(My homily at Sacred Heart Church today included a viewing of all of my drawings and paintings of faces. I read the homily today while the faces where shown above the altar. I do not have all of those available here.)
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 that were brought about from his disease. His old-man face haunts my memory because Parkinson’s disease creased his spirit and shrunk his perspective on a life of hard work and dedication to his family.
I mention this personal image of my father in this anniversary week of his death because Advent does not leave any of us with blank stares and frozen expressions. We must not let life crease our spirits of hope during this season or shrink our notions that God’s love is not for us. We all are waiting for liberation, freedom and healing in our lives that will show up on our faces and in our lives of service to one another. Love is real in Advent; life is filled with hope these days.
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 that will change my inheritance of my memory of my father’s frozen face. I wait for the freedom to behold the face of the Lord.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudette Sunday, the pink candle is lit and we are to rejoice in the fact that we are half way to the miracle of the Incarnation, the unveiling of God’s face to us believers. We rejoice waiting to see the face of our Savior, not just in a cozy manger scene, but also in the bright pink glow of our faces no matter the color of our skin.
We are the faces who wait for salvation. Our expressions, no matter how sad or rigid, no matter how expressive or exuberant, wait for something more to set us free from our human hindrance of doubt, pain and sin. We wait to behold the face of the Messiah. We wait to see Jesus face to face in our lives as they are today.
Our model of waiting for the Savior in the gospel this week is once again, John the Baptist. He pointed his finger, his eyes, his life, and his soul into the direction of Christ Jesus. His entire life was lived waiting for the miraculous understanding that Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit would set us all free. He is the model for us to set our eyes into the direction of the warmth of Jesus’ eternal face.
Every year before Christmas, I review not only my father’s memory but also the familiar faces of my years of ministry. Some of these faces reveal suffering that is more than skin-deep. Many faces bare the losses that extend from parents to children. Most faces are strangers longing for advice in conversations about the burdens of their hearts. Some scarred faces show the effects of serving in wars while other blemished faces reveal worry-lines of disappointment and loss because of jobs and health. Many aging faces reveal life-long tears that stream from their eyes onto their brown-spotted cheeks. Some vibrant, fresh-skinned faces are young and healthy… some are marvelously beautiful …and some lived-in faces show the wear and tear of their years on earth with dark circles around sunken eyes. So many of these truly human faces have taught me how to trust in God… a trust that sets all of our expressions free.
In these past years I have written and published many stories about the people with whom I have ministered in the past thirty-two years. These stories remain visually important in my own heart and in my memory. People’s real faces, the well-earned expressions from fear and heartache …as well as profound joy and exuberance… cannot be captured in one story or in one picture or in one still frame.
Sometimes my memory fades of such encounters of faces… the worried brows of preparing for divorce…the down cast eyes of losing a child… the tight brow and pierced lips of a spouse who is left behind after suicide…the beautiful, open eyes of a couple celebrating marriage… or the wild, open-mouthed expressions of sheer joy in the exact moment when a couple tells me that their first child will be born in the coming months.
This past summer I started putting some of these faces to paper even though I had not picked up a pencil in over thirty years. Lisa Lundquist in our parish coaches me to understand that drawing and painting are another way to tell a story.
My drawing skills reveal that I am a beginner and do not convey the facial complexities of people who suffer from internal illness or long-term poverty. I cannot capture fully the faces, the nuanced expressions that I have known in the confessional or in an accidental encounter at the mall by a lost stranger. I wait for the day that I can capture the faith-filled faces on paper, the full spectrum of human emotion that I see in my memory.
However, I am trying to capture the emotions that I once encountered…the eyes of sorrow… or a side-glance of love… or the wisdom wrinkles of long-standing faith. I am trying to capture the sacred emotions that remind me of God’s presence even in the midst of people who most need love, healing and purpose in their earthly lives.
In this Advent, I attempt to put real life on paper creating with charcoal, crayon, pencil or acrylic paint. I want to let you know that your faces of wide-eyed openness and acceptance…your emotional faces of despair and longing… the wrinkles around the bloodshot eyes or the pug nose or the earthly sadness in the brow, all are engraved in my heart and mind.
Advent reveals the faces of our ancestors because Jesus’ birth confirmed the dignity of our human condition. Our preparation for Christmas invites us to explore within our families and communities how we view the people around us. These four weeks stir our hearts for the God who lives behind each human face… even underneath our expressions of unworthiness, fear, and loss…even when I know these frozen expressions may never be healed. However, no matter our pain, God is being born in our eyes, our expressions and in our hearts just as we are.
In this Advent season, we all long to see the face of God in a new way in the lives of people whom we encounter in the world. 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 own mask of success and authority even as a priest and pastor, 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 and rejoicing. The liturgies of Advent shake all of us out of our slumber and wake us to recognize the gift of our ancestors and our loved ones today. My brow relaxes, my expressions become free, when finally I experience God’s saving face among people here on earth.