How Is the Gospel Veiled?

 

transfigurationWe celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus at the end of Epiphany to prepare ourselves for Lent. This is a joyous feast where the Light of Mount Tabor should inspire us for the days of penance and entering into the Paschal Mystery of Christ. However, there is a discordant element in the reading from St. Paul that I want to focus on. He, too, writes of the inspiring light of the Transfiguration, but he also writes about the veil over Moses’ face. This refers to the story in Exodus where Moses put a veil over his face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law because his face shone too brightly for his fellow Israelites to look upon. (Ex. 34: 29–34) Paul goes on to say that the Jews remain veiled when they hear the words of the Law. In light of Holocaust, this verse causes much uneasiness, all the more so as it has been used to justify anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the lectionary stops short of the two verses that are of upmost importance for putting the veil in perspective. The reading concludes with 2 Cor. 4:2 where Paul says: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” At this point, Paul is no longer talking about the Jews and the Law; he is talking about the right conduct expected of any follower of Christ. The next two verses bring back the image of the veil: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God..” What is crucial is that the veil is not cast over the minds of Jews reading the Law; the veil is cast over all who are unbelievers. Moreover, it is “the god of this world” that has cast the veil. This is a veil cast over everybody.

Is the same veil cast over the Jews? Is this veil cast over those of who follow Christ? The answers are Yes and Maybe in the sense of Probably.

The longer answer to the first question is answered in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Circumcision was and is the prime cultural marker for Jewish males. In Paul’s time, uncircumcision was the cultural marker for the Gentiles. Paul is saying that, in Christ, neither of these markers matter. That means that no cultural marerks count for anything in Christ. That is to say, any cultural marker is a veil. There is only one veil that covers the Gospel and that one veil is trusting in ones’ own cultural markings instead of trusting fully in Christ. If any of us claim that anyone of another culture is under a veil, we have put a veil over ourselves. (Paul was Jewish, so he was engaging in a self-critique when he wrote of the veil over his fellow Jews.)

This goes a long way to the longer answer to the second question. All of us are trained from birth to affirm our culture and family. We also derive identify from political parties, churches, schools of thought, social sets, and much else. That in itself does not constitute a veil, but if these ways by which we define ourselves take precedence over Christ, they veil us from the Gospel. Such identifications are the specialty of “the god of this world.” If we accuse other people of being veiled, we only put the veil over our own faces and so fail to see the Glory of God revealed on Mount Tabor. So let us examine ourselves for anything that casts a veil of Christ and cast it off so that we cast ourselves onto the mercy of Christ’s Glory.

“The Greatest of These Is Love”

outsideSupper1Paul’s famous Hymn of Love zeroes in on what love, as agape, is all about: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:4–6) In these qualities, we can see love as a deep renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Insisting on our own way, being resentful, rejoicing in the shortcomings of others, are all ways of putting ourselves on top of other people. Surely this short list is meant to stand for any attempt to put ourselves above other people. As long as we try to “win,” we lose at love. When we are willing to “lose,” we win at love.
In Works of Love, Kierkegaard plunges the depths of what it means for love to “believe all things” and “hope all things.” (1Cor. 13:7) Kierkegaard’s first axiom is: “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived.” Believing all things is a tall order when we know, with the Psalmist, that “Everyone is a liar!” (Ps. 116:11) Kierkegaard examines the lengths we go to avoid being deceived by another. Such a one practices much cleverness in this task. For Kierkegaard, cleverness is not a good thing; cleverness is the trait that cuts us off from other people and, most particularly, from God. If we think we love while we calculate possible deceptions of the other, we are deceiving ourselves. If we abandon ourselves to love to the extent of believing the other person and that person deceives us, it is this other person who has deceived him or herself. A second axiom is: “Love hopes all things—and yet is never put to shame.”  As with believing all things, hope is hoping all things for oneself and other people. As with believing all things, Kierkegaard explores the cleverness with which we lower our standards in relationship with God and so are put to shame because we did not love enough to hope all things. If even the prodigal son should, in the end, be lost, the father who remains steadfast in love has not been put to shame. It is only the lost son who remained lost who is put to shame. In hoping for the salvation of other people, we are renouncing all mimetic rivalry that might tempt us to loosen this hope even a little bit. With these two axioms, Kierkegaard has shown us how love fulfills the other two theological virtues of faith and hope so that “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

Beloved Children of God

Baptism_of_ChristAt his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from Heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3: 22) These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. Similar words are spoken to the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 42:1. Throughout these songs of the Suffering Servant, he is being called out of a violent society to become instead the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the Psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Suffering Servant does not retaliate against the violence inflicted on him. Jesus begins his mission, then, with a powerful acclaim of unconditional love from his Heavenly Father, a sense of unconditional love he will offer to all who will listen.

As the inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other, in Jesus we too are drawn out of this inundation of rage. But we are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath any more than Jesus was. Rather, in baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but also overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

When Jesus was called out by his heavenly Father, Jesus experienced his father as “Abba.” This is the Aramaic word a child would use to address his or her father. This word even appears in Romans 8: 15 when Paul says that it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry out: “Abba, Father!” In Isaiah 43: 1, the prophet says that Israel has been called by name, that we belong to Yahweh. This suggests that as Jesus was called the son of the heavenly Abba, we, by extension, are also called children of the same heavenly Abba. In this way, Jesus makes himself the brother of every one of us as we share the same Abba.

The Naming of Jesus

HolyFamilybyGutierrez“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)

This little verse in Luke probes deeply into the meaning of the Incarnation. When God took on human flesh, God became a particular human being at a particular time and culture. The circumcision on the eighth day marked Jesus as a Jew. When he could only make inarticulate sounds, he was initiated into the rich cultural matrix of his Jewish tradition.

On the same day, the boy was named Jesus (Joshua), binding him to the associations with others in his culture who bore that name. The name is fitting in that it means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus certainly lived up to his name by being the savior of humankind. The history of the name in the Jewish tradition, however, is sometimes problematic.

A man named Joshua led the Jews into the Promised Land through a violent conquest according to the Book of Joshua. This Joshua’s character and actions were quite the opposite of Jesus, who preached nonviolence and embodied nonviolence in his life. Perhaps the name was chosen by the angel to give us a new meaning of what it really means for Yahweh to save. That is, Yahweh does not save by leading a violent conquest; Yahweh saves through Jesus’ leading us into a Promised Land based on peace and nonviolence.

The prophet Zechariah had a vision of a high priest named Joshua standing in a soiled robe while submitting to Satan’s judgment. The Lord intervenes and rebukes Satan. Then he clothes Joshua in a clean garment. (Zech. 3)  Being sinless, Jesus would not have needed to be clothed in a new garment, but he stood in the place of sinful humanity when he was nailed to the cross. According to Paul, Jesus himself is the new clothing we put on in order to put on the New Humanity.

When I was young and resentful about many things, one of the things I was resentful about was the imposition of family history and the American culture I was born into. After all, nobody consulted me about it. But now I figure that if being born into a culture with its pluses and minuses and embracing that culture in order to transform it was okay for Jesus, then it should be okay for me.

The Child Who Supplants Us All

crecheThe angels say to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2:10) They say the same to us today. What are we afraid of? The shepherds were afraid of the glory of the Lord shining about them. That sounds like a good thing, but most of us aren’t used to glorious light filling the night sky any more than the shepherds were. Even the most devout of us would at least be startled if such a light shone around us. When Herod heard of the birth of a child destined to be a king, he was afraid. Caesar Augustus would have been as afraid if he had been told about Jesus’ birth. His successors were sufficiently afraid to persecute the followers of Jesus for three centuries. What were they afraid of?

Herod and Caesar Augustus were afraid of being supplanted. They didn’t want to give up their imperial positions. The shepherds had a lot less to lose but if Jesus supplanted them as shepherds, how would they earn a living? As it turned out, no amount of fear would stop Jesus from supplanting all emperors and shepherds. The two jobs became one with the Good Shepherd who leads all of us, deposed emperors and shepherds included, through the sheep’s gate into safe pastures. Are we afraid of these safe pastures?

Here we have fear of the unknown (what is this strange light show all about?) and fear of being supplanted. Fear of being supplanted is a version of fear of the unknown; we don’t know what life will be like if we are supplanted. We might chuckle at lowly shepherds fearing they will lose their jobs and indulge in self-righteous laughter at horrid kings and emperors who don’t want to lose their power, but it seems to me that all of us should be afraid of having our imperial pretensions with which we makes ourselves little tin kings supplanted by the Christ Child.

The thought of being supplanted is frightening, but the angels’ song “Glory to God in the highest” seems to celebrate our supplanting as a wonderful thing. Can we believe the angels? The shepherds believed the angels enough to go and see the child for themselves, something Herod never did. Maybe glory to God in the highest is a much greater thing than glory to Me, Myself, and I. We won’t know if it is unless we try it. Can we accept the invitation that this Christmas celebration offers us?

What We Should Fear

Statue_of_Dame_JulianMany of the words in today’s Gospel are fearsome but many events in the past couple of weeks have also been fearsome so they fit right in. We are rightly anxious about Terrorism although I personally find the hateful and fearmongering rhetoric of some politicians around the world, not least in the US much scarier.

I think it highly likely that Jesus is speaking about earth-shattering events in the sense that major terrorist attacks are earth-shattering. When such things happen, it feels like the sky is falling but it isn’t really. Since the prophets similar such language for horrific events, it makes sense to understand Jesus’ words in this way. This hardly takes the edge off the words or the events happening in our time. This point becomes all the stronger when we look at Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter. Jesus begins by warning that “not one stone will be left on stone” of the temple his disciples are admiring. For the Jews, the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 was indeed earth-shaking, to put it mildly.  Jesus goes on to warn of wars and rumors of wars and people all over the place claiming to be the Messiah, just like what is happening all around us today. Jesus goes on with persecutions and refugees fleeing violence, again an up-to-date report on what is happening. So, there is much reason to be afraid.

And yet Jesus tells us to hold our heads high because redemption is near. He further assures us with the little parable of the fig tree that will bear fruit in due season. The fruit may not be visible now but it is latent in the tree and the fruit will come.

Veronica Mary Rolf, a leading scholar of Julian or Norwich, has posted a timely article on her blog about what Julian has to say about fear. Julian faced the same fears we do so her words are most apposite. We can be afraid of 1) sudden alarms, such as a terrorist attack; 2) physical or spiritual pain, such as fear of sickness or fear of Hell; 3) “doubtful dread,” the fear that God’s forgiveness may not be complete These fears can have their uses but they should be overridden by “rightful fear,” which can also be called “reverent dread” or “holy awe.” This is awe of God’s lordship and God’s gift of salvation. We should shun the first three fears in favor of the fourth. The more deeply we are rooted in “rightful fear,” the less we will experience the first three.

Clearly, it is “rightful fear” and “holy awe” that gives us the power to hold our heads high amid the swirl of violence around us. Fear-mongering that would have us close our hearts to refugees and other people in dire need is clearly rooted in the first three fears with not a trace of the fourth. But with “rightful fear,” what we fear most is to fall short of the love God has for us and for all others, especially those fleeing violence in the dead of night. This is the fear that bears fruit when the season for it comes. John says that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18.) The obverse is true: perfect fear of the first three types casts out love. What will be our choice of fears?