Friday, January 01, 2010

Peace: The Face of God and the Faces of Men

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI
Solemnity of the Most Blessed Mary, Mother of God

January 1, 2010

On the first day of the new year, we have the joy and the grace of celebrating the Most Blessed Mother of God, and at the same time, the World Day for Peace.

In both, we celebrate Christ, Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, and our true peace. To all of you who are gathered here - representatives of the peoples of the world, of the Roman and universal Church; priests and faithful, and all those who are linked to us by radio and television - I repeat the words of the ancient blessing: "The LORD let His face shine upon you... and give you peace!" (cf. Nm 6:25-26)

It is precisely the subject of the Face and of faces that I wish to dwell on today in the light of the Word of God: the Face of God and the faces of men - a subject that also offers a key to the problem of peace in the world.

We heard in the first Reading, taken from the Book of Numbers, and in the Responsorial Psalm, some expressions that contain the metaphor of the face referring to God:

"The LORD let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!" (Nm 6:25)

"May God have pity on us and bless us; may He let His face shine upon us. So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation." (Ps 66/67:2-3)

The face is the expression par excellence of the person, namely, that which makes him recognizable and which shows his sentiments, thoughts and his heart's intentions.

God, by His nature, is invisible, but the Bible uses the image of the face even for Him. Showing His face expressed His benevolence, whereas hiding it meant His ire and scorn.

The Book of Exodus tells us that "the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another" (Ex 33:11), and it was also to Moses that the Lord promised His closeness, using a very singular expression: "My face will go with you to give you rest" (Ex 33:14).

The Psalms shows us that believers are those who seek the Face of God (cf. Ps 26/27:81; 104/105:4) and who, through worship, aspire to see Him (cf. Ps 42:3); and they tell us that "righteous men" "contemplate" Him (Ps 10/11:7).

All of Biblical narration can be read as the progressive revelation of the Face of God, until it reaches its full manifestation in Jesus Christ. "When the fullness of time had come," the Apostle Paul reminds us even today, "God sent his Son," adding right away, "born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal 4:4).

The face of God took on a human face, allowing Himself to be seen and recognized in the son of the Virgin Mary, whom we honor because of this with the most elevated title of "Mother of God." She, who kept in her heart the secret of her divine motherhood, was the first to see the Face of God made man in the tiny fruit of her womb.

The mother has a very special relationship that is unique and somewhat exclusive with her newborn son. The first face that the baby sees is that of his mother, and this look is decisive for his relationship to life, with himself and with others, and with God. It is decisive, as well, so that he may become a "child of peace" (Lk 10:6).

Among the many typologies of the icon of the Virgin Mary in the Byzantine tradition, there is that which is called "tenderness" which shows the Baby Jesus with His face held, cheek to cheek, on His Mother's. The Baby looks at the Mother, and she looks at us, almost reflecting to Him who observes, who prays, the tenderness of God, who had descended to her from heaven and incarnated in this Son of man that she carries in her arms.

In this Marian icon, we can contemplate something of God Himself: a sign of the ineffable love that impelled Him "to give His only begotten Son" (Jn 3:16).

But the same icon also shows us, in Mary, the face of the Church which reflects on us and the entire world the light of Christ - the Church through which the good news comes to every man: "You are no longer slaves but children," as we read from St. Paul. (Gal 4:7).

Brothers in the Episcopate and in the priesthood, Messieurs Ambassadors, dear friends: To meditate on the mystery of the face of God and of man is a privileged way that leads to peace. Indeed, peace begins with a respectful look, which recognizes in the face of the other a person, whatever be the color of his skin, his nationality, his language, his religion.

But who, if not God, can guarantee, so to say, the "depth" of the face of man?

In fact, only if we have God in our heart, are we able to see in the face of another a brother in humanity - not a means but an end, not a rival or enemy, but another "myself," a facet of the infinite mystery of the human being. Our perception of the world, and in particular, of our peers, depends essentially on the presence in us of the Spirit of God. It is a kind of resonance: he who has an empty heart does not see anything other than flat images without depth.

On the other hand, the more God dwells in us, the more we are sensitive to His presence in everything that surrounds us: in all creatures, but especially, in other men, even though sometimes, the human face, marked by the hardness of life and by evil, may be difficult to appreciate and to accept as an epiphany of God. In order to recognize and respect each other as we really are, namely brothers, we must look to the Face of a common Father who loves us all, despite our limitations and our errors.

Already as small children, it is important to be educated to have respect for others, even when they are different from us. It has become increasingly common to have classes in school that are made up of children with different nationalities, but even if this does not happen, children's faces are a prophecy of the humanity that we are called on to be - a family of families and peoples.

The younger children are, the more they arouse in us tenderness and joy for an innocence and brotherhood that appear to be obvious: despite their differences, they cry and laugh in the same way, they have the same needs, they communicate spontaneously, they play together.

The faces of children are like a reflection of God's vision for the world. Why then should we shut down their smiles? Why do we poison their hearts?

Unfortunately, the icon of the Mother of God portraying tenderness finds its tragic counterpart in the painful images of so many children and their mothers who are prey to wars and violence: refugees, forced migrants. Faces emaciated by hunger and disease, faces disfigured by pain and despair.

The faces of young innocents are a silent appeal to our responsibility
: in the face of their helpless condition, all the false justifications for war and violence collapse. We should simply convert ourselves to plans for peace, to lay down arms of every type, and commit ourselves together to a world that is more worthy of man.

My Message for the 43rd World Day of Peace today - "If you wish to cultivate peace, take care of Creation" - fits the perspective of the Face of God and the faces of men. We can, in fact, affirm that man is capable of respecting creation to the degree which he carries in his own spirit a full sense of life. Otherwise he will come to despise his own self and everything that is around him - and therefore, he will have no respect for the environment he inhabits, no respect for Creation.

Whoever recognizes in the cosmos the reflections of the Creator's invisible Face is broguht to have more love for creatures, a better sensitivity for their symbolic value.

The Book of Psalms is particularly rich with testimonials of this properly human way of relating to nature: with the sky, the sea, mountains, hills, rivers, animals.

"How varied are your works, LORD! In wisdom you have wrought them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (Ps 104/103:24).

In particular, the perspective of the "face" asks us to dwell on that which, in the Message for today, I called "human ecology." There is, in fact, a very close link between respect for man and safeguarding Creation. "The duties towards the environment derive from those towards the person considered in himself and in relation to others." (para. 12) If man becomes degraded, then the environment he lives in is degraded. If the culture tends to nihilism, whether theoretical or practical, nature cannot but pay him back with consequences.

One can, in fact, observe a reciprocal influence between the face of man and the "face" of the environment. "When human ecology is respected in society, then even environmental ecology benefits" (ibid.; cf. Caritas in Veritate, 51). Therefore, I renew my appeal to invest in education with the goal - besides the necessary transmission of technico-scientific knowledge - of fostering a wider and deeper "ecological responsibility" based on respect for man and his fundamental rights and duties. Only then can commitment to the environment truly become an education for peace and the building of peace.

Dear brothers and sisters, at Christmastime, a Psalm recurs that contains, among other things, a stupendous example of how the coming of God transforms Creation and brings on a kind of cosmic feast. This hymn begins with a universal invitation to give praise:

"Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name" (Ps 96/95:1-2).

But at a certain point, this call for exultation extends to all of Creation:

"Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the LORD who comes, who comes to govern the earth" (vv 11-12).

The feast of faith becomes a feast of man and creation.

The feast of the Nativity is expressed even in deocorations on the trees, in the streets, in homes. Everything flowers anew because God has appeared among us.

The Virgin Mary shows the Baby Jesus to the shepherds of Bethlehem, who rejoice and praise the Lord (cf. Lk 2:20). The Church renews the mystery for men of every generation - she shows them the Face of God so that, with His blessing, we may walk along the path of peace.

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