We Still Have Faces
Michael J. Glodo
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
Based on a sermon on Numbers 6:22-27 preached in the chapel service at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando, December 2, 2020. An audio recording of that sermon may be found at https://rts.edu/resources/.
There is nothing which symbolizes the COVID-19 pandemic like the mask, including the deep societal divisions which are broader than, but reflected in, the pandemic debates. Various interpretations are offered as to what this “mask hysteria” means, but we might consider simply what masks tell us about the importance of the human face. C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, his favorite of his own novels, is the theodicy—an accusation against the gods — of an aged, veiled queen, Orual, who wore a veil her entire life. She did so at first because her father the king thought her ugly — “curd face” he called her when he first told her to cover her face — but as time went on she found the veil to be a source of strength.
[A]s years passed and there were fewer in the city… who remembered my face, the wildest stories got about as to what that veil hid…. Some said… that it was frightful beyond endurance; a pig’s, bear’s, cat’s or elephant’s face. The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness. But another sort… said that I wore a veil because I was of a beauty so dazzling that if I let it be seen all men in the world would run mad; or else that [the god of Gloam] Ungit was jealous of my beauty and had promised to blast me if I went bareface. The upshot of all this nonsense was that I became something very mysterious and awful.
The veil which first covered the shame of her looks later became a source of queenly authority and mystique, but diminished her humanity. Her face made her more like the gods, but less human. Only in the removal of her veil at the end did she become fully human again.
Orual’s veil stands in stark contrast to the Aaronic benediction in which the unveiling of God’s face upon his people expresses the acme of human existence.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them (Num 6:22-27).
We all, like Orual, make masks and veils — veils to cover what is there, masks to make what is not there. In doing so, like Orual, we become like the gods of human making, and consequently lose our humanity. The result, as Psalm 115 so strikingly warns us, is that we become like them in impotence and lifelessness (v 8). Yet in the acme of human blessedness held forth in the Aaronic benediction, God unmasks his face to shine on ours. He shows his face in favor. The covering of our faces makes us less human, but the revelation of God’s face makes us fully human.
As we continue in our sermon series “What Is (Hu)Man?” on the subject of human identity and as we think about how visceral the subject of face coverings is, we can learn something fundamental to human identity from this benediction of benedictions. We have been made to look upon and be looked upon by our Creator. In a nutshell, the Aaronic benediction teaches us that God made us with faces to shine his face on ours. As we shall see: God looks on us. Therefore, we must look differently.
God Looks on Us
The context of God’s gaze.
First let us understand what it means that God looks on us. Aarons’ blessing occurs in the context of God dwelling among his redeemed people, both requiring holiness of them and providing holiness for them through the sacrificial system. In the immediately preceding context in Numbers the wilderness community had consecrated itself, a prerequisite both to avoid divine judgment and to experience divine presence and fellowship (5:1-6:21). In other words, the face of God’s favor has a context in the covenant relationship of God and his people.
The content of God’s gaze.
His favorable countenance also has a content. What does it mean that God’s face looks upon us? We know that “God is a spirit and doesn’t have a body a body like men.” In response to Moses’ request to see God’s glory, God responded “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33.20). Instead, God allowed Moses a glimpse of his glory, that “unapproachable light” in which God veils himself. Yet the Scriptures also speak freely of seeing God’s face as the source of joy (Ps 4:6), his face as the source of confidence in God’s faithfulness (Ps 34:5), salvation itself (Ps 80:3, 7, 19), vindication from shame (Pss 22:24; 31:16), and the source of victory in conflict (Ps 44:3, 24). Conversely, in trials God’s face is feared to be hidden (Ps 10:4; 13:1; 69:17; 88:14) and knowledge of one’s sin pleads for God to turn his face away (51:9).
Metaphors in Scripture are never “mere.” “God, all nature sings thy glory” is because God, in creating the world, fashioned for himself in nature the inventory of his self-revelation. God made faces so that God could shine his face on ours. God’s “face” is a metaphor for the favor of God’s presence or the woe of its absence. It is from God that Adam hid his face. It was God’s face Jacob pled to see that dark night at Peniel (Gen 22:22-32), a face not seen at Sinai (Deut 4:15), but which now through his servant Aaron and his descendants God’s swears to turn in favor toward his people. To receive the gaze of God is a covenantal confirmation of God inviolable commitment to his people.
The blessing itself consists of three lines of three, five, and seven words and fifteen, twenty and twenty consonants, respectively. The divine name “Yahweh” appears in the prose introduction and in each of three blessings as well as in the mention of “name” in the prose conclusion. These textual features alert us that this blessing is of the highest consequence.
The consequence of God’s gaze.
Each line’s first verb is enacted in the second within each line. To bless means to keep (i.e. “guard”); to shine his face is grace; his lifted countenance brings peace. Like waves breaking on the shore of a rising tide, the blessings escort us up the stairs of a temple of blessing, arriving at its summit in the word “shalom”- peace. The “actions” of God’s face show a similar progression from the static “shine” to the dynamic “lift up,” a gesture of recognition and hospitality. This face is not the frozen, stupid face of gods of wood or stone, but a living face which gives life to those upon whom it looks in favor. To be looked upon by God is life.
Though possessed of that life under the Old Covenant, Israel would have to wait a millennium and a half, fifteen centuries, of God’s forbearance and chastisement, before the fullness of that life was manifested. The glory of God would become flesh (John 1:14) so that God’s people would have life in abundance (John 10:10). The Word made flesh, who is from the Father’s “bosom” (John 1:18), would manifest in fullness what Moses only saw as God’s glory receded. So Jesus spoke truly when he said both “not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
The revelation of God in Christ is not merely of God in the general sense, but includes the shining of God’s face upon his people through the face of Jesus Christ. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) And by the indwelling work of the Spirit “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). Consequently, those upon whom God has looked in favor through Christ bear the name of God (Num 6:27; Rev 3:12).
The Lord blesses and guards us by turning his face toward us. This is a gracious act of God that brings shalom, the fullness of human existence and happiness. It is not just that the eye of God is upon us, that God sees us, but that the face of God is toward us, that he is favorable toward us.
In a recent interview, portraitist Catherine Prescott stated that the mouth is more important than they eyes for expression because it is part of the soft tissue of the face. While the eyes can indicate six or seven emotions on their own, without the mouth to reinforce the eyes one doesn’t know which things they eyes are saying. The mouth is more variable and expressive than the eyes. While the eyes are called the windows the soul, it’s the mouth which shows whether someone is revealing or hiding themselves. To know someone, one must see the whole face, not just the eyes.
It is the face by which we are known more than any other part of the body. It is the part which turns away in order not to be recognized, but which, when seen, achieves full recognition. Similarly, God is most fully known in his face. God’s face toward us is blessedness, favor, peace (shalom), and vindication. The Aaronic metaphor is not just God’s hand, arm, or mouth—not even his eye—but his face. The highest state of happiness is to be looked upon by the face of God. Consequently, there are three significant implications for us.
Long for His Look
First, we are to long for this look. The Aaronic benediction is not only a pronouncement of God’s look upon us, but it beckons us to desire his gaze. To be looked upon by God is a pearl of great price to be desired above everything. What is the focal length of your gaze? Have you considered the bliss of being seen by God, being looked upon, having his face turned toward you? David did.
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple…
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 27:4,7-8)
Jesus promised and proclaimed, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5.8). This is life’s most blissful end: to see God. Not to see God “in order to…” or “so that…”; not to make God a means to an end; but to look upon God, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. A person’s greatest happiness is to be looked upon in grace by his Creator. In Christ we see what Moses amidst the fire and cloud and Jacob in the dust and sweat never saw—the smile of God. This gracious gaze of God in and through the tabernacle and priesthood has matured into grace upon grace in Jesus, the fleshly tabernacle of glory, “the only, who is God,” who came from the bosom of the Father, has made him known (John 1:18). When we seek sweet communion with God under his gracious gaze, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim.”
Look Upon Ourselves
In longing for God’s look we will look upon ourselves differently. We will see ourselves in the light of divine favor, gospel assurance. The veil has been removed, not to see Moses’ face, but to see the unfading glory of the face of God with all its prerequisites of animating and atoning grace and consequences of imputed righteousness, adoption, etc. (WSC 32), including the prospect, the promise, and the provision of glorification. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). “And we all now, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 4:6).
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the minister’s face can be seen through his unexplained veil, but everything is darkened. The people can’t merely listen contentedly to his well-crafted sermons any more, but must look at him through the black veil. Even at his burial it was said “All throughout the life the black veil had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in the saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.” As he lay dying, he told his mourners that all of them wore black veils. He wore original sin on his face, which made the people uncomfortable. Yet they had to look at the veil in order to become redeemed sinners upon whom God smile.
Remember the cat and mouse of glances when one first discovers a boyfriend or a girlfriend. We first look to see, to notice, to take in, but when our hearts have been moved by that person’s appearance and mannerisms, we then look in order to be seen, to be caught looking so that we may learn if we are also pleasing in the same way. When we have been enthralled, we want our look to thrall. This has little to do with beauty because the beautiful receive many looks and must ignore more looks than they reciprocate, yet those who are not beautiful — most of us — manage to fall in love. That first mutual exchange of looks culminates one day in the raising of a veil before family and friends and many others, but the seer and the seen see only one another.
To be looked upon by the face of God means to be loved, but it also means to be thralled. Therefore, we unmask. When we see not just what God sees but how God looks upon us, we can say “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” (Song 6:3). This is a far superior look compared to the selfies which populate our social media. A selfie is our mediated representation of ourselves, yet all self-representations are mediated. The smart phone camera didn’t invent the selfie, it technologized what people have always done — make masks. When others photograph us, self-disclosure is required. Another must look upon us.
We live in a selfie world. Consequently, we fall under the curse of Dorian Gray, just as Lewis’ Orual, because preoccupation with self-presentation leads to loss of self. In self-representation we put on frozen Botox faces, preventing the wrinkles and freezing the soft tissue of our souls that complete our smiles. When we live to be noticed by others, we negate the look that God has already given us. The gaze of God liberates us from being defined by the gaze of others so that we may see ourselves in the light of God’s favor.
Look at Others
Besides looking at ourselves, the benevolent gaze of God enables us to look at others. The most human thing one can do is to look upon the face of another. The nations mocked Israel because it did not have an image of God in its sanctuary (Ps 115:2). It didn’t need one because every Israelite, in fact every human being, was an image of Israel’s God. This is why the blessings of God upon Israel and the house of Aaron extended to all who would fear the Lord (Ps 115:9-10), even from the smallest to the greatest (v 13). To look upon a human person is to look upon the image of God. James makes explicit this architecture of the divine image when he laments that our tongues “bless our Lord and Father, and…curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9). What we believe concerning God is reflected in our treatment of people, any protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Properly understood, we can say that all ethics is grounded in divine ontology, another word for “ethics” being “love.” What God is determines what true love is. Therefore, the way in which God looks upon us in the Son is both the premise and the pattern of how we are to love one another. We do not, in the words of John Gillespie McGee’s “High Flight,” “slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God.” Rather, we touch the face of God in acts of love toward his image. Jesus said nothing less in the parable of the returning king who commended acts of mercy done toward him. The king’s subjects asked when they had done these things. The king answered, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).
The gracious gaze of God has powerful implications for loving others. Take, for example, lust which takes the holy thing of looking and being looked upon and instead of looking at the face, turns a person into an inanimate source of self-gratification—like bringing the Asherah into the temple. Sex robots are only an incremental progression in what lust has already accomplished. Instead, looking into the face of a person we might otherwise objectify humanizes the object of lust into the imago Dei.
Just a few short weeks ago I sat in a hospital room with my father-in-law, participating in the family’s shared watch awaiting the inevitable. Only a week earlier he had been a vigorous, albeit aged, farmer. His last week’s and day’s work prior to the stroke that eventually would take his life were emblematic of nearly nine decades of working the soil. The man who lay before me with closed eyes, drawn fingers, and gaping mouth was such a contrast that I found myself averting my gaze from his face — not in discomfort for what I saw, but out of respect for him, knowing that he would have hated to be seen in such a state. Then the realization came to me that in averting my gaze from his face I was actually doing less than dignifying him. So instead I looked at his face the way God’s face has looked upon mine.
We must look as God looks. Not “see,” with its self-ward direction of attempting to take in and to learn, but “look” with its outward move toward the other in acknowledgement and recognition. Seeing is part of knowing, but like the flood and ebb of the tide, neither can exist alone. To look upon someone is to (begin to) know them, to move toward them.
While mask-wearing during the pandemic has produced its own peculiar debates, we’ve always worn masks and veils in attempts to project what is not there and to hide what is. But we still have faces underneath and “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The heart of the gospel is not simply that we take off our masks, but that God has put on a face in Christ and looked upon us to bless us and give us peace. Therefore, we long for God’s look making it our greatest desire, we look at ourselves as God has looked upon us, and we look at others in the same way.
In my first ordained call nearly thirty-five years ago, on my first day, my pastor gave me a list of church members I needed to visit in their homes. My main responsibilities were outreach, evangelism, and assimilation, so I didn’t quite see how visiting shut-ins would contribute to my effectiveness. But, with a small amount of procrastination, I made my first appointment to visit Mrs. Finley. I was warned ahead of time that she was battling a cancer that had required the removal of sinus and facial tissue and bone, but that with advance notice she would be prepared by putting on her prosthesis to hide the open cavity in her face. She had prepared tea and cookies before my arrival and we had a visit that left me greatly impressed with her faith, humility, and kindness. I knew then why Pastor had sent me. The conversation was not easy because her surgeries had left her sinuses open, making it difficult for her to speak clearly, such as in the case of someone with an extreme cleft palate.
On my second visit, Mrs. Finley came to the door as before. But as I entered her home, I was momentarily unnerved by the absence of her prosthesis. During the initial part of our conversation, I averted my gaze from her face, partly because of her appearance and partly because I wanted to dignify her by not staring at the gaping opening. After a few moments I had an epiphany, realizing that she deserved to be looked in the eyes the way she had been all the years before her cancer. They were bright, Irish eyes, still lively reflecting an unshakable face. Soon her whole face was within my frame because her whole face, not just her eyes, were her. For me it became something of a beatific vision, not of the unseen God, but of an image of his upon which he had lifted his countenance and given peace.
God made us with faces to shine his face on ours. God looks on us so that we must look differently at ourselves and at others. Let us long for the face of God in Christ so that we may look differently at ourselves and, most importantly, others.
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Ps 27:4)
 C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, Reissue Edition (New York: HarperOne, 2017).
 For more on the structure and meaning of Numbers, see Michael J. Glodo, “Numbers” in A Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Miles Van Pelt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 109-131. For more on the principles by which God dwelt among his people in the Old Testament, see Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995).
 First Catechism (Atlanta: Great Commission Publications, 2004), Question 9.
 The pair of terms “grace and truth” in John 1:14 do not indicate an ontological, but rather a redemptive-historical distinction with what came before since that pair of terms evokes the “steadfast love and faithfulness” from Ex 34:6. Jesus did not introduce grace in contrast to Moses, but rather manifested the fullness of God’s grace, “grace upon grace,” (John 1:16) which was also administered under the Old Covenant inaugurated at Mt. Sinai.
 Interview with Ken Myers in Mars Hill Audio Friday Feature, August 21, 2020.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil” in Twice Told Tales (London: Heritage Publishing, 2014), 16.