Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
This text–one of the oldest in the Christian liturgy–voices the profound, aching expectation of a people watching for their King. Most often sung to a medieval French melody, “Let all Mortal Flesh” is a beloved hymn at Advent. Its majestic, serious, haunting call to “keep silence” challenges the sentimental rush of our culture’s holiday season: a glut of gratification that begins on Black Friday and collapses, stuffed and exhausted, on December 26th.
For many Christians, Advent provides a way to prepare for Christmas and challenge the commercialized binge that fills our shops, schools, and media for most of December. Advent creates a space for us to consider exactly what–and Whom–we are expecting.
We are waiting, of course, for Christmas: the celebration of Christ’s birth 2000 years ago. But “Let All Mortal Flesh” reminds us that we are also waiting for another “advent”–the arrival of Christ in majesty, the new Heaven and new Earth, the full arrival of the Kingdom that is already near.
We are waiting, in other words, for the Apocalypse.
We may think of global disasters or zombies when we hear this word, but an “apocalypse” literally means “an unveiling, uncovering,” from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις. This is the word that gives the book of Revelation its name. Translators could have just as well named this book of Scripture “The Unveiling.”
During Advent, then, we are called to recognize that the realities of heaven and earth remain within a play of veils and coverings. As with so many mysteries, these meditations can only be expressed as paradoxes.
As Christians, we trust and affirm that much has already been revealed to us: the veil of the Temple has been rent, so that through Christ we have access to the Holy of Holies, to God most high (Matt. 27:51). And yet, much remains hidden. The sorrow of a miscarriage, the terror of nations raging, the failure of a cherished hope, the obstacles to a certain call–all these we trust will have their good end in Christ, but that good often remains veiled, hidden from even the most faithful hearts.
And what is a veil? Is it not a garment that hides but also protects? The fabric of a veil may obscure, but with color and figure it also hints at the beauty within.
In The Face of the Deep, the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti explores this imagery of veils and expectation, meditating on the hidden presence of God-with-us.
Meditating on the book of Revelation, Rossetti turns back to the construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus. Here, God tells the Israelites that He will dwell among them in a way that is visible to all nations: paradoxically, this visible witness will be a tent of veils and curtains, announcing God’s presence but shielding His radiance. The Israelites who contributed to the Tabernacle–making a home for God among them–received wisdom from God, but did not see Him face to face, as Moses had. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that it is God empowering their work. The Lord gave “wisdom and understanding to know how to work all manner of work for the service of the sanctuary” to many men, and “all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of fine linen. And all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair” (Rossetti 405, commenting on Exodus 35).
By creating these fabrics, the wise-hearted women offer a rich image of what it means to wait for Christ. Rossetti writes, “Thus coverings, curtains, veils, were assigned to women: […] So long as he or she who ‘standeth without’ can hear the Bridegroom’s Voice, surely it is joy fulfilled” (405).
These women create the very curtains and veils that will hide God from them, but their curtains will also announce–across language, tribe, and time–that God is in fact among them, that he has pitched His tent among His people. Perhaps in spinning the brilliantly-colored threads for those veils, they are anticipating the song of the angels who veil their own faces in reverence of the coming Christ:
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
As Advent begins, we remember that we are still waiting for the full unveiling of Christ’s glory. We anticipate the Bridegroom’s return with joy, even as we are “heart-sick with hope deferred.” We veil our faces to His glory, humbly acknowledging that we do not understand His ways. Knowing we have received all that is needful for salvation, we admit that much else remains hidden from us. Yet even through this darkness, the Spirit gives wisdom and insight into the hidden things of God. And so we, like the wise-hearted men and women of Israel, fill these waiting days with good work. We adorn the veils, curtains, and instruments of worship with speaking figures: with color and image and symbol that announce our hope. The beauty of the veil is the promise, teaching us to love what lies beneath.
Rossetti, Christina. The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Revelation. London: SPCK, 1895.