(2 Corinthians 3:12–4:3)
During Lent, we will examine Jesus’ last days using the metaphor of eyesight. In most cases, folks did not see clearly and, therefore, misunderstood who He was and what He was doing; then again, sometimes by faith people did see and recognize Him correctly.
On this Transfiguration Sunday (the Sunday just before the Lenten Season), the primary metaphor in today’s reading is the veil. In 2 Corinthians, verses 13-18, the word or a form of it occurs seven times.
The word veil is not a common word, but it’s not unfamiliar either. Attend enough weddings and you’ve probably seen a bride at the altar, her face obscured by a veil. When the reverend says to the groom, “You may now kiss the bride,” he eagerly lifts the veil, revealing the bride in all her shining and smiling glory.
Fewer brides wear veils these days, but many – especially those who love tradition – put on the veil, only for it to later be taken off.
This recalls the Old Testament wedding of Jacob and his fiancée. He thought he was marrying his beloved Rachel. But when he lifted the veil, he saw that the woman he’d married was Leah, Rachel’s older sister! Although the Bible says that she had “lovely eyes,” that’s about all that was lovely as far as Jacob was concerned; he was horrified and outraged.
The story is told in Genesis 29, where we learn that, truth be told, it wasn’t actually Leah’s veil that was lifted, but her virginity. But there’s no doubt that during the marriage ritual, Leah’s “lovely eyes” could not be seen. Perhaps this is why subsequent grooms began to insist that the bridal veil be lifted. The groom wanted visual certification that he was marrying the correct person before it was too late.
The veil was common in the ancient and medieval worlds – Egyptian, Greek and Roman women wore some kind of veil – and religious women cloistered in a nunnery began their careers by “taking the veil.” The ceremony was and continues to be highly ritualistic. The attention to detail is borderline OCD. The marital link is obvious. The postulate wears white; she takes a new name; she is veiled; she is a bride of Christ. The veil also symbolized the postulant’s death to the outside world and her rebirth in a new, sanctified and separated world.
All of this seems very far from where we’re living today, unless we’re brides-to-be or among the religious devout.
Yet, the metaphor is not that strange to us, is it? For the past two years, we’ve been wearing masks, and even though some stores no longer require them, for the time being hospitals, airlines, and other places still do. And for many concerned citizens, it’s still a “mask it or casket” world. And what is a mask but a variety of a veil? Most masks do not cover the eyes, but some do. So, in a sense, we’re used to wearing face coverings.
My father wore safety glasses during most of his career as a forge press operator (to shield his eyes from sparks and metal shards) and Mary’s dad wore a shield for his job doing welding on space craft. And if you ever have an opportunity to see a solar eclipse, there are special glasses you need in order to see the sun safely. These are variations of a veil.
Moses had twin problems related to mask-wearing. First, the brightness of God’s glory. Moses found himself in the presence of God, and the glory of God was so astonishingly brilliant that his eyes could not deal with it. The brightness of the glory required something like solar eclipse glasses. He could not see the brightness of God and do so safely. So, the Bible tells us that he hid his face with a veil. We don’t know anything else about this veil. Was it made of an animal intestinal membrane? A piece of fine, woven linen? Did he use part of his robe? We don’t know. What we do know is that in the presence of God, he needed some kind of eye and face protection.
The experience of Moses on Sinai is a check on our imagination that pictures God as someone who looks like George Burns, Morgan Freeman or Michelangelo’s depiction of God in the Sistine Chapel. The tendency to fashion God in our own image, to demystify God so we can better relate to God, is understandable.
This story reminds us that God does not have a body – or at least God didn’t have a body when Moses was alive. The only time God had a body was during certain theophanic Old Testament appearances (see, for example, Genesis 18) and when God appeared in the flesh a couple thousand years ago in a small village of Judea.
God is an intense vortex of energy and fire. The Ground of All Being. God is a howling wind, the voice in a burning bush, the Creator of all that is and ever will be. God is eternal, ineffable, transcendent. In being, God is so infinitely beyond mortals that we might say that humans are to God as ants are to humans.
It’s all well and good to think of God as a best friend, or as an elite form of Siri or Alexa, always standing by to help us with a question or difficult problem. But if we were to stand in the actual presence of this cosmic ball of energy called God, we would not be standing for long. We’d collapse, cover our eyes and beg for mercy. We’d be a mess, if, indeed, we survived at all.
When Moses first saw that the people could not bear to look at him, he veiled his face. But now Moses had a second problem. He also needed a veil to keep “the people Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside” (v. 13). The people at first needed to shield their eyes because the face of Moses was almost as gloriously bright as the glory of God, but now the glory was fading. Rather than allowing the people to notice, he veiled his face again.
Which problem do we have? The first or the second?
Is our problem that we have been in the presence of God and lived to tell about it? Do our lives bear the unmistakable marks of being in the tangible presence of a holy God?
Or, is our problem the second one: the glory is fading, and we’d prefer that no one sees the decline?
Until now, the apostle Paul has spoken of a veil as a real thing. Moses put on a real veil in the presence of God; he grabbed an actual veil when he saw that the people of Israel had to shield their eyes because of his reflected glory.
But now, Paul begins to speak of veils metaphorically. The minds of the Hebrew children, recently of Egypt, “were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there … Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds” (vv. 14-15).
Do you know people who, despite irrefutable evidence and the advice of friends or family members, cling to an irrational and possibly dangerous belief? It is as though there’s a veil over their eyes that prevents them from seeing reality. They live in an alternative universe of conspiracy theories, rumors, and emotional, personal attack arguments, vulnerable to the faithless creed of the suspicious and angry. It’s a veil that’s hard to lift. “A veil lies over their minds” (v. 15). The events described here took place more than 3,000 years ago, and sometimes it seems as though nothing has changed.
That said, the apostle was referring to the veil of the “old covenant,” or in other words, the Mosaic Law, the Torah. Paul is not an enemy of the law, but rather suggests that the old covenant cannot be properly understood and interpreted until its veil is lifted and one turns to God in Jesus Christ. “When one turns to Christ, the veil is removed” (v. 16).
As I mentioned, this is Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel reading from Luke 9:28-36 tells the story of Jesus’ tête-à-tête with Moses and Elijah. Perhaps he and Moses discussed their respective covenants, the covenants of law and grace.
What we learn (among other lessons) is that God is all about unveiling. And here we learn that through Jesus Christ, the veil of the old covenant has been removed and torn away.
We still observe the moral obligations of the law, but the good news is that our obedience to these laws does not ultimately result in our salvation. This is by the grace and mercy of God only. And when we “get” this, we will see the glory of God as we’ve never seen it before.
The glory and radiance of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration is just a glimpse of the glory of God. Peter and the disciples could scarcely bear to look upon it. Some day we shall live in the presence of God, worshiping God when we get to heaven or, as some people put it, when we go to glory, or get to gloryland. In the meantime, we need to reaffirm that the veil has been lifted. This does not mean we can throw caution to the wind and live like hellions. Rather, lifting the veil results in transformation or transfiguration, even for us!
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed …” (v. 18). The word “transformed” in Greek is a word suggesting a metamorphosis. We are new creations in Christ, Paul says in this same letter (5:17); that is, we have undergone a morphological change. We are indeed new creatures in Christ! As newly transformed, re-morphed and unveiled Christians, we continue to behave with common sense, with due respect and obedience to the moral laws of God and our faith. But we do so not from obligation, but because it is now what we do. It’s who we are. It’s how we roll.
It is in the context of this new, unveiled reality that we can now continue our ministry. Paul writes, “We do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.”
“We do not lose heart.” How easy it has been over the past 24 months to lose heart! Our way of life has been radically altered. But we do not lose heart. We continue to work in the vineyards of the Lord, as those who have been unveiled, and see, as in a mirror, the ineffable glory of God.