Fellow Travelers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) transports us to childhood play and childhood fear. Children hide their faces on Halloween to play a game that promises lots of free candy. Part of the game is shouting a mostly empty threat, “Trick or treat!” Dressed in costumes with masks, the little ones see others who are also wearing masks, and sometimes the fear overwhelms the fun. Adults laugh when children turn around running to Mom or Dad or Big Sister to escape a masked figure too scary to pass by.
Many, if not most familiar occasions for wearing a mask circle back around to conjuring up fear. A masquerade party aims at fun, but part of the fun is the uncertainty and fear that come from not knowing who one might end up talking or dancing with. In a less playful vein, bank robbers and bandits use a ski mask or bandana to hide their faces, knowing that their anonymity arouses the fear that they will act more violently since their faces can’t be identified. Part of the fear of Islam in the 21st century often gets focused on the burqa or niqāb, sartorial interpretations of the Qur’an which encourage women to cover their faces. French legislators outlawed this sort of Islamic dress in public, in part for fear of what the “foreigner” may be hiding, and in part for fear of the loss of hegemonic French cultural identity.
The Apostle Paul retold a story about Moses and a mask in this letter to the Corinthians. Actually, it was a veil that Moses wore after he came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets (Exodus 34:33). The people saw him coming, and his face was shining like a light. They were afraid and would have run away, but Moses called out to them so they would know who he was. Aaron and some of the leaders got the courage to go meet him. After he talked with them for a while about what God had to say, he put on a veil. So in this case, the mask was a way to calm down the fear rather than stir it up. Don’t ask me to explain how Moses’ face got shiny. I’ll just let the story stand as it is.
Paul isn’t particularly concerned with the details of Moses’ veil and its purpose according to Exodus. He’s out to make another point. He says that Moses put on a veil so that the people would not keep staring at him while the shiny face faded away. Paul seems concerned that people might have stared at Moses and become mystified. Instead of recognizing the unrestrainable, indomitable, effusive glory of God as having left a residue on the prophet who talked with God, Paul says that back in the day people missed the whole point. They might have fixated on Shiny Moses himself, as if he were the source of all this glory, the Divine Lawgiver in the flesh.
Then Paul says something else completely about the veil. He says the thickheaded and offbase thinking of the ones who were afraid of Shiny Moses is a kind of thickheadedness that endures down the ages in all humans who can’t see the signs of the glory of God when they show up. Barry Harvey, in Can These Bones Live?, writes about the persistent inability of humanity to understand the presence and work of God when we try to “read the book of the world.” Paul sketches a picture for us of people who are not interested in having God lead the way, going around like we have a veil on our faces. The veil makes everything blurry and fuzzy, and we end up stumbling over things that should have been in plain sight.
The shocker of this story comes when Paul explains why things don’t have to be that way. He says that God in Jesus Christ has come to set us straight on how to recognize God leading, prodding, nudging, and dragging us toward our purpose in this world. When we turn to look at the Lord Jesus, the veil gets lifted. He’s the Rosetta Stone, the Rand McNally Road Atlas, the corrective lens that makes it possible for us to see what God is up to. But I said there was a shocker, didn’t I. Here it comes.
When the veil gets lifted, when we turn to look at Jesus, we find out that this man born of woman, this humble servant who is God incarnate, is the true image of the race of humans. He’s the pattern, and we find ourselves and our lives when we look at him. So with unveiled faces, the glory of God shows up in the mirror. As brothers and sisters of Jesus, we come to see the truth about us is that we “sort of favor” Jesus. We may not be his spitting image, but the image is there, growing, becoming visible in our faces because the Holy Spirit is transforming us. The glory of God is visible when humanity lives in the mutual giving and loving goodness of the Triune God who loves immeasurably in eternity. Look in the mirror, brothers and sister. Don’t you see it? It’s right there as plain as your face.
Don’t be afraid to lose that veil.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.
Mike Broadway teaches theology and ethics at Shaw University Divinity School, Raleigh, NC. Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with his wife, and near his children, in Austin, TX, and commutes to Durham, NC. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham,and the faithful fans of Duke Basketball in his neighborhood. You can read more of his insights at his blog, earth as it is in heaven.