Moses and the veil and the Transfiguration
Sermon at St James, Colwall, Sunday 3 March 2019
Exodus 34: 29-35; Luke 9: 28-36
The first paragraph was not recorded, but to listen to the recording of the rest of the sermon as you read:
The church organ strikes up the Wedding March and in walks the bride on the arm of her father. She’s dressed traditionally in white and when she reaches the Chancel step she turns to hand her bouquet to one of her bridesmaids and then she lifts the veil which hides her face. Her groom gives a sigh of relief when he sees that the right woman has turned up and the marriage service gets under way.
The history of the bridal veil is a curious one and it pervades lots of cultures, but not something to explore here, except to say that a veil is a symbol for something deliberately hidden. A woman with a vocation to become a nun takes the veil and we draw a veil over something we want to be kept concealed.
The wearing of a veil is usually associated with women, of course, so it’s a surprise to hear in our first lesson today that Moses had to wear one. It’s an extraordinary story. Moses was feeling the tremendous responsibility of leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and is looking to God for help and guidance in providing the people with a code for their community living. He takes himself away into the mountains, Mount Sinai to be exact, and he stays there on his own for some days agonizing in the presence of God. When he comes back down Aaron and all the Israelites fear to come near him because his face is shining. So he covers his face with a veil. It’s as though even the reflection of God’s presence, even the hint of God’s reality is too much for humans to comprehend. Hence the need for the veil.
Now take our Gospel reading from Luke – the description of the Transfiguration. Jesus had taken his three chief disciples to pray on a mountainside and as he was praying his appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Then they saw two men speaking with him – Moses, representing the Law and Elijah, representing the prophets – speaking about the events that were to happen in Jerusalem. It’s all too much for the disciples but a cloud overshadows them and from the cloud the words “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”
It is as though a veil has been lifted for a moment and Peter, James and John have been able to see something which mortal eyes can hardly bear to look at, something of the reality of God himself.
We human beings face an impossible dilemma when it comes to our faith. Like the disciples, like Philip we have our doubts and we say, “Show us the father and then we will believe.” Or with Thomas we want to see the marks of the nails and the hole in his side before we believe. We mortals are looking through a glass darkly. It can sometimes feel as though we are in a fog, a dark night.
And yet it is at this point that relief is at hand. It is when we are puzzling like this that the Gospel points to a way through.
You will remember, I’m sure, Matthew’s description of the Crucifixion. Jesus has cried out in despair, “Eloi, Eloi, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and the onlookers wonder whether he is calling for Elijah. Then Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. In other words the veil which hung over the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Temple had fallen away. The division between God and his people had been bridged through the life and death of his Son.
So we can say with Philip “Show us the Father and then we will believe” but the reply comes back loudly and clearly, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Or with Thomas “Unless I see the marks of the nails….” And the reply “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If you and I can immerse ourselves in the life and death of Jesus by reading and contemplating the four gospel accounts; if you and I can be one with our Lord, the veil will be lifted and although the full truth and reality of God will still be beyond us, we will continue to grow our understanding.