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Christmas reminds us that meeting face to face is both a blessing and a challenge.

As I write many of us are looking forward to being able to enjoy Christmas worship in person. It’s hard to capture exactly what is special about being physically present to each other. Certainly we can hear each other over the telephone; we can see each other over a Zoom call. There is, however, an extra dimension of being in the same space together. We encounter each other at a deeper level, we know and are known.

If every face-to-face encounter is a blessing it is also a challenge. What will we do with the knowledge we have acquired? How will we treat the person before us – as a project, a means to an end, or as someone uniquely formed in the image of God? In his work Totality and Infinity the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explores the power of face-to-face encounter as follows ‘The face resists possession, resists my powers … the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation … the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me’.

Reflecting on the past 18 months I’m reminded of the people I’ve met face to face. The postgraduate couple from overseas, tipped into poverty with the disappearance of casual work. Vulnerable families striving to make ends meet while staying safe. Dedicated volunteers serving others when it would be easier to withdraw. Such encounters carry an obligation and call me to value and learn from those I’ve met.

What might it mean then to encounter God face to face? In the Old Testament it is an elusive, sometimes terrifying, prospect. In Exodus 33:20 the Lord tells Moses ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live’. In Isaiah 45:15 the prophet declares ‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour’.

With the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ a new possibility emerges. In John 1:18 the evangelist meditates on the events of the first Christmas – ‘No one has ever seen God’. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. God enters our space, God meets us face to face.

There is wonderful blessing here. The love of God, the grace of God, the holiness of God are no abstract qualities. They are made visible in the words or deeds of Jesus, who touches, heals, blesses, dies and rises again.

There is also profound challenge here. Read through the gospels and you’ll notice how no-one left a meeting with Jesus unchanged. Some saw and heard the invitation to relationship and resisted, becoming hardened in their unbelief and hypocrisy. Others drew nearer and found forgiveness and grace.

For all of us this Advent and Christmas is an opportunity to encounter God face to face, to receive the blessing and weigh the challenge. May God grant us the grace to see, to hear, to know and be known.

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