In most traditional Catholic settings we usually think of the veil as something a woman wears, and as a sign of traditional modesty and prayer. In this sense we think of it as something good and positive, though perhaps some among us are less than enthusiastic.

But in the readings of Mass from this Wednesday, the veil is presented in far more ambivalent terms:

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands,
he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD….the children of Israel…were afraid to come near him….He put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the children of Israel all that had been commanded. Then the children of Israel would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD (Exodus 34).

As we see, even the mere afterglow of God’s glory was something the people of old could not tolerate. Thus Moses wore a veil to shield them from God’s glory. And this is man in his sinful state, incapable of withstanding even the afterglow of God’s holiness.

On the one hand this humility is admirable. Unlike many modern, even many religious people today, the ancients knew that God was utterly holy, and that they were not. Many and varied were the rituals that recalled God’s holiness, and our sinfulness.

An often repeated but disputed tradition, is that the High Priest who went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur entered with much incense, lest he catch a glimpse of the Holy One and be struck dead on account of his sins. It is also said that he wore bells around his waist such that when he prayed, bowing and moving, those outside the veil knew that he was still alive. It is further said that he had a rope tied about his ankle so that if he was struck dead he could be dragged out without others having to enter the Inner Sanctum, themselves risking death, to retrieve the body!

True or not, it is clear that the ancient Jews understood that it was an awesome thing to be in the presence of a living and holy God! For who can look on the face of God and live?! (cf Ex 33:20)

How different this is from we moderns who manifest such a relaxed and comfortable posture in the presence of God, in his holy Temple. As we discussed on the blog last week, almost any sense of awe and holy fear has been replaced by a extremely casual disposition, both in dress, and in action. No need to rehearse all of that here. Read last weeks blog for that: Remove Your Sandals!

But it is clear, that if the ancient Jewish practice was at one extreme, we are clearly at the other.

However, it would be a dubious position to hold that God expects the kind of fearsome reverence manifested in ancient Israel. Jesus clearly came to grant us access to the Father, through the forgiveness of our sins. As he died on the Cross, the Scripture says:

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. (Matt 27:50-51)

Yes, the veil in the temple was torn into from top to bottom. Extra biblical traditions (e.g. Josephus) also hold that after the earthquake, the large brass doors of the temple swung open and stayed that way.

Isaiah had said On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the shroud that covers all nations (Is 25:7). This is clearly fulfilled at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross on Mount Moriah (Gologtha) and the veil of the Temple is rent. On account of the cleansing blood of Jesus that reaches us in our baptism, we gain access again to the Father. And thus we have a perfect right (granted us by grace) to stand before the Father with hands uplifted to praise Him.

So the veil is parted, torn asunder by Jesus. And thus the veil that veiled Moses’ face has something of an ambivalent quality. Yes, it does symbolize a great reverence. But it also signifies a problem that needed to be resolved. We were made to know God, to be able to look on the face of our God and live. Sin had made us incapable of doing this. Thus the veil that Moses wore was a veil that needed ultimately to be taken away.

St. Paul beautifully speaks of us  looking on the face of the Lord with unveiled faces:

Setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. …For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:2-6)

And again,

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away….And we, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:13-18).

And thus, for some the veil remains. It is a veil that clouds their minds. This is not a veil of modesty or reverence, this is a veil of unknowing that must be removed by the gift of faith.

And thus, in Wednesday’s readings, we have a kind of “veil in reverse.” Most of us, at least the traditional among us, think of the veil as something beautiful and reverent. And it is. But the veil of Moses spoke of the sins and the sorrows of the people, it was a veil that needed to be removed.

That said, it remains true according to this author’s opinion that we moderns must find our way back to some degree of reverence and awe before the presence of God. Even in the New Testament, and after the resurrection, there are stories of both St. John and St. Paul who encountered the glory of the Lord Jesus, manifested from heaven. So awesome was this theophany that they both were struck down. Paul, as yet unbaptized was blinded. And John, though not blinded, fell to his face.

The removal of the veil of Moses is both necessary and prophesied, and cringing fear must give way to hopeful confidence and joy in the presence of the Lord. But especially in these proud times of self-esteem, there must be some manner in which we come to realize that we are in the presence of the Holy One of Israel,

As the ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St James says, All mortal flesh must keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His, Christ our God to Earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

The veil of Moses is removed, but the “veil” of reverence, whether literal or metaphorical  must remain.

21 Responses

  1. Annette Strachan says:

    Jesus drove out the sellers in the Temple saying “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’ …

  2. Jamie R says:

    I have noticed a tendency towards a posture of ‘friendship’ with Jesus among friends and acquaintances, that, to me at least, seems to dispense with any real sense of reverence. One friend told us that the was going to spend some time “hanging out with Jesus” during her vacation. This made me uncomfortable. I view Jesus as a friend, for sure, and accessible – but a friend whose very nature should elicit reverence and awe.

    • Sarah in WA says:

      My husband has a standard quip for the mentality you mentioned: “Jesus isn’t your buddy. He’s your God and KING.”

    • Cadian says:

      @Jamie R:

      St Theresa of Jesus (Avila) said “Prayer is a conversation between friends.”
      St Therese of the Child Jesus and Holy Face (Lisieux) said ” I have not the courage to look through books of beautiful prays, so I do as a child, I tell the lord all I want and he understands”.
      Jesus himself said to call The Father Abba ( Daddy ).

      I find these three reminders very helpful. I do wish more people would be more reverent at Mass. But, when making time to go and Visit with Our Lord, I think it’s ok to be more “casual”. Like you were going over to a good friends house. As someone who suffers from scrupulosity knowing that I can “just tell the lord all I want and he understands” is very comforting when I start a cycle of “self correcting” with each thing I say or have to “stop myself and repeat” a prayer because “I mess it up”. We are in the age of Mercy. We should take Jesus up on his offer of said Mercy and feel comfortable with his Love. We all need to do this … all of us.

      • Some balancing is lack here. What you say is not untrue. But my Father (while he lived) was not my friend, he was my father. In the same way we can speak of Jesus as a friend and a God as Abba, but we must not speak equivocally as though we were co-equal with God. This not a relationship between equals at all. My earthly father was never my equal, he was someone to whom I owed reverence and respect. Even more so God.

        • Cadian says:

          @ Msgr. Pope:

          I can see how one may have read into what I wrote as being “co-equal”. That was never my intention, nor do I think I am co-equal with God in anyway. I was attempting to address the fact that many seem to be “scared” to speak with God in any other way that “formal prayers” in some form or the other. I know full well I am a fallen creature in need of God’s Love and because He wishes to freely give me His love I owe him all reverance and respect he is due and more so. I think what I wrote about, at least for this scrupulous sinner, would be comforting for those who wish to find a way to be closer to God. Just talk to Him ever day, throughout the day, and go visit Him regularly. Hope this makes sense.

  3. susanna says:

    Sing that hymn before every Mass. The world doesn’t esteem silence today.

  4. MTMajor says:

    It is this loss of the “veil of reverence” at Mass that causes my wife and I so much heartache. This results in our seemingly never ending quest to locate and attend reverent Mass within our diocese, sometimes many miles from our home. While unfortunate, it is our small suffering and we pray for more reverence at all Masses.

  5. TJV3 says:

    Msgr,

    As a point of interest, many years ago, an orthodox rabbi friend, in speaking of Yom Kippur, noted that the bells and the rope on the High Priest were not employed “just in case”. It was not an uncommon occurrence for the High Priest to expire while in the Holy of Holies. If this was the old dispensation, it just highlights the reverence we ought to show our Divine Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and during the Sacred Liturgy.

  6. mdepie says:

    I think one modest start would be to remind people of the real presence. This could be done by moving the tabernacles when possible to the center of the Church behind the alter. In most church’s I have been in I find people tend to bow or genuflect to an image of some kind that is behind the alter and certainly I understand this is an attempt at reverence but I think we are forgetting as Catholics we do not just have pictures of Jesus we are supposed to believe in the tabernacle we have Jesus himself. This is a very hard belief to hold and we need constant aids to help us hold it. At least I do. Recently I was at mass and saw a Eucharistic host dropped on the floor in the center of the Church ( I was receiving in a line approaching the alter from the side). I tried to tell the Eucharistic minister that a host had been dropped across the way ( even pointing at it) but he did not quite get the message and the host remained on the floor. I did not want to run across the Church to pick it up myself ( as I thought this might be disruptive to those trying to receive) And frankly was baffled as to what to do, Fortunately after what seemed like a long time someone noticed the host before it was trampled underfoot and picked it up.

    I think what this illustrates is how far we have come in the 45 years or so since I received first holy communion on my knees, with a paten under my chin so that the host dare not hit the ground. I am not saying that we need to return to that exact model but there is no question that everybody recognized that the Host we HOLY and therefore the inside of a Church was HOLY as well. In fact the nuns used to tell us to bless ourselves when we passed a Church in a car etc.. Again we do not have to recreate 1967 in north east Pennsylvania. But the problem is that there is no sense that God is in the Church. If there was a stronger return to a very strong theology of the Eucharist, a mention here or there of some Eucharistic miracles, less “lord of the dance” and more incense, well then things might change.

  7. RichardGTC says:

    The flesh is also described with veil imagery: Hebrews 10: 19-20 “[19] Having therefore, brethren, a confidence in the entering into the holies by the blood of Christ; [20] A new and living way which he hath dedicated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh[.]”

  8. james s. says:

    Very nice piece, Monseignor. Very thoughtful. You mentioned that St Paul and St John were both struck down when they experienced the glory of Christ’s presence after his resurrection. I have always read the scene in Gethsemane as a similar episode in which a kind of controlled pulse of glory came from Jesus. “And there was Judas, his betrayer, standing in their company. When he said to them, I am Jesus of Nazareth, they all shrank back, and fell to the ground.”

  9. Kithri says:

    Why can’t we both reverence and have a close friendship with the good God? Why not lord of the dance and let all mortal flesh keep silence? God once walked in the cool of the evening with Adam, and when Adam fled the garden, came after him, even dying on a cross to, in a sense, bring Adam’s children back into that intimate friendship…

    My friendship with Jesus is the best thing about my life. The closer this friendship (through his amazing condescension), the more reverent of Him I have become, especially of His Eucharistic presence.

    @ TJV3 — Wow, what a way to go! I’ve petitioned Our Lord to let me drop dead at the communion rail when it’s my time… (and yes, my home parish _has_ a communion rail!)

    • Michael Petek says:

      The way to do this is to talk to Jesus as you would to a friend, but remember: (1) not to be opinionated in his presence and; (2) that he is the one who has the fullness of all wisdom and knowledge.

      • Kithri says:

        I just tell him everything I think and feel, even my strongly held opinions…and then He (gently) tells me where I’ve gone off course :)

  10. one anonymous says:

    Hmmm, even Moses gets mad (Monday’s reading, in part): Exodus 32: 19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.

    But the next day Moses begs for God’s Mercy to forgive the people: Exodus 32: 30 On the morrow Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin — and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.

    I just LOVE Moses!! Isn’t he great!!

  11. Frank says:

    Msgr., outstanding post! Are you familiar with the Veil of Manoppello? Take all of the verses you’ve quoted above and read them while contemplating the Veil and the Shroud of Turin. Those “Icons” need to become more widely known as a means to communicate the teachings of St. Paul and re-introduce the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ and why we must all go through the Cross in our faith journey.

    Eastern Tradition holds that Our Lady had the Veil (and likely the Shroud) while in Ephesus. St. Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, where he really develops the Body and Head, from Ephesus in ~53. Was Mary still at Ephesus at that time? Could St. Paul have been contemplating the Veil and Shroud as he wrote those?

    Finally, neither the Veil nor the Shroud clearly shows the neck of Christ. St. Bernardine of Sienna said, “she is the neck of Our Head, by which He communicates to His mystical body all spiritual gifts.” The other “not made by human hands” image within Catholic Tradition is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, along with the Shroud and the Veil, the neck of the Mystical Body.

    Our Faith Tradition is truly beautiful!

  12. […] Charles Pope, of the Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.) offers a reflection on the descent of Moses from Sinai. Along the way, he points out the great reverence the Jews held […]

  13. JohnR says:

    The matter of light is an interesting one. Here on earth we get most of our light from the sun although we can and do produce light artificially. We need light in order to see.
    St Faustina tells us that when she was given a look at hell, the place was completely black. There was no light at all and yet the damned could still see one another.
    In heaven the place is so full of light. We speak of the Light of Christ but this is not just a metaphor. God radiates light. Heaven is full of the light of God.
    Darkness is the absence of light.
    Hell has no light source. The light of God is certainly not there.

  14. Anna says:

    Apologies if this sounds irreveren t/ incorrect but has been wondering how the hierarchy in the Orthodox Churches justify their wearing of veils .

    Could this have been a tradition forced upon them , by the Islamic authority , with the intent to embarass their Church , by portraying them in the dhimmi, effeminate role, due to the long history of their lands being under Islam !

    If same is recognised as an effect of the rebellion against Papacy which led to such a situation and in itself a vivid example of an incorrect / unorthodox practice , may be that awareness can help too , to bring forth the role of Moses , as the one true leader , for The Church , for the God appointed role of the Pope ,whiich, in turn , can aid to relieve lot of unnecessary suffering ,from the loss of faith , as a result of prideful divisions !

  15. Danny Jones says:

    There are different meanings in the wearing of the veil. It now depends on the people looking at it or judging it as to what they have seen. Most veils are worn to prtect or shield the face so that it cannot be seen but some veils are also worn to signify divinity.

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