Pulling Back the Veil

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

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If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Catholic Church often uses veils. For example, it’s a traditional practice (no longer mandated) for women to wear a veil over their heads in church. In some parishes you’ll notice the chalice is veiled before the Eucharistic rite at Mass. Some parishes place a veil over the tabernacle. Granted, you may not see this done in every Catholic parish, but there are certain veils you will find in every church. The altar is always covered with an altar cloth. And even the priest, when he celebrates Mass, covers himself. He wears a white robe, called an alb, to cover any street clothing. And over that he wears the chasuble as a symbol of his priestly office.  These vestments are a type of veil.

What is the purpose of all this veiling? You’ll note, firstly, that the intent is not to hide the profane. We don’t veil things because they are unworthy. In fact, it is the opposite. We veil that which is sacred.

This past week, the readings at daily Mass have been taken from Exodus. Last Thursday’s reading tells of Moses building a dwelling for the Ten Commandments. The commandments are placed inside of the ark. Then the ark was placed in a tent. And then, we are told, an additional covering was placed over the tent, and finally a curtain was hung as a screen in front of the ark — veil over veil over veil.

Why all the veils? First of all, God commanded Moses to construct the dwelling for the ark in this way. It is a pattern that is followed later when the Temple is built in Jerusalem. There the ark is kept inside of an inner room, called a tabernacle, with a veil at the entrance to hide it from sight. But even if God did not specifically mandate the use of these veils, it follows from the natural reverence we ought to have for the Divine. Being in the presence of God’s glory is an awe-full thing, meaning is it “full of awe.”

Moses veiling his face to present the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.

Staying with Exodus for a moment, if we remember the time when Moses first encountered God in the burning bush, we are told that Moses “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:6). Last Wednesday’s reading from Exodus tells of when Moses came down from the mountain after conversing with God. His face was shining so brightly with just the residue of God’s grace that the Israelites couldn’t even look at him. So Moses had to veil his face.

It’s not just that we aren’t worthy to look upon God. We aren’t. But it’s about more than worthiness. We mere mortals are simply not capable of looking upon the fullness of God’s glory. God tells Moses as much in Exodus 33:20, when Moses asks to look upon God’s glory: “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” God basically tells Moses, “If I showed you my full glory, it would kill you.” Instead, God lets Moses look upon His back, as His glory passes by, but not directly upon His face.

What does all this about veils and Exodus have to do with the Feast of the Transfiguration?

It’s this: A veil exists between heaven and earth, between this world and the next, between the human and the divine. The veils we read about in the Old Testament, and the veils we still use in the Church today, are symbols of this metaphysical veil that hides God from our sight. But in the Incarnation, God pulls back the veil and steps over to our side. In Jesus Christ, we are given a glimpse of what lies behind the veil. Indeed, at the moment of His death, the scriptures tell us that the veil that hung at the entrance to the Tabernacle in the Temple was torn in two (Mt 27:51). The curtain between the human and the divine was destroyed.

Yet God still veils His presence from us. He does so for our good. Because we are still human. And He is still divine. If we were to see the fullness of His glory, it would totally consume us. God knows this. It’s like looking at a solar eclipse. The Sun’s corona is so intense that if we looked at it directly we’d go blind. We can only see it through the veil of special glasses. The glasses don’t hide the eclipse from us; they actually make it more visible.

In a similar way, God comes to us veiled in ways that make Him visible; in ways that we can understand. He comes to us veiled in human flesh; His majesty both hidden and revealed in the human face of Christ. He comes to us veiled behind bread and wine; His divinity hidden in food that we can consume and make part of ourselves.

This is why it is still proper for Christians to use veils in our churches still today. Even though we have the great blessing of approaching our Lord in such a loving and intimate way, He remains veiled in the sacraments. These are veils designed to make Him accessible, not keep Him apart. But they are types of veils nonetheless.

These veils are needed as long as we remain in this world. But they will not be needed in eternity. The scriptures promise that one day “we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2). Those words were written by John, one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, along with Peter and James. These three were the “inner circle” of Jesus’ disciples. They are the privileged ones to whom Jesus granted a glimpse of His full glory.

And he was transfigured before them; 
his face shone like the sun 
and his clothes became white as light.

Jesus gave these three a glimpse of what lies behind the veil. Peter, James and John fell prostrate, hiding their gaze from the divine glory. But Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Mt 17:7).

Jesus gave the disciples this glimpse of His full glory to strengthen them for the trials to come. He gave them a glance at the prize to inspire them to keep running the race. This event is recorded in the scriptures and celebrated by the Church for the same reason; to give the disciples of every generation a glimpse at what lies behind the veil, to inspire us to keep running the race, to keep aspiring to holiness, to keep faithful to God’s commands and to keep close to Jesus Christ, so that at the end of our earthly days, we may behold the glory of God, not from behind a veil, but as He truly is.