To Find a Face
Strange things happen to us in the last-minute crunch of the Christmas season. A certain lady who could never quite get through her shopping list until the last few days before Christmas did one final check of her holiday list late one night just as the stores were closing, and discovered she had forgotten all about her usual batch of Christmas cards. She rushed back into the nearest store and found two boxes of cards, already marked down to 50% off. Back home, tired and sleepy, she began feverishly addressing and signing the cards without reading or even really looking at them. By midnight she had them all ready, drove to the postoffice, and shoved them into the jampacked box outside.
Things were too hectic even to think about them until the day after Christmas, which was Sunday. That evening, with things settled down a bit and a semblance of order restored, she noticed that a couple of the last-minute cards had been left over. She wondered rather idly what message she had sent her friends, so she opened one up and stared unbelievingly at the words: “This card is just a note to say….A little gift is on the way.” Monday was the busiest day she ever spent in her life.
I have just enough time this morning, before the choir presents you with their special holiday gift, to share a moment from another minister’s life who spent Christ-mas Eve once, many years ago, in Rome, where he had gone to see the Pope celebrate Mass. His name is Fred Buechner, and in one of his books he recalls how St. Peter’s cathedral slowly filled up that night with pilgrims from all over Europe, some of them carrying sacks of food to nibble on during their long wait. Every once in a while some group would strike up a song, and the sound of Adeste Fidelis or Heilige Nacht would billow up into the great Michelangelo dome, and then fade away in that enormous church until another group, somewhere else, started up again.
And then, finally, after several hours of waiting, there fell suddenly a great hush over the crowd, and way off in the flickering darkness our young Presbyterian mini-ster, so far from home, saw the Swiss Guard entering with the golden throne on their shoulders, and the packed worshippers surging forward and cheering wildly as the procession began to move slowly toward them. He remembers best the Pope himself, Pius the 12th, as he looked that night. In all the gaudy splendor, with the Guards in their famous scarlet and gold, he was in the plainest white with only a white skullcap on the back of his head. Here are the exact words by which the American visitor makes that strange moment live again:
“I can still see his face as he was carried by me on that throne — that lean, ascetic face, gray-skinned, with the high-bridged beak of a nose, his glasses glittering in the candlelight. And as he passed by me he was leaning slightly forward and peer-ing into the crowd with extraordinary intensity. Through the thick lenses of his glasses his eyes were larger than life, and he peered into my face and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so keen and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular.
“He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the enthusiasm of the multitudes. He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with seaching, for someone, some one , who he thought might be there that night or any night, anywhere, but whom he had never found, and yet he kept looking. Face after face he searched for the face that he knew he would know…and then he passed on out of my sight. It was a powerful moment for me…and I felt that I knew who he was looking for. I felt that anyone else who was really watching must also have known.
“The old Pope surely knew that the one he was looking for was all around him there in St. Peter’s. The face that he was looking for was visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night — most, perhaps, because it was the biggest show in Rome just then and did not cost a cent, but also because we were looking for the same one he was looking for….”
Some of you will be in this room late Saturday night, for that most beautiful thing that happens here, our candlelight Christmas Eve service, and you know what face those people in Rome that night were looking for. Our minister-novelist who was there that night is also a poet and a mystic, and he was convinced that the old Italian was looking for the face of Christ, and that there was in him an almost unbearable longing to find in those collective faces that single Face that would correspond to the dream which rises up in so many of us around the time of Christmas.
So how do we recognize it, this discovery of a Face in which all the truest things of life are mirrored? For one thing, it is always just behind the presence of any great and true joy in life: in the beginning of a real friendship, in the ripening of our good love for someone, in the excitement we feel when it seems life is expanding beyond anything we could possibly have managed for ourselves. That Face behind the sudden, unexpected note we send a wife or a husband or a friend, to say: “No special reason for this note — no anniversary or birthday or anything like that — just my own sudden wish to say that life would not be very good without you.”
It may stand just back of some great loss or heartache, that Face, grieving with us but reminding us that somehow, no matter how deeply hurt and diminished, we pick up the pieces and pack up our pain and go on….winning through by and by to a dearly bought wisdom and a deeper self which we know has changed us forever. I sit back behind that tree, hidden from you, and since I can’t look at you to see who has come and who hasn’t, I look at the tree a lot, and because of something I know, I see more than trunk and branches and Austrian pine needles. I see the face of a boy who was alive when this very tree was planted, who helped plant it, in fact — a beloved son working with his father on some forgotten day when neither of them dreamed the tree would outlive the boy. But in a tragic moment the boy was lost, and the tree he helped plant and prune lived on until a few days ago when it became a gift to this church from his family. The strange and awful truth about tragedy, even one as un-bearable as that one, is that from the great outpouring of love from family and friends, the Face the old Pope was looking for appears, and there comes into life a new depth of wisdom about what it means that we love each other, despite our rough edges and our personality quirks and all those times when we disappoint each other. So it is that out of the cold and dark, warmth and light come in deeper measure.
We are in the season now when the flowers have died in the cold, and the trees stand stark and bare, so what do we do? We bring in other flowers, the poinsettias protected for this holiday, and the evergreens that winter can’t conquer; we fill our houses and offices and streets with crimson and gold, and the air with happy greetings and Christmas music; we give to those we know and love and to strangers in need; we raise our faces to that face we call His — and wonder and warmth and goodness are born in us again, especially, I hope, in a place like this and in the presence of the gift of music the choir has for you in these next few moments.
Behind the busy promotion of Christmas commerce, behind the often desperate buying and selling, there is, Eternal Gods, an innocent and lovely meaning to these days. Help us to find it, in the spirit of Christ our Lord. Amen.