VEILS are controversial things, nowadays. But, if debates about freedom of religious expression and potential oppression are complex, the theology of Paul in 2 Corinthians is more complex still.
For those who already know what they think about God’s covenants with the Jewish people, Paul’s words here can be a simple affirmation of their own belief in “supersession”: in other words, that Christianity has annulled Judaism by replacing it with something better. In his longest letters, Paul tries to give full expression to the “newness of life” (Romans 6.4) which is the Christian gospel, but without treating his past religious life as worthless or meaningless. Yet some Christians insist that Judaism is a legalistic religion that belongs in the past.
When we read with close attention, that view has to be adjusted. Paul is trying to put into words what defies description. That is hardly surprising, given that his subject-matter is the glory of the Lord. Like the Jew that he is, he takes a text from the Law (Exodus 34.33) and applies it to his current situation. Words that seem like a factual statement shade into a visionary experience.
None of us has seen a veiled mind. But we know what Paul means, because we have all experienced, at times, a barrier between ourselves and God. It could be distracting thoughts, or our physical selves, with their clamour for attention and indulgence; or it could be the claims of others on our time.
Paul does not suggest that the physical veil of Exodus was a bad thing. On the contrary, it was necessary to protect the Israelites from a sight that they were not ready for. Any worshipper may find themselves in such a situation at any time. The experience of distance — “seeing through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13.12) — is set alongside a precious spiritual experience, and a rare one: clear vision. Language almost fails Paul as he tries to explain what he means: “freedom”; “glory of the Lord”; “transformed”; “from one degree of glory to another”. Even in the new creation that is Christ (2 Corinthians 5.17), the glory is seen reflected in a mirror. Mirrors in the ancient world would often be made of polished metal, giving imperfect images; so we know that he is still describing partial, not complete, vision.
Where Paul gives us an exploration of the vision of glory, Luke records a concrete instance of it, at the time when Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. That instance, the transfiguration, is reassuring and terrifying at the same time (Hebrews 10.31). Just like last week’s Gospel, it should be read with an awareness of the healing which follows it. This time there is not a herd of pigs, but an epileptic boy. The glory that shall be cannot yet be divorced from the needs of the body.
It is possible to read Luke’s version of the transfiguration in a supersessionist way. Moses and Elijah appear, but then depart to leave Jesus alone. That might suggest that the “old covenant” (2 Corinthians 3.14 is the earliest record of this expression for God’s relationship with his chosen people) has been annulled. Yet Moses and Elijah (standing, we are often told, for the law and the prophets — though. in Judaism. Moses is one of the prophets) appear “in glory”. It is not certain that their glory was obvious to Peter and the other disciples; for the Evangelist notes that the disciples “saw his glory and the two men who stood with him”.
When talking, or thinking about, or praying this miracle of the transfiguration, I often identify with Peter’s eagerness to be saying something — anything — to fill the moment that he experiences as awkward instead of awesome. This almost made me miss the important detail: that Peter does recognise, without being told, who Moses and Elijah were. Perhaps that recognition was a moment of visionary revelation given to him.
It is also possible that Peter knew their identity because he heard what they were talking about with Jesus. Only Luke witnesses to the substance of this conversation. In Greek, it is clear that we have come to the fullest understanding of what was described in the Exodus reading; for this is the time when Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem (9.51) — and the subject of their conversation is Jesus’s “departure”: in Greek, exodus.