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The Horned Moses.

We encounter gospel truth in both mountaintop experiences and valleys of trials and suffering

The two pictures that illustrate this column, one from Notre Dame Cathedral and the other from Rome, show a bizarre Moses with horns growing out of his head. This long tradition in the church has a curious history with a contemporary moral.

Moses had ascended the holy mountain and received the two tables of the Ten Words or Ten Commandments. He'd been in God's presence, closer than any other human. Now the Jews were so aware of the awesome nature of deity, they were afraid even to speak the name. (My Jewish students write simply G-D.) Instead they spoke of the Shekinah, the glory or light that surrounds God. When Moses came down from his close encounter with "He Who Is," his face was shining, a sort of reflection or afterglow of the divine presence. So strong was the effect he had to veil his face so as not to overpower the onlookers.

The Hebrew word for "shining" to describe his condition (Exodus 34:30) can also refer to "horns." Jerome translated it into Latin as facies cornuta, "horned face." He meant a beam of light, but its chief meaning is "horn" (as in "cornucopia"). Thus, a bad translation from Hebrew into Latin helped the legend of the horned Moses. The great Rabbi Solomon (Rashi) said, "The phrase 'the light-horned' is used here because light radiates from a point and projects like a horn." Rashi's disciple Comestor spoke of the "wonderful rays of splendour." Like the Shekinah. So Moses is shown with two long cones of light jutting out from his head. In medieval England, Aelfric's Old English translation said "the gehyrned Moses" to continue the tradition.

In time, it influenced the shape of the bishop's mitre -- originally merely a staff, then with today's familiar curved horn. In the Roman Church, the prayer over a new bishop's mitre includes reference to the shining Moses, "[whom thou] didst adorn with the resplendent horns of Thy brightness and Thy Truth."

Michelangelo seized on the tradition as a fitting symbol for his powerful sculpture, though the horns are modest. Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the statue in Rome and wrote a fine little essay entitled "The Moses of Michelangelo." He is taken with the body language, the dynamic attitude as if he is about to jump up in anger (Moses has seen the Golden Calf and can scarcely contain himself). But, Freud concludes, he remains seated "in his frozen wrath." Now although Freud was proud of his Jewishness -- he called himself another Joseph, interpreter of dreams -- he missed the significance of the horns.

The horns or streams of light are like the halo round the heads of saints, signifying nearness to God, reflecting the divine glory. Epiphany, season of light, ends with the festival of Transfiguration, recalling Jesus' own experience on another mountaintop when he talked with Moses and Elijah and was bathed with light. In Eastern Christianity, this season of Epiphany is called simply Ta phota, "The Lights." Epiphany was celebrated as the Baptism of Christ, and used to be a time for baptisms when white robes were draped over new Christians, now purified and enlightened.

So Moses on Mount Horeb and Jesus on Mount Tabor shine with divine glory. Remember how Peter wanted to stay on the mountain to worship forever? Jesus replied, Stay if you like, I'm leaving! And he went down into the valley where the sick child awaited his healing touch. And wasn't the glory there, too, in the valley of illness and need, of doubt and despair? Maybe that's Christ's true glory, this gift of renewal and life.

All of us know mountaintop experiences as well as valleys of trial and suffering. The splendour touches us nearly when we encounter the truth of the gospel, or discover the beauty of holiness in worship or fellowship or prayer -- and in human love, especially being loved by another. So we, too, are called into the twofold motion of grace: upward to higher truth and nobler deeds and greater love, back down into the valleys to meet the need of healing and comfort and justice. "For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." [R]

Joseph C. McLelland is professor emeritus of McGill University and The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a contributing editor of this magazine.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Presbyterian Record
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Title Annotation:religion
Author:McLelland, Joseph C.
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:758
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