meaning, hope and meaning that will, one day, overgrow the child’s whole heart.
When that dear old woman in Gooding, Idaho, came forward to receive the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, she gave herself so completely into God’s presence that her face shone with the radiance Christ’s glory. And I was transfixed by the power of God in the life of this woman.
When Moses came down from the mountain, Moses did not even know that the skin of his face shone yet the people saw in his face the love and glory of God. It was so overpowering that they could not look on him. Because Moses had given himself so completely to God’s presence on that mountain, his face shone with the radiance of Christ’s glory.
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Jesus shone with the love and radiance of the glory of God. Peter, James and John were so astonished by the presence of God’s glory that they were nearly stupefied. They knew, though they could not altogether understand it or articulate it, that they were in the presence of God, God’s self.
People look at your face every single day. Every single day you have the opportunity to bear in your face the love and glory of God. It requires only that you dwell in the presence and love of God. “Ah, but I am not like Moses, or Jesus”, you say. What I say to you is this: one glance, one moment of intention, one instant of communion, even one half-smile in the presence of God, has the power to completely transfigure you and that is the beginning of transfiguration for someone else. Even though you do not know that the skin of your face shines, it may be that the first being you greet may find their own life transformed because your usual scowl has been replaced by the smile of God.
And a small act such as this is the beginning of the transformation of the entire world.
Copyright 2004 Calvary Episcopal Church
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