The Experience of a Human Face

The Nativity of the Lord – Christmas – December 25, 2018

Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

All our life and throughout the course of all of human history, we have been in search of the Infinite, searching for what we call “God”; we’ve been searching for something beyond, something which responds to all of those questions which ultimately surpass our ability to understand, to comprehend (c.f., John 1:5). Throughout history, there have been hints of this, glimmers, experiences which draw us forward, never allowing us to stop this search. Throughout history, God has spoken to us in partial and various ways (c.f., Hebrews 1:1), in ways we can’t always fully identify as being from Him. Throughout history, we have tried to gain access to this Infinite-Beyond in a lot of different ways: rules and customs and sacrifices and diets and rituals. And yet, time and time again, I think that our search has always come back to one thing: we’ve been in search of a human face.

Think about that: there are a lot of experiences we have which give us that experience of something sublimely Infinite and Transcendent, those moments of feeling a certain “closeness” or “nearness” to God. But there is nothing quite like the experience of a human face. There is nothing quite like that look which someone can give, that look which seems to open up the Infinite before you. A look in which you could tell that person, “In your eyes shines the strangeness of a sky which isn’t yours” (Pavese, Notturno, “Ti ride negli occhi la stranezza di un cielo che non è il tuo”); in your eyes there shines forth an infinite depth, a mystery, a life giving force; in your eyes, I am extraordinarily seen, and I feel alive like I have never felt before.

So yeah, we have been in search of nothing more than a human face. And on this night (morning), we celebrate just that: a human face, the Infinite taking on the finite, the Word becoming flesh, the All-Encompassing becoming scandalously particular: we celebrate Emmanuel, God with us, His face among us. We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the infinite God coming in search of us who have spent so much time and energy in search of Him. We celebrate that through this, He has come to give us the ability to become “children of God” (John 1:12), to give us the “fullness of life” (John 10:10).

So often, though, I think this is hard for us to comprehend, precisely because we try to comprehend what cannot be comprehended (c.f., John 1:5). We try to wrap our minds around it, to put it in a nice little box that we can understand and control; but we can’t! Think of it this way: it’s like the difference between a finite and an infinite game. A finite game is a game in which there are known players, fixed rules, and a clear and agreed-upon objective. Take football for example. There are known players: eleven players on each side. There are fixed rules with a team of officials to enforce the rules. And there is an arbitrary, but clear and agreed-upon objective: whoever has the most points at the end of sixty minutes is the winner. That’s a finite game: players, rules, objective, winner and loser.

But an infinite game, an infinite game is one in which there are known and unknown players, where the rules are changeable and not always clearly defined, and where the objective is to perpetuate the game, to never stop. Yes, there are certain rules and certain constants, but the infinite game involves a radical openness, a radical embrace of the unpredictable. For example, in your relationship with your spouse, there isn’t a winner or a loser; that’s not how relationships work. The “objective” of that relationship isn’t to “win.” The objective is to perpetuate the game, to love one another until death do you part. You would never say, “I won my marriage!” No, that’s stupid. But in a good marriage, in any good relationship based in love, each and every day you wake up and find your life determined by the other, by your love for them. You wake up and find your life, the source of your life in that simple look they can give, in their human face.

So often we can live our lives as if they were incredibly finite. There are the players: me, myself, and I. There are the rules we make for ourselves: “I’ll do this, but not that.” And there is a clear, but arbitrarily established objective: “I’ll only be happy if this, this, and this happen.”

So often, we can think of our faith like this. We play our faith like any other of our finite games. There are known players: me and God. There are fixed rules: go to mass, pray the rosary, fast on Fridays, follow the Ten Commandments. And there is a clear and agreed-upon objective: when time runs out, when you die, you get to go in one of two directions.

But as we all know, things don’t always go as we planned; life doesn’t go as planned, as we hoped. And this can leave us feeling incredibly alone and anxious. We play this game that we have established, with these arbitrary rules and expectations we have set, and then can feel as if we are losing the game when things don’t go as planned. We start to blame others, blame ourselves, blame the Lord. Instead of God being our savior, God is our competitor. We spend so much time and energy trying to make ourselves happy, trying to invent some game that we can win that will make us happy. But as we know, even in the best of circumstances, even when our plans go as planned, when we win our games, not even then are we fulfilled.

When our faith is nothing more than another one of our finite games, it can easily become just another thing we have to do, just another one of our games we keep playing, another game that can begin to make no sense. Everything begins to grow darker and darker. It’s easy to start to think that it makes no difference whether you believe in God or not (c.f., Francis, Lumen Fidei, 17).

Praise God that’s not what we celebrate today. No, today we celebrate the Infinite taking on the finite, God with us, His face among us. And this changes everything! Everything! Our faith, the Christian life, life itself is not just an arbitrary established, finite game we play, a bunch of rules and doctrines, but a fact in our lives, an event, a human face before us—an infinite game. The players in this game? All of reality, everyone, everything, every experience. The rules? Love, simply love; to pour out your life for others, to seek their good over your own, all for the sake of Love. The objective? To live forever, to go “further up and further in” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle), to become fully alive.

Think about this! When this is what Christianity is, when it is no longer a finite game but an infinite one, one in which day-after-day we seek more and more, then, then the new humanity brought about in Jesus Christ and promised to us begins to take shape. Our deepest questions and problems, our sadness and joy, the darkness of our life—all of these experiences of our humanity are no longer obstacles to our happiness. No, they are the ways in which we can dive deeper and deeper, they become a source of life, the way in which we can experience the Lord more and more, precisely because this is what He has done: He has taken our humanity seriously, He Himself has become man. The Lord does not compete with us, the Lord seeks us out. In the most unforeseeable and unimaginable turn of events, God has shown us that even in poverty and simplicity and obscurity—even there He continues to seek us out.

We all know this! We have all had this experience. “You know it well: you can’t manage a thing; you’re tired; you can’t go on. And all at once you meet the gaze of someone in the crowd—a human gaze—and it’s as if you had drawn near to a hidden divine presence. And everything suddenly becomes simpler” (Andrei Tarkovsky). When Joseph saw this face, “he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:25), Yeshua, God-saves—not me. Upon experiencing something as simple as a human face, everything can change, we can find our salvation, we can find the source of life.

When we begin to embrace our own humanity; when we begin to realize that we are players in an infinite game; when we realize that the infinite has broken into our finite world; when we confess that God became man, that God is with us—then, then the experience of our humanity is no longer an obstacle on our path, but the path itself.

“We are infinite.

Made for one another; made for Love.

We are undone by our humanity, by moments of nearness.

But we break with distance, with separation.

And things don’t go as planned, as hoped.

And we are alone.

It gets so dark we almost wish it was never light.

And then, in one moment, one precious moment,

‘a light shines in the darkness’ (John 1:5)” (Salomon Ligthelm).

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