Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
The notion that it is Christ’s grace and mercy that dissolves the shadowy veil that would hide us from God is one so powerful, so unique, so complete that it still takes my breath away. The saving grace of Jesus Christ strips away all that would blind us to God’s love and desire for oneness with us and delivers us back to God.
The veil that would separate us from God, ourselves, and each other takes many shapes in our contemporary world but it has always been thus. Anger, bitterness, fear (our old familiar “friend”), illness, isolation, self-righteousness…so much can veil our hearts from the true goodness of God and make it difficult to embrace the spiritual truth and power of God’s presence in our lives, which is the reality of God’s position: He is always for us; never against us.
We are about to embark on another Lenten journey, beginning this Wednesday, with the imposition of ashes and the saying of Psalm 51. “Create in me a clean heart, O lord, and renew a right spirit within me,” we will say together. We will enter into a time of reflection where we are called to look at the veils that shape our lives and can hide us from the truth of God’s unbroken and relentless desire for us to know Him. Because of God’s love in Christ, we are all standing at the threshold of God’s presence. Today God reminds us that yes, God is glorious, and yes, God is too powerful for us to conceive of … and, yet, God is as close as our own hearts, minds and bodies. He is forever with us. In Christ Jesus we are given back to God.
Paul uses the powerful image of the veil, something we can instantly recognize. To veil is to cover, to hide, to shade our view from the real object in question. We discover this interesting tale of the Exodus, deep into Moses’s and Israel’s story. We get the sense that God is so powerful, so mysterious, so other that even to look upon the one who is God’s messenger may mean death. The people can only see God through the veil on Moses’s face, and Moses tells them what God would have them know. God is too wild, too holy, too much of everything to even be looked upon by humans.
And this is not some other God; it is the God we know, the Yahweh of our creation. But the veil – in OT parlance – feels fully intact, fully present, as if we can never see God quite clearly. In Jesus, the Christ, we are delivered from the veil; we have no need, not any longer, to cover our faces for fear that God will strike us down. Jesus has torn the veil from our faces – remember it is Moses, not God who is veiled - and what we see, now, in full, is the power of God’s shattering and provocative love. Jesus, a man who came among us, God’s only Son, full of grace and truth. We can now know God, face to face, mother to child, as the author of our life who has only love to offer.
We still struggle, nonetheless, whether we are always aware or not, with veils of our own design. We see each other through the veil of the world and what we often see is difference that separates. We can wear the veil of self-righteousness, the rightness of our position, our learning, our way of seeing. We may put on the veil of gender, that sees the male or female only as a means to an end; and we can look at all of this through the veiled spirit of otherness. The veil of fear and anger makes it so very hard for us to see as Jesus would have us see, the One who has rescued us from the power of the veils that we wear. While we wear the veil of past hurts, repressed pain, and insecurity born of all kinds of things, we cannot fully know the love of God, the love that has shown us that we are all loved and children of God, all of us. The clear-eyed view of God’s love in Christ disarms us and we can come to see how precious life is and how precious we ourselves are, no matter who we may think we are, in the world’s eyes.
Tracey and I have begun power watching a truly amazing series on Netflix, Call the Midwife. It is set in late 1950’s east end London, where poverty is the mainstay of nearly all families and life is often filled with despair. There is a midwife named Camilla, who her friends affectionately call Chummy. She is a very tall and somewhat awkward nurse and midwife. Yet, she is dedicated, faith-filled, charmingly loving and, through her irreverence and kindness, she is beloved by her community of fellow midwives, the Anglican nuns that she works with, and the community she serves.
Chummy comes from a highborn family in a very class-conscious England. Her mother is a particularly cold woman who does not approve of Chummy’s husband, her profession, her home, or even the name she has chosen for her son. So, Chummy has learned not to show too much with her mum, to be reserved. She wears the veil of fear, not feeling good enough or anything enough for her mother to love.
In a recent set of episodes, Lady Brown (her mother) has been forced to move in with her daughter, as she has terminal cancer. She maintains her haughty air, even as she is dying. Then suddenly she implies that she would like a manicure and some nail polish, something to make her feel human again. At first, Chummy is unwilling to even touch her mother. But, after seeking advice, she decides to do it. And what follows is one of the most touching scenes I have ever seen, as the daughter takes her mother’s hand in hers, and gently begins to file her nails, each nail in turn. Then she takes each finger and begins to apply the nail polish. And her mother reaches out and touches her daughter’s hair. Chummy says, “You’ve never done that before.” Her mum replies, “Yes, but when you were very young.”
And, in the final scene, as her mother lay dying, struggling for breath, Chummy takes off her nursing uniform, puts on a robe, and lays down beside her mother and gently takes her hand. As her mother breathes her last, the daughter whispers quietly, but passionately, “I love you.” And the veil falls away, all that had kept these two from being in relationship; and it is redefined by the love that God intends, Chummy seeing her mother face to face, no longer afraid, unloved, or hurt.
What veils do we wear? What veils are we aware of, real places for growth, but understanding we are not where we hope to be quite yet? What veils do we wear to protect ourselves from the pain, hurt, fear, isolation, and so much more that separates us not only from God but from others in our lives? From a co-worker, a child, a friend, a parent or spouse … from the reality that we are loved, completely by a God that is not veiled, not frightening, not far off. By the blood and the love of God in Christ we who were far off are now near. The veils we wear may feel as if they protect us but they tend to prevent us from sensing, feeling, and knowing the love of God which shatters the darkness and brings us face to face with those we have seen – ‘til now – only through the shadow of the veil. Taking off the veil is scary but, in Christ, it brings us freedom.