A reflection on the propers for Last Epiphany: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 by The Rev. Margaret Rose
What about the veil?
Most years when it comes to “Epiphany Last” or the story of the Transfiguration I preach some version of the sermon I heard years ago when I had one of those “aha” experiences from a text. Jesus’ climb up the mountain with Peter and James and John, the dazzling white, the appearance of Moses and Elijah and their subsequent disappearance, the proclaiming of Jesus as Beloved Son was about history and the future coming together. It was God giving Jesus his marching orders, and even more, to the disciples and to us. The message was, “You can’t stay up on the mountain enjoying the glory of God. You can’t keep things the way they are or create a “dwelling” to hold everything statically in place. Jesus, renewed, beloved, called, named, had to come down the mountain and journey to Jerusalem. There was work to be done in the valley and it was time to get to it.
This year, I read the texts with this blog in mind, allowing myself to hear the words and the narrative of the Exodus story as well as the responding texts of 2Corinthians and Luke with the ear of a woman. What struck me was the word Veil and its curious use in both the Old Testament and the Epistle . Moses, his face shining brilliantly with the encounter with God, put the veil on his face when he was not speaking in an official capacity. And took it off when he was with God. In the letter to the Corinthians, there is the confusing explanation that the veil had to do with Moses not allowing the people of Israel to see the glory of God, implying that the people of Israel had a veil over their minds and could not understand or receive God’s glory. “A veil lies over their minds;but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” The Good News for the community in Corinth is that in the freedom of the Lord, unveiled faces allow the spirit of the lord to enter in. Christians see the Glory of God in their own and one another’s faces.
Many of us have experiences with veils. And the word and the wearing are both fraught.
The wedding veil comes first to mind. Many brides ask, “Shall I wear a wedding veil?” Is it a sign of chattel? Or is it’s removal a symbolic moment of revelation which allows two people to see one another as never before, shining with the spirit of God’s presence? One bride once asked whether or not they might create a way for her fiancé to wear one too!
I remember as a child having to wear “something” on my head when I went into church. Whether it was a hat, a handkerchief, or a scarf it was called a veil.
Years later, in 1978 when I was in Divinity School, my boyfriend who was a Mennonite, invited me to his home in Pennsylvania. Hoping not to surprise me with cultural differences he let me know that his mother and sisters, and most of the women I would meet there would be wearing the veil. Instead of reassuring me, I felt petrified. Would I be able to see their faces, their eyes. Would this be like the Muslim women I had seen on a recent trip to Israel? I wondered if they would assume that my unveiled face was promiscuous! I must admit to great relief when I discovered the veil to be very similar to the head covering I had worn to church as a child.
Today the question of head covering within and among the three Abrahamic traditions is complex and ambiguous as it is lived out in “secular” or “sacred” territory. In France, the controversy continues over whether Muslim girls will be allowed to wear a veil or head covering to school. Among Muslim feminists, there are deep discussions over whether the head covering is a sign of oppression or in fact allows for a kind of liberation from cultural objectivism. The underlying answer seems to be somehow connected to choice.
Jewish women as well have traditions about veils and head coverings which are undergoing examination.
The questions remain. Is the veil a sign of submission? And to whom? Or is it respect for oneself and God? Or is it about following the New Testament prohibition about women’s heads being covered? And is removing it a sign of empowerment and liberation?
What about the connection to Moses and his encounter with God? His face reflected God’s presence and glory as he was transformed into the role of leader and liberator of the people of Israel. That is, I hope, exactly what our own faces reveal in transfigured moments of our lives. To be transfigured means somehow to be free to experience and share the glory of God. Whether or not there is a symbolic or literal veil over our heads or faces.