Yearning to see the face.
Advent is now officially upon us, and so is winter, drawing near. It grows dark quickly now, and soon to come are the deeply chilling winds of winter.
On Friday, after buying some decorations for our Advent celebration at the church, I decided to take a long walk, meandering from block to block without any particular destination. I turned down one street, passing a social service agency. Outside there were several men and women milling around. Most seemed to be on something. Their eyes were vacant and glassy, staring blankly at nothing in particular. I didn’t want to linger there. As I was passing, there was a loud noise across the street behind me. A man nearest me instantly turned his face in the direction of the noise, and our eyes met and lingered for a moment. It was a connection I had not expected, and a window into someone who had, until that moment, been just a stranger to be avoided. I turned my eyes and my face away from him, and quickly moved down the sidewalk until I was nearly at the end of the street. I stopped, and couldn’t help but look back. You know how you want to get another look at someone or some place that has unexpectedly knocked you for a loop? The little crowd was still there, but I was too far away to see the man of my encounter.
It was an unsettling experience because the man’s eyes drilled right through me. They were at once pleading and also somehow forgiving. We didn’t know one another, and to be honest I don’t even know if I can describe to you right now what he looked like-whether he had brown hair or black, whether he was short or tall, whether he was old or young. All I know is that there was an astonishing intimacy in our eye contact—this, in a city where wisdom encourages you to never invite the eyes of a stranger.
And suddenly I had this memory of when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. I was at a skating rink with my sister and family, and I remember watching this very fat man trying to skate on ice for maybe the first time. He was all alone. He kept skating a few feet and then falling and near-falling, holding on to the railing alongside the rink. At first I thought it was funny, but I kept watching and began skating near him, being drawn to him almost like magnetism, my boyhood wonder fully engaged. And when he fell again, he reached up for the railing to pull himself up, and as he did so, he looked over at me. I have never forgotten it, and it lasted but a few seconds and my parents almost immediately called me out of the skating rink because it was time to go home, and I never saw the man again.
OK, so I’m trying to describe something that a seven year old mind was attempting to comprehend at a skating rink on a winter’s day many years ago, but I have been haunted by that man’s look ever since. He was in a moment of humiliation and probably some physical pain, but his eyes were speaking to me, and I wouldn’t have been able to say it then but I say it now, those eyes told me that I was loved. It may seem crazy, but as the years have gone by, I have come to believe that it was my first direct experience of God.
Some years ago I was in Rome and I went to St. Peter's to see the Pope. It was evening, and there were thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe who started arriving hours ahead of time so they could get a good place to watch all of it, and it wasn't long before that whole enormous square outside St Peter’s was filled. We were milling around, elbowing each other out of the way to get as near as possible to where the Pope would come by on his little Popemobile. Some people had brought food to sustain them through the long wait, and every once in a while singing would break out like brush fire—religious songs of all kinds, in different languages--and the singing would rise up and be received by the great Bernini colonnade that extends on either side of the Basilica like stone arms embracing the whole world. The chorus would fade away until someone else somewhere would start it up again. Whatever sense anyone might have had of it being a holy time and a holy place was swallowed up by the sheer spectacle of it all--the countless voices and candles, and the marble faces of saints and apostles overseeing the vast square, and the shuffle of feet on the acres of stone.
Then finally, after several hours of waiting, there was a hush, and way off in the flickering distance there was movement, a glimpse of something white, a column of black-suited bodyguards heralding and surrounding the slowly progressing Popemobile. The crowds pressed in toward the narrow pathway, and in a burst of cheering the procession began to work its slow way forward. In the middle of it all was, of course, the Pope. He had a simple white robe and a skullcap on his head. I can still see his face as he went by me--that lean, ascetic, gray-skinned face. And as he passed by me he was bending slightly forward and peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity. It wasn’t like he was on a float in a parade, receiving the adulation of an adoring crowd. His eyes were clear and big, and he was looking this way and that, peering into my face and all the others. It felt like he was scanning the crowd for someone in particular. He seemed weary for the searching and perhaps for the waiting, exhausted from looking for someone who he hoped might be there that night or any night, anywhere. Face after face he searched, for the face that he knew he would know--was it this one? Could it be that one? Or this one? And then he passed on out of my sight.
I am haunted by today’s words from Isaiah: "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you...that the nations might tremble at your presence...There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you, for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt..."
In one sense, of course, the face in the crowd at St Peter’s was not hidden. As the old Pope surely knew, the one he was looking for was at that moment slumped in some doorway trying to survive the night or cleaning up the vomit of her drunken husband in the apartment, or patiently waiting in his bus in the gigantic traffic jam that this Papal motorcade had caused. The old Pope probably understood that the one he was looking for was detectable, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night, mostly because we were looking for the same one he was looking for, even though we were as clueless as a seven year old boy in a skating rink to know how to express what we were so desperately seeking.
The one we were all looking for was there then in St Peter’s Square as he is here now in this room because…because… he haunts the whole world, haunts it from the alleyways of Calcutta to the board rooms of Wall Street. He haunts the green fields of mother Ireland and the slums of Manila, the long hallways of Bellevue and the tiny cells of Rikers, the West Wing of the White House and the playing fields of the NFL. His specter can be glimpsed outside a social service agency in Manhattan or at the Oval at Stuytown or in the cereal aisle of Gristedes.
As the years have gone by since my encounter on a skating rink of another time and era, I have come to believe that there is scarcely a place any longer where, recognized or unrecognized, his ghost has not been seen.
This is the beginning of Advent. ''The coming to” is what the word means, and we are once again in the middle of the coming to winter’s darkness, looking for some thing, some one to come to us---some light, some warmth, some hope. Each Advent we reenact the dark night, and yet it is always really there—be it November or July, and we reenact the birth of the hope we sometimes feel we are missing—and yet it is always really there too. The Kingdom of God is already, but not yet. It's sitting right there in front of your face, staring at you, pleading to you, and you never even notice it.
Let this advent be a time that you might open your eyes and see him before you, peer into all the faces around you—even here, even here. See him beneath the brokenness of the brothers and sisters who sit all around you, and see him in your own selfie image--- that one who you don’t always believe is smart enough, attractive enough, good enough, or even loveable at all.
We are the clay, and you are the Potter, O Lord. Help us to see this Advent, help us to come to see you, and help us to be ready to make you visible to the world that yearns to see your face.
He is here, you know. He really is here.