Prosopon: The Dream of the Face of God
I am at church, waiting for a service to begin (but it’s not the Divine Liturgy). Fr. John is at the altar preparing something like a monstrance (which is odd, since we don’t use a monstrance in the Byzantine Rite). There is no iconostasis and almost all of the icons are covered in green duct tape; the only one not covered is a small icon of Christ. I don’t really want to sit anywhere (I feel estranged from everything) but find a seat to the side facing away. Fr. John comes over to speak, but I have no words.
In the morning yesterday, as my wife and I were getting ready to head out to the barn and milk our cow, Fiona, I told her about dream and how strange the green duct tape was. “It wasn’t tape,” she said. “Those were masks. With everyone wearing all these masks, we can no longer see each other. And then we can’t see the face of God. We’re the image and likeness of God. Without faces, we can’t experience that.”
She’s right. And I was wrong. It wasn’t duct tape. It was, quite literally, masking tape. And Christ’s face (in the dream) was almost too small to see. Truly, the sudden coldness of the world has reduced our experience of Christ. And by design, I fear.
In Greek, the word for face is prosopon, a term used in theology to describe the phenomenon of the countenance of the divinity being turned toward Man. But in the New Testament, this term is also used to describe the encounter of each of us, prosopon pros prosopon, face to face: a desire for which even imprisonment can’t eradicate.
In fact, what we are experiencing is a kind of imprisonment, though cheaper than an electronic tether (we actually pay for that by a monthly service fee). But an imprisonment, all the same. St. Paul knew what this was like as he was held awaiting trial in Rome, but his captivity did not erase his desire for communion (of every kind). As he writes in 1 Thessalonians, “But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored the more abundantly to see your face [prosopon] with great desire” (2:17). Interestingly, even the word here translated as “presence” is prosopo.
This same desire for communion characterizes Paul’s (and his community’s) frustration at not being to experience God fully. “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” he writes in 1 Corinthians, “but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (13:12). We all desire to know even as we are known by God; and we also desire to be known by each other. I’m coming to the end of a semester at the college where I’ve been teaching. Usually, I know every student’s name and face by the third week. That didn’t completely happen this semester. I have “known” these students for almost twelve weeks. And I still don’t know what most of them look like. We are hidden from each other.
The eschaton, always/already happening, is upon us. It is a moment when “they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads” (Rev 22:4). But the countenance before you is the place it begins.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.