A Shining Face

One of the most familiar blessings in the Bible is the blessing of Aaron, an instruction for Israel’s priests on what to say to the people of God. The instruction gives words to be said, but I cannot help notice the prominence of the face as central to the blessing: The LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites.’ Say to them: The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. (Num. 6:22-26)

For me, George Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest (1937), is an exercise in understanding how word and face work together in the ministry of blessing. Bernanos’ now classic work presents a young priest and his relationship with the small French village he is called to serve. The priest is poor, and sick, and finds himself serving a resistant and troubled flock. He is not an obvious success, carrying a persistent sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. But he is faithful to the character of his calling: to bless and not curse.

In the priest’s interactions with the persons of his parish – persons who have a hard time believing, persons who wound and hurt others – he makes a difference. It is a difference born out of his particular view of life, a view which contrasts with some of the religious idealists around him.

One such person is a nun who has recently left the nunnery to take up village life. She decides it is her calling to keep the church spotlessly clean and she goes about her task with a vengeance. She cleans out the cobwebs, removes the grime. The church sparkles, until Sunday that is, and then the masses traipse in the dirt of the world and the place is a mess again. Week after week of this proves too much for the nun; she kills herself trying to do the impossible. And so the priest makes this comment:

The mistake she made wasn’t to fight dirt, sure enough, but to try and do away with it altogether. As if that were possible! A parish is bound to be dirty… Which all goes to prove that the Church needs a sound housewife – sound and sensible. My nun wasn’t a real housewife; a real housewife knows her home isn’t a shrine. Those are just poet’s dreams.

In contrast to the nun’s vision, the priest does not seek spotless perfection. He carries an utterly realistic view of the village in which he lives and serves. It is like every other parish, he thinks, filled with people of unbelief and trouble, a messy place of stark incompleteness and woeful Christian inadequacy. There are very few sterling examples of faith to be seen. But – and here’s the key – this unnamed priest embodies such a graceful and consistent presence that, despite his faltering steps and regular moments of self-doubt, he makes a profound difference for people. His understanding of life with God is caught up in the joy of knowing that there is a gracious reality larger than human weakness, more profound than human failure. He says it this way:

Why does our earliest childhood always seem so soft and full of light? A kid’s got plenty of troubles, like everybody else, and he’s really so very helpless, quite unarmed against pain and illness… But that very sense of powerlessness is the mainspring of the child’s joy. He just leaves it all to his mother, you see. Past, present, future – his whole life is caught up in one look, and that look is a smile.

This is the underlying and foundational truth of the novel. What the country priest provides for his flock is a face in tune with the words he is called to speak. The priest puts a human face on grace. In fact, its by gracious words in tune with a gracious face we become the representatives of God for each other.

Jacob and Esau were brothers who lived estranged from each other for many years. Finally, when the brothers were to meet at last, Jacob was fearful. What would he find in his brother Esau? He was, after all, greatly responsible for the rift between them. But when they finally came in sight of each other, it was Esau who ran to Jacob. He embraced him, and kissed him. The long estranged brothers wept together. And Jacob said, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably” (Gen. 33:10).

See you this Sunday.

Bob Osborne