In the Middle East the veil is a piece of the woman’s wardrobe. It is used to cover her hair, sometimes her face, and is meant to protect her modesty. It is meant to conceal . . . to keep a person from clearly seeing what is behind the veil. One of the more common synonyms for the word “veil” is “mask”. I would venture to say that “veil” is a solid metaphor for what we humans do when it comes to both our psychological and spiritual lives. I think that we have a tendency to hide our “real selves” behind a veil when it comes to intimacy with others or the divine. Revealing ourselves . . . our true selves . . . to the other, whether human or divine, is dangerous and risky business.
Years ago I read a book by John Powell, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, written while Powell was a campus priest. In that book he asked college students to share why they were afraid to reveal their true selves to others. One student answered that she was afraid to reveal her true self to others because if they did not accept that reality . . . or did not like that reality . . . what else did she have to offer? Because of this fear the student did what most people do . . . she decided that it was safer to live her life behind a mask . . . behind a veil. Behind that mask or veil was the true self.
I think that it is a rare individual who reveal his or her true self to another . . . human or divine. And, I think it is exactly for the same reason that the college confessed . . . if it is not good enough . . . if it is not acceptable or desirable . . . what else is there to offer to the other? Out of this fear most people live behind veils . . . behind masks, not of who they really are, but what they think the other desires. We all live our lives behind veils. Rarely are we authentic and honest about who we are . . . our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our short-comings, our sins. No, we paint a portrait of who we think others want to see.
In the 1992 move, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays a gung-ho Marine commander of the base in Cuba that is under the jurisdiction of the United States military. While commander of the base a Marine dies. Two fellow Marines are accused of the death . . . they proclaim their innocence as they were following orders to perform a “code red”. “Code red” is basically a death order. Thus the two Marines are brought up on charges of murdering a fellow Marine. The movie focuses on the trial in which the defense of the two defendants centers on the fact that they were just following orders.
In the climactic scene, Nicholson’s character—Colonel Nathan Jessup, the officer assumed to have issued the “code red” is being interrogated by the defense. Point blank the defense asks Colonel Jessup whether or not he ordered the “code red”. The prosecuting attorneys tell the Colonel he does not have to answer the question, but Jessup insists on answering the question . . . his pride and reputation as a Marine have been put into question.
Colonel Jessup responds, “You want answers.”
The defense claims they have a right to have answers.
Again, Colonel Jessup responds, “You want answers?”
To which the defense responds, “I want the truth!”
Colonel Jessup angrily answers: “You can’t handle the truth!”
That is the assumption I believe a lot of us base our lives upon . . . we, and others, cannot handle the truth. Because we assume this we live our lives behind veils and masks . . . never truly revealing our true selves.
Think about it.
Our scripture reading this morning is from the story of the Exodus. The Exodus is that story about the freeing of God’s people from their captivity under the Egyptians. Remember the story? The plagues that God put upon the Egyptians . . . the mad dash towards freedom across the Red Sea . . . the forty years of wandering around, moaning, groaning, and complaining the whole time. Remember that story?
Well, in our story today it talks about Moses going up Mount Sinai, meeting with God, and bringing down to the people the details of what God wanted. Moses was the leader of God’s people in this great exodus from captivity to freedom and their own land to call home. Moses was God’s bottom line. Yet, at the same time, Moses also represented the people . . . a people who were anxious about where they were going since they had no real idea of where that was going to be . . . a people who had endured hardship as captives and slave in Egypt, but were now enduring even harder times as they wandered around the wilderness waiting for some sort of “sign” from God. As the writers of the Book of Exodus describes them . . . they were a lamenting people. “Lamenting” is just a nice way of saying that they were a whiny group. Moses stood as a stand-between between God and the people . . . the people and God.
In Old Testament times, God was pretty much a being way out there who was unapproachable . . . was completely divine and in charge . . . not someone you went to with petty complaint s or worries. God was not someone to be trivial with . . . God had bigger fish to fry than the little guppies of worry that most people have. Yet, here was Moses standing between the two.
In this particular story, Moses goes to Mount Sinai and speaks to God. God gives to him the commandments upon two stone tablets. Despite his the many times time Moses has gone up the mountain to speak to God . . . this time his encounter with God is more intimate . . . more personal. It is an encounter that changes Moses . . . it physically changes him as he comes down off the mountain with one heck of what looks like to be a sunburn. The writers describe him as being “radiant”. It is easy for the people see the change . . . and, it is scary.
Something has changed . . . changed in the relationship between God and Moses . . . between God and the people. It is a change that is more powerful than the people can handle . . . this step into true intimacy between God and Moses. The people cannot handle this change, thus it is that Moses veils his face when he is not speaking for God . . . he hides the reality behind a veil . . . he wears a mask.
In my heart and mind I find this only to be the “prelude” to what it is that God truly desires in God’s relationship with the children . . . God desires true intimacy . . . no hiding behind veils or mask. God wants the people for who God created them to be. God wants the veils to be remove . . . God wants honesty . . . openness . . . true intimacy. Our reading tells us that Moses only removed the veil when he was in the presence of God, or if he was speaking in the voice of God sharing God’s desires.
So, what does this scripture reading say to us today?
Well, simply put, God desires for us to be ourselves—to remove the veils, to tear off the masks—in relation to God and one another. God wants us to be our true selves . . . to lay ourselves on the line . . . warts and all . . . hopes and fears, insecurities, dreams . . . whatever it is that makes us who we were created to be. God wants nothing less . . . and, expects nothing less in our dealing with others. God wants us to remove the veil.
In dealing with this reality, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” To remove the veil . . . to reveal our true selves . . . is a scary endeavor; but, it is our only hope. To reveal our true selves . . . to reveal who God created us to be . . . to step into true intimacy with the holy and the other is pure scariness . . . probably enough to keep us doing what we have been doing forever. We hide behind veils and masks. To really do it is scary . . . and, it is hard work. It is like peeling an onion . . . each layer creates tears as we get closer and closer to the truth . . . closer to intimacy between ourselves and God, ourselves and other.
In all the relationships we have in life, whether they are with God or others, we are called to be ourselves . . . to be who God created us to be. Only in such a relationship do we cross over the veil that hides to reveal our truest selves. Thus, we are called to remove the veil . . . to reveal our true selves. It is our only hope . . . to remove the veil in order to embrace ourselves as the children of God. May we all find the courage to remove the veil . . . God will still love us. Amen.