Seeking the Face of the Ascended Lord
“At several points in the Gospel, Jesus sensitively anticipates the longing that His ascension will leave in us: ‘The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it’ (Luke 17:22). What is worth meditating on, though, is the Lord’s insistence that it is better for Him to go away from us than to remain under His natural, human appearances—and that it is better for us to live in a state of longing. It seems so counterintuitive to us. We are human through and through, and identify those whom we love by such things as the sound of the voice and the look of the face. More than by bodily sight, the ascended Savior wants us to be drawn to Him by desire, a desire born of faith and the Holy Spirit prompting us from within.”
Vultum tuum, Domine, requiram! (Psalm 27:8)
“Thy face, LORD, do I seek.” It is well known that this verse of Psalm 27 epitomized St Josemaria’s lifelong yearning for God, which only intensified in the months preceding his passage from this world on 26 June 1975. “His whole being longed for face-to-face contemplation of Christ’s gloriously beautiful countenance. In his last days he continued to cry out, ‘Vultum tuum, Domine, requiram! I seek your face, Lord. I want to see your face, Lord. I long to see your face.’”¹
The inspired need of the Psalmist, repeated with such longing by St Josemaria, is at root a desire for the beatific vision, the vision of God Himself, which completes and satisfies man’s restless heart in every way. We long to see what “eye has not seen, nor ear heard,” in this life: God fully manifest to us. About this “face to face” vision (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), St Augustine explains that “By ‘the face’ of God we are to understand His manifestation, and not a part of the body similar to that which in our bodies we call by that name” (The City of God, XXII, 29).
And yet, because God became man in Christ, there is also a human face that we long to see in heaven, which the Book of Revelation describes in the strongest language possible: “His face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:16b). It is exactly the vision of His face that we are deprived of in the wake of the Lord’s Ascension. At several points in the Gospel, Jesus sensitively anticipates the longing that His ascension will leave in us: “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it” (Luke 17:22).
What is worth meditating on, though, is the Lord’s insistence that it is better for Him to go away from us than to remain under His natural, human appearances—and that it is better for us to live in a state of longing. It seems so counterintuitive to us. We are human through and through, and identify those whom we love by such things as the sound of the voice and the look of the face. More than by bodily sight, the ascended Savior wants us to be drawn to Him by desire, a desire born of faith and the Holy Spirit prompting us from within.
The fact that we do think with longing about the face of Jesus tells us that God has already “shown” it to us in part, by faith and contemplative insight, both of which are gifts of the promised Spirit. Those who strive to follow Christ closely have all had a moment of “revelation” when we were especially captivated by the face of Christ. It is a moment of intense contemplation when we see a man’s face and try to fathom it as God’s. We do not so much look through it or beyond it, but into it more deeply than we have ever looked into anything before. Every feature becomes an object of prayerful wonder.
That personal “revelation” meant something life-changing to us. Our Lord seems to imply in His words to St Philip that it is a moment of great responsibility and commitment: “From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:7). From now on. To be faithful to the ascended Lord during our earthly pilgrimage and mission, from now on His holy face must be ever before us as our goal and inspiration. Although that face is not visible to us as it was to our Lord’s contemporaries, it is still real when we seek it where He has told us we will find Him: In the least of His brethren, in community, in the Church, in the sacraments—all of which share in the materiality of this world.
St Josemaria spent a lifetime seeking God in the material things of this world and inspiring others to do so as well. This teaches us something crucial: Seeking the face of God in this world irresistibly leads one to desire the perfect vision of Him who has ascended on high, and whom we have only faintly beheld here below in shadows and images. Again, as St Augustine comments in the passage quoted above, “This vision is reserved as the reward of our faith”—the faith that the Spirit gives us to recognize the Lord in the many “disguises” He humbly wears in the humble people and events of our lives.
This quest to see the Lord is closely connected to another Biblical prayer that St Josemaria made his own, even prior to his seminary days: “Domine, ut videam!” Lord, that I may see! The wish of the blind man of the Gospel, whose humble but insistent pleading moved the Lord to open his eyes to see Him face to face. That man, like us, could only have been moved by the Holy Spirit—to call Jesus Lord when he had never seen Him in the flesh.
We should treasure the contemplative insight that the Spirit has given us. It is not given to everyone to see that holy face as beautiful. Many people saw the face of Jesus in His earthly life, but it shocks us to think that a number of them slapped it, punched it, spat upon it, covered over His eyes with a blindfold, and otherwise looked upon the Lord with anything but love and wonder.
If Jesus reveals Himself to us, and makes us feel a special attraction to Him, it means that He is asking the exact opposite of that; He is asking a serious, ongoing commitment from us. How can it be otherwise? He Himself says, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” But had those kings and prophets seen the face and heard the voice of the Messiah, what would they have done?That remains an open question.
What is not an open question is: What are we doing with the “revelation” that Jesus has granted to us? The Lord has attracted us so that He can have a very intimate authority over us: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” We are the ones who are supposed to be so easy to command—to go anywhere and do anything for the Lord. We are the ones who have embraced our weakness that Christ might make us strong. We are the ones who have been open to His beauty and have followed our holy desires and have said yes. In His ascended “absence,” Jesus is counting on our humility, our generosity, our willingness to walk by faith and not by sight—in other words, to walk by the Spirit and to follow the Spirit’s lead.
We understand with greater clarity what St Paul tells us in the liturgy of the Ascension: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened” (Eph 1:18). We who are still in exile from the place to where Christ has ascended have need of enlightenment—especially enlightenment of heart. We who easily let our hearts be troubled have need of this supernatural clarity. On our way to that heavenly place where Christ is, we have to pass through many troubling things with the conviction that Christ, invisible to our eyes, is present to us at all times, mysteriously revealing His face to those who have the faith-filled eyes to see Him.
¹ Andres Vazquez de Prada. The Founder of Opus Dei, Volume III: The Divine Ways on Earth (New York: Scepter, 2002), p.558.
Image: Ascension of Christ, 1510; Benvenuto Tisi. Public Domain.