© 2022 Evan D. Garner
When you look in the mirror, what do you see? A sinner? A saint? Something good? Something not so good? Are you too old? Too fat? Worn out? Worn down? Do you even look anymore? Have two years of seeing your face on Zoom—and not having to show the world the rest of you—made you want to hide even from yourself?
Years ago, Al Franken, the now-cancelled comedian and former U.S. Senator, played Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. Dressed in a light-blue cardigan and a yellow button-down shirt, Smalley, “a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist,” began each episode of “Daily Affirmation,” his mock-self-help-show, by looking into a mirror and reminding himself, “I’m going to do a terrific show today, and I’m going to help people because I’m good enough; I’m smart enough; and doggonit, people like me.” By the end of each skit, however, Smalley had fallen apart, overwhelmed by his emotional struggles, hardly reminiscent of the mantra he had spoken only minutes ago. Accordingly, he concluded each broadcast the way he started, looking into the mirror and trying to convince himself of his own worth, though the second time around there was nothing convincing about it.
In a way, that is what Paul is trying to accomplish in his second letter to the Corinthians: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Paul wants the Christians in Corinth to remember that, when they look into a mirror, what they should see are imperfect and broken people who are being made whole—being made perfect—one step at a time by the God who has united them to God’s own glory in Jesus Christ. But how are we supposed to look into the mirror and see that?
Paul used a story that was familiar to his readers in order to help them understand what it means to undergo that sort of transformation: the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with his face shining like the sun. This is a strange story from Exodus that had piqued the curiosity of rabbis and biblical scholars for centuries. As amazing as it was, Moses’ shining face is only mentioned in one chapter of the Bible—Exodus 34—but that was enough to inspire volumes of spiritual interpretation.
The Exodus story tells us that, after spending forty days and forty nights in the presence of God, Moses’ face radiated with God’s glory. His shining face was enough to scare the people of Israel, who were afraid to draw near. Nevertheless, Moses beckoned to them, and, when they came close, he spoke to them all that the LORD had said, but, when he was finished, whenever Moses was not talking with God or telling the people what God had said, he veiled his face in order to avoid unnerving the people.
By the time Paul wrote this letter, however, different traditions associated with Moses’ shining face and the veil he used to cover it had arisen. Capturing one of them, Paul noted that Moses “put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” In other words, the glory that was reflected in Moses’ face was fading, and he veiled it in part because the people couldn’t stand to see it disappear. Despite being a considerable departure from the original biblical text, Paul was not making that part up. Rabbinical scholars had used other biblical passages like one later on in Exodus when even Moses was not allowed to enter God’s presence and another in Numbers when Moses was praised for being the meekest human on the earth and yet another when Moses was refused entry into the land of Canaan because of his disobedience to discern that, indeed, that divine glory, which had once beamed from the prophet’s face, must have faded.
Paul borrowed that tradition, which must have been familiar to his readers, and expanded it, reprojecting it through a Christian lens and adding a distinctly gospel-focused theological layer to it. When the old covenant—the Law of Moses—is read, Paul argued, that veil still covers the hearts and minds of those whose relationship with God is only defined by that covenant. Only in Christ, he wrote, is that veil set aside. This isn’t an anti-Judaic or anti-Semitic argument, as far too many Christians have made it out to be. This is merely Paul’s way of celebrating what is different and distinct about the Christian faith.
As a faithful Jew, Paul had excelled in his religious tradition, and his letters make it clear that he valued deeply that part of his life. When he encountered Jesus, however, he discovered a new way of belonging to God—one that allowed non-Jews to become adopted children of God without having to convert to those distinctly Jewish practices of the old covenant. Instead, as followers of Jesus, who in the waters of Baptism have received the Holy Spirit, we belong to God not through the customs we keep but through the one who lives inside of us—even God himself. And because God lives within us, God’s glory shines not as a reflection on our face from having experienced a momentary encounter with the divine but as the divine nature beaming forth from within our very being. Because that radiance comes from God living within us, we need no veil to cover the glory that otherwise would inevitably fade away. In Christ, therefore, who lives within us, that veil is set aside.
When we look at our own reflection in a mirror, Paul wants us to see a broken and imperfect person who is already being transformed into the image of Christ’s radiance one degree of glory at a time. That is not our doing, but God’s doing. Because of Jesus Christ, God comes to dwell within people who are far from perfect but in whom God’s perfection is taking shape. People like you and me. This is God’s gift to us, the work of the Spirit within us, and that work happening inside of us changes not only who we see in the mirror but how we see the world around us.
“Since, then, we have such a hope,” Paul wrote, “we act with great boldness.” God living within us and transforming us into God’s likeness gives us the courage and power to do great things in God’s name. Some scholars think that Paul added another layer of wordplay onto this passage. In Aramaic, which might have been on Paul’s mind as he was composing this letter in Greek, the word for “boldness” literally means “to uncover the face,” implying that one who acts boldly is one who looks you square in the eye and does not try to hide anything. If, in Christ, the veil has been removed, we can afford to risk everything for the sake of the one who lives inside of us because we know that glory will never fade away. If the light of God’s glory shines from within us, always growing brighter, we need look no further away than a mirror to see one whom God has equipped to do great things.
What would you do if you knew that God had already given you everything you need to succeed? What risk would you take—what endeavor would you take on—if you looked in the mirror and recognized not only the person looking back at you but the brightness of God’s glory shining through the person standing there? What would be possible if it were not you alone who took up that cross but Christ living within you who bore it up on your behalf? You are already being changed into his likeness. Let that light shine forth for all the world to see.
1. Van Unnik qtd in Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary; Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1974, 622.