Prosopal presence: our current conundrum

When we meet online, are we meeting ‘face to face’?
My colleague Elizabeth Shively gave us an excellent sermon this morning in our series on 1Thess.; I won’t repeat what she said (its on our church FB page, and well worth the watch), but before she began my attention was caught by a word in the reading.
Throughout the letter Paul expresses his regrets that he is absent from the Thessalonian believers, his longing to see them, and his eagerness for news of them. In 3:10 he prays ‘Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face’ (NRSV)
‘May see you face to face’ translates τὸ ἰδεῖν ὑμῶν τὸ πρόσωπον; it was the word πρόσωπον that caught my eye (I was following the reading in the original, as I usually do); it’s a word I’ve thought about a lot. Paul made a similar point , using the same word, twice, in 2:17: ἀπορφανισθέντες ἀφ᾿ ὑμῶν … προσώπῳ οὐ καρδίᾳ, περισσοτέρως ἐσπουδάσαμεν τὸ πρόσωπον ὑμῶν ἰδεῖν… (‘…separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed … to see you face to face.’ NRSV)
Here, there is a contrast between being with them ‘in person’ (πρόσωπον) and ‘in heart’ (καρδίᾳ), reminiscent of 1Cor. 5:3 ἀπὼν τῷ σώματι, παρὼν δὲ τῷ πνεύματι (‘absent in body [σώμα], present in spirit [πνεύμα]’), as well as the same expression of desire to see facially [τὸ πρόσωπον].
How does Paul’s urgent longing to be re-united with the Thessalonian sisters and brothers relate to our enforced absence from each other today? The Corinthian text is easy: we are apart bodily without question, and together in spirit, without question. The Thessalonian ones are more difficult.
πρόσωπον is more difficult, as already the translations from the NRSV above indicate: does it mean ‘face’ or ‘person’? Well, yes; the semantic range stretches at least that wide—see the historical note at the end of this post. But in this linguistic imprecision our current experience of church fellowship sits: many of us, at least, are seeing the faces of our sisters and brothers through video conferencing; we are talking, interacting, so there is some real togetherness, some experience of coming together for worship and fellowship. We are not bodily present, however, and so we are not fully personally present to each other. We are living in a grey area in the middle of the semantic range of the word πρόσωπον.
Paul longed to be with the Thessalonians prosopally; did that mean just seeing their faces, or bodily presence, or what? Of course, these are not distinctions he could have made; lacking videoconferencing solutions, bodily presence was necessary to seeing faces. Almost everything he talks about longing for in the letter is achievable in online meeting: he wants to pastor them, to observe and interrogate their growth in faith, to be able to correct error, to offer exhortation and encouragement. All of this is possible online. In the end, however, is the instruction to ‘greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss’ (5:26); there comes a point where bodies matter.
If Paul could have met with the Thessalonians over Teams or Zoom, he would have jumped at the chance, I am sure; he could have heard of the answers to his constant prayers, and offered the encouragement and advice he longed to give—but he would still have wanted to kiss them.
I don’t think many of us need to be told that our online gatherings are sub-optimal; kissing may not be quite our culture, but hugging might be, and singing without question is; we want to be together bodily. But Paul in Thessalonians certainly reminds us that what we have is not nothing; we can meet face to face, after a fashion, we can hear of each other’s faith, and offer encouragement and counsel. We are not simply apart, though we are scattered.
If we are to be church well through this time, I suspect it will be in part by reflecting seriously on the limits, but also the possibilities of this grey prosopal space we are now meeting in; perhaps thinking about Greek semantic fields can help us with that?

Historical note:
[This is all from memory, as I am separated from my library…] πρόσωπον is a very difficult word to translate, and visibly changes meaning over time. In earliest extant usage (Homer), it referred fairly simply to the face; from there, it came to be the term for the mask an actor in a Greek drama would wear, from which sense another meaning of ‘character’ (in a play), and so ‘actor in a narrative’; from this the sense of ‘person’ gradually developed. In the theological tradition the word is demonstrably, I think, fluid in meaning through the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; Diodore of Tarsus (C4th) used it to mean something like ‘an existing subject of predication and experience’, and so ‘person’ with some weight; for Theodore of Mopsuestia (C4th-5th) and Nestorius (C5th), the word carried no ontological weight, and so the sense of ‘mask’ or ‘outward appearance’ was to the fore. John the Grammarian (C6th) and Leontius of Jerusalem (C6th) use the term in markedly different senses; only in John of Damascus’s Philosophical Chapters do we get a stable definition (ch. 43), which John achieves largely by insisting that appearance reflects reality, and so that the ‘mask/face’ sense and the ‘person/character’ sense cohere.

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