John Paul II on the Face of Sorrow

John Paul II on the Face of Sorrow
let us adore and fall down in prostration before God

If we follow Christ up to his last hour, Pope John Paul II says we will discover a paradox, “a mystery within the mystery.” §25 If we look steadily at the face of Christ on the cross we will discover the truth about human existence, (Christ reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear) and be led to prayer — “we cannot but prostrate ourselves in adoration.”

The paradox is that Jesus experienced at one and the same time a “profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment.” §26 The paradox brings us back to the mystery insofar as “the simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the hypostatic union.”

John Paul grapples with the paradox, and attempts to give expression to the mysterious depth when he says the cry of sorrow on the cross is “the prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father in love, for the salvation of all.” The mystery of faith is self-offering of the Son to the Father, the greatness of love that is stronger than sin and death. “At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, ‘abandoned’ by the Father, he ‘abandons’ himself into the hands of the Father. His eyes remain fixed on the Father.”

 John Paul continues with the theme of contemplation of the face and moves us well beyond the frontier of filial awareness with its human face of “pity, peace, love, mercy” to the depth of the incarnation, the two natures of Christ. John Paul now speaks about the “face of the father,” “the face of man,” “the face of sin,” all in rapid succession: “In order to bring man back to the Father’s face, Jesus not only had to take on the face of man, but he had to burden himself with the ‘face’ of sin. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21).”

Does it hold coherently together, this mirror of faces? I think it does. There is one face, the face of Jesus Christ, the face of the son is the face sorrow. Whence the “Face of the Father”? Well, the Jewish tradition made reference to the [hidden] face of God, which must be the face of the father. Men have turned from his face, and hid from his face — and they prayed for his face (Psalms 27:8 and 67:1). Jesus brings us back before the face of God the Father, he fulfills the prayer of David. But how could any man, weak and sinful, come face to face with God? Man could only do so if the eternal son assumed the face of man, and turned to the face of the father. “He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father’s love by sin.” The cry of great agony is the recognition by man of the true depth of sin. Jesus as man wore the face of sin and John Paul asks us “is it possible to imagine a greater agony, a more impenetrable darkness?” By coming before the cross and contemplating the face of Christ one is led to that recognition of the impenetrable darkness that is man, that is us, that is me, and this paradoxically is a salutary recognition. For I can repent, convert, turn back to the Father with Christ. And then “we cannot but prostrate ourselves in adoration.”  The Dominican custom is to make a full prostration before the cross on Good Friday.

Fittingly, therefore, John Paul II turns to Dominican Saint Catherine of Siena for a confirmation of his meditation in the “lived theology of the saints.” §27

In the Dialogue of Divine Providence, God the Father shows Catherine of Siena how joy and suffering can be present together in holy souls: “Thus the soul is blissful and afflicted: afflicted on account of the sins of its neighbour, blissful on account of the union and the affection of charity which it has inwardly received. These souls imitate the spotless Lamb, my Only-begotten Son, who on the Cross was both blissful and afflicted.”

In a later section John Paul II encourages us to reconnect with the “great mystical tradition” of the Church to understand how to progress in prayer “as a genuine dialogue of love.” §33 In such prayer we come to “filially within the Father’s heart.” There will be “painful purification,” but by meeting with Christ in prayer of  “thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotions” the heart “falls in love.”

Friends, I think I now see why Pope John Paul II has so emphasized the notion of contemplation of the face of Christ. It is the one thing needful because it is the one simple thing — to fall in love with Christ. A true face to face encounter must lead to love, for fear or shame turns away from the face, and anger or hatred squints and blocks out a recognition of the face..

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