Last Epiphany, Year C
One of my favorite passages in contemporary literature comes toward the end of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil. The book is a memoir that explores a family myth that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parable “The Minister’s Black Veil” was inspired by one of Moody’s ancestors, a guilt ridden puritan minister. To understand the power of the black veil Moody wears one, and then riffs for pages on the power of the veil and its color.
He closes the book:
Red, white, and blue is just marketing rhetoric, therefore, the sloganeering to which we aspire in order not to terrify foreign nationals; the real American color is black, primordial, eternal, heartless, infinite, full of sorrow, For though consciences are as unlike as foreheads, every intelligence has one, upon every forehead the burdensome ornament of the black conscience, and a recognition that the civilization we founded, the civilization of the strip mall and the subdivision and the online cosmetic surgeon, all built upon the color black…To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face. (Emphasis his)
I couldn’t help but think of this passage as I read the lectionary readings for this Last Sunday after the Epiphany. We start with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the covenant in his hands. His face is shining with the trace of God and this trace causes fear among both the leaders and people. It is a kind of divine contamination and the people are afraid because of its power. In order to not constantly strike terror into everyone, Moses dons a veil. It is a veil that he removes only when he is directly relating what God has commanded to the people.
Our Epistle reading from First Corinthians directly addresses Moses and his veil. Paul sees the veil as a thing of shame—a shield from the reality of God. Playing with this theme he says that it is only with Christ that the veil is removed and that with this removal we are free to see the glory of the Lord—not as a condemnation—but as a means of transformation. To look on the face of Christ that reflects the glory of the lord is to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul closes the passage by saying, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides…but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.”
Veils and faces, consciences and fear—these are the themes that bring together Moody and Moses and Paul. For Moody we must cover our face because of the guilt we have as Americans and Westerners, people who are without doubt guilty just by living within the fabric of our economic systems. Moses had to cover his face to shield the people, living in their own guilt, from the power and glory of God. For Paul we must uncover our faces, and thus our minds, because Christ has transformed our relationship with God’s face—creating a way for us to live without guilt because we are living with God’s spirit and can now act “with great boldness.”
And this brings us to the Transfiguration. It is a sacramental moment. In this story we see a mark of a deeper and more profound reality into which we are invited. That is what sacraments are meant to do—not to mark out the holy in the world, to create veils and borders, but to show us the world that is to be and supposed to be. As Alexander Schmemann explains in his beautiful book, For the Life of the World, Sacraments are “always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not a ‘passage’ into ‘supernature,’ but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ.”
Moody is right: “To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer.” We are guilty and we should be cut off with the black veil. But with Christ we are offered another choice than this black guilt. We are offered a divine face we can look into and follow into a new economy, a new Kingdom in the midst of and yet against the powers of blackness. Uncover your face.