What are you looking at? It is a question we have all asked, and we have all been asked, because one of the most noticeable things about us people is our eyes, and what they are doing.
It is always exciting when an infant’s eyes begin to focus, and then recognize mother, father, and others. The infamous teenage eye roll elicits the opposite sentiment. Backseat cries of, “He’s looking at me!” reveal how a look can intrude. When a companion’s eyes stare blankly into the distance, we are likely to call her back to our conversation; but when they fix and focus on a distant object and the expression changes, we stop ourselves mid-sentence, asking what it is, or even turning to look ourselves.
If you were to stand stock still in a public place with your eyes fixed on a certain point, many people would look not at you, but toward the place your gaze is fixed. Such is the power of a look. The most important things we can say to another human being only make sense if we are looking directly into their eyes. To avert our eyes undermines what we say, and possibly even the entire relationship.
In our day, the screen is the killer of this essential human communication. The television has trained us to expect eyes that look with meaning and emotion directly at us – even though the reality is that they stare into the blank cyclops of a camera, feigning engagement. Those bright beguiling screens draw all eyes toward them -- and away from one another. Now it seems that we all have our own private and personal screen, and our eyes are lost to one another.
One action liberates our eyes from this prison, if only for a portion of time: Mass. Because of the power of the eyes, the priest celebrant raises his eyes in prayer, to lift the eyes of the people to God. Closing the eyes, while helpful to private prayer, it is hardly liturgical. Someone wisely observed to me in seminary that it was a way for the priest to go where nobody else could possibly follow.
The priest’s eyes are not the only ones to have impact. Parents’ eyes exert an influence over where their children look, even if they may not follow all the time. Children learn what is important about anything, especially Mass, from their parents’ attention, especially the eyes. A particularly devout soul can draw the eyes of family, friends, and even those simply sitting nearby to the object of his rapt attention.
We know and love the visual aspects of Christmas: lights, decorations, greeting cards, and manger scenes of every possible style. They celebrate the moment when the invisible God became visible, allowing our eyes to behold him, drawing the eyes of others to do the same. But while we can enjoy these depictions, we need not settle for only them. Since those shepherds first laid eyes on the Lord, His sacramental presence has offered the same experience to generation after generation, eye following eye, reaching not a depiction of the Living God, but the very Eternal Word become flesh. The eyes have it.
So look when the priest says, “Behold!” His eyes focus not on you to whom he is speaking, but upon the God Who is suddenly come within his reach. Direct your eyes, and other eyes will follow yours to glory, out of the natural human curiosity to know what you are looking at.