March 3, 2019

2019 March3


Last Sunday after Epiphany - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Veils. They either protect something or someone from being seen or prevent others from seeing that something or someone. The action verb most commonly used with the subject noun “veil” is “to conceal”. That doesn’t adequately indicate if the veiled object is passive or active in the concealing: Is the veiled object being protected from being seen by others [passive]; or is the veiled object being prevented from seeing something else [active]? Let’s look at some veils.


Bridal veils. They were used as early as Greek and Roman times. The veil hid a bride “from evil spirits who might want to thwart her happiness” [active – she was prevented from seeing the evil spirits] or to frighten the spirits away [passive – she was protected from being seen by the evil spirits]. The veil also hid the bride’s face from the groom due to the superstition of bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the ceremony. This is both preventing the groom from seeing the bride, and it is protecting the bride from being seen by the groom.


In our Biblical history, the veil protected the Tabernacle, in which the Spirit of the Lord dwelled. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the Tabernacle lie within the Holy of Holies, which was covered by a purple veil, then hidden from the rest of the Temple by a veil or outer curtain. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and only on Yom Kippur, to offer the blood of sacrifice and incense. In the Temple, the veiled object – the Tabernacle – was passive since it was protected from being seen by the High Priest.


Our current customs mimic that Temple tradition. Some of you may have been here at St Stephen’s long enough to remember the wooden frame that separated the sanctuary from the nave. That was a rood screen. The word “rood” is Saxon for “cross”, and it was on these screens that a large cross would rest. In many of the older abbeys and cathedrals in England, the rood screens are built-into the stonework and completely block the view of the altar from the nave, such as in Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. Some are lavish wood carvings that have been retained for their artwork as in Manchester Cathedral and Chester Cathedral. These rood screens were once veils or curtains in earlier church architecture elsewhere in Europe. I would suggest that rood screens were active veils, because they were most likely preventing the clergy within the veiled area – the chancel – from having to gaze upon the common people!


And finally, the veil used on the chalice and paten, as you see on the altar now, is a preventative measure. The veiled object is passively being protected from dirt and bugs from flying into the wine.


Moses’ veil was passive, as well. As a precursor to the veil between the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies and the outer sanctum, the veiled item was protected from being seen. Scholars are confused at Paul’s account of Moses’ veil, which we read in today’s 2nd Lesson. The prior paragraph in 2 Corinthians adds some context, but not any clarity. But Paul manipulated the interpretation of the 1stLesson in an attempt to reestablish the credibility he had lost among the Christians in Corinth since the writing of his first letter and a subsequent visit. It seems as if Paul suggested that Moses prevented the Israelites from seeing God’s glory, that it was only for Moses to see. But Moses veiled his face because they were not able to handle the shine, the glory that came from his face after his visits with the Lord.


Both Moses and Jesus are set in stories about God’s glory. God’s glory is one that Moses was not able to see, because it is being manifested by his own visage, as the deliverer of God’s Word to the people. The veil he put on was not for himself, but to protect the others from being overwhelmed. In the Gospel, Peter, James and John were terrified, not at the glory that is shining from Jesus, but upon entering the cloud. For both the Israelites seeing God’s glory in Moses’ face, and the Disciples at The Transfiguration, there was fear associated with encountering God directly.

In both stories, mere humans witness the One whom heaven and earth cannot contain. These humans were right to be afraid to come too near Moses or to look at his face, or to enter the cloud because this was God’s reflected presence, making them witnesses to Godself.


Paul’s agenda was to highlight what prevents us from seeing God’s Glory, suggesting that the old Law was the reason. There were, after all, many unconverted Jews in Corinth who would have been influencing the new Christian community. That might have been, and might still be true. However, the veil in Exodus is the cloud in Luke. It is not that the humans in these stories are not worthy of God’s Glory; the veils are because we as human cannot handle the Glory of God directly.  


So, if veils have a dual active and passive function for the object they veil, there are two intertwining questions for our own time on the mountaintop with Jesus:


  • If there is a veil or cloud, is it covering our faces or God’s?
  • And in either case, what are we or God being prevented from seeing, or protected from being seen by?


Going back to the Veil of the Temple, the veiled object was the Holy of Holies, or the Spirit of God. It protected God from the profaneness of humanity. Of course, God cannot be prevented from seeing us. So, the veil “over God’s face”, if you will, is protecting God from us.

What about the metaphorical veils covering our faces? Are they preventing us from seeing God, or are they protecting us from being seen by God? Paul suggested that the Jews had a veil when they read the Law that was preventing them from seeing Jesus Christ. Moses used the veil to protect others from the overpowering Glory of God. But now, if there are metaphorical veils covering our faces, are they preventing us from seeing God, or are they protecting us from being seen by God?


What if the veil itself is the real issue, not what the veil is concealing? What if the veil stands alone and doesn’t actually actively conceal anything? Carol Meyers suggests on her dictionary entry on the Veil of the Temple:


Hanging before the ark, which
symbolized God’s presence and
served as the place of God’s
glory, the veil marked the place
where the divine and the
human met (ref Exod 30:6)


The Transfigurations of Moses and Jesus illustrate that the veil (or the cloud) are that point at which humans and God meet. The veil, then, is not a barrier; it is a meeting place. We have to remember that God is all-powerful. God can meet us in our lives in any way God chooses. We are the ones who put the barriers in place which prevent us from meeting God or being met by God. We do it institutionally, corporately and individually:


  • The Church used to require that persons be Confirmed in order to receive Holy Communion. That was changed to welcome all Baptized Christians to receive. And many parishes now welcome all who are moved by the Spirit to come forward to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. The veil is getting thinner and thinner, and one day every person can come forward to meet and to be met by God in the Sacrament.
  • Parishes often have cliques of members who control the leadership and the opportunities. These cliques put up veils which newcomers both, don’t know are there, and which they have to maneuver, guided by no one. Every one of those veils needs to be torn down in order to enable all to meet and to be met by God in this place and through its activities.
  • Individuals erect veils for themselves, like unworthiness, busyness, procrastination, uncertainty of particular beliefs, not fitting in, spiritual-but-not-religious and many different excuses, which keep God out and prevent God from getting in. Maybe God’s Glory is too overwhelming. Except, God’s Glory is all around us, every day, all the time. The veil is what is preventing us from seeing it, and therefore, we are prevented from shining with it.


What Paul mangled in his interpretation of Moses’ Transfiguration, and what Jesus foreshadowed in His Transfiguration, was our individual and corporate access to God. Paul compared our vision of God’s Glory as a mirror, finding that Glory within ourselves. But what he doesn’t make clear from scripture is that God was among the Israelites. That’s what the Tabernacle was for – God’s presence among the people. And


Jesus’ Death removed the veil
between God and God’s people.


Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. Matthew 27.50b-51

Jesus’ Death removed the veil, symbolizing the access to God for all. The Crucifixion was the one, full, sufficient sacrifice. Verse 4 of our final hymn includes:


Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh, our great High Priest;
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim In the Eucharistic Feast.


At Christ’s Death, as both Priest and Sacrificial Lamb, Jesus would have been within the Holy of Holies, beyond the Veil of Temple. But more symbolically, that veil was torn in two – removed – by Jesus’ Death. That means that we can look at the face of God and shine with God’s Glory. It is not so much a mirror and being transformed into the same Image of God but being infused with the Glory of God which we then share with others in the course of our every day lives. Karl Barth wrote:


Jesus is “the one who makes us radiant. We ourselves cannot put on bright faces. But neither can we prevent them from shining. Looking up to Him, our faces shine.”


The common message of preachers on The Transfiguration is that we are to be Transfigured by Jesus into the likeness of Jesus, from glory to glory – as the Collect stated. The Glory of the Lord that accompanies these stories is presented to us as too powerful for us to witness for ourselves, so veils must be erected for our protection. But the veil, the cloud, the safe place where the divine and the human meet, has been torn in two by the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and God’s glory is all around us.


It’s time we each turn our faces
toward God and shine.

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