Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Temptation of Christ and the Facelessness of the Devil

Here is a mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, a work of the early 12th century, which shows the subject of this week’s topic in our series of Lenten meditations, the temptations of Christ in His 40 days in the desert. These days anticipate our participation in the 40 days of Lent; if we remain united to Christ, we can, with His grace, resist temptation and banish the devil. Afterwards, He was ministered to by angels; angels are ready to minister to us if we wish to allow them to.

It is salutary that even Christ faced such temptations of wealth, power and notoriety, but resisted them. The Lenten observance is done in order to help us to be like Christ and resist temptation. Our hope is to grow in strength in this regard. Of course, we can never do this perfectly, and we will sin again in this life, inevitably. This is why we ought also to focus on repentance and God’s mercy as we have done in the other reflections. The negative space in this composition is golden, and when reflecting candlelight in the church, will appear to be shining with the divine light of Christ. This is a reminder not only that God is with us in the darkest periods, but also of the ultimate end of this Lenten period, which is heavenly glory, for us!

Notice also how the devil is shown as an almost faceless figure and shrouded in darkness, in comparison with the figures of Christ and the onlooking angels. In one part he is shown in profile, which is the standard in iconographic art for a good reason. The convention of iconographic sacred art is always to show Christ, the angels and saints clearly, with their full face; this indicates that to know someone in heaven, which is the realm that iconographic art depicts, is to see the person fully. To be ‘face to face’ with someone is a metaphor for each person being fully open to the other, hiding nothing and revealing all to them. This imagery comes from the fact that when we look at someone, we discern the inner person - the state of their souls - through their facial expressions. We are hardwired to look at people this way.
Looking at people face-to-face is the mark of loving interaction and characterizes Christian interpersonal relationships. The antithesis of this is facelessness, so the devil is shown in profile, with distorted or obscured facial features, because he hides his true intentions.
Scripture, using this imagery, tells us that in heaven we will see God’s face. For example, in his famous hymn to love (so often read at marriages), St Paul says, “At present we are looking at a confused reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face; now I have only a glimpse of knowledge; then, I shall recognize God as he has recognized me.” (1 Cor 13, 12-13)
This is why, incidentally, wearing masks when we deal with people is profoundly damaging to our personal relationships and destroys loving interaction. To impose the use of masks is a direct attack on the human freedom and hence on the spirit, the highest aspect of the soul and the source of love. When our spirit is undermined, we become malleable and manipulable by the forces of evil, for we are miserable and detached from the love that supports and binds us to God and others healthily. This ultimately has secondary effects on our mental and physical health.
This is not taken into account in the current debate about face masks mandates and its impact on our freedom, I suggest (more on that tomorrow).
An icon of St George slaying the dragon; notice that the Saint’s face is shown full-on, while that of the dragon, who represents the devil, is in profile.

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