Face and Personhood
C. S. Lewis’s personal favorite of his own novels, Till We Have Faces, is a theodicy—an accusation against the gods. It is told by an aged, veiled queen named Orual who wore a veil her entire life. She did so at first because her father the king thought her ugly—“curd face,” he called her when he first told her to cover her face. But as time went on, she found the veil to be a source of power.
As years passed and there were fewer in the city . . . who remembered my face, the wildest stories got about as to what that veil hid. . . . Some said . . . that it was frightful beyond endurance; a pig’s, bear’s, cat’s or elephant’s face. The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness. But another sort . . . said that I wore a veil because I was of a beauty so dazzling that if I let it be seen all men in the world would run mad; or else that Ungit [their god] was jealous of my beauty and had promised to blast me if I went bareface. The upshot of all this nonsense was that I became something very mysterious and awful.1
While the veil gave Orual power over others, making her mysterious like their gods, she came to realize it also meant a loss of her humanity. Only by removing her veil at the end of the novel did she become fully human again and get the long-sought answer to her questions from the gods.
More than any other physical feature, we associate the face with a person. And while we say “the eyes are the window to the soul,” award-winning portrait artist Catherine Prescott has said that the mouth is more important than the eyes. According to Prescott, the mouth is where the face’s expression is found because it is part of the soft tissue of the face. While the eyes can indicate six or seven emotions on their own, without the mouth to reinforce what the eyes express, one doesn’t know for certain what the eyes are saying. The mouth is more variable and expressive than the eyes. Therefore, Prescott insists it’s the mouth that shows whether someone is revealing or hiding themselves or whether someone is hostile or friendly. The point is that to really know someone, we must see the whole face not just the eyes.2
The Aaronic benediction brings us face-to-face with God’s gracious gaze.
Faces matter to people, and so it’s not surprising that faces matter in the Bible. Near the very beginning of the biblical story we find Adam and Eve hiding from the face of God (Gen. 3:8). The end of the biblical story finds believers seeing Jesus Christ face-to-face and being like him (1 John 3:2). All along the way are dramatic encounters with the face of God. In Psalms the face of God is the focus of delights and despair, penance and praise, petitions and punishment. The face of God is a central theme of encounters with and knowing God in the Old Testament. The acme of this theme is the Aaronic blessing, possibly the most-frequently heard passage of Scripture in Christian worship.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
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.
“So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Num. 6:22–27)
The Aaronic benediction brings us face-to-face with God’s gracious gaze. The imagery of God unveiling his face to bless his people is in stark contrast to Orual’s mysterious and frightful gods. Yet the Aaronic blessing is not the climax of the story of the Bible. The blessing points forward to the unveiling of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
The prominence of God’s shining face and its centrality to the new covenant beckon us to reflect deeply on it. Luther called the Psalms “a little Bible” since each psalm sets out in brief form all that is taught in the rest of Scripture.3 I am suggesting the same observation is true of the Aaronic blessing. By exploring the blessing’s background, central elements, spiritual meaning in Israel, and realization in Christ, we grasp the comprehensive nature of the theme of God’s face and are enabled to stand more fully in its light. We see that God made us with faces so that his could shine on ours and that the Aaronic blessing could be to us not only a “little Bible,” but a “little gospel.”
- C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 259–60.
- The beginning of this introduction is adapted from a chapel sermon at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando in December 2020, which developed into an article-length treatment “We Still Have Faces,” Reformed Faith & Practice 5, no. 3 (December 2020), 10–19, excerpts of which are included here by permission. “Catherine Prescott on What Is Lost When We Don Face Masks,” interview with Ken Myers, Friday Feature, Mars Hill Audio, August 21, 2020, https://marshillaudio.org/pages/heres-what-youre-missing#prescott.
- Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament I, Luther’s Works, vol. 35, ed. E. Theodore Bachman (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg, 1960), 254.
This article is adapted from The Lord Bless You and Keep You: The Promise of the Gospel in the Aaronic Blessing by Michael J. Glodo.
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