The Mystery of God and Veils
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about sacred images; today I want to write about something that serves as a sort of complement to sacred images, veils. Sacred images remind us that God has made himself known and sanctified us through the humanity of Jesus Christ; veils remind us that in this life we still receive the divine light through the veil of faith, rather than the face-to-face vision of the heavenly kingdom.
One ancient Christian writer put it this way: “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils.” (Dionysius the Areopagite, quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia q11a9)
St. Paul writes to Timothy giving glory to God who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no man has seen or can see. (1 Tim 6:16) St. John tells us that no one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (Jn 1:18)
This is why we speak of God, in his own nature, as a “mystery”. Of course a “mystery” is something hidden and a “veil” keeps something hidden. A “revelation” is literally an “unveiling”, which makes known something previously hidden, a mystery.
In this life God ultimately always remains a “mystery”. Even in the beatific vision of heaven God will always exceed what any created being knows of him and so, to that extent will also remain a “mystery”. Nevertheless, we could say that in the life God is always more a mystery than he is known, while in heaven he is more known than he is a mystery.
That means that however much God reveals himself to us in this life, even through the sacred humanity of his Son, Jesus Christ, the veil of faith always remains.
Still, we could speak of two types of veil: opaque veils that tell us there is some reality that is hidden and translucent veils that allow something of the light to shine through. We could say that the Old Testament is characterized more be the opaque type of veil, while the New Testament is characterized by the translucent veil.
Let us consider some the veils, through which we come to know the mystery of God.
First of all there are the very words of Sacred Scripture. They are like veils in the sense that no matter how much they make God known too us, ultimately God remains hidden from view. Jesus alluded to this at the Last Supper when he told his disciples, I have told you this in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures but I will tell you clearly about the Father. (Jn 16:25) Finally, all the words about God, even the most direct, are like figures of speech in comparison to the vision of God in heaven.
Second there are the sacraments. These are defined as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). A sign is like a veil because it points to a hidden reality. Grace is always a hidden reality, a “mystery”, because it is nothing less than a sharing in the very life of God, the mystery of God. The sacraments, however, are more than just signs, they actually produce in us, as instruments in Christ’s hands, the reality of grace that they signify. They not only make known the mystery of grace, they make us to share in the mystery of grace. For this reason the sacraments are themselves at times also called “mysteries”.
Third, there are sacred images. The sacred images speak to us about the reality of human nature transformed in God by the grace of Jesus Christ. But once again the sacred image is like a veil that only allows a portion of the light to pass through; the full reality will remain hidden from us until we come to share it in the life of heaven.
Note that the tradition of actually veiling sacred images from the 5th Sunday of Lent until Holy Saturday reminds us that before Jesus’ death and resurrection heaven was still closed and humanity had yet to be transformed by grace.
Fourth, there are the many veils that are used in the liturgy.
In liturgies of the byzantine rite, the altar area itself is ‘veiled’ by the iconostasis, a wall covered with icons. Even in our western liturgy the separation of the altar area (properly called the ‘sanctuary’ or ‘prebysterium’) is a sign of the place where heaven and earth meet and a reminder that we do not yet enjoy the full unveiled reality of heaven.
There is also the veil over the tabernacle, which indicates the presence of Christ, hidden beneath the veil of the sacrament.
There is also the veil that covers the chalice until it is brought to the altar. This tells us that what takes place on the altar is an unveiling of the mystery.
The missal (Mass Book) on the altar also shares in the symbolism of veiling and unveiling. The missal is not just a practical tool that contains the prayers of the priest, it bears the symbolism of the scroll with seven seals that only the Lamb, the High Priest, can open. (cf. Rev 5:1-6:1)
The opening and closing of the altar missal by the priest tells us that the reality that is accomplished on the altar is the same as that brought to pass by the Lamb who was slain: the mystery of our salvation in Christ.
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