“To See the Face of God”
December 24, 2012
“He had a human face.”
Reflecting on the One born this night, the novelist and minister Frederick Buechner said, “Whoever he was or was not, whoever he thought he was, whoever he has become in the memories of men and women since and will go on becoming for as long as we remember him…he was a human being once. And he had…a human face.”
We imagine that face in so many different ways—as a calm newborn baby asleep on the hay; as an inquisitive pre-teen, wise beyond his years; as an anguished adult. We depict that face—as the book I shared with the children showed—as European, African, Asian, Native American, because we sense that this Jesus is like us—whoever we might be. He was born as we are born, born into a world much like our own, no matter how the world has changed in 2000 years: still a world in which the presence of a child brings us hope and happiness, still a world in which all that we love can be threatened.
By faith we say that when we look at the human face of Jesus, we see the face of God. The theologians call this “incarnation”—God taking on human flesh, the Creator coming among us as a creature.
This is the wondrous cause for our celebration at Christmas. This day is not so much the birthday of Jesus—for as even the Pope has recently said, we don’t really know when that was—as it is the celebration of God with us in Jesus.
In Jesus, God becomes incarnate—taking on human flesh, human life. That’s always kind of embarrassing for Christians because it means we don’t worship a grand and noble God, distant in the heavens. We worship a God best known in human flesh. We don’t proclaim a God who shows us how our souls can be raised to a heavenly stature. We announce a God who takes on the limitations of earthly, fleshy existence.
To know the meaning of Christ, we should go to the stable. Look into the manger. Look with the eyes of faith. See God known not in heavenly visions but in a human being. The human face of Jesus reveals the God who accepts humanity fully—born as we are, dying as we will—and not an elegant death at that.
“He had a human face.”
But all of this is just theology—even if it is good theology—unless we can make this real in our own lives today.
How are we to see the human face of God in our time?
Tomorrow is Christmas Day—and it is also the opening of the long awaited film version of Les Miserables.
I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that near the end of this long saga of guilt and redemption, cast members sing, “To love another is to see the face of God.”
To love another is to see the face of God.
In our own time we hear of a new possibility, made real in the birth of Jesus. This birth, this season draws us toward compassion, toward mercy, toward the best in ourselves and in others.
Just this morning, an article in The New York Times pointed to new research showing that “frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.”[i]
We are more likely, that is, to see the face of God.
God desires that we would be able to love our neighbors as ourselves—which is no small accomplishment. The Creator of all that is became like us, entered into human life so that we might be transformed in accord with God’s original intentions.
The message of Christmas is that God loves human and earthly things. God has come to us in human flesh that we might love our time, our world all the more. And in loving family and neighbors, in welcoming strangers we might glimpse the eternity that carries us all.
In Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, we discover a God who knows what it means to hurt so deeply that even tears seem useless, we discover a God who knows that life can at times be unspeakably good.
God has come to us as a human being—and all of life matters. Your life matters. What you care about most matters. Your deepest commitments that grow out of love, the actions that you take to make your dreams a reality all matter.
Lying in a manger, in human flesh, we find a savior, who is Christ the Lord.