The Catholic church I attend is lovely. A wine brick building with a copper steeple in the English Gothic style, it is not only a city landmark, but listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Perhaps it’s because of this pedigree that the sanctuary is maintained in a way that exudes warmth and welcome, but vigilantly avoids the cute, sentimental, or kitsch—the Christmas trees have no drug store baubles, the paschal lilies lack purple foiled pots, and the ambo is never hung with felt banners fashioned by kids.
This is why I was surprised to encounter a man-tall sandwich board in the nave last Sunday: white with large black letters—“Seeing the Face, Being the Face”—together with a line drawing of an androgynous cloaked head.
A poster in the sanctum? Never, ever before.
To be honest, I was put off, not by the poster, but by the words.
“Seeing the Face, Being the Face” is the slogan for a campaign the church recently unveiled. The face alluded to is Christ’s, and the objective is to remind us parishioners that we were created in God’s image and called to be his earthly body, striving to be Christ-like.
To me, “being the face” is a worthy mission, which is why I have no problem with that half of the slogan. Since none of us can really be Christ, the phrase is clearly a metaphor that urges us to ground our thoughts, words, and deeds in love, as Christ instructed us to do and as he did himself. It reminds us to treat others as we’d like to be treated ourselves, whether by teaching them, being a companion, or ministering to them physically, emotionally, or spiritually, ensuring that they have life’s necessities.
“Being the face” is often difficult to do, not only because we’re fallible, often-selfish humans, but also because a loving action isn’t always easy to discern. Should I give the homeless man on the corner ten dollars so he can buy some food? Or should I keep my money and avoid the risk that the man will spend it on a fix that may prolong his addiction, provoke acts of violence, or promote an overdose or death?
Despite such dilemmas, “being the face” is a concept I can grapple with and sometimes even grasp.
Not so for “seeing the face,” the part of the formula that peeves me. It’s ambiguous, maybe even dangerous.
If “seeing the face” is a metaphor that means that God is like a parent to us all, making us siblings who resemble him and can “see his face” in one another, then it’s probably meant to inspire us to love others as we would love our brothers and sisters. This, of course, is great. But it’s the same as “being the face,” so why include it in the slogan?
The church likely chose the phrase because it has cachet. Some beloved Catholics used it, including Mother Teresa, who once said: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”
Now, I admire Mother Teresa, but her words, frankly, make me wary. They seem to urge us to pretend that everyone is Jesus—sinless, handsome, perfect, charismatic Christ. And the implication seems to be that by engaging in this delusion we’ll be able to quash the aversion we feel for certain people—the dirty, the diseased, the murderous, the destitute—so we can attend to their needs: I’m not feeding an unwashed, homeless addict: I am feeding Jesus Christ.
Doing so, however, is the opposite of all Jesus did.
Part of Jesus’s genius was his ability to love others as they were and to see their goodness, beauty, and value in spite of the imperfections, unattractiveness, and worthlessness that other people saw. He focused his attention on the underlings and outcasts of his day: fishermen, tax collectors, centurions, Samaritans, adulteresses, prostitutes, lepers, the lame, mentally ill, poor, and blind. He listened to them, healed them, and gave them important missions, thus acquainting them with their dignity.
Jesus didn’t bring himself to mix with these individuals by pretending they were God or perfect. He once told Simon Peter, “You may be an uncouth fisherman, but you’re also spunky and insightful, so I’d like you to be my disciple.” He once told a plebeian woman, “You may be a sinner, but you’re also prescient and generous, so please anoint my feet.”
Jesus called each person by name, counted the hairs on every head, saw each person as a mix of good and bad, ugliness and beauty, weaknesses and strengths. And Jesus dignified everyone. That’s the treatment we all want. That’s the treatment we all need.
Please don’t love me because you love Jesus. Please love me for who I am.
And Jesus himself was no exception. He wanted people to see who he was. He felt thrilled when Peter saw him as the Christ. He felt disheartened when others saw him as a firebrand or as Elijah, John, or Jeremiah.
Although Jesus saw and dignified each person, he didn’t minister to everyone. There were times he left intractable people to their own devices, times he fled or took a hidden path, times he counseled his disciples to turn and shake the dust from their feet. Doing otherwise would have wasted time or endangered lives.
Theoretically, none of us would run if we were facing Jesus, which is why seeing Christ in others can be foolish. Sometimes people are evil or not open to help. Sometimes bolting is wise and beneficent.
I admire my church’s good intentions. Maybe, for some, “seeing the face” is a helpful concept. For me, it’s too facile and imprudent. I suspect God asks more of each of us. We must “be the face” of Christ by doing as Jesus did. We must see the face—the real face—of every individual we meet.
Jan Vallone is the author of Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School,which won the Reader Views Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her stories have appeared in many publications. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.