When my husband and I were dating, we only saw each other on the weekends. We met at a summer job, but aside from the one month we overlapped there, we never actually lived in the same place until we got married. We started dating a few months after the summer job ended, me finishing up college and him starting a teaching job. Because we couldn’t spend a lot of time together, the time we got was particularly special.
Each weekend, one of us would hop on the train and come for a visit, and one particular Friday evening I told him that when the train crossed from Indiana into Illinois and then eventually into Chicago, he needed to get off near the John Hancock building on Michigan Avenue rather than continuing out to the suburb where I lived. A friend had connected me to a catering gig for her company’s Christmas party, and I thought it would be a fun way for my boyfriend and me to make some money and share an unusual experience.
While I was a student, I occasionally worked for the catering service at my college because they hired students to help with special events like alumni dinners. I enjoyed the dance of serving partygoers, making sure they had what they needed while also trying to remain invisible to them. I learned to fill a coffee cup from the side of the customer’s dominant hand, in order not to reach through their personal space for the cup and inadvertently make my armpit hover in front of their nose while I topped off their coffee.
I loved making things run smoothly, where it seemed as if everything was appearing and disappearing naturally and without any real effort. Ironically as a mother of five now, I’d like the occasional, “Thanks for all your hard work, Mom!” But for some reason my kids prefer my rose-colored catering perspective of enjoying being magically served and magically cleaned up after.
But I digress…
The thing about catering the Christmas party together is that it didn’t sound very exciting to most people. “Oh, your boyfriend is visiting for the weekend? Got any big plans?”
“Oh yes,” I would say excitedly. “We’ll be serving people cake and coffee for awhile on a Friday night.”
But with the two of us, anything can be fun. We often catch each other’s eye even now, married for eighteen years, with a sly smile or perhaps stifling laughter, because even in the most mundane circumstances, we find a way to have fun together.
And we had fun on that night twenty years ago. We served food and fancy drinks, dressed up like penguins—not a literal penguin costume, but that classic catering outfit of black pants, white shirt, and a black apron. My friend whose company was having the party took a photo of my boyfriend and me during the event. It’s a dark shot, blurry lights twinkling around us as we leaned in for a quick photo between serving appetizers and desserts. I didn’t think much of the picture until I showed it to my mom a few weeks later, and she said offhandedly, “Look at the way your face shines when you’re with him. It’s nice to see you so happy.”
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. –Psalm 80:3
Three times in Psalm 80, in a variety of difficult circumstances, the author begs the Lord for relief, for peace, for salvation. And even though we cannot see God’s literal face, the figure of speech “let your face shine” means what my mom said about that sweet photograph. It means that when a face shines, there is blessing, there is happiness, and there is connection.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what a shining face looks like. You need not rub oil on your cheeks to make them shine in this way; even those with the driest skin can emit that inviting joyful glow. You need not be pregnant, though if you are, you will likely get comments about that pregnancy glow because of the increased bloodflow to your skin’s surface that happens during pregnancy. You need not run a race and cross the finish line, red-faced and relieved that it’s over, smiling at your loved ones who are there to meet you. Your face might be flushed when you exercise, but that doesn’t mean that it shines in a Biblical way.
No, the shining face of Psalm 80 comes from the blessing that priests gave to the Israelites in the book of Numbers, a blessing that God told Moses to impart to his people. It is still spoken in Judeo-Christian houses of worship every week:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. –Numbers 6:24-26
God does not have a physical face of flesh and cheeks and crow’s feet under sparkling eyes. But a shining face is so closely associated with joy and with relational harmony that the Old Testament authors use that image many times as a mark of divine blessing. May our faces shine as we connect with each other, mend broken relationships, and bless others with our joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ this Advent season.