The literature of love is full of ruminations about that experience. Recurring throughout this literature is the theme of the importance of the face of the one so loved. The face is variously a thing of beauty, a guide to personality, a means to come to deep knowledge of another.
The Scriptures themselves offer many instances of a similar fascination with the face. In the Bible, the pre-eminent face that so attracts us is God’s. This is nowhere more evident than in the psalms. And this should come as no surprise since the Book of Psalms is nothing less than some of the most epic love poetry of all time – God’s love poetry!
The psalms present us with a faithful-across-millennia love story between God and God’s covenant people. In the language of every human emotion imaginable, the psalms offer us a conversation of adoration, petition, hope, despair, longing and more.
It is in the psalms focused on God’s face that the language of deepest longing is at its very best, for example:
Psalm 4: "Many say, ‘Oh, that we might see better times!’ O Lord, let the light of your countenance shine upon us!"
Psalm 27: "Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks. ... Hide not your face from me."
Psalm 31: "Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your kindness."
Psalm 42: "Athirst is my soul for God, the living God. When shall I go and behold the face of God?"
In this love poetry we come to the heart of biblical understanding that the face of someone and his or her very person are indistinguishable. In other words, the face is a metaphor for the full disclosure of another in intimate and loving communion.
The longing to see God’s face so acutely expressed in the psalms is a longing to know God intimately.
We begin to grasp how profound the psalms are as love poetry when we realize that Jesus prayed them in synagogues and temples and no doubt as he worked and walked, for he was immersed in the liturgical worship of his people.
The Scriptures attest to Jesus’ participation in this worship and often place words from the psalms on his lips (for example, on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").
It is simply beyond our imaginations to be able to grasp how the psalms would have done their work in the life of God in the flesh.
The psalms of Jesus: In his humanity, Jesus must have come to know that he shared an intimacy with God by learning the psalms’ language of longing. They offered him a privileged, divinely inspired dialogue where he came to know his divinity and his sacrificial mission to bring all into that communion of love that he uniquely shared with the Father, in the Spirit.
The psalms of the church: The earliest generations of Christians adopted and adapted Jewish use of the psalms. Early on, these psalms were used during worship in central parishes known as cathedrals.
The psalms were a part of the community’s morning and evening prayer and its eucharistic worship. A little later the psalms were adopted by the fledgling monastic and hermitic reform movements.
This worship has come down to us today in the Liturgy of the Hours prayed in many settings by laypersons and those religious communities and clergy bound to this Divine Office.
The early development of the psalms are still only partially understood, but it is clear that for the fledgling church, the Book of Psalms was above all else prophetic poetry fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
Our ancient forebears saw Jesus everywhere in the grammar of the psalms. They understood that some psalms spoke of Christ, others spoke to him, and in still others Christ himself spoke to the Father or to his people.
With an indescribable love and longing, our ancestors in faith praised God for Christ and learned to long for him anew, for his final coming at the end of time and the consummation of the whole great story of the world’s redemption.
We are the heirs in our own time of this faithful, redemptive longing.
In the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus could not be more explicit: "If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (14:7).
We have seen the face of God for whom we so long, and that face is Christ. -By James Schellman