The Veils We Wear

The season of Epiphany is a time to marvel at the Incarnation, a time to explore the ways that Jesus has been revealed to be the Son (the Child) of God. The season always begins with the visit of the magi from the East, which is always followed the next Sunday by the Baptism of Jesus. The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany we always have an account of the Transfiguration as our gospel reading. These and other stories that map out this season in the life of the Church are all about epiphanies.

Maya Angelou once defined an epiphany as a moment “when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”[1] It happens to all of us at some point – that moment when we see the same thing for the hundredth or even thousandth time, but this time something shines through that we have never noticed before. Sometimes that “something” is the love and presence of God.

It happened to me one day in Durham, North Carolina. I was sixteen and living away from home. I was lonely and sad this particular day. It was during a fairly evangelical period of my life, and so the Bible was the first place I tried to find comfort. But the words seemed dry to me that day. I decided to go for a walk. As I passed a laundromat that I had passed many times before, a young child – about the age of four – came out on the sidewalk. He just looked up at me and said, “I love you.”

It all happened in mere seconds. His mother called him to come back into the laundromat, and he went. But in that moment on the sidewalk a veil lifted, and this child became the presence of God to me. He moved my heart and soul in a way that the words on the page of my Bible had been unable to do just a short time before. I felt an uprising of hope.  

I thought of this experience when I read these lines in a sonnet about the Transfiguration, written by Malcolm Guite:

The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.[2]

I wonder if Peter, James, and John would have described their experience on the mountain this way. Eight days earlier Jesus had told the twelve disciples that he would suffer, be killed, and then be raised on the third day. He also had told them that the path of discipleship is difficult, that it holds a million opportunities to lose one’s life and the same million opportunities to find one’s life again. I suspect that any hope that the disciples had that this journey with Jesus would end well was becoming dimmer by the second.

At this point in Luke’s story, Jesus takes the inner group of disciples (Peter, James, and John) and goes up on a mountain to pray. While Jesus is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah, also appearing in glory, are standing there beside Jesus. Luke tells us that they are talking about Jesus’ departure that will happen in Jerusalem. While the version of the Bible from which we read our scripture passages each Sunday (NRSV) uses the word “departure” to describe what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, perhaps a better translation would be “exodus.”[3] For Luke, what happens on the mountain reveals what will happen in Jesus – a second Exodus of sorts, another act of salvation.

We see this connection that Luke is making between what happens in Jesus and what has already happened in Israel’s history in what Peter does next. Peter says to Jesus: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us build three dwellings [or booths], one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke is connecting this event on the mountain with Jesus to Israel’s Festival of Booths, which is a festival to commemorate the Exodus. For Luke, the transfiguration of Jesus reveals that Jesus is our deliverer.

Even though Luke makes the connection between what God has done in the Exodus and what God is doing in Jesus, there is one thing that Luke does not do to connect the two stories. In Luke, the disciples’ faces don’t shine with the glory of God as they came down from the mountain in the same way that Moses’ face used to shine when he came down from talking with God on Mount Sinai. And the disciples don’t seem to shine with the glory of God through their actions either at this point. Luke tells us that the disciples are unable to cure a boy who is convulsing under the influence of a demonic spirit. Jesus responds by saying: “You perverse and faithless generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”

Before we are too quick to judge the judge Peter, James, and John, maybe we should ask ourselves if our faces shine when we leave this place. In the words of Paul, do we “act with great boldness”? Do we have the freedom that comes from the Holy Spirit? Are we being transformed into the likeness of God, into the likeness of Jesus?

When the answer to these questions is “no” – when we are not transparent to the glory of God – we need to ask ourselves: What veils are we wearing that keep us from seeing the glory of God in the world around us, that keep us from experiencing epiphanies and from seeing ordinary things in new and extraordinary ways? We need to ask ourselves: What veils are we wearing that keep us from being a source of God’s loving presence in the world?

Perhaps it’s a deep-seated shame about something we have done in the past, or a fear of what discipleship can cost us, or a lack of hope that things can be different, or a busyness that keeps us from taking the time to look for God’s glory in the world around us or to be present to others as a sign of God’s presence and love. But now we are jumping ahead to the season of Lent when we will do the hard work of self-reflection and naming those things that separate us from God and keep us from living in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. We will get to all that soon enough.

Today let’s remember the rest of the story of Peter, James, and John. When the Holy Spirit rested upon the disciples at Pentecost, Peter found the courage to preach boldly, to heal those who could not walk, to bring back a girl who had died, and to open the doors of the Church to the gentiles. Tradition has it that he was crucified in Rome. We don’t know nearly as much about James, a son of Zebedee. But in his own way he must have grown to be courageous and bold, because he was killed at the order of King Herod Agrippa – making him the first of the disciples to be martyred. His brother John – thought to be the “beloved disciple that we hear about in the gospel of John – was the one whom Jesus trusted to care for his mother Mary after the crucifixion. The tradition of the Church has it that he wrote several books in the New Testament, engaged in missionary activity, and ultimately died in Ephesus at an old age.

If these three disciples show us anything, it’s that despite failing at times to live up to who we are called to be, through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, all the veils will at times drop away and we will see a light shining from “the Love that dances at the heart of things” (to quote Malcolm Guite). And then maybe the light in us will leap up to meet it, and we will become a channel of God’s light in the world. Let that hope carry us into the season of Lent, all the way to the cross, and beyond.


[1] Elise Ballard, “How Do you, We, I Define Epiphany, Exactly?”, Psychology Today website, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/epiphany/201101/how-do-you-we-i-define-epiphany-exactly/.

[2] Malcolm Guite, “Transfiguration,” Malcolm Guite website, https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/a-sonnet-for-the-feast-of-the-transfiguration/.

[3] Greg Carey, “Commentary on Luke 9:28-43,” Working Preacher website, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3972.