The veil in Christian life

Unlike the Koran, the New Testament actually does demand that women wear veils on some occasions:

I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ; the head of a woman is her husband; and the head of Christ is the Father.  Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head.  Similarly, any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered brings shame upon her head…A man, on the other hand, ought not to cover his head, because he is the image of God and the reflection of his glory.  Woman, in turn, is the reflection of man’s glory.  Man was not made from woman, but woman from man…For this reason a woman ought to have a sign of submission on her head, because of the angels.  Yet, in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman.  In the same way that woman was made from man, so man is born of a woman, and all is from God…Does not nature itself teach you that it is dishonorable for a man to wear his hair long, while the long hair of a woman is her glory?  Her hair has been given her for a covering.  If anyone wants to argue about this, remember that neither we nor the churches of God recognize any other usage.

–1 Corinthians 11:3-16

This is a long quote, and there’s a lot to be said about it.  The most important thing, though, is something Paul doesn’t explain, because he saw no need, namely:  why should one abase and cover oneself during worship at all?  Isn’t this “degrading”?  In fact, we must understand that here it is not the woman’s veiling that is the anomaly, but the dispensing of men from a similar act.

In fact, one doesn’t need to be told to cover one’s head, prostrate oneself, or avert one’s eyes.  These things are completely natural when one finds oneself in the presence of the mysterium tremendum.  In the presence of God’s glory, every creature seems small, profane, and unsubstantial.

How can a man be just in God’s sight, or how can any woman’s child be innocent?  Behold, even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in His sight.  How much less man, who is but a maggot, the son of man, who is only a worm?

–Job 25:4-6

Men fear to look at God’s face, lest they perish.  God’s incomparable purity moves them to profess their unworthiness.

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the trail of his garment filling the temple.  Seraphim were stationed above…”Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” they cried, one to the other…Then I said “Woe is me, I am doomed!  For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

–Isaiah 6:1-5

To abase oneself before a creature would be degrading, but precisely because abasement and worship is the correct response to God Himself.  In fact, to fail to fall to one’s knees in the presence of the all-holy One would betray an unthinkable insensibility.  Nor is this sense of unworthiness merely moral, although our sins certainly do defile us and make us unworthy of Him.  It is ontological; beside God, even the greatest saint is nothing.  Being confronted by one’s nothingness is terrifying indeed.  Thus, todays friendly, informal churches deliberately avoid any sense of holiness.

That a woman should veil herself, then, is hardly surprising.  As Paul points out, the hair of a woman is her glory–her crown, one might say.  Covering it is an act of humility.  On a man, hair does not have this aspect.  Yet, we would expect men to make some equivalent humbling act, but this is not so.  The reason, according to Paul, is not because of any glory that man possesses intrinsically–he is, after all, born of woman, and thus on the same ontological level as her–but because of the image he bears.  According to Paul, men bear the image of God more directly than women.  He sees an indication of this in the story of Adam being created before Eve, and, thus, proceeding from God more directly.  This, in turn, symbolizes the authority that fathers have over their wives and children.  As a father, man is the mediator of God to his family, the one who “stands in” for God and exercises authority in His name.  Thus, in this sense to be an “image of God” means to be an authority figure for someone else.  Because fathers bear this image, ancient Christian practice thought it unwise for them to publicly humble themselves as women do.  The men bare their heads in church, not for their own sakes, but for the sakes of the women and children; it is in their eyes, and not his own, that he is the image of God.

Finally, let us recall the main reason why, for Paul, Adam bore the image of God more directly than Eve.  This is because Jesus Christ is identified as the new Adam, which would make Adam the (very imperfect) old Christ.  More precisely, Adam is the first of the precursers of Christ.  The latter would save all men as Adam had condemned them, and reunite humanity as it was originally one in Adam.  Adam points toward the Incarnation.  The latter is the ultimate reason why men must bare their heads in Church.  Christ was a man, so for the Christian all manhood bears his imprint, even though individual men are wretched sinners just like the women.

If what we are in ourselves were the only issue, we men should be grovelling on the floor during Mass.  We refrain from doing so, even though standing uncovered in the presence of the numinous is a properly frightening thing, as part of an ongoing tribute to Jesus Christ.  For his sake, not for our own.

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