The Veil of Moses

4 August 2017

Exodus 34.29 – end

2 Corinthians 3


It is often said that a person might wear their heart on their sleeve.

Hiding emotion is more difficult for some than it is for others.

Struggling not to laugh when to do so would be embarrassing is hard work.

I recall the pianist at theological college playing a tune to a hymn that seemed to me more appropriate for the 50’s musical South Pacific than it was an act of solemn worship. Wannabe clergy all around me swaying to the tune conjured up an image of them in white naval uniforms or grass skirts with garlands around their necks. Believe me it was tough to get through the last verse.

On a silent retreat the nun distributing the bread and butter pudding just couldn’t suppress her giggles when she caught sight of my eyes requesting a bigger portion.

It’s not just words that convey our feelings.

When Karen and I were expecting our first child, who was to be called Rebecca but on arrival turned out to be David, our good friend Sally didn’t have to be told Karen was pregnant, she could see it, as she put it, in her glow.

The Hebrew Scriptures recall Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. His encounter with the Lord had left him looking radiant to the Israelites. We are told that his countenance was so bright he had to wear a veil over his face to protect the people. And when he returned up the mountain he would remove the veil again to speak to the Lord.

In years to come, when the Temple was established, a curtain would cover the Holy of Holies; only the High Priest could pass through it to speak to the Lord, and even then only on the Day of Atonement.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have a tradition that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was surprisingly born to elderly parents, Joachim and Anna. She was therefore dedicated to the Temple and given an education in the Torah, the Law. This was in recompense for working as an embroiderer on the new curtain for Herod’s Second Temple. Such a tradition adds special insight into the curtain being torn in two at the death of Jesus on the cross. Not only is the curtain torn to allow the people to come face to face with the Lord but it indicates the brokenness of Mary at the death of her son.

Myth or not, the veil of Moses became a significant factor in understanding the relationship between God and his people. For a while only the very special ones, Kings and prophets, could experience the glow that came about as a consequence of an encounter with God.

Later, on a mountain in Galilee, three disciples would see that same light in both Jesus and, what appeared to be, Moses and Elijah, the representatives of Law and Prophecy.

Later still, the author of the Second Letter to the Corinthians would argue that we no longer need a veil to hide the glory of God from those we live amongst. He states that we are called, and are enabled, to act boldly in declaring what God has done for us.

Sadly the writer is scathing towards those that, in his view, were seemingly unable to see it and his words were used by the Church to condemn Jews and Judaism.  Today we know that there are many factors that conspire for some people to not experience what others might.  A group of people can look upon the same event yet, through no fault of their own, feel differently about it and draw very different conclusions.

Not everyone in college chapel all those years ago could understand my barely suppressed giggles. Others joined in without knowing what had set me off in the first place.

Clearly joy is infectious for some even if it isn’t always appreciated by others. Ours is not to judge the reason why; some get it and others don’t. Ours is to simply be true to ourselves, our feelings and what we may convey.

And when we have experienced something wonderful it may not be that words are the best way to express our feelings at all.

Anna Pavlova was once asked if she could describe what she was trying to convey at a particular point in her performance. She replied ‘if I could put it into words I wouldn’t have to dance.’

I shouldn’t have to put into words what God means to me, it should be obvious. Sadly that is not always so. Thankfully God is all merciful as well as all knowing.  All too often I place myself far from the Kingdom or indeed from what is expected of me.

So even when the light seems dimmed and the shine has been taken off life, there may be others who will accompany me in the presence of the Lord. This is why togetherness in discipleship, and not the solitary religion so many prefer today, is the means by which we may all experience the glory of God in times good and bad.

Just as the cloud covered the disciples at the transfiguration so it is that the clouds that cover us on occasion cannot hide the fact that behind them the sun still shines.