Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. (2 Cor. 4:3)
The artist Christo is planning to erect a canopy of silvery fabric over a six-mile-long section of the Arkansas River that flows through Bighorn Sheep Canyon in Colorado. But some local people object to the project, called “Over the River,” because of the amount of construction required to install it. As you know, Christo is famous for wrapping things in fabric – everything from an island near Miami to a bridge in Paris to the Reichstag in Germany. In this case, rafters paddling their boats on the river would look up through the translucent fabric, and others would look down at the covered section from vantage points on the canyon slopes above.
What is it about these art installations of Christo’s that is so enthralling? How is it that covering up an object of beauty and grace, or interrupting it – as was the case with installations like Running Fence in California, or The Gates in Central Park (the only one of Christo’s installations I have seen in person), somehow allows us to experience it in a new way?
Part of the magic of Christo’s art is that he has taken a form – the veil – that is fundamentally about obscuring and made it function in such a way that his veils are fundamentally revealing. Christo puts a veil between us and the world around us, and we see something we have never seen before, experience something we have never experienced before. I can tell you that was my experience of The Gates. I spent part of my childhood going to Central Park nearly every day, and yet when I went there to see The Gates, the Park, and the people in it, were transformed; it was as though it was an almost entirely new park.
In the Scriptures, a veil is almost always deployed to obscure. A note in my Oxford Annotated Bible for the 3rd and 4th verses of the second Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians says this; “Paul has apparently been accused of not making the Gospel clear.”
To defend himself Paul takes up an argument that he might have borrowed from Christo: If my Gospel is veiled, if it seems to be obscured, it only seems so to those who are perishing, to those who are stuck in the old way of seeing, the old way of believing, the old way of living, whose eyes have been blinded by the devil from seeing what lies beyond the veil. This is a self-serving argument for Paul, but never mind, because the fact of the matter is that the Gospel is often unclear to people in our own day and age. You might say that the one thing most Christians could agree on is that the Gospel is broadly misunderstood – by other Christians who see it differently than I see it, by non-believers who may barely see it all or see a warped version of it, and by un-believers who delight to call it something that it is not.
Has the Good News of God in Christ been so veiled that it is difficult to see, difficult to hear? Can we even recognize it for what it is? Do you, who come to church week by week, know what is the meaning of the Gospel? Or is there a veil across it that prevents even your hopeful eyes from seeing it for what it is?
What does it mean to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Saviour of the World? Or is this old question so veiled in mystery and the checkered history of its supposed guardians that it has become hopelessly and irretrievably veiled?
To answer that question, I wish we could all be together on a raft in the Arkansas River. I wish we could feel the power of the water carrying us along on our journey, and the refreshing splash of its spray, and the interplay of fear and thrill as we are carried over white water. I wish we could be propelled over churning water with the sense that life is a river, with the fast, cold water below, and the clear, warm sky above us.
Travel even a beautiful river often enough and you will begin to take its beauty and its power and its life for granted – this is the human story. You will begin to think that life is not about the river and the mysterious and wonderful forces that keep it moving; you will begin to think that life is about you, and you may begin to think, on the one hand, what a terrifically skilled and quite handsome navigator of the river you have become, or on the other hand, what a hopeless and quite ugly traveler of its waters you have become.
And one day you will be gliding along in your raft, or you will be picking your way across the rocks at the bank, and you will slip and fall into the river.
Perhaps there is a waterfall down river from where you have fallen in. Perhaps you know it; perhaps you don’t. But the water is cold and moving fast now, and you are not in control, although you are able to stay afloat. You are struggling to keep your feet downstream, so as to push off any rocks with your legs as you were taught to do the first time you stepped into a raft a long time ago. The river keeps pushing you around, though, twirling you through the water. And you are sometimes staring into the dark rush of water, and sometimes watching the steep banks go rushing by, and sometimes gazing up at the clear blue sky above you. And you are trying to remember if there is a waterfall up ahead, and how far a drop it is, and whether or not you could survive being carried over such falls. And you are trying to remember whether or not the river slows down between where you are now and where the falls may or may not take you plunging to your death.
You are wondering if there is a tree with a branch hanging low over the river that you could grab onto. You are trying to figure out if you could get close to the banks to reach up to such a branch if it existed. And there is the water beneath you, and the steep canyon along side you, and the distant, brilliant blue sky above you, and there seems to be not much else in the world.
And momentarily it occurs to you that you should pray, you should call upon God to save you, because, you have been taught to treat God like an emergency safety device: break glass and pull lever in the event of an emergency. But you realize that thinking of God in this way has left you almost completely unprepared to pray, and nearly unwilling to rely on the possibility that there is a God and that if there was, he would be interested in plucking you from the water to save you.
Long ago you stopped trying to swim, knowing that it would exhaust you in this fast-moving water. And the water now seems to be moving faster, and the rocks are bigger and easier to smash into, and, wrack your mind though you may, you cannot remember if there is a big waterfall ahead, you cannot picture it, but you think there must be. It begins to dawn on you that this journey can only possibly end one way at the bottom of the falls. So what’s the point in trying to pray now anyway?
The river is moving fiercely now, and you are swallowing water as you flail on your way, and it dawns on you how casually you treated the river all these years – never seeing it as a river that could carry you to life or to death, it was just there.
And as you are beginning to regret how careless you were, and as you are beginning to think that you just have to give yourself over to the river, because the river is in charge, more powerful than you, and a force of nature, after all, - just then, there comes a wide bend in the river that opens into slower-moving water. And you find that you are flipped over onto your back, floating head-first downstream (which is dangerous because of the rocks, but you haven’t the strength left to fight it).
And your arms are stretched out on either side of you, your feet pointed upstream, your head is tilted back so you can breathe, and your eyes are open and you can see the clear blue sky, but above you, in between you and the endless sky above, is a canopy of silvery fabric, supported on light steel arms that required, it must be admitted, a lot of construction to get them there. And you discover that you can float downstream quite safely this way now; the water has slowed. But you are exhausted and really unable to do anything but be carried along now.
And in the pleats of shiny fabric above you, through which you are watching the sky and the canyon walls slip by, you can see words spelled out. And this is what they say: “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.”
And you reach out your hands toward the shimmering fabric above where the words are already disappearing. And quite magically the fabric reaches out to enfold you. and collect you from the water, and swaddle you, to dry you, and to warm you, and to lift you out of the water and place your feet safely on dry ground, high enough up on the steep canyon walls to see a waterfall ahead of you, and behind you a long stretch of river with a canopy hanging over it like a veil, which you would think obscures the river, and makes it harder to see for what it is. But, in fact, you can see that the veil covers precisely that section of the river in which you were saved, and you can tell that it was in the fabric of that veil that you were swaddled and lifted to safety.
And you can see that there are no words woven into the fabric, but how could you explain what happened to you out there on the river, beneath the veil, except to resort to the words that are still ringing in your ears: “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.”
And you know that light is shining in your heart, and a veil has been lifted, and you believe.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 February 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia