“God our Creator, reveal the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.”
The text is from today’s collect: it’s an epiphany prayer:
“we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, shine into the hearts of all your people and
reveal the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.”
How is this face of Jesus revealed in today’s gospel?
The gospel tells of a moment no preacher is likely to relish: a first appearance, the congregation gratifyingly rapt on every word, the nay-sayers confounded –
and then out of nowhere a madman stands and shouts out:
“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Or, we might say, offering a free translation, a dynamic equivalence: “Get out of my face.”
I was listening to a deacon this week talk about the first year in the parish, saying, “I feel so helpless. When I visit people and listen to them, I feel so helpless.”
This isn’t a deacon whose pastoral studies have been learnt at Mirfield, I hasten to add, but I’m sure you can sympathise.
And most of us in Jesus’ shoes in the synagogue at Capernaum would be likely to feel helpless.
Well, I don’t think Mark places this story of the man with the unclean spirit at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ teaching ministry to encourage us to try our hand at exorcism. There’s a different message –
and it’s to do with being faced by Jesus, the Holy One of God.
The face Jesus sees that Sabbath day is one contorted by fear and rage. It’s not the man’s own countenance; that’s been lost behind this spirit which holds him in thrall. But the face Jesus shows to this man is Jesus’ own face: Jesus inhabits who he is utterly. Mark has made this clear earlier in this first chapter when Jesus rises from the Jordan and the voice from heaven sounds: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Jesus, being wholly himself, is the stronger one:
the unclean spirit flinches and is driven out.
And we, the congregation, grasp at understanding and at belief.
We know we are in the presence of one who is entire, who is wholly and fully himself.
And we know that that is new in human experience, and powerful and strange. “At once his fame began to spread … ”.
One of the most compelling and enigmatic forms of Japanese art is that of the mask worn in traditional Noh drama to denote the protagonist.
Some have the smooth rounded stylised features of a young woman.
At first glance the mask seems characterless.
But when worn by a highly skilled actor, the slightest tilt of the mask conveys a subtle and full range of emotion: joy or sorrow, doubt, anger, loss.
Putting the mask on, it is said that the actor doesn’t so much cover up his features – it’s men only – as put on and inhabit the persona he’s playing.
And this person, the protagonist, is frequently a troubled soul – they are not themselves: a ghost, a person driven mad by bereavement or betrayal.
What makes us ourselves? How can we face the world?
Well, in Noh drama, there is a second role, the bystander or witness.
The troubled spirit will sing and dance her story and the presence of the witness uncovers the truth of their situation so that when the protagonist returns in the second act, she frequently wears a different mask, a different face.
Her problems may not be solved, but the encounter discloses reality
and this is the climatic moment, a cathartic moment
which unites the audience in empathy with the character.
Other people give us our faces. That is what a Community or a College is for.
If we encounter an angry face, our countenance may cloud over or freeze.
A lover who meets reciprocated love glows.
And the faces of those who suffer galvanise us to just action.
The brethren in supper have been enjoying hearing read the biography of Cicely Saunders, whose centenary it is this year. She founded the hospice movement.
She was an efficient nurse, social worker and doctor.
None of those things helped her in the face of death, of incurable terminal patients. What made a difference was recognising in the faces of the dying, each their unique humanity. They weren’t patients; they were people.
She was prepared to have her heart open to them – so open that she fell deeply in love with a dying man, more than once.
It was her helplessness which gave her her compassion; and it was this helplessness which opened her eyes to something no-one else had quite seen:
that the dying didn’t need to be cured –
they needed to be supported to be human beings – themselves to touch others’ lives, to struggle with their own experiences and memories, to find faith and to worship.
Do you see the faces that are around you day by day?
Do you recognise that they are not cases, they’re people?
Do you let them touch and alter you? Do you give them welcome? I doubt that I do.
We each have our darkness of ignorance or,
even when we know, then our darkness of unbelief.
But we can have our hearts opened.
We are faced by this one unmasked face,
this one face that is utterly truthful and completely himself.
And we find ourselves being looked at by him, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God.
As Cicely Saunders did.
As St Paul did. St Paul went blind.
But he saw more in his blindness than he had when his eyes were open.
And his eyes were opened again, seeing for the first time the faces of the men and women of the church in Damascus whom he come to persecute.
Very good. The knowledge of God’s glory revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and transforming human beings.
But there’s a problem, as you are already thinking: what is Jesus’ face like?
If epiphany is about God’s self-disclosure, shouldn’t we be seeing him more clearly? Where is the face of Jesus Christ?
Do artists know it? Perhaps they do.
Consider the tradition of the iconographer, the worshipper who sees,
and the faces painted and carved in this church
of Jesus regarding us.
Or we may turn the question around.
We can consider all the places where we see glory – and seek the face of Jesus there: in the natural world, in human creativity, in the moral act, in the liturgy.
But the most obvious place to find the face of Jesus, the Holy One of God,
is face-to-face with those whose lives have been transformed
and those whose lives transform us.
Here is the inner meaning of Cicely Saunders learning from the dying.
Here is where our helplessness in the face of pastoral need may be met by the God who amazes us.
God’s glory is a human face as God means a human face to be.
St Paul knew what he was saying when he wrote:
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another,
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
And as the Jews of old knew, it is blessing:
“the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”