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The Limits of Human Language

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Image: Flickr/Lisa Bettany

Has Anyone Seen God Face-to-Face?

Q: From the description in Genesis 3:8-24, it does not sound as though Adam and Eve saw God face-to-face. When Moses encountered the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-22), he heard God speak but did not see God. At the terebinth of Mamre, three angels conveyed God’s message that Abraham and Sarah would soon have a son (Genesis 18:1-15). Did anyone see God before Jesus came?

A: The biblical evidence about seeing God is mixed. After the patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger, Jacob names that place Peniel, “Because I have seen God face to face…yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31).

According to Exodus 33:11a, “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” This passage is cited in Numbers 12:8, Deuteronomy 34:10 and Sirach 45:5.

In Exodus 33:20, however, God says to Moses, “But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives.” For this reason, God created a hollow place in the rock where Moses could see God pass by, but see only God’s back (v. 22-23).

References to God as hiding the divine face occur in Deuteronomy 31:17, Psalms 13:2, 51:11 and 104:29, plus Isaiah 8:17—to mention only a few of the biblical references.

In the New Testament, Jesus says that angels look on the face of God (Matthew 18:10). The author of 1 Peter 3:12 says that the “face of the Lord is against evildoers.” The Book of Revelation has two references to God’s face. After saying that the face of the son of man [Jesus] “shone like the sun at its brightest” (1:16), John later states that God’s servants “will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (22:4).

All comparisons of God to humans are approximate—whether we are talking about parts of the body (the Bible refers to God’s face, hands, heart, arms, feet, etc.) or about emotions (anger, laughter, contentment, etc.).

I once made a list of Scriptures that speak of God as having human body parts. Using the New American Bible translation, the most common usages in the Hebrew Scriptures were hand (201), voice (92) and eyes (52). The most common New Testament usages were also hand (23), voice (23) and eyes (10).

The Bible includes many verbal portraits of God but strictly prohibits any physical representations (see Exodus 20:4-5 or Deuteronomy 5:8-9). The Book of Genesis says that men and women were made in God’s image and likeness (1:27).

Any divine/human comparisons must remain tentative this side of the eternal banquet. Once people are there, however, there is no need for description because they are experiencing God directly.

Marks of Respect Vary by Culture

Q: Why do people kiss the pope’s ring? This strikes me as a very odd custom and is certainly not based on the Bible. I have never found anyone who could give me a good explanation for this practice.

A: This is a mark of respect in some cultures. Such marks vary widely according to the background of the persons involved. In the United States, for example, if you are seated when the president of the country enters a room, you stand as a mark of respect for that office.

Members of an orchestra stand when the conductor comes to the podium. A few days after 9/11, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had a regularly scheduled concert, the first for its new music director, Paavo Järvi. My memory is that all of us in the audience stood up as he came onstage to begin that performance.

A couple months ago, the soldier-son of one of our co-workers at St. Anthony Messenger Press came to a company meeting to thank us for our prayers and good wishes for his recovery after he was injured in Iraq. People spontaneously stood up when he was introduced and walked into the room.

Marks of respect reflect the time and culture of the person wishing to show respect. Kissing the pope’s ring or a bishop’s ring is a custom generally on the wane—in my observation. Respect can remain strong even as different ways of expressing it evolve.

Receiving Holy Communion in a Protestant Church

Q: I recently attended the wedding of a friend’s son who was married in a Protestant ceremony. This wedding included a communion service. In order to show respect for my friend and his son, I received communion but afterwards questioned if I should have. How does the Catholic Church view this situation?

A: The Catholic Church does not see this as proper because the physical act of receiving communion is virtually the same during a Catholic Mass and a service such as this one. The faith represented by this action, however, is not the same. It certainly is not on the level of what these faith communities officially teach about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Your desire to honor your friend and his son is commendable, but should that come at the cost of obscuring what you believe about the Eucharist? On this Web site, you can find our September 2001 Catholic Update on this topic.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that eucharistic intercommunion with ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation is not possible because of the absence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Catechism goes on to teach: “However, these ecclesial communities, ‘when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper… profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory’” (article 1400, citing section three of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism).

Someday intercommunion may represent a common belief in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but at present it does not. This issue is openly addressed in various ecumenical dialogues.

The ‘Cause’ of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Q: How can I find out how close Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is to becoming a saint? Is there anyone whom I can contact?

A: For those not acquainted with her, Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was the daughter of a Christian Algonquin married to an Iroquois chief. Born close to modern-day Auriesville, New York, Kateri was orphaned at age four and became a Catholic 15 years later. She eventually moved to a Christian Native American village near Montreal. There she died a natural death. Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

A word about the beatification/canonization process: This is referred to as that person’s “cause.” The person who does most of the work promoting it on the local level is called the vice postulator. The postulator for a cause usually lives in or near Rome and handles a number of cases.

If a person is not a martyr, he or she needs one medical miracle to be beatified and another one to be canonized. Reported miracles are examined by separate teams of doctors, theologians and cardinals before they are formally recognized as such.

For information about Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha’s cause, you can write to Msgr. Paul Lenz, Cause of Kateri Tekakwitha, 2021 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006, or to the Kateri Center, Box 70, Kahnawake, Quebec JOL 1BO, Canada.

Internet information is available through The latter Web site is for the shrine at Auriesville, New York.

The Kateri Tekakwitha Conference supports pastoral ministry among Native American Catholics. It organizes an annual meeting and is headquartered at P.O. Box 6768, Great Falls, MT 59406.

Is There a Heaven?

Q: All my life we have been told that when we die we will be with God for all eternity. I sometimes feel, however, that when you die that’s it—no heaven, God or anything. It’s frightening to think that what I have believed all these years might not be true.

A: God has not revoked the biblical promises about sharing divine life forever. There have always been people who did not accept them, but that does not make those people more trustworthy than people who believe in heaven.

Is it possible that your uneasiness about heaven stems from the imagery that some people have used to describe it? In heaven, God’s plan for the human race will be complete. God will have become everything in all of us (see 1 Corinthians 15:28). Isn’t that specific enough?