Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 May 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord
We find it difficult to meet a person if we cannot see their face. Being present to someone involves eye-contact and the exchange of facial expressions and signals. We know people by their faces; we are disconcerted when the customs of other cultures veil the faces of people from us.
Presence, when God is the other, is unsurprisingly more complicated. This is the main subject of the encounters between Moses and God in our reading from Exodus, and its character is ambiguous. We heard that
The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as one speaks to a friend
But then, a little later, as Moses asks for a guarantee of God’s presence, his ‘glory’, with the people on their journeying, God replies
‘I will make my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “the Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live.’
More disconcertingly still, if you read on, God adds
And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Luther developed a theology of the cross from this text. He memorably described the cross as God’s ‘backside’, ‘backside’ rather than ‘back’ being the confrontingly more accurate meaning of the Hebrew word (the less squeamish AV translates ‘back parts’). Luther intended to challenge those who only ever taught that God as glorious and powerful (reflecting, he said, their own aspirations and self-image), whereas we more accurately see God in Christ crucified: so the cross shows God to be the very opposite of what we expect him to be (his ‘back’). The cross is the fiercest reminder that failure is neither despised by God nor the end of our story with him.
Luther developed his teaching from Pauline letters such as this evening’s, 2 Corinthians. Paul repeatedly tells us that we may only glory in Christ ‘and him crucified’. Later in this letter he writes,
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God.
But the core of the teaching, again, is about how God is present to us. We speak of God as a person, though we do not speak to him ‘face to face as to a friend’ as we also hear that Moses did, in person-to-person contact.
Presence and ‘person’ are connected here. The doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebate next Sunday, quickly got caught up in a discussion of ‘persons’, and what we mean by them. But the idea of a ‘person’ itself is a concept which evolved via Christian theology. ‘persona’, the Latin word, means the mask used by an actor in the theatre: it is precisely a ‘veil’. The word persona describes the function of a mask – something you ‘make sound through’ (per-sono). Actor’s masks were intended to convey, by exaggeration or caricature, the true nature of the character. From being the word for ‘mask’, persona came to mean the character portrayed, and then to be used of any individual, with the derived idea of ‘personality’. In our post-Freudian psychologised world concepts of the person and personality have become very complex. But to the ancients the face was the shorthand for the true presence of the other you were meeting.
Paul offers us a further interpretation. Moses’ veiled face and the old law are, together, symptomatic of what is past: the letter (of the law) kills but the Spirit gives life; the giving of the law was done by the fearsome presence requiring a veil, but the Spirit lets us meet God face to face. He says that in the life of the Spirit whom we celebrate today, we are enabled to see the glory of the Lord with ‘unveiled faces’.
Was Luther wrong to push the focus back to the cross and make us wary of all this basking in resurrection glory? Paul would say no. Presence and glory are often interchangeable terms of God in the OT (as we heard in our reading from Exodus). Paul was reminding us that the path to glory, to the nearer presence of God, and the nature of glory, of God’s very self, are not the expected paths and aspirations of the world, but rather are available to us at our weakest and most defeated moments. To have graduated from the letter to the Spirit is a long walk to freedom; a journey from the weight of unexamined and conventional expectations to arrive at a point where we can be in the presence of God simply as who we are.
None of this would work without the incarnation, or, for us, without the gift of the sacrament in which that incarnate presence is mediated to us in this, the ‘newer rite’ of which we sing at Benediction. Because of Our Lord’s birth, death and resurrection we do have a face for God that we can see, even if at one remove: the Jesus of the Gospels, who is here, by the power of the Spirit, in that tent of the presence we call the tabernacle. A deep knowledge of the Gospels, especially, can give us a three-dimensional view of what this face is like, who this ‘person’ is, what is his ‘character’.
On the altar this evening you can see what is obviously a small royal tent enveloping the sacramental presence. Like the cross, this sacrament is a gift and sign of presence in weakness and generosity. It can be received piously, ignorantly misunderstood or wilfully taken and destroyed. But it is always offered.
Just as Luther taught about the cross, this is God making himself unexpectedly vulnerable in order to be present for us. And so in Benediction, we do, in a sense, behold the Lord ‘with unveiled faces’. But, as we celebrate today, it is by the Spirit that this gift comes, not by the letter. The Word of God is a Person, not a book, for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. I’ll give the last word to St Paul, again from 2 Corinthians:
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor 4.6