Earlier this week, I was at a meeting that included people of all different faiths: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and nondenominational. It was a little like being at a wild, religious fashion show. Ministers in suits of all colors, women with hats, a few who looked like they might be bishops or the equivalent in their structure, and a number of religious women wearing veils. The difference in veils, in particular, showed a keen fashion sense among the religious. At my table, there were two Muslim women wearing this season’s latest hijab (the Arabic word for veil), looking holy and smart, just a tad severe. At the next table over were two nuns, modeling a vintage look with the ever-popular two-toned, half-veil, the smart choice for the modern monastic. As my mind wandered from the topic of the workshop, I imagined there being a whole new religious version of “Who wore it better?”
Veils are interesting and they’re complicated, aren’t they? In some cultures, veils make people feel comfortable. I’ve heard a Muslim woman speak of finding unusual freedom behind a veil. Men don’t feel threatened when women wear veils. Some veils can bring anxiety down.
But in other cultures, in our day (and often in our airports) veils can cause discomfort. They invite us to wonder, “What is being hidden? Why the veil? Why not come clean, and be honest, and show the face?”
Veils are sometimes used sometimes by brides at weddings. In some cultures, they’re worn at funerals by those who grieve. They hide the tears and allow for privacy. Veils are used to cover a great work of art or a plan or a model, so that when it is first shown, it is dramatically unveiled. Genies and belly-dancers use veils. (Or so I’ve heard 🙂
Veils find their way into church, also—and not only with brides.
The veil in religious use is sometimes used for handling holy things and sometimes used for what the monastics call the “fasting of the eyes.” As one artist has put it, “Through a fasting of the eyes, sight becomes vision.” (Elaine Lasky)
In churches like this one, we use a veil to go over the communion chalice and other items used in communion. Later, approaching Holy Week, we will veil crosses and other sacred objects. In some churches, on Maundy Thursday (as well as in the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament), a priest uses a special veil, called a humeral veil, to move the Blessed Sacrament from a main altar to a smaller “altar of repose” (or to place a Eucharistic Host in a monstrance to bless the people during Benediction.) On Maundy Thursday, the Holy Sacrament is sometimes reposed in a side chapel, in part, to symbolize how Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed.
Special things get veiled. Holy things get veiled.
Moses needed a veil when he talked with God. Whenever he went up Mount Sinai and spoke with God, his face would become bright. This scared the people so badly that he began to wear a veil whenever he spoke with them. They could still catch a glimpse of the brightness, but then he would quickly put on the veil so that they wouldn’t be afraid.
In our second reading, Saint Paul uses this story about a veil to talk about what is old and what is new, what is hidden and what has been revealed. Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai, but Paul is trying to help people understand the new freedom and movement in the life of Christ that completed and transcends the law. For those who have faith in him, the life and love and spirit of Christ becomes so bright that there’s no denying it. The promise of life, the promise of life eternal in Jesus Christ is such a splendor, such a brightness, such a hope, that the old law is a dull blur in comparison.
That’s a part of what is happening at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. Whatever veil might have existed between God and God’s beloved is lifted—the Law (represented by Moses) had a part in lifting the veil. The Prophets (represented by Elijah) had a part in lifting the veil. So that Paul can talk about this new freedom we have in God, a freedom to see God face to face. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
We are changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another. Veils are lifted and parted as we move closer to God. In some ways these veils culminate in the great temple veil, the veil that hung in front of the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple.
On Good Friday, Saint Luke reminds us that “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light faded, and just before Jesus gave up his spirit to the father, the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”
The veil of the temple, a curtain of a veil meant to demarcate the great gulf between sinful humanity and holy God—that veil was torn in two. Rowan Williams writes about this in his little book, Ponder These Things. He writes,
Because Christ has torn the veil, we can enter with him; we live in the heavenly sanctuary, offering prayer with him. That is what is happening in every eucharist. The whole history of the world is interrupted by the cry of Jesus from the Cross; and all that we try to put between ourselves and God is torn down by God’s own utterance.
God has torn down the curtain of separation, and God tries to tear down whatever veil might separate us from his love. But what sort of veil might we continue to put up? Is it shame or a sense of false modesty that keeps us from moving closer into God’s presence? Do we give custom and convention too great a place, somehow convincing ourselves that they’re not just veils, but walls? Sometimes the veils we make are shiny and they reflect our own glory, rather than allow us to perceive God’s glory.
As Archbishop Williams puts it, it is for us to “stop and sit still; let the living Word of God tear the fabric of our expectations and our anxieties alike, tear through the embroidered pictures on the curtain.” The weaving of religious veils keeps us not only from God, but also obstructs our view of the world. And so we don’t see one another clearly and we miss the part of God that is all around us.
God is always and everywhere inviting us to come closer. To let down our guard. To relax. To breathe. To allow for the holy. Allow for the mystery. Allow for the silence. Not so he can burn us with judgment, but so that he can enfold us in love. In some ways, this is what the whole Season of Lent is about. God invites us closer, cleaner, holier.
The veil comes down in prayer, in worship, and in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
In just a few moments, the veil is lifted. We are invited to drink and eat in the presence of God, to be with God as God is present with us. As we receive the food and drink that God offers us, let us be reminded that God has already opened the veil of separation. God has opened to veil of death and let life flow in. God has opened the veil of humanity and allowed it to perceive divinity.
Though it can be tempting to want to cover ourselves, to hide from God, and to hide from all that is Holy, may we have the courage to remove our veils, that we might allow God to change us, to remake us, to transfigure us. And may we also see God face to face.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.