Dr. Peter Marty: A Face That Shines

God's otherwise unseen presence, glory were mirrored in the face of Moses

10 Bible Studies that Breathe Life, Part 5

Read Exodus 34:29-35

The Transfiguration window in my church has Moses and Elijah flanking a white-robed Jesus. Elijah is a dead giveaway, with his famous chariot beside him. Moses is harder to identify. He has a horn sprouting out of each side of his head, giving him an Elmer Fudd look - the cartoon character who once donned a two-horned magic helmet to pursue Bugs Bunny.

The horns in stained glass make for a strange, though understandable, representation by the artist. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after meeting God, his face shone brilliantly. The Hebrew word for "shone" is karan, only one vowel different from the word for "horn" - keren. Hence the interpretive decision by some painters over the centuries to outfit Moses with horns.

Still, it was the face of Moses that tipped off the Israelites to the valuable contents of those large objects wrapped in his arms. These weren't store-bought slabs of fake granite, stenciled with cute aphorisms. These tablets carried divine expectations that bore the full weight of God's glory. Anyone walking around with a face encrusted with flakes of light had either spent far too much time in the sun or, more likely with those tablets in hand, had encountered God in some unmistakable way. 

Clearly, God's glory had rubbed off on Moses. A bandana over his face became the disguise of choice on days when Moses wanted to blend in with the neighbors and avoid speaking on God's behalf. Every time he needed a new dose of glory, Moses would return to speak with the Lord - but not before first removing the bandana to get a full facial blast.

Faces reveal. They disclose more than we may want to believe. Infants pick up cues for life by studying the faces of those who hold them. It's how they discover their early place in the world.

Nineteenth-century gold prospectors were known to sometimes give away - unintentionally - prized locations of newly discovered gold fields just through overexcited facial expressions. We all know people who can't keep an honest face when telling a lie, or who can't hide deep grief, no matter how hard they try.

Our yearnings to know another always seem to end in a face. No wonder why, of the 293 hand-colored pictures of God that psychiatrist Robert Coles collected from children during his lifetime practice, all but 38 were of a face. Faces communicate.

In the case of Moses, who "had been talking with God," his iridescent face exploded with light. People stayed away at first, unfamiliar with what it meant to be lit up by God. Yet they also couldn't resist this light. There was something contagious about the glow of Moses. God's otherwise unseen presence and glory were now mirrored in the face of one of their own. It's the same experience Paul wanted to see in his Corinthian community - believers whose faces worked like mirrors, reflecting the glory of the Lord and lighting up others (2 Corinthians 3:18).

When was the last time you thought of your face as a mirror of God's greatness? Have we lost our ability to shudder, or our capacity to be astonished in a daily way?

I know a 5-year-old boy who says "wow" to practically everything. He can notice a crack in the sidewalk and say, "Wow, look at that crack," or "Wow, look at that ant trying to cross that crack." His face is the best - a bubbly delight of surprise and wonder. He is one of my favorite reminders for guarding against a life void of transcendence. In a world where we have access to almost anything at any time of the day, we cannot afford to miss the dazzling array of wonders that surround us. Today hardly deserves to be a yawn of familiarity. Nor does tomorrow.

When Moses blessed the Israelites, his words included a line that still radiates divine love: "the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you" (Numbers 6:25). It was his way of letting them know that God's glory is not contained in one face. It is mirrored in the contagious wow of every believer.

[Taken with permission from the January issue of The Lutheran magazine. TheLutheran.org]