Fifty-eight years later, the images are still so very vivid. The funeral cortege; the deeply somber and silent crowds lining the streets; the riderless horse, named “Black Jack,” carrying a pair of highly polished, be-spurred boots in his stirrups to represent the fallen leader. The quietly respectful narration of the media, so unimaginable today, as a young matron, surrounded by the enormous Kennedy clan and appropriate members of the government leadership, walked behind her husband’s flag-draped casket.
Most do not recall that Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy had only months earlier lost her infant son, Patrick, born five weeks prematurely. Most do not consider that her post-natal chemistry and the terrible grief of losing a “preemie” (a subject less readily discussed or even acknowledged back in the day), had likely combined to lay its own silent burden on her, one to be carried in the face of public duties and endless scrutiny. And now here was Mrs. Kennedy, a 34-year-old widow with two small children, leading the funeral procession for her slain husband with remarkable composure and grace before the eyes of a still stunned world.
With a child’s curiosity, I asked my mother why this beautiful young widow was wearing a veil over her face. My mother told me it was to hide the grim effects of grief from the cameras—to afford the First Lady a small measure of privacy. “It is a thin barrier between herself, in all of her sorrow, and the whole world.”
After that, while at Mass and still very young, I noticed that some people would return to their pews after receiving Holy Communion, and would immediately cover their faces with their hands. When I inquired about it, my mother explained, “They are speaking privately to God, and they don’t want you staring at them while they do it.”
Mulling it over through the years, it seems to me that people cover their faces whenever they are encountering something that is too big, too mysterious—simply too overwhelming—for their comprehension. Children cover their faces with sheets when their imaginations run away with them at night. Baseball fans cover their faces, oh, almost every ninth inning, during the season.
Face-covering, I have decided, is a response to a head-on encounter with a reality that goes beyond what we can fully take in. I am much older now, but I too return from receiving communion and cover my face as I pray. Because the Reality of Christ—of a God ready to become incarnate and die for us, ready to offer us mercy when we often cannot find it within ourselves—is a lot to take in, and I prefer to wrangle that out, or simply remain within the mystery, unobserved.
So too, often, the people around us. The daily face palms we fall into as we gaze into the ether of social media notwithstanding, most of us are covering our faces all the time, and not with a veil or our hands, but with another face entirely, one that is not real, and is meant to give us a sense of self-protection from an increasingly intrusive and judgmental world whose realities are hard to take in. And to give us a hiding place as well.
But Advent is coming, and with it the reminder that—at a time not of our choosing—all of our veils are soon to be destroyed. The deliberate weave of the “cloud of unknowing” is about to be rent in two. And we will see, and be seen, and we’ll finally understand what love has been put forth for our sakes, at no cost to us beyond our willingness to be opened—uncovered before God or man, and facing reality too, no matter how big or incomprehensible.
We are told that within the veil that separates Heaven from Earth, there are “thin places.” One of the thinnest places in the world is a Catholic Mass, at the moment of Consecration, when the web is dissolved and Christ becomes present, and even the babbling babies seem to recognize it and go silent.
That thinning—that Eucharistic action of God penetrating the veil—happens daily, breaking into a world hungry for reality. And, as Scripture tells us, it is capable, there, that all can eat and be satisfied. (Matt 15:36)
This is reality. There is a feast, and it is an Eternal one, and the Lord of Hosts is the host, and we are nurtured by his whole and healing food. But first we must prepare ourselves, prepare our hearts and our minds—be willing to lift the coverings with which we try to hide ourselves, protect ourselves from facing what is true of ourselves, of others, of God.
In myriad ways, a personal but real apocalypse can happen at any moment — a reality that rips away our shields and veils, leaving us as exposed, bare, and as vulnerable and needy as a newborn infant heralded by angels and then lain in a manger—the place where creatures do eat.
Yes, Advent is coming, soon and very soon. And we must prepare ourselves, do the first things that we must, in order to better face the last things. Let us not cover our faces. Let us not put a veil before this reality. Let’s take it in.