Frederick Buechner: “The Face in the Sky”

The following is an excerpt from a sermon on the Christmas story in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.23-24).

Buechner begins by describing the first scene of Enrico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, in which a helicopter carries a life-size statue of Jesus over the outskirts of Rome toward its destination at the Vatican.

Children running in the street, construction workers and girls on rooftops in bikinis all see the statue, wave and shout, “Ehi, è Gesù!

Jesus statue
Then Buechner tells about the reaction of the audience in the little college town where he first saw the film as the camera zoomed in to fill the screen with the bearded face of Jesus.

Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds there on the screen, that made them be silent—the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms.

For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew belonged to them, or the face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.

I think that is much of what the Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still, that is all….

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.

If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.

And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he come most fully.

For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets to big for that.

God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.

It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves.

Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.

And so it is.

Blessèd be,

8 comments On Frederick Buechner: “The Face in the Sky”

  • Chester Kirchman

    A face in the sky may be very different for each of us. What we each believe has a heavy influence on a face in the sky and most other parts of our lives. From devote religious fanatics to firm atheists, we each have our own beliefs. This creates a base from which we can discuss our differing places in saving our planet. The more we can peacefully interact with each other and many other forms of life on earth, the longer our global home will last!

  • Michael Austin Shell

    Readers may be interested in visiting and following Frederick Buechner’s Facebook page at

  • Pingback: Frederick Buechner: “The Sign by the Highway” | The Empty Path ()

  • Beautiful – and just what I needed this morning. – Vicki

  • Joanne Herrmann

    Thanks, Michael. This is a lovingly beautiful reflection on Christ as the revelation of God’s love. The face is the image that we identify with — which is probably why we do not have a photo of Jesus; he came at a time when there were no such things, nor do we even have a physical description of him. He is the name of God, our identity as his followers, who carry God within us as God’s children.Or as Paul said, that we now see darkly, but then face to face.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks, Joanne. I was grateful for the leading to revisit Buechner. As I write in the next post, “When I encounter spiritual dryness, that sensation warns me that I have in some sense stopped being a breathing human being and have become, in some weird sense, just an idea of myself. I need to reconnect with a Person. Reconnecting with the Person Jesus does this for me.”

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