Dr Ashley Cocksworth is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Practice at the University of Roehampton. He is the author of Karl Barth on Prayer (T&T Clark, 2015) and Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2018). He is currently writing a study on glory with David F. Ford for Baker Academic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the smile these days. Why the smile? Why now? The first UK lockdown coincided with the birth of our first child, Lucy, who was born into this strange new world at the end of April 2020. Through everything this year has thrown at us – at the world – one of the things that has shone with reliably piercing radiance has been Lucy’s smile. Since the beginning, developmental psychologists have been mesmerised by the first smiles of a baby. Are they instinctive? Are they imitative? Do they reflect the smile of their doting parents? Do they emerge from some primordial intuition? What sort of emotions does the smile express? What really is a smile? For us, Lucy’s smile has been an expression of joy, pure joy – a radiant, abundantly attractive sign that all shall be well.
The more I’ve been entranced by Lucy’s little smile, the more I’ve found myself noticing in new ways the social dynamic of the smile. As physical distancing measures became harsher and stricter, and while there was every reason not to smile, I’ve come to see the smile as perhaps the most intensive form of embrace possible – both online and in person.
I’ve come to see the smile as perhaps the most intensive form of embrace possible
Even when masked, the smile shines through. You can cover up the mouth, but you can’t hide a smile for a true smile, that is, one full of joy, lightens up the whole face with a peculiar capacity to draw others into its intensity. Another reason, then, that I’ve found myself thinking about the smile is that so much of social life, human interaction, identity, and meaning is underpinned by the smile – and, as a Christian theologian, I want to think theologically about these things. A further and final provocation into thinking about the smile has been a book I’m co-authoring with David F. Ford on the most theological of theological themes: glory. The entire book has been written in lockdown and has been inspired by intensive conversations over Zoom which we’ve organised around a form of textual reasoning. We read a different psalm each time, a different chapter of Ephesians (surely the most doxological of Paul’s letters), and the whole of John 17 (the glory text par excellence if there ever was one). We’ve been thinking of all things in relation to glory – the Nicene Creed, various doctrinal loci, the body, joy, sin (and the falling short of glory), praise, God, the church, tongues, beauty, reading, the Sabbath, and especially the smile.
What is the relation between a theme with such gravitas as glory and a thing so ordinary as a smile? In a brilliant essay on glory, the post-colonial theologian Mayra Rivera speaks of ‘the glory that flickers in the midst of everyday life’ (view the essay). We’ve come to think of the smile as exactly that: a sign of the inextinguishable sublimity of God’s glory flicking in the most ordinary of things.
While every angle of the smile has been explored by pretty much every discipline, the smile has seemed to pass theologians by. Perhaps this is because there aren’t many smiles in the Bible. Or maybe it’s because the New Testament doesn’t record Jesus smiling. Jesus wept, but there’s nothing to say he smiled. An argument could be made that since smiling is so ordinary and such an unremarkable characteristic of being human, Jesus’ smiles, unlike his tears, were left unsaid. We know, of course, that Jesus enjoyed encounter with others, table fellowship, feasting, and the celebration and festivity of weddings – all the things that would bring joy to hearts and put smiles on faces. It’s hard to imagine Jesus doing all this without giving and receiving smiles. But then again, the smile might not have carried the same social signifies then as it does for us in the UK and elsewhere today.
Indeed, some of the early Christian tradition had more to say about the Man of Sorrows than the Man of Smiles. Some in the history of Christian smiling have gone further in exercising actual hostility towards the smile. The smile, like laughter, gets associated with the dangers of excess and gluttony and, as such, is unbefitting of Christian piety. Some even made a point of refraining from smiling altogether on Fridays to show on their bodies the sorrow Christ showed on his as he suffered on the cross. And, for much of Christian history, those who laughed and smiled without restraint tended to be demons and devils. These demonic smiles could be a latent reminder of the aggression the smile, and its baring of the teeth, once expressed on the faces of primates to ward off their predators.
All that said, there are some exceptions to the general rule that theologians have tended to neglect the smile. One exception is Stephen Pattison’s excellent Saving Face: Enfacement, Shame, Theology (Routledge, 2016). While principally an exploration of the nature of face and enfacement, both human and divine, and the importance of the face in human life and relationships, the smile makes an appearance throughout Pattison’s study.
When discussing the apparent lack of smiles in the Bible, Pattison identifies a minority textual tradition that translates the Hebrew word for shining with ‘smiling’. Some of the thematic connection between the smiling of the face and the shining of light is suggested when we still speak of a ‘beaming’ or a ‘glowing’ smile. So, when the Bible talks of God’s face ‘shining’, as it does with some regularity through the Old Testament and especially in the Psalms, this could be taken as a reference to the smiling face of God. The New Living Translation often follows this interpretative line. And what a difference it makes! It’s an especially fascinating exercise to re-read the Psalms with the imagery of the smile brought to the surface. The opening of Psalm 67 would read:
May God be merciful and bless us.
May his face smile with favor on us
May your ways be known throughout the earth,
your saving power among people everywhere. (Ps 67:1-2; NLT)
Then, think of the Aaronic blessing, which would read:
May the Lord bless you
and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
and give you his peace.’ (Num. 6.24-26; NLT)
Once ‘shining’ gets interpreted as ‘smiling’, new meaning is brought to old hymns and songs featuring shining faces. ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’, would become, ‘Smile, Jesus, smile / Fill this land with the Father’s glory’ as if to say that the smiling face of Jesus, as the smile of God incarnate, is the radiating presence of the glory of God in the world.
There’s the link to glory. The smile can be interpreted as the flickering presence of God’s glory in the ordinariness of life. While the world isn’t giving much to smile about these days, perhaps the smile shows, precisely in the midst of despair, something of the inextinguishable glory of God.
Thinking further about the relationality of the smile, when we speak of a beaming smile, we mean the way a smile not only gives external expression to internal feelings, but communicates something to the world. That something is joy and the hope that that entails. With the smile there is to be found, then, a curious dynamic: it expresses the experience of joy and then draws others into a share of that experience. It radiates and attracts. Indeed, the smile is so entrancing, so contagious that it evokes in others, and often irresistibly and uncontrollably, a response in kind. The smile returns a smile. But the smile returned is more than an echo, more than a repetition, more than a mirror image of the smile given. As the one smiled upon returns the gift of the smile with a smile, these smiles are mutually intensifying in such a way that is transformative. The completeness of my smile is completed by the smile of another. In a non-competitive way, when I smile, and you smile back, your smile does not take anything away from my smile. It is not that the more you smile, the less smile there is to go around. The smile’s logic of abundance does not work within this model of scarcity, but understands smiles to increase in equal proportions. The more a smile radiates, the more it attracts, and the more one smile is attracted into the smile of another, the more it becomes more fully itself. In the mutually intensifying dynamic of the smile, there is, then, resources to think our way out of relations based on scarcity and competition. What would a world based on the abundant dynamic of the smile look like as a way of resisting dominant narratives of scarcity?
In theological terms, the exchange of the smile can be seen to follow a triadic logic that flows between the smiler, the smile, and the one smiled upon. According to such an interpretation, a figure such as St Augustine might recognise the exchange of the smile, and the sort of relationality it inspires, as an analogy of the Trinity: that which loves, that which is loved, and love itself becomes that which smiles, that which is smiled upon, and the smile itself. Here, the smile comes to reflect, like memory does for Augustine, the glorious inner logic of the Trinity, and in so doing reflects, however flickeringly, something of the glory of God in the world.
...the smile comes to reflect, like memory does for Augustine, the glorious inner logic of the Trinity, and in so doing reflects, however flickeringly, something of the glory of God in the world.
A few weeks ago, we took Lucy to Coventry Cathedral for Easter Day. Although we were masked, Lucy could hear in our voices and see in our eyes that we were full of smiles; and, as probably the only person without a mask, there was nothing to stop Lucy’s beaming smile from being on full display. With Lucy distracted by hearing for the first time the triumphant Easter sounds of the organ, bells, trumpets, and choir, I found myself mesmerized once again by Graham Sutherland’s huge tapestry, ‘Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph’, which dominates the north end of the Cathedral. When you first enter the new Coventry Cathedral, having moved through the ruins of the old, you are faced with the face of Christ in whose face the glory of God radiates. As you get closer and notice more of its expressiveness, you see flickering on the face of Christ a smile. It’s not a complete smile. But there is the unmistakable beginning of a smile that nevertheless dazzles. The fully featured face of Jesus is ever more radiant when set against the facelessness of the figure standing at his feet. It’s not that the faceless figure at the feet of Christ has been defaced. More formless than faceless, this figure – who stands in for us all – is poised ready to be formed from one degree of glory to another (1 Cor. 3:18).
Like the faceless figure standing at the feet of the glorified Christ ready to be formed for glory, when we smile, in Pauline terms we ‘put on’ (Gal. 3:26-7) the smile of the glorified Christ. Calvin said that when we pray we pray by Christ’s mouth. Do we also smile by his mouth? Might it be that, when we smile, we participate in some mysterious way in the smile of the glorified Christ who is smiling for us at the right hand of the father? When we smile, do we image something of the smile of Christ to the world?
This Christ-shaped smile shows to a world of despair something that is good. It interrupts the ordinary course of events with a glimpse of the abundance of glory. It helps to construct new intimacies. It creates spaces for others to share in the joy that anticipates the chief end of things. And it has a role to play in spreading the good news that in the end all shall be well and if it isn’t, then it’s not the end.
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