I grieve my father’s face in Advent. He died one December in the cold Midwestern days. His mother also died years before in the same Advent month. I remember his expressions becoming frozen not from the weather outside but from the numbing effects of Parkinson’s disease. I cringe at the memory of his furrowed brow from his disappointments and regrets in his old age. His old-man face haunts my memory because his disease creased his spirit and shrunk his perspective on a life of hard work and dedication to his family.
My Advent heirloom can not escape my father’s long years of blank stares and the generational grief that has formed the life of my brother and me. Every year these days before Christmas remind me that I do not wait for a baby to be born in a manger. I long instead for a new expression on my own face that reflects God’s intervention in me now that I am not a lost child, not an heir of only loss and failure.
Every year before Christmas, I view similar faces in our urban parish that reflect subsurface suffering and losses that extend from parents to children. Many people who make their home outside often hide their longing to be connected to their past. To begin to unveil the stories behind some of the faces in our daily hospitality center, a parishioner initiated one late autumn the “Portrait Project”.
Our parish staff called upon a professional photographer and his students to sit with our guests and capture their faces on camera. When the day came to shoot the photos, some people cleaned up, and others asked if a friend could join them in the frame. Some women dabbed on makeup which so changed them I could hardly recognize their worn expressions. People felt excitement wearing grins and smiles because we wanted to capture their features, their present story. Their entire bodies lit up standing opposite a lens for the first time in years.
The finished photographs arrived back at the parish in the dark shadows of Advent. I viewed each face with a tender respect. The paper icons revealed the dignity and emotional energy of each person. Personalities jumped out from the 5 X 7 portraits, each face glowing off the golden background. From what was previously a group of wet, darkly clothed, anonymous poor who line up every day at our church door, I now see individual people. Their faces teach me to see them for who they are, with individual histories, with stories of suffering and being lost, stories that are not so different from my own as I might have thought before.
All the labels I put on others peeled away as I held that stack of portraits. I realized the variety of violent names and tags I put on other people. These human faces unmasked my own fear when I squeeze others into categories such as uneducated, smelly, or lazy. I saw in my heart the fear that keeps others at bay to attempt to protect myself from being in relationship with the real world, with people beyond my own history and comfort.
Advent reveals the faces of our ancestors because Jesus’ birth confirmed the dignity of the human condition. Our preparation for Christmas invites us to explore within our communities how we view the people around us. These four weeks stir our hearts for the God who lives behind each human face, underneath our expressions of unworthiness, fear, and loss.
When the photographs were distributed, volunteers wrote letters dictated by those who had had their portraits taken, provided Christmas cards, and addressed envelopes so people could send a loved one this very personal gift. One volunteer received this dictation, “Please forgive the wreckage I left behind. Someday I hope to come home.”
I believe if we are all honest in this Advent season, this sentiment may very well be ours. We stumble around our own conscience unable to fully believe that the Christ who once was human still heals and forgives. The Savior still is being born among all of us who need him the most. Without this faith, we will never see the true dignity of other people and never realize our own true home.
When I step out from behind my mask of success and authority, Advent reveals in me the hidden face of God. This grace opens me to a new power greater than myself and calls me to forgiveness, love and hope. The liturgies of Advent shake all of us out of our slumber and wake us to recognize the gift of people around us and our ancestors before us. My brow relaxes, my expressions become free, when finally I experience God’s saving face.