by Linda McMillan
The apostle Paul said that if you turn to the lord the veil will be taken away. In fact, there is no veil. The holiness is out there!
Next week the school where I work is having Superhero Day as part of our summer program. So, obviously, I asked my assistant to get me a Wonder Woman mask. I’m going to look great in it. Here’s the thing: In order to wear my Wonder Woman mask I’ll have to take off the other mask I wear.
In China we wear masks to protect our lungs from the very small particulate matter called PM 2.5 which clouds the air and people’s lungs too. I wear one nearly every day. I am used to it. I don’t mind too much. But I do live in hope of one day living in a place that allows me not to wear the mask. For me, this is temporary. But, imagine wearing a mask everyday for forty years! That’s what Moses did. When he came off Mr. Sinai — this is the second time he’s done this — the skin of his face shown and rays of light came off his face.
When the people saw that they were terrified. The skin of Moses’s face sent out rays. That’s not normal. You and I probably would have been scared too. It was holy, after all. And the one thing that none of us have been truly at home with — at least since that fateful day in Eden — is holiness. The time of talking with God face to face is over. The reality of our new, fallen, more aware lives is that we can’t stand to be in the presence of such vast otherness, such holiness.
Here’s the odd thing: The people who were frightened of the holiness on Moses’s face were not unacquainted with holy apparitions. They’d been traveling with a pillar of a cloud and a pillar of fire. They’d even seen a miracle or two. Yet, this holiness of Moses, unconfined to a cloud or a fire, but walking around, living, breathing, and moving elicited fear. After all, no one can look on the face of God and live.
Isn’t it often that way with us? We are happy to remove our shoes, so to speak, happy to acknowledge the holiness of holy places, as long as they remain glued to the ground and well under our control. We know how to properly supervise holiness, but, when that same holiness gets loose on people it seems frightening. To gaze upon Moses’s shining face was a reminder that though they were born to talk with God face to face as their ancestor Adam had, they could not.
Since the time when God’s direct presence withdrew from Adam and Eve there have been all kinds of veils. God has veiled himself in clouds, fire, bushes, a dove, wind, lamps, water, oil, a hand, a finger, maybe even in you! God is creative in how he veils himself. But the veil has to ultimately be taken away because it is a result of our separation from God. If the reign of God, is to return to earth, if Eden is to be restored, then the veil has to go away.
Isaiah knew it. He said that God will destroy the veil that veils all people, the shroud that covers all nations. He said that God would swallow up death, and that the eschaton would mirror Eden.
Later, as Jesus hung on the cross, completing his mission, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom! The veil which had separated that which is holy from that which is mundane or profane just opened up.
Josephus reported that just after the earthquake which accompanied the ripping of the veil in the temple, the big brass doors of the temple swung wide open, and stayed open!
What all this means for us is both wonderful and fearful. It is a step towards that day when we will once again talk to God face to face, but it also means that holiness is out there, sort of free-range and unsupervised. It might show up anywhere. On someone’s face, in nature, in the fantasy of Wonder Woman, or the exhilaration of a deep and pure breath.
This week most of us will seek God in a holy place. But the wise among us will be on the lookout, because wild and untamed holiness is out there beyond the walls and beyond the symbols. Where, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m on the look out! And I’m excited about it.
Linda McMillan lives in YangZhong, China — Home of the pufferfish.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this passage is the one which led to the long-held and very wrong belief that Jews have horns. Yes. There were, and are, people who actually believe that! It’s based on a translation by Jerome, who has much to his credit along with this one very bad mistake. In Jerome’s defense, the Hebrew word for ray and for horn have the same consonants: a qof, a reish, and a nun. I think that I would have made the same mistake if I’d been translating it. But, my Hebrew is not very good and that is why I don’t do translations. This mistranslation has caused enormous damage over the years so let’s pause for a moment to just put it completely to rest.
As for Superhero Day… I also requested the bracelets and headgear, but it remains to be seen whether or not she will come through on that. Like always, I’ll take what I get and be happy.
PM stands for Particulate Matter. Particulate matter can be quite large, like that produced at constructions sites, and from crop burning, or even wildfires. Mostly we breathe it in and our bodies breathe it right back out, or cough it out, or sneeze it out. Bodies are smart like that. But smaller particulate matter enters the body and the body can’t get rid of it. That’s a problem. So if you want to get your own face mask, and if President Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt have their way, you’ll need one, be sure it filters at least down to PM 2.5. Most masks filter up to 99 percent of particulate matter down to PM .05.
“That fateful day in Eden” refers to the day that Eve either disobeyed God or took hold of her own life by eating from a forbidden tree in The Garden of Eden. None of it is “real” but it’s our creation myth. Some people call it “the fall of man.”
Some people speak of “the fall of man,” “Eve’s disobedience” as if it was a cosmic disaster. It was not. God is true to his word. When Eve ate of the fruit she really did know good from evil, her eyes really were opened! I think that this is a far better and higher way for humans to live. So was Eve disobedient, or was she brave? Did humanity fall away from God, or into self awareness? You can read it as you wish.
Moses’s wife was named Zipporah.
Moses had been up Mr. Sinai once before. When he came down his fellow travelers had erected a golden calf and were having a feast day. In his anger Moses broke the first two tablets. It turned out OK, though, because the second set of tablets were better! When God gave him the second set of tablets God said to Moses: Do not be distressed over the first tablets, which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the second tablets I am giving you alsohalachah, midrash and aggadah. (Midrash Rabbah) This is because much wisdom comes through grief (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
We can’t know what Moses thought, but the tradition says that Moses — the most humble man ever to walk the earth — didn’t want others to see how holy he was so he covered his face unless he was talking Torah with them. In this way others could believe it was on account of God that Moses’s face shown. It was hidden at other times. Even with his wife he kept the mask on!
There are a couple of theories about why Moses’s face beamed. Most sages say that it is because God placed his hand on Moses. But there are some interesting minority reports. One is that Moses wrote the tablets but still had some ink in his quill. He allowed the quill to pass over his face and accidentally got some glory on himself. Another minority report is that there were sparks flying from God’s mouth and some of them fell on Moses. All these theories really prove is that none of us was there and none of us really knows. Not even the sages.
Exodus 33:20… But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Exodus 13:2, 22… And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
Isaiah 25:7… On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the shroud that covers all nations
Matthew 27:51, 52a… At that moment [the moment he died] the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.
2 Corinthians 3:6… whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. — This key point is hidden in some pretty questionable text which claims that God’s covenant with the Hebrews is an “old” covenant, and that whenever it is read understanding is veiled. That’s not true. Violence and envy are what veil the good news of God’s ever-evolving covenant with humanity. Of course, you, Paul and Timothy don’t have to agree.