“For Mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face”

Rouault “Head of Christ” (Cleveland)

William Blake wrote:

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face
,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Pope John Paul II devotes part 2 of Novo millennio ineunte to “A Face to Contemplate.” The face of Christ does indeed convey “mercy, pity, peace, and love” all upon the mystery of divine sonship.

Why the face? We know that John Paul II was influenced by the thought of Levinas; in Crossing the Threshold of Hope he says: “the human face and the commandment ‘Do not kill’ are ingeniously joined in Lévinas, and thus become a testimony for our age.”

Levinas himself said: “To begin with the face as a source from which all meaning appears, the face in its absolute nudity … is to affirm that being is enacted in the relation between men, that Desire rather than need commands acts. Desire, an aspiration that does not proceed from a lack–metaphysics–is the desire of a person.”

Contemplation of the face of Christ should help develop an aspiration to be in communion with him, to be like him. John Paul says the Church should reflect the light of Christ and “make his face shine before the generations of the new millenium.” §16

What does the face of Christ reveal? Who is Christ? We gaze into the “depth of a mystery.”

It is in the intimate and inseparable union of these two aspects that Christ’s identity is to be found, in accordance with the classic formula of the Council of Chalcedon (451): “one person in two natures”. The person is that, and that alone, of the Eternal Word, the Son of the Father. The two natures, without any confusion whatsoever, but also without any possible separation, are the divine and the human.

We know that our concepts and our words are limited. The formula, though always human, is nonetheless carefully measured in its doctrinal content, and it enables us, albeit with trepidation, to gaze in some way into the depths of the mystery. Yes, Jesus is true God and true man!

JP2 quotes the Psalms and he invokes his favorite passage of Gaudium et spes in order to explain why we should contemplate the face of Christ:

“Your face, O Lord, I seek” (Ps 27:8). The ancient longing of the Psalmist could receive no fulfilment greater and more surprising than the contemplation of the face of Christ. God has truly blessed us in him and has made “his face to shine upon us” (Ps 67:1). At the same time, God and man that he is, he reveals to us also the true face of man, “fully revealing man to man himself”. §23

Because it is the face of mystery, there are multiple dimensions to behold in the face of Christ — God, man, suffering, joy, mercy, righteousness . . .

John Paul II elaborates on three dimensions – the face of the Son, the face of suffering, and the face of the risen one.

The Son’s face is said to be “the frontier zone of the mystery,” (§24) I suppose because we enter into the mystery first through the very “self-awareness” of Christ as we encounter him in the Gospels. By the way he says that the gospels are a “precise historical testimony,” a “trustworthy” passing on of the encounter §17; and thus “the face of the Nazorean emerges with a solid historical foundation” §18.

What then is the frontier to which they bid us to cross? His language “authoritatively expresses the depth of his own mystery.” Such as — “How is it you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s affairs?” (Lk 2:49). Or again see Mt 11:27 and Lk 10:22; but above read the Gospel of John, for in his self-awareness, Jesus has no doubts: “The Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:38). I remember a Protestant apologist making an impression on me when I was a teenager — he is a madman or he is the Son of God. John Paul reminds us that some took him seriously, oh too seriously, for they sought to kill him “because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18).

It is in his suffering and death that the self-awareness as Son most shines through: “in Gethsemane and on Golgotha Jesus’ human awareness will be put to the supreme test. But not even the drama of his Passion and Death will be able to shake his serene certainty of being the Son of the heavenly Father.” §24 

The face of the Nazorean draws us (perhaps in his mercy, pity, peace or love) to the “frontier” of a mystery, and as we cross over and follow his beckoning words (of the truth of the Father) and deeds (his courage and his power to heal), we come out to a clearing in the depth of the woods and we must contemplate the face of suffering..

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