Face of God

Thou hast said, "Seek ye my face." My heart says to thee, 
"Thy face, LORD, do I seek." (Psalms 27:8)

What does God look like?  My fourth-grade Sunday school teachers, a well-meaning young couple whose names are long since lost to memory, posed this question to our class of squirmy nine-year-olds back in 1956.  They passed out sheets of manila paper and crayons and asked us to draw pictures of God.  I tackled the assignment with great enthusiasm.  I liked to draw and was considered good at it, based on my painstaking re-creations of various comic-book characters.  My rendering of God was heavily inspired by Mr. Clean, the cartoon genie found on bottles of household cleaner.  I made him bald, with a muscular torso, a pirate’s ring in one ear and a triumphant look on his face.  It was some years before I saw reproductions of the Old Testament God who presided over Creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Apart from the flowing white mane and beard, Michelangelo’s deity did not differ fundamentally from my own.  Neither would look out of place in the Legion of Super Heroes.    

The ancient Hebrews thought of themselves as being made in God’s image but were strictly forbidden from making images of their God.  They did not believe you could even look upon the face of God and live.  Moses hid himself in the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai as the Lord passed to avoid meeting him head-on.  Jacob wrestled with an angel through the night and marveled that he had seen God face to face yet lived to tell the tale.

The ancients had reason to be concerned they would not survive such an encounter, although not perhaps in the way they imagined.  “I understand everything,” wrote the Sufi poet al-Hallaj, “and everything that I see in my annihilation is you.”  The Christian mystic Angelus Silesius used strikingly similar language to describe the self’s effacement in approaching the divine: “Nothing raises you up as does annihilation;/The more brought low you are, the more divinization.” 

It is not finally possible to behold the face of God.  God has a face only in relation to one who exists apart from him.  The closer you get, the more you find yourself being absorbed by him, until there is no longer a sense of a self who can look upon God’s face or a God who can look upon you.  “I am He whom I love,” al-Hallaj said, “and He whom I love is I.”  Not surprisingly, the religious authorities eventually condemned the poet for such utterances.  They regarded it as a monstrous impiety for al-Hallaj to speak as if he were God.  But they got it backwards.  In reality, God was speaking as if he were al-Hallaj.

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