I have been asked to write further on the “theology of the face.” It is surprisingly neglected in many parts of the Christian world – and though it is not often discussed within Orthodoxy – it is nevertheless deeply at the heart of Orthodox devotion.
Nothing in the Old Testament more clearly reveals the personhood of God than the references to His face. Man is described as created “in the image and likeness” of God. But God is revealed by reference to His face. To speak with God “face to face” is to speak with God “in person.” But the person of God is wholly other: “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exo 33:20 NKJ).
It is not until the coming of Christ that the true personhood of God is made fully known. And Christ reveals that personhood in the most shocking language possible: He who has seen Me has seen the Father; (Jn 14:9 NKJ). In John 6, this declaration is tied directly to the classical language concerning the face of God in Exodus: “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father.”(Jn 6:46 NKJ)
The God who cannot be seen, has been seen by the Son. And the Son shows that He is from the Father because to see the Son, is to see the Father. Christ the Son of the Father, reveals the face of God. To see Christ is to see God.
There is an additional consideration that I would add, and this is the matter of the eyes themselves. Christ speaks about the “eye being single or whole” and warns about an eye with a “log” in it (as opposed to a “speck”). The “eye is the light of the body,” He says. It is not simply that we behold Him with an unveiled face, or that we see one another, but to see Him or another in a truly personal manner, requires a singularity and clarity of vision. There is a profound connection between the eye and the heart.
The heart itself is a mysterious matter in Orthodox thought. It is sometimes used as a term for the deepest part of the self, and may be filled with good things or bad:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (St. Macarius, H.43.7)
At other times the heart is used in a manner that equates it with the Secret Place of the Most High, in which dwells only good things.
It is the former meaning that is reflected in the sayings about the eye. For it is the heart that is being referenced in the eye (the prior verse makes mention of the singularity of the heart):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:19-21 NKJ)
A heart divided, turned aside towards evil, fills the body with darkness. It “darkens” the face as well.
In the art of icon painting, the last colors added to the icon are the “lights.” These are patches of white or gold that mark the brightness of spiritual being. Such lights are utterly absent in the faces of the demons or of the damned (cf. Judas). Such lights are not meant to create the illusion of depth. There are no shadows in the faces of an icon. Rather the light is the transfiguring light of God, reflected in the faces of those who now behold His face.
I close these thoughts by returning to the heart. In the face of an icon (and often in the face of any person) there is a revelation of the heart. The truth of the person, what truly lies within them, is shown forth in the face. Though this is an artistic technique, it is reflective of reality. Our own faces reveal the heart to those who can read them (and we all do to some extent). Our behavior with our own faces should be an indication of our inner state. Our shame, a divided heart, many states of the soul are revealed in what we do with our faces.
To gaze steadfastly at God is a rare thing. Our self-awareness and our awareness of sin make us look away. Only the steady gaze of God, unrelenting in its forgiveness, could give the courage to turn our faces back to Him. From glory to glory, our faces can come to resemble the holy icons, who behold Him without shame or fear.