Reflection for February 7, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36

Every three years the readings from the Bible are about veils. The first reading tells of a veil that Moses wore so that people were not overwhelmed by the brightness of his face. The second reading speaks of an unveiling taking place. In the third reading on the mountaintop the veil of the humanity of Jesus lifted. For a brief moment the true divinity of Jesus shines through. Now a veil is a covering worn to hide something that it is best not to see. And this is that one Sunday every three years when the assigned readings are about veils. Aren’t we lucky!
Veils are something we don’t do too much with these days. I suspect that the only veils many of us see are worn by brides. And these days not so many brides are wearing veils. We have a different understanding of the sacred and what is important so that veils might seem irrelevant to our faith and a bit strange.
But for the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus, God was an awesome force whose power would destroy the person who came too close. If one looked directly at God, one would die. Some of you might remember the scene in the Indiana Jones movie when the villains opened the Ark of the Covenant and were melted. So in Exodus when Moses encountered God on the mountain, his face was scorched. It radiated bright light which sort of frightened everyone. So he wore a veil.
Later, but not much later, God’s presence was represented by the ark of the covenant, a sacred box or chest placed first in a tent and later in a temple. The ark was put in a special place that was separated by a veil or curtain from the gathering space for the people. The place of the presence was known as the holy of holies. No one, except the priests, would go beyond the veil into this space.
We don’t have this understanding of God. We are more likely to think of God as that force for good working within the human family. We do not see God as something that will harm us if we draw close, but as one who invites us into an ever deeper vision of the goodness of life. Our focus is on God within us and among us. And that is a good way to approach the sacred. We emphasize the imminence of God rather than the transcendence of God.
We might even have a prejudice against veils. We live in the age of transparency. Everybody has a right to know everything. We prize not the hidden, but the exposed. We expect to be able to know anything we are interested in knowing. So this concept of hiddenness may be difficult for us. And we may even be suspicious of those of different convictions for whom veils may be important.
Still, in some Christian traditions, there is a veiled or hidden area of the church, a very holy place, set off by a wall or a curtain. The altar is in this space at the front of these churches. Then comes a curtain, wall or screen. Then beyond the screen are the pews for people to sit. This is especially true in the Eastern Orthodox traditions.
And there may be something to the veiling of things. Sometimes we still don’t want to get too close to God. Lutherans love to sit in the back of the church. If God is present in relationships rather than on mountaintops, there are still times when boundaries are important: when it is better not to say something, not to go that deep into the matter, not transgress on the space of another, not know something about what the other person is thinking. We all need our space, our privacy, our seclusion. Veils make a bit more sense on those days when we feel the presence of prying eyes trying to find out everything about us. Veils make more sense when we feel the need for boundaries or personal space. Transparency is not all it’s cracked up to be. Restraint and reticence still have their place even in this “in your face” culture we live in.
And these veils this morning remind us that there are many people still in the world who think about God differently than we, who may stress the power rather than intimacy of God, or sense the need for restraint. Even if we might disagree with them, the veils in the readings remind us that in such differences we are called to respect the views of the other for whom a veil might mean something important.
All that being said, there comes a time when the veil needs to be lifted. No matter how important the veiling is, the unveiling is also important. In any intimacy, with God, or with another, there comes a time when we need to go deeper. There comes a time when we discover something about the other that draws us closer and strengthens our bond. Friendship and love are the gradual letting go of our defenses and shields as we allow another to see and understand more and more about us. And when we do not let another person in, when we do not move beyond the veils that mark common experience and everyday life, the relationship, whether with God or another, will wither.
This is the point of the second reading which comes a thousand years after the time of Moses. In the first century, in the Roman Empire, religious practices were quickly changing. The old system of pagan gods and sacrifices in temples was giving way to new religions that emphasized more personal faith, belonging to a group of like minded believers, gatherings that involved fellowship and meals rather than sacrifices, and helping each other. Christianity took advantage of all of the changes, and grew accordingly. And there was no place that this was happening more than in Corinth.
Paul uses the concept of unveiling to talk about deepening one’s life with God. He says unveiling reveals the presence of the spirit. As we encounter God and the spirit, we grow in faith, we deepen our relationships, we change our lives, we ground ourselves in Jesus and we strive together to help one another. And this same sense of lifting the veil or revealing the presence of God in Christ is used by Luke to provide a glimpse of the brightness of God underneath the humanity of Jesus.
A glimpse of the brightness of God. If we look directly into the sun, we will go blind. But basking in the light of the sun, basking in the divine light, we acquire a glow that enlivens us with joy and love. Rekindled by the brightness of God, we glow with the compassion now found within. Sometimes we should just let our light shine. At other times we should shield the joy.
Veils. That is what we have this morning. Sometimes veils are a good thing. Not everything needs to be known by everyone. And there is something sacred about God which brings awe. And getting too close, too fast can be difficult.
And at the same time sometimes we need to move more deeply into the sacred space of divine and personal intimacy so that we become the instruments of peace in a world still covered in layers of despair.