I’m relatively new to home ownership. Becky, Simon, and I purchased and moved into our first ‘us’ owned home just about 2 years ago. I am still learning the ropes of home maintenance and upkeep as up till this point in my life I have had the privilege of others being responsible for repairs and general maintenance duties.
This week, I got to try my hand at patching a wall. We recently had a thermostat replaced and the new one wasn’t the same shape as the old one which resulted in a clunky patch of exposed wood and drywall on our wall. I decided I would be bold and attempt to fix this myself. So I got some filler and set about the task of creating a new surface around and over the clunky bits. After a few coats I was relatively pleased with the patch and decided it was time to sand and paint. I sanded the surface, applied the paint, and stepped away from the room as it dried.
When I came back to inspect my work later in the afternoon – I was thrilled (admittedly perhaps over-enthusiastically thrilled) to see that my wall once again looked like a wall! I had done it, I had transfigured the hole in our wall into a piece of the wall as a whole. The fixed wall was a treat in and of itself, but the other part of the experience for me is that I am finding the process of building and repair work taps into something deep within me, connecting me to my ancestors.
You see my Burkholder grandparents were called by the mission board to move to a community in northern (and I mean northern) Alberta, Canada to do mission work and church planting. Following their discernment process they took the call and moved north. Upon arriving in small town Bluesky, they had to find a way to financially support their growing family. My uncle Tim was born around that time, my father Owen would arrive a year or so later, followed by 5 more children over the next years!
My Grandpa Paul went to the local saw mill and started transforming timber into lumber and his work and connections there opened up a path for him to start a construction business which thrived and grew. In need of access to supplies for building projects, this path ultimately led to the opening of Burkholder Building Supply, a hardware store and lumber yard. And yes, he also planted the Bluesky Mennonite Church and helped raise 7 children in the midst of all this…don’t ask me how!
I myself have not had a lot of experience in the construction business and yet I find myself cozy and at home in hardware stores which, until owning a home, I used primarily as a source for obscure art supplies. I also do not have innate knowledge of how to repair or build things, I lean a lot into phone calls with my dad and YouTube videos. Yet I seem to have an innate desire to try to engage in the process and in that space of joining in the work, I find myself in the ethereal presence of my father and my late grandfather and my spirit is aglow.
This is where we encounter Jesus today in the transfiguration story. Jesus has taken some of his disciples deep into the woods – or up the mountain as the case is here – and Jesus himself is transfigured before their very eyes – aglow in the presence of the Holy and in the company of his prophetic ancestors Moses and Elijah.
And what a sight to behold! Jesus and his clothes are dazzling. For the disciples on that mountain a veil has lifted revealing the holy nature of Jesus. And though awestruck and confused, Peter gets that something pretty special is happening here and he offers to set up tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus so that they can all dwell together in sparkly awesomeness. Yet this moment of transfiguration isn’t meant for preservation. It is a temporary unveiling of the Holy’s persistent presence deep within the humanity of Jesus. It is a startling juxtaposition.
This week, as I was thinking about this idea of a veil being lifted for the disciples to reveal the holiness of Jesus, I kept thinking back to the many times I visited the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts when Becky and I lived in the Twin Cities. In particular, I kept thinking about one sculpture that would always momentarily capture my attention because of it’s startling juxtaposition of material and content. Thanks to our virtual meeting space I can share images of it with you.
This is: Veiled Lady – a marble sculpture by artist Rafaelle Monti created around 1860.
This is a carved portrait of a woman with a sheer veil over her face. Only the sheer veil is also marble.
It’s a bit hard to really grasp the true luminescence of the piece and the startling nature of it in these photos – you can see some of it in this side view where you can see the light appearing to actually filter through the marble the way it would a cloth veil.
In person it is a wild experience to stand before this piece of art and have to remind yourself that the soft fabric you are looking at is actually cold marble and that there is no separation at all between that gauzy garment and the face beneath it.
Veiled sculptures were particularly popular in the 1700s – to craft a veiled sculpture was considered a sort of parlor trick of skill among sculptors at that time – crafted to fool the eye and impress the viewer. Later, in the 1840s a client (the 6th Duke of Devonshire) came to Rafaelle Monti and asked if he thought he could create a veiled portrait. Monti was intrigued by the challenge and it turned out – he was very successful at it. He went on to create many veiled sculptures – including the Veiled Lady we are looking at here. If you have seen the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Kiera Knightly you have seen another one of Monti’s veiled pieces (the earliest one) when her character, Elizabeth Bennett, goes to visit Pemberley and lingers in front of it in the hall of sculptures. That sculpture, Veiled Vestal, is part of the real life collection of Chatsworth House, the beautiful estate of the Duke of Devonshire’s line in Derbyshire, England. Chatsworth stood in for the grand house of Pemberley in the movie and incidentally is a place that Becky, Simon, and I got to tour when I was on sabbatical in 2018.
Part of what makes the illusion of these veiled carvings work is the way the artist plays with the light that hits the sculpture. In order to make the marble give the illusion of separate materials, the sculptor polishes the stone in different areas to different degrees. For example on this piece, again this may be somewhat difficult to see in this image, the flower crown and the lower part of the fabric are much more polished so they reflect more light and appear more substantial. The face area which is presented as obscured by the veil is less polished so it appears more dull and diffused, much like a fabric veil would diffuse and obscure the face of a person wearing it.
We heard another story today of an individual wearing a veil to diffuse light: Moses. When Moses came down from his own mountaintop experience after receiving the second set of tablets of the law given to him directly by God he was said to have shone so brightly that the people were terrified. This transfiguration of Moses was no fleeting illusion however, Moses’ encounter with the Holy had transformed him and he perpetually glowed. When Moses was with the people he would put a veil over his face. When he would go before God to speak with God he would remove the veil after which he would return to the people shining brightly – he would share the words of God with the people, and then once again place the veil over his face until he next went back to speak with God.
The people of Israel, while observing first hand the transfiguration of Moses who glowed from being in the presence of the Holy, experienced the presence and wisdom of God filtered through a veiled Moses. Likewise, the disciples up on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah witnessed first hand the transfiguration of Jesus visually revealing the Holy within him and yet it was through a veil of cloud that descended upon the mountain that they heard the voice of God declaring Jesus a beloved and instructing them to pay attention and listen to Jesus.
Transfiguration draws attention. It changes the look and the shape of things. It is deep calling to deep, breaking open our expectations and calling us to look again, to pay attention, and to perhaps see or experience something new – or experience something familiar in a new way. Transfiguration reveals paths to transformation. Transformation that happens when we open ourselves up to transfiguring the way we encounter the world.
To transfigure the way we encounter the world is, in part, to embrace that the dual nature of human and holy that is vibrantly on display in the person of Jesus in the Transfiguration story is also the unveiled nature of all of creation. In this season of Lent we are working our way towards Easter – which only comes after the human death of Jesus. Scripture says that at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the temple, which served as a veil to denote the Holy of Holies where God’s presence resided, was ripped in two. In that ripping the revelation of God’s presence in all things calls out to us. There is vibrant shining holiness within each of us and all around! When we expect God’s love and holiness to be something separate, beyond, and apart from us we are experiencing that love and holiness diffused through a veil.
Now, after this past year we know that there are sometimes good and healthy reasons to veil ourselves! We wear masks as an act of love to protect each other and ourselves from the viral pandemic of this time. Perhaps some of you who partake in social media heard about a woman who revealed this week that she got a very unfortunately timed tattoo last year. The tattoo she got on her arm on March 4, 2020 reads: Courageously and Radically refuse to wear a mask. To clarify she is not anti-mask. Her original intent was a challenge and reminder to live out truth and authenticity. In essence, to
remove the veil.
Just like we saw in the veiled marble sculpture, mundane dullness and the shining presence of the Holy are juxtaposed in this world and both, in their own way, are at work showcasing the other. Transfiguring the way we encounter the world by expecting to find signs of the Holy even in the midst of the mundane, we can begin to witness the presence of holiness calling from deep within all of creation. When we find ourselves aglow with awareness that the holy is all around, within us and within all we encounter in the world, it transforms how we live in relationship with ourselves, each other, with creation, and with God.
Shine bright, Beloveds…Shine Bright!