Why Did Moses’ Face Shine?

by Fr. Frederick Schmit, O.Praem.


The skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD

Moses went up Mount Sinai to speak with God. When he came down the mountain, his face was brilliant, literally shining. It was so dazzling, in fact, that when the Israelites saw it, they were so terrified, that Moses had to veil his face.

Why did Moses’ face shine?

St. Paul interprets this passage for us: he says that it is because the old covenant, the law, was glorious; and because of the glory of the divinely revealed law, this glory passed onto the minister of the covenant, Moses, so that his face radiated with light. But St. Paul goes on to say that the brilliance of the old covenant was not to last because it was not established to save us. It is only in the new and eternal covenant that we are saved. “The law came through Moses; but grace and truth through Jesus Christ.” The Mosaic covenant served as an obscure, shadowy prefigurement of the surpassing glory that was to come in Christ. And this obscurity is represented by the veil covering Moses’ radiant face.

Moses is described having spoken “face-to-face” with God “as a man speaks to his friend.” But strangely, it is just a few verses later that God tells Moses, “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” Instead, Moses is only allowed to see the back of God as his glory passes by; “my face shall not be seen,” says God. But as the obscure vision of the old covenant is brought into focus by the new, so does the face of God become fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John says, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

As St. Cyril of Jerusalem describes it: “Since no one in this life can gaze upon the face of divinity and live, God assumed the face of humanity in Jesus, enabling us to see him according to our capacity and live.

When Jesus ascended Mount Tabor, he was transfigured, and we are told that his face “shone like the sun.” And so it is no coincidence that Moses appears with him, conversing with him, now truly face-to-face with God; and once again the prophet receives a glorious divine revelation on a mountain top, but this time not in veiled images, but the clear truth that the Messiah would undergo his Passion and death, the true glory of the Son of God. And so the desire and request of Moses to see the face of God did not go unanswered.

Moses’ face shone because he conversed with God and received a glorious revelation. But Jesus’ face shone because of his own divinity and because of the glory of his own soul, which he momentarily allowed to flow down into his body, and to shine out through it. In doing this, he gave us a glimpse, not just of his own divinity and spiritual splendor, but of the glory to come with the resurrected body; and not just of his own resurrected body, but because he makes us share in his resurrection, the glorious state of the body of each and every one of us as well. For He said, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

May we keep striving and ascending, so that we may be transformed from glory to glory, and come to look forever with unveiled faces upon that serene and kindly countenance: the glorious face of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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