October 15, 2023
When the Shroud Is Removed
There are days full of sunshine and hopefulness, and there are those times when everything seems clouded or even covered with a dark blanket. And if we are truly honest, both are present to a degree in every moment. We are never totally without hope, and we are never entirely free of the veil of uncertainty. Life, even in its finest moments, remains a deep mystery. And we are like those theater goers who sit in the dark, unsure of what is to come, waiting for the curtain to go up. I suppose that’s why these words from Isaiah jumped out at me: “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations . . . .” I’m in a rather reflective mood these days, so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just play with Isaiah’s “shroud” image for a while.
The first thing that strikes me about these wonderful and cryptic words from the prophet is that they don’t fit. They spring up in the midst of this passage and stand out like a big, yellow hat at a funeral. The first words we hear from Isaiah are the familiar strains of gloating and self-congratulation that we have grown accustomed to hearing from warrior nations: “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for . . . you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. . . . When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.” This is nothing more than an ancient cry of victory in battle. There’s no telling who the enemy was – the “ruthless nation” that was overthrown, the “fortified city” that was laid to ruin – it may have been Babylon or Nineveh. But clearly this is an exultation by those who saw themselves as divinely chosen to be victorious over others – always a dangerous notion.
It is right on top of this hymn to the glory of military victory that Isaiah drops in these astounding words: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. . . .”
God will make a feast “for all peoples,” and he will lift the shroud that is cast over “all peoples,” and “all nations.” And instead of lauding Israel as a leader of nations, Isaiah looks forward to a time when “the disgrace of his people . . . from all the earth” will be taken away. That’s a remarkable statement of humility – the kind of gaff that might cost any presidential candidate an election. And here’s the stunner: all of these great things for all the people of the earth will happen, in the prophet’s words, “on this mountain,” by which he means Mount Zion, by which he means Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be the site for reconciliation among all the peoples and all the nations, and the place where in Isaiah’s words “ the disgrace of his people” will be removed. I could not help being struck by the irony of that.
We all know what’s happening in that city and in that nation today. Jerusalem today is covered in a shroud of war, of violence, pride, and animosity. Jurisdiction over the ancient holy sites there is at the center of much of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This mountain, this Zion, this Jerusalem is today the volcano from which an enormous cloud of misunderstanding, animosity, and violence among Arabs and Israelis has spread. And this is the very place, Isaiah says, where the shroud of global hate and violence will be lifted. Is it possible that millennia of bloodshed and venom will be put away, that generations of conflict and dispute will be resolved, that one of the hottest hot-spots on the globe will be the birthplace of world peace? It’s hard to believe.
Hundreds of years after Isaiah delivered these words, Jesus stood up in the very cross-hairs of the epicenter of that mountain of contention, the Jerusalem Temple, and offered a rather cloudy parable, cloaked, as far as I can see, in mystery. He spoke of a “a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” but they wouldn’t come, and they killed the messengers. The king sent troops to ruthlessly wipe them out and burn their city. Then he sent his slaves out again into the streets to bring in whomever they could find to his wedding feast. One poor slob walked in off the street at the king’s invitation and presently found himself bound hand and foot, to be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” all because he had the audacity to walk in off the street without the proper clothes. Now, I generally wear a white shirt and jacket to church, and I guess I’m glad I do, because, frankly, I don’t think I’d want any part of that “outer darkness,” or the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” thing. Does this parable make any sense to you at all? I must confess, it confounds me. It seems to be saying that the Lord of Hosts is fickle, and prone to entrapping people so they can be punished. I can’t imagine that’s really what Jesus was getting at, but I’ll be darned if I can be sure what he was saying. So, there’s another veil that cloaks our lives. It is the shroud of unknowing. Who can discern what the great Mind of Being at the heart of existence is up to in this universe? Every time I think I get a bit closer to comprehension of the divine mystery, it seems to slap me in the face and remind me that it’s all too huge for my predilections, presumptions and prejudices. Is it possible that one day this shroud will be removed as well? Will we one day understand the arbitrariness of loss, the unfairness of life, the fickle nature of the one who holds the wedding feast? Will the veil be lifted to reveal that it all does make some kind of wondrous sense after all? I find it hard to believe.
And then there’s the shroud of all shrouds – the cerement of our mortality. At the loss of a dear friend, gone too soon, I have found myself staggered by the reality of death. I kept seeing his face; kept expecting to encounter him walking through the door, finding it hard to believe that he is truly gone. The curtain that stands between life and death is impenetrable. It is the ultimate loss that faces each of us, the ultimate end to all our beginnings and endings. It looms over our plans and presumptions like an uninvited guest who refuses to leave, and almost seems to mock us as we go about our busy lives flitting from one supposedly “urgent” task to another. And yet, Isaiah says, “. . . he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Is it possible that death is not the last word? Can it be that even that cold, dark sheet will be lifted, that life will prevail, that tears will be dried? It’s hard to believe.
Well, thinking about those shrouds strangely led me to toss around in my head the image of some other coverings. I was covered with a kind of shroud this past Tuesday. I went to the hospital to have a cardiac monitor placed under the skin in my chest. They put what they call “drapes” around the insertion area (which are simply those big blue sheets of paper with tape along one side to stick to your body). The top drape went clear over my head so I was kind of buried beneath it and couldn’t see anything that was going on. Then the cardiologist who I knew but could not see started doing things to my chest with a scalpel. The experience under that drape could have been very frightening. But when that shroud was removed, I went home to a miracle. I now have a tiny device in my chest that conducts a non-stop EKG on my heart, stores all the information from each day, which is then automatically downloaded to a device by my bedside that automatically transmits the information to my doctor’s office. I have no idea how all of that works. The technology is staggering, but it is wondrous.
Then, I thought of the shrouds that are the sheets and blankets of my bed. Every night I enter into a different world. I climb between those sheets and drift off into another state of consciousness, a kind of deep soul awareness in which my mind speaks to itself and transports me to diverse places. And in each new setting, I am instructed, in some ways; I see the events of my life reflected in a sort-of fun-house mirror, and the issues that have been left dangling through the jumble of my waking days are often worked through and sometimes resolved. I don’t know how this happens. I don’t know who the self is who is instructing me – or who the “me” is that is being taught, for that matter. It’s all cloaked in a kind of darkness that lies just beyond the range of conscious perception. And in the morning I awake and stumble through my usual routines. Eventually, I see the sunlight streaming through the windows. The places I have been in my dreams and the things I have learned vanish, and I am left wondering in awe at the realm of existence I just tasted but cannot comprehend in the dark beneath those bed sheets. Then I remove the shroud of the night and sit down to breakfast. The dog comes to the table looking for handouts which Dadgie happily provides. I pick up my cell phone and read that the universe, which is infinite in scope, embracing distances that are staggering beyond all comprehension, is nonetheless expanding in every place, in every minute, and nobody really knows why. The dog, Charlie, pokes his head up on my lap from beneath the table, and I swear I could see him smile. Moments like these are simple and routine, but their cumulative effect is profound. And in the end I’m left with a sense that life is more than it seems to be, and beyond that, something, some profound reality, some pervasive awareness residing in the central core of being is, in a way that’s beyond my comprehension, aware of me. And it’s as though a curtain is removed that has covered all my hopes, and I realize that even on the mount of Zion, peace is worth working for and believing in, that even with a tiny mind incapable of grasping the reality of divinity, knowledge and faith are worth pursuing, and that even in the presence of heartbreaking loss, death may not, indeed, have the last word. And all of that I can see just in the eyes of our dog.
So who am I to argue with the prophet Isaiah?