Jesus of Nazareth: Week 1
Love Needs a Face
Monday, January 15, 2018
It was probably St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226) who first brought attention to the humanity of Jesus within organized Christianity. During its first thousand years, the Church was mainly concerned with proving that Jesus was God. Prior to St. Francis, paintings of Jesus largely emphasized Jesus’ divinity, as they still do in most Eastern icons. Francis is said to have created the first live nativity scene. Before the thirteenth century, Christmas was no big deal. The emphasis was on the high holy days of Holy Week and Easter, as it seems it should be. But for Francis, incarnation was already redemption. For God to become a human being among the poor, born in a stable among the animals, meant that it’s good to be a human being, that flesh is good, and that the world is good—in its most simple and humble forms.
In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. While God can be described as a moral force, as consciousness, and as high vibrational energy, the truth is, we don’t (or can’t?) fall in love with abstractions. So God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands” (1 John 1:1). The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other,”  and I think he learned that from his own Hebrew Scriptures.
When the face of the other (especially the suffering face) is received and empathized with, it leads to transformation of our whole being. It creates a moral demand on our heart that is far more compelling than laws. Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. Many of the Christian mystics talk about seeing the divine face or falling in love with the face of Jesus. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply. (There is that dialogue of self-disclosure and response again!)
If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is indeed a benevolent universe. God is not someone to be afraid of, but is the very Ground of Being and is inherently, objectively, and concretely on our side.  To trust this is to have faith (which is quite different than going to church or obeying some commandments).
 Emmanual Levinas, Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshay (Columbia University Press: 1998), 202.
 This is the second of seven themes that form the basis of the Living School curriculum and CAC’s annual CONSPIRE conferences. Learn more at cac.org/living-school/program-details/lineage-and-themes/.