There is something captivating about this text in Exodus. Moses encounters God and is left radiant, transfigured by the experience. The people Moses brought out into the wilderness, including his brother, can’t help but notice the transformation. They are transfixed by this vision of glory and they are frightened by it. Something about an encounter with this wHOLlY other God leaves one tangibly different, noticeably changed.
We could certainly stop there and bask in the stories of God’s transformative presence. It would be right and good to bask in the glorious encounters that have left us utterly bewildered and awe-shocked. I remember going to church camp in high school. My life was nominally Christian. I could certainly spit out Sunday school answers, but my life didn’t reflect Christ. During worship one evening, I encountered God speaking to me in a way I had not experienced before. I did not immediately tell anyone about this moment of encounter. I returned to the dorm and engaged in our late-night activities with the youth group. One of my teachers approach me and asked me what happened, not knowing God had spoken to me. She said she could tell something had happened that night because she could see it in my face. Maybe there’s something to this God that rubs off on us in such moments. I’m sure we could insert our own stories that mark places of divine encounter that have resulted in others seeing a glimpse of God’s glory through us.
But the story does not end there. Some passages of scripture are so enigmatic that you are left scratching your head. Moses’ encounters with God continue. Moses continues to teach the people about God’s commands and the people continue to see Moses’ face reflect God’s radiance. God’s call upon Moses is continuously made obvious to the people. There is an ongoing vestige of God’s presence that is constantly mediated to the people. Moses’ leadership is hardly in question. This begs the questions. Why does Moses wear a veil?
Veils conceal, hide, creates distance. Maybe Moses is forever exhausted leading such stiff-necked people. Maybe the veil is simply to hide his consternation and prohibit others from seeing how often he sticks his tongue out at them as they complain. Perhaps the veil is to help prevent chapped lips from the wilderness winds that whip up dust and sand. There is no clear explanation for the veil. Any conjecture is as good as the next. Yet, our curiosity is stirred by the odd and out-of-place accessory.
The only time Moses’ face is unveiled occurs when meeting with God and when communicating God’s message to the people. Otherwise, Moses remains veiled while walking and living among the people. His face is forever hidden, obscured, shrouded. No hint of smile. No down-turned frown. Nothing. A thin cloth becomes a visible barrier between God’s chosen servant and God’s chosen people. I wonder if this veil is the visible sign of a hidden reality festering below the surface between Moses and his charge. What is veiled in Moses’ life may very well be the thing which prohibits him from moving into the Promised Land with the people.
It is not difficult to find stories of church leaders, ministers, and pastors whose ministry has been celebrated as a place of divine encounter and transformative experience. When they speak before those gathered, there have been moments where they radiated God’s presence and proclaimed God’s commands to the faithful. Yet, these same gifted pastors, ministers, and leaders were are also living veiled lives while they walked among their congregants. Those veiled lives prohibited vulnerability and accountability in relationships. These ministers missed out on genuine encounter with other because they remained closed-off and hidden from the perceptive insight of others. And, we know those veiled are not the only ones impacted by such hiddenness. It is often the most vulnerable who are victimized because nobody is willing to call into question the veil we allow to be put on to obscure and to silence. Maybe it’s time Aaron asked Moses to remove the veil.
Jesus’ encounter on the mountain where he is “transfigured” appears to be a counter-story to Moses’ own experience. Jesus also encounters God’s transformative presence on the mountain. Jesus become luminescent from this encounter, one in which we see Moses and Elijah present! Peter is beyond trembling with excitement and fear at what he has experienced. He wants to pitch a tent and stay there, cloaked by the darkness of night, hidden by the escape of the mountain-top. And, that’s just where Jesus won’t allow them to stay. They must return, with unveiled faces, to the valley. Jesus goes with unveiled face into the chaos of the world bearing the glory of God. Jesus goes with unveiled face to his disciples who will abandon him. Jesus goes with unveiled face to a false trial before Caiaphas. Jesus goes with unveiled face before Pilate as a condemned man. Jesus goes with unveiled face to the cross where he is lifted up, bearing the glory of God for all to see. A lone centurion sees something beyond shocking in the face of this man being crucified: “Surely, this is the Son of God!”
Two pictures of glory and encounter. Two different conclusions about what that entails. One chose to become veiled and hidden, removed from the community. The other went down into the community with unveiled face, shining forth God’s presence in the darkest and most cruel corners of this world. Perhaps even now, we might begin to know God and each other with “unveiled faces” (2 Cor. 3:18).