[Beliefnet, February 15, 2002]
Greta Van Susteren took a look in the mirror not long ago and didn’t like what she saw. “God, how did I get to be 47?” she says she thought. So she had cosmetic surgery to tighten up the skin around her eyes. “I just did it on a whim,” she told People magazine.
Leave aside the question of whether someone who whimsically has her face permanently altered can be relied on for more sober judgment about, say, Al Qaeda. The bottom line is that the deed seemed so out of character. Greta’s was one of the few really authentic female faces on television. Her face was interesting because it was unattractive, and attractive because it was so interesting. It was a startlingly real face in the world of artifice, a face that could attract and pull you in.
This new stitched-up version is confusing. We need the news to be plain and honest, but Greta’s transformation reminds us that appearances can be deceiving. “I was so disappointed,” said one Greta fan.
Greta got to be 47 the way the rest of us do: one day at a time. As a French proverb has it, “After the age of 40 everyone has the face they deserve.” The way we habitually use our faces to communicate, emote, or react washes it with expressions that gradually leave their mark. Under the soft net of wrinkles, a repeatedly happy or cranky or sorrowful face expresses itself even in sleep. Greta’s face was an original that she had created herself, by using that face every day for 47 years.
Maybe there’s something sacred about that‚—something that shouldn’t be altered by human cunning. Why does God give us faces at all? Why do we have this disk up in the air, with messages running across it constantly like a Times Square news ribbon? It’s a strange thing, when you think about it. A face is a collaboration between that unique birthday gift and the daily use we make of it, and the end result tells honestly who we are.
A further mystery is that apparently God has a face. Not to press too literally on supernatural realities, but there must be some reason why the Hebrew scriptures refer so consistently, not just to God, but to the *face* of God. He makes his face to shine upon us, we are told; God’s face is frequently described as radiant with light. On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus’ face shown like the sun. When that light is withheld, we wither. “You turn away your face and [all creatures] are dismayed, they die and return to their dust,” writes the Psalmist. The light of his face is life.
We have faces because God does—whatever that may turn out to mean—and we are made in his image. We may not like the way our faces embody this reality, and may particularly dislike the way they sag and crinkle over time. But every step away from that honest self is a step away from God’s image.
The third-century bishop, Cyprian of Carthage, wrote to those who exerted themselves against their natural appearance, “Are you not afraid that your Maker may not recognize you again when you come to his rewards?” Those who go in for such extreme renovations, he wrote, may hear God say, “This is not my work, nor is this our image. Your face is violently taken possession of by a lie. You cannot see God, since your eyes are not those which God made.”
It’s ridiculous to think that an artificially tightened face—we could call it “youthanized”—is more appealing than an older one. We can instantly think of many older people whose faces we love, and their wrinkles are part of it; the wrinkles tell the story of their lives. To see these faces suddenly stretched and ironed would be startling, unpleasant, and profoundly unattractive.
Our faces have a better purpose than just being billboards of current fashion. In some mysterious way they are meant, not just to be the image of God, but to reflect his light, like the moon does the sun. Throughout spiritual literature there are examples of this being literally true, from Moses’ glowing face after his time on Mt. Sinai, to St. Seraphim of Sarov in the 19th century, who turned a dazzling face toward his startled friend during a walk in the snowy woods.
“We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another,” wrote St. Paul. That’s something worth desiring. Beauty that comes from gazing on the face of God is more enduring, more compelling, than any surgeon’s needlework.