We often hide from one another, sometimes to keep them from knowing us, sometimes to protect ourselves, but how do we achieve a life free of this veiled existence?
Rebecca Britten Weiss was in line at the store and recognized the man in front of her. “Years before, he had been one of my professors. I was wearing my COVID mask; he was not. This gave me the advantage of recognizing him while keeping my identity hidden, and I liked it that way, because the prospect of engaging with him, even via shifty-eyed glances, was exhausting. Everything was exhausting.”
She had been his colleague, and he had been instrumental in their university not renewing her teaching contract. This was the memory she submitted to the readers’ essays section of this month’s Christian Century. She had committed the cardinal sin of assigning Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi had written about her experience being a professor at the University of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. She had encouraged her female students to read Lolita and reflect on how the experience of the girl victim is very like their own.
"The motif of the veil is an important theme in Nafisi’s memoir,” Rebecca mused, “and the women in her book club have differing views on its significance. Being forced to cover one’s face can be oppressive, an obliteration. At the same time, covering one’s face can be a marker of religious identity, a sign of participation in community life. In many cultures, women have found freedom and power in hiddenness, facelessness, disguise. Disguise has allowed us to rewrite our identities on our own terms. Sometimes it has simply allowed us to be left alone.”
On one hand, she wondered if this man and other former colleagues who had joined him hoped that she would disappear. Did her continued presence in their town and the reminder of what they had done to her and her career discomfort or embarrass them? Maybe.
“Sometimes, though,” she wrote, “it was a relief to be invisible, to step outside the story they had written for me, to be merely the masked woman, residing in a blank space where I could write my own life without their erasures and misinterpretations.”
Rebecca’s story made me think of another one in Exodus that involved someone who was often misunderstood and also veiled for some time.
It’s a peculiar incident that comes up again in the New Testament, but here’s the first mention of it in scripture. “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30, ESV). Because of everyone’s reactions, Moses ended up putting a veil over his face.
Was it because all of these people were fresh out of Egypt with all of those pagan gods and a pharaoh who claimed to be a god? Did he worry about the people he was supposed to lead starting to worship him as if he were the new deified pharaoh in their lives? Was it just because even his own brother hid from him?
Moses had already had his brother and sister turn on him very publicly and try to take leadership of the nation (see Numbers 12:1-16). There had been multiple uprisings where people threatened Moses and wanted other people to take over (see Number 14, 16, 20, 21). Moses was chronically wrestling with misconceptions of who he was and what he was going to do for Israel. I wonder if it was a relief to put that veil over his face and simply be who he was in front of God.
Outside of God, is it possible to be ourselves without responding to other’s expectations or bending out of shape according to their interpretations? I doubt it. There’s also the matter of do we really want to be ‘ourselves’ without God? Who we are without him is ugly and demented, endlessly collapsing in on itself around a black hole of sinful desires.
Sometimes the veil feels comforting because it protects us from others. Sometimes it comforts because it hides our brokenness and rottenness from others.
Paul, with all of his Pharisee training in the Old Testament, had to address this with an early church struggling with the Levitical laws and what should or shouldn’t apply to new believers, especially gentiles. He wrote that Moses wore the veil to hide the fact that the light in his face from speaking to God was fading. His sinful nature could not behold God face-to-face, and neither could it hold the purity of what it had witnessed. This is the inevitable result of trying to follow the law and fix ourselves. All we’re left with is fig leaves and veils to hide what we cannot fix.
Paul concluded, “For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:14-18, ESV).
Christ was God who met with humanity face-to-face without us having to hide from his glory; he lifted the veil off of our hearts and minds.
That sounds all well and good, but how does it happen? We hide for good reasons. We’re imperfect, and we know it. We’re barraged by others demands which may be incredibly destructive. How do we find freedom from inner pain and outer pressure to conform?
C. S. Lewis’s final book, Till We Have Faces, is one where he explores the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister who is veiled throughout the book until the very end. Near that end, the sister reflects, “When the time comes to you at which you’ll be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
I can only imagine Lewis had this verse in mind as he penned that passage. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).
The security of being fully known and loved by someone whom we may and must fully love in return forces us to drop the veils that we attempt to use to hide from Christ. He then begins his transformative work in our hearts and minds that make us more truly the ‘us’ whom God designed and intended for us to be. Only this process allows us to truly discard the veils that hide us from others because they are quickly losing their power to change or hurt us.
The only definition we need about who we are is God’s because only he sees and knows us through and through. The veil is no longer needed, and one day when we wear our true faces, we will see him face-to-face.