From the Gospel of John: Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
So he approached the bush. He had caught sight of it from the corner of his eye as he was trying to keep the sheep from wandering to find better grass amidst the scrub of this barren land. Quite a sight, he said to himself, a bush that is burning but is not being consumed, no smoke, no burning smell. So keeping one eye on his sheep, for after all he was a good shepherd, he started walking to the burning bush. And as he got close, a voice came out and said: Moses, Moses. stop. Take off your sandals. You are on sacred ground. So he takes off his sandals and starts a conversation with the voice in the bush. The voice tells Moses that he is to go down to Egypt to free the Israelites from their bondage. Moses asks, quite rightly: But what is your name? A powerful question for a Jew. The voice identifies himself as I am who am. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. And the rest, as they say, is history, the history of the Jews commemorated for centuries in Passover.
So the prophet Elijah is exhausted from being a prophet and having to flee from the wrath of wicked Queen Jezebel who wants his mouth shut and him dead. And so he goes to a cave and tries to sleep and God comes to him and says: what are you doing here? And he tells God: all the prophets have been killed, I am the only one left, I am tired. So will you please show me who you are? So the Lord God said to him: Stand on this high place I will pass before you. A hurricane wind that broke rocks passed Elijah. But God was not in the wind. An earthquake shook the whole area. But God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fierce fire, fiercer than those that happen in the canyons of California. But God was not in the fire. And then there was a tiny whispering sound, softer than anything anyone could easily hear. And Elijah recognized God in this sound and he wrapped his cloak around his face to have his conversation with God upon whom he could not see face to face.
So the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees and other pious Jews goes on for several chapters in the gospel of John. At one point they pick up stones to throw at him. But he eludes them, because, says John, his hour had not come. In today’s gospel Jesus casts aside all subtlety and says to them: Before Abraham was I am. That is to say: I am is my name. And the Jews understood what he was saying, that he was claiming that he was the God who spoke from the burning bush and gave his name, and again, they picked up stones to kill him. And John says: Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple. And it at this point that he begins his march to his passion and cross. He remains hidden to speak to his disciples to let them know what will happen and why this will happen. He knows they will not understand and that most of them will desert him. But he must tell them despite their non -comprehension that leaves him hidden from them, those men whom he loved so deeply. And that hiddenness continues through the arrest in garden of Gethsemane, where the soldiers have no idea who he is, through Peter’s denial of who he is, through the High Priests refusal to penetrate the hiddenness of God in Jesus Christ, through the deadly farce with Pontius Pilate, to his being nailed to the Cross and the jeering and spitting, all part of that hiddenness that is of God.
So one Pope a long time ago, hears this gospel at Mass on Passion Sunday. And he is deeply moved. And after the Mass he says to the papal household. Jesus hid himself on this day; he withdrew from the world to be with his disciples and do what he had to do to prepare them as best he could; He withdrew, he hid himself to prepare himself for that final confrontation that began in the desert for forty days and now he is about to go up to Jerusalem and begin his passion that will lead to his terrible death on the Cross. And so this Pope says: bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, doorkeepers, whoever is here. Next year when these words are read at the gospel, we will cover the cross in this chapel and we will cover and make hidden all the images of the saints in this chapel and all of the beautiful paintings that depict the life of Christ and the saints. We will make them hidden so that we can prepare for the celebration of the passion and death of Christ, denying ourselves the beauty of the Cross, denying ourselves the beauty of the saints who give us hope for heaven, denying ourselves the beauty of the great art that surrounds us here, and we will force ourselves to dig into ourselves to encounter that terrible hiddenness of God that shows forth in the deepest way his love for us in Jesus Christ. So the next year, showing forth what organic growth of the liturgy means, right after those words of the Gospel: and Jesus hid himself, there was a pause and all the crosses, images of the saints and works of art were covered at the Mass in the papal household. And despite a period of refusal to honor this tradition that occurred quite recently in the last fifty years, we come here immersed in this liturgical tradition and come to a church shrouded in this way as we begin to focus on the passion and death of Christ.
But this is not magic. What you see and what you do not see does not happen with a magic wand. What you see is years of making veils for everything from crosses of all sizes to statues and paintings, after the conscious decision of this parish to return to the font of Tradition. And each year new veils have to be made as changes are made in the church. And yesterday a small group undertook the steaming and ironing of the veils and figuring out where each one went. Now normal people in a normal parish would be sort of reasonable and conclude that to veil the figure of Mary, John and the crucified Christ high on the rood beam is not necessary since it is up so high and would be dangerous to do so. And that the painting of Assumption over the high altar need not be veiled, because of its size and height. Get real. Enough is enough. And yet, for the past few years, one brave and determined to be holy man climbs a very high ladder to veil these images. And this, all to prepare for the ultimate hiddenness of God in the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. And in that hiddenness to be able to see God in the hiddenness of faith.
So we come to this church on Wednesday to the 8 o’clock Mass. And after Mass the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the monstrance and people come to adore throughout the day. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has grown as a Catholic devotion in a very significant way the past twenty years, which, as I believe, is at least in part to a lack of devotion to the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in the normal Sunday Mass in the Novo Ordus form of the Roman rite. And yet even here the consecrated Host is a veil over the Real Presence of Christ. The resurrected body of Jesus remains in heaven at the right hand of the Father. And at the same time his Real Presence is contained in that Sacred Host. But still hidden. And why? The same answer; Because without the hiddenness of God faith is impossible and it is faith that saves. Now we see through a glass darkly, said St. Paul. And quite rightly. For we are not saved by seeing but by believing, by faith.
When the veils are taken down from the crosses on Good Friday, what will we see? Will we see the beauty and glory of God? When the veils are taken from the images of the saints, what will we see? Will we see with eyes of faith the reality of saving grace and of heaven? When the full beauty of this church is seen after the Easter Vigil, what will we see? Merely a lovely church? Or the real hint of that beauty that is God himself who will manifest himself in his power and glory only at the end of time when all will be all in Him?
From St Thomas Aquinas’ hymn: Adoro te, devote,
- Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Jesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro, fiat illud quod tam sitio:
Ut te revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beátus tuæ gloriæ. Amen.
Jesus, whom, for the present, veil'd I see,
that I so thirst for, oh! vouchsafe to me;
That I may see Thy countenance unfolding,
And may be blest Thy glory in beholding.