Monday, November 28, 2011

11-11-27: 1st Sunday of Advent

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16-17,19 / Psalm 80 / 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 / Mark 13:33-37

About face. An odd phrase that in military parlance means turn around, which is another way of translating the Greek word for conversion, which is what Advent’s all about – face.

Someone once said that the life of faith is like a game of hide and seek: God is constantly hiding and we’re always seeking. Isaiah says as much in the first reading today when he complains of God: “for you have hidden your face from us.” A theme echoed by the psalmist: “Let us see your face and we shall be saved.” Both Isaiah and the psalmist, I’d guess, would claim they were writing poetry here – how could God have a face? Christians, on the other hand, are tempted to see it more as prophecy than poetry, claiming that at a certain point in history God decided to stop playing hide and seek and reveal himself in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. God took a big chance, choosing to reveal himself in a particular face; not everyone has the same tastes. Maybe that’s why the Incarnation happened at that precise point in history – before cameras. Les Mis got it right, though, when it mixed poetry and the real: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

A few years back, at The New School, I was taking courses in creative writing. One of my teachers, Lucy Greely, had written a bestselling memoir, The Autobiography of a Face. Lucy’s face was badly disfigured, having had most of her jaw removed after she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine. She remained quite disfigured even after multiple cosmetic surgeries. In her memoir she says that the pain of cancer was nothing compared to the suffering of being taunted as ugly. No doubt the acclaim she received for so brave a memoir helped ease that suffering – for a while. Lucy died of a heroin overdose in 2002. She was only thirty-nine.

I suppose someone like Lucy would very much have wanted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a real possibility. Dorian retains his youth and beauty as those around him age and decay. Hidden in a closet is his portrait which, through a Faustian deal, receives all the ugliness of his sins and follies through the years, sparing his beautiful face. Wilde suggests Dorian is saved at his death when his face reveals what was until then hidden – what he was really like. A take on the psalm: seeing his face, he is saved. Humility is acknowledging truth, accepting the truth about yourself as you are and not the way you wished you were: it’s the surest way to heaven.

In the end, some fringy theologians claim, there will be no difference between hell and heaven – they’re the same “place.” In the center of this “place” is the living flame of St. John of the Cross, the Beatific Vision of St. Thomas – the face of God. The only difference between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, is the fact that the saved love to look upon that face and the damned hate to. I wonder if Advent doesn’t invite us to think of ourselves in the same way. We cannot see our own face, except in the mirror or through the eyes of others. We learn to love or hate our own face early on in life. We hide our face, we wear masks, we camouflage our desires and anxieties, our fears and foibles. But in the end, salvation, happiness, lies in whether or not we can accept our face as an image of God despite, or even because of, the ugliness we first discern.

When I searched for my birthmother years ago I met a friend of her brother – my uncle. During our conversation this friend of my maternal uncle said he had some old photos of my uncle. Would you like to see them? It was an important moment for me. It would be the first time I had ever seen the face of anyone related to me by blood. I was disappointed at first, seeing no resemblance between me and him. But over time I began to see what others claimed to see: the shape of the eyes, the lines in the face, the way he smiled, or didn’t. I felt a certain realness I hadn’t before; as if this was proof, not only of his existence, but of mine. A friend of mine, also adopted, is a poet who searched and found her family of origin as well. Her father had been long dead but her brother – her father’s son – gave her a portrait of their father which hung in his living room. “This is what helped me love my face,” she wrote.

Isn’t that the meaning of redemption: to love ourselves as we are, to love our face, created in the image and likeness of God? Perhaps it’s also the meaning of Advent. We await the moment of divine birth, when God will be revealed. He comes to us, many often claim, in strange and mysterious ways; but none so mysterious as when we look in the mirror.

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