December 15, 2016
Last week we unveiled a newly donated statue of the First Vision entitled “Face to Face” by D.J. Bawden. Among the distinctive features that I like in this familiar LDS tableau is the way that the Father rests his hand on the Son’s shoulders. This tender gesture expresses their unity and love in a natural way. I also like that the piece depicts a resurrected Christ; wounds are clearly visible in his hands and wrists. I had not thought about this before. And I like the expression on the faces of the Father and Son. But most of all I like the simple yet evocative title, “Face to Face.”
“Face to face” is a common phrase but also one rich in implication. We use it to describe our most personal human encounters. Not those that take place over the phone or Internet, nor even in a crowd, but those that occur when one person meets the gaze of another. Such moments can feel intensely personal. They entreat us to recognize, however fleetingly, the humanity of another person. It is little wonder that a modern philosopher named Immanuel Levinas based his ethical philosophy on the experience of being “face to face” with another human being. He says that the face of the “other” calls us to ethical responsibility. It forbids us to kill and bids us to care.
In the scriptures, “face to face” is also resonant with theological meaning. It is used to describe the experience of those prophets to whom God has personally appeared and spoken.
We read that Abraham talked with God “face to face” (Ab. 3:11). Jacob was renamed Israel because he wrestled with God “face to face” at Peniel (Gen. 32:30). The scriptures speak several times of Moses as one who spoke with God “face to face,” “even as a man talketh with another,” or “as a man speaketh unto his friend” (see Deut. 5:4, 34:10; Ex. 33:11; Moses 1:2, 7:4). Similarly, the brother of Jared “talked with the Lord face to face” (D&C 17:1), as did Moroni, who says, in a touching verse that Hyrum read to Joseph the night before the martyrdom:
And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things (Ether 12:39)
The First Vision enrolled Joseph into an elite company of prophets who talked with God face to face, “as a man speaketh unto his friend.” It taught him that God was not only embodied—as are the figures in the statue, whose very veins are visible—but personal. We see personality in their faces. They appear kind, wise, and loving. There is even the hint of a smile on the Father’s face. In it we see someone who might well say to Joseph, as the Lord later did to the elders of his church, “Let us reason [together] even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face” (D&C 50:11).
This invitation reminds us that God stands ready to converse personally with us as he did with Joseph. He is neither distant nor impersonal. He is close; he is personal—not the God of the philosophers but the God that Jesus taught us to address as “Our Father.”
And we, too, shall one day see him again, face to face. This promise is deposited deep in our hearts when we go to the temple or sing “O My Father.” It is articulated beautifully by the apostle Paul, who says that in this life “we see through a glass, darkly.” But someday, we shall know as we are known and shall see God “face to face” (see 1 Cor. 13:12). How we long for that day, when we come face to face with our Father again!