“Shining Faces” / Luke 9:28-36 / 3 March 2019
What are these tales of shining faces that echo through the pages of the sacred book? From Exodus to Luke, and beyond, we hear of these faces all aglow with the light and the love of another world, the radiance and the peace of something more than ourselves. Jesus takes his three besties up the mountain, and there they see him as he was, and is, and always ought to be—but as they’ve never seen him before, transfigured by the light of eternity. Already, before his suffering and passion, he has the light of resurrection in his face. More than millennium earlier, Moses too, came down from a mountain where he’d experienced something sacred, and his face glowed with such an otherworldly light that people actually hid themselves from its gaze. Moses came down off that holy hill, and his whole aura had changed. They read it in his face. People who locked eyes with him thought that he could see into their very souls, and it unnerved them. So much so that old Moses took to hiding his face behind a veil, a covering that he only removed when he went back up the mountain and stood again in the presence of God. And you? When have you seen the face of someone you love transfigured by a hope, by a joy, by a love that spoke of things eternal? When has your face been all aglow? There is a light as if from another world that can transfigure any human face…when we practice the presence of God. Faces drawn, faces weary, faces preoccupied with anxious cares and vain desires, faces in car windows, faces roll past us every day of people we will never know. Even glancing upon the troubled, uneasy face of a stranger can make our world all the darker. Let us seek the presence of the Sacred, and then return to our world with shining faces—radiant, much-needed, transfigured faces, mirroring an inner light. Thus in a world of dismal faces, let there be light and hope.
Of course, none of us can hear about Moses’ veiled face without thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Even if you’re no great fan of Hawthorne, you surely read it in middle school. The Rev. Hooper is the Puritan pastor of a village church in New England. He’s a serious man, well-respected, given to a slightly melancholy nature, but beloved of his parishioners. One Sunday morning, he shows up in the pulpit sporting a sheer black cloth over his eyes. It’s just a double fold of crape, like a bridal veil, except that it’s not white but black. Only his chin and mouth can be seen, and he proceeds to deliver a sermon about the secrets of the human heart, the dark inner thoughts that we share with no one. People think it’s strange. And though he smiles and nods and behaves as he ever has, people shrink from his gaze and turn away when he looks at them. There has to be a good reason for it, some say. Surely he strained his eyes by staying up late, studying the Scriptures. Maybe he has a migraine. And though his people want to give him the benefit of the doubt, no one invites him home to Sunday dinner that day.
In the afternoon, he presides at the funeral of a young woman, and people say to themselves, Ah, maybe this is why he wears a veil. It seems entirely appropriate at the death of one so beautiful and young. But no, that very night—in what proves to be a very busy Sunday for the minister—he also has a wedding. A Sunday evening wedding. And to everyone’s dismay, he shows up with that horrible black veil still covering his eyes. The groom twitches, the bride trembles. A joyful occasion is recast with gloom and a murky foreboding. Everyone talks about the veil, but no one has the courage to ask the minister about it. Finally the church elders send a delegation to ask him to remove it; it’s
giving people the willies. But they’re so uncomfortable in his presence that they never ask.
Children playing on the sidewalks scatter when he walks by. Adults scurry away and hide themselves whenever he draws near. Some try to prove how brave they are by approaching him and treating him as if everything is the same. But even this has an awkwardness to it. Rev. Hooper’s own fiancée isn’t shy to ask. She tells him to take the thing off and explain to her why he’s wearing it. People are talking, she says. They’re saying that you’ve committed some great sin, that you feel the need to hide your face in shame. His reply doesn’t help: “If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough, and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” Of course, no woman is going to put up with talk like that, so she breaks off the engagement. He begs her not to leave him. Can’t she love the man behind the veil? But no. No one can. He spends his life alone. And though people stopped asking him to perform their weddings, and no one at all wanted him to baptize their children, everyone wants him at their deathbeds and at their funerals. Whenever there was confession to be made, souls in agony called out for him, and people on death’s door held to life till he arrived.
When at last, after a long and lonely life, the Rev. Hooper lies abed, waiting to breathe his last, the young minister from a neighboring town comes to pray. The younger pastor says, “Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted, let me cast aside this black veil from your face!” “Never! Never in this life,” old Hooper exclaims. The young minister curses him to judgment for whatever crime he’s hiding with his veil. Dutiful elders and churchfolk have come to attend to his passing. Even his old ex-fiancée is in the room. He says, “I look around me and, lo! On every visage a black veil!” And so they bury him in his veil.
It’s a powerful story, which Hawthorne calls “a parable.” He’s right that there’s something off-putting about people hiding their faces. I visited a church in Rochester where the minister preached with his eyes closed, and it was strangely disconcerting. It made me doubt everything he said, for he couldn’t speak his truths while looking us in the eye. Hawthorne admits in a footnote that he based his story on the life of one Rev. Joseph Moody, who actually did cover his face in public. The real life minister in the black veil admitted on his deathbed that he had accidentally shot and killed his best friend on a hunting trip. He had always allowed the world to believe that his friend had been ambushed and killed by the Abenaki Indians. As long as he lived with his secret guilt, he vowed that he could never look his fellow human beings in the eye again. Hawthorne’s short story is a parable about human faces, and the unknowable inner self that we never show to others, the secret self. But our two Scripture readings on this Transfiguration Sunday are parables of happier things: the bright selves that we become when we practice the presence of God; the glowing faces, shining faces, faces all alight with the calm and the joy of something beyond words. We read it in Exodus, in Luke, and in Hawthorne: the things we dwell on will show in our faces. The thoughts we think, the words we ponder, the pictures we entertain, the acts we commit, all these the world will read in the face that we show to it. Even a dog will hide its face for shame. But shame isn’t what Jesus and Moses are all about. No, they’re about a joy in God’s presence that transforms our faces with the light of something eternal, something good. Jesus and Moses, they’re about a justice that we learn in God’s life-giving presence, a social righteousness that will transform our world into a place where no one needs to hide his or her face, no one lives
in shame. Christ and Moses find communion with that Holy Mystery on lofty mountain heights. It matters not where we find it, but when we do, it makes our faces shine.
And so, let me ask you again: when have you seen a familiar face transfigured and gleaming in a fresh and a joyous glow? When has a face, well-known to you, been transformed by a wholeness, a wellbeing not entirely of this world, and recast with the joy for which all faces are created, but which only few very often show? It happens to most people occasionally. But only for some does it happen frequently. Transfigurations may show on our faces, but they happen when there’s healing and new health deep in our spirits. What shows on the face happens first in the soul. This inner light that glows in our features, it’s more than makeup for the world to see, more than a mask or a happy face. No, it’s evidence of the Holy—the Sacred Soul of the World—at home in our souls, blessing, brightening, giving us strength to live for Christ’s alternative vision of that coming kingdom of fairness, and generosity, and love. And if we are to undertake works of justice and peace in this world, works of inclusion and love, then we need the inner strength of soul that comes from time intentionally spent in the presence of God. Be kind; practice God’s presence, and do justice. It’s really all God requires. And though many of us work pretty successfully at being kind and doing justice, it’s the practice of God’s presence that we find hard, for our lives are so full of urgent things.
This is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent. When Jesus’ glory days as a popular open-air teacher and healer in Galilee drew to a close, he felt his heart tugging him toward a harder task down in Jerusalem, where prophets go to die. But before casting himself and his followers onto the relentless wheel of history, he wants to give the ones he loves something to hold onto in the dark days ahead. He wants to give them a clear and memorable vision of that resurrection life that can only come after all else is lost. And because he was always sneaking off to the hills to pray—at least in Mark and Luke—he takes his three best friends to a hill, overlooking the lands where they’ve journeyed together, and there he draws them into the secret life he has in God. “Look! This is the glory, this is the life eternal. This is the peace of mind and heart that come from sharing our life with God, and it must overflow into our world. That’s what the kingdom of God is. Every human being was created for this.”
The sight of a face veiled in sorrow or shame, cast beneath a pall of fear or pain will spread those very same things inexplicably to all who behold it. Just as faces all aglow with transfiguration light will warm our spirits and make our faces, and the hearts they mirror, glow back in return. It’s oxytocin surely, the happiness hormone, that makes us smile when others smile. But the chemistry of it doesn’t much matter. It happens by God’s design, giving us the courage and the strength to be the people we are called to be in this world: an utterly alternative people, marching to the beat of a wildly different drum. We owe it to a dark and troubled world to be people with shining faces. And we do it by practicing God’s presence.
Hawthorne’s veiled minister had it all wrong, didn’t he? We hide from others, sure. But truly, if we looked, we would not find a black veil over every face. If we but had eyes to see it, could we not envision in each human face the transfiguration joy for which it was fashioned? We are created for communion with God and with each other. We are created for acts of justice and mercy that transform human relationships and society, that transcend and transform politics, and institutions, and conventions. But it’s not makeup. It’s not just face paint. It’s a deep inner wellbeing that comes from a life
centered in the presence and the power of God. Whoever you are, whatever you must do today, seek God’s presence first. What are these tales of shining faces that echo through the pages of the sacred book? As we journey back down to our daily world, and into the season of Lent, let us go with faces and hearts transfigured by spending time in the presence of God. Amen.
“Shining Faces” / Luke 9:28-36 / 3 March 2019