19 February 2012

When Light Reveals Light

Mark 9: 2-9 & 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Transfiguration of the Lord/ 19th February 2012

Today we bring the season of Epiphany to a close.  Epiphany, from the Greek, means “manifestation” or “appearance.”  We think of it as a moment of insight, the manifestation of truth, the appearance of something divine.  We associate it with the stars – the star – the light that leads the magi to Bethlehem, the light that leads people to the appearance of God.

            On this Sunday, known as Transfiguration of Lord, we are about to transition into the season of Lent, a time in the liturgical calendar that is often dark, somber, ashen and ash-like, leading as it does to the cross.  But here, at this point of transition, in what might be called a liminal space – from the Latin limen meaning “threshold” – we stand in the threshold between Epiphany and Lent; for just one brief moment the lectionary takes us up with Jesus to a very high mountain for an encounter with the light of God.  In the Bible, mountains are often liminal spaces, thresholds, places of meeting between two worlds.  Just think of Moses on Mt. Sinai – yes, think of Moses, because he shows up in this story; the text itself is designed to echo another time when God revealed Godself to Moses, also from the clouds (see Exodus 19).

            Tradition has it that Jesus was transfigured on Mt. Tabor. That tradition is probably wrong because as the Jewish historian Josephus (37-c.100) tells us, there was a fortress built on the top of the mountain.  Mark tells us it was a high mountain apart. Tabor, actually, isn’t that high.  It’s more like a big hill in the Galilee.  Not far from there, though, was and is a high mountain, Mt. Hermon, which rises up 9000 feet above sea level. From that mountain you can see for miles.  That’s where I imagine all of this occurring, on a high, remote, wild place, somewhere between heaven and earth.

            But what took place?  We could be here all morning – or a lifetime – trying to fathom this question.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree:  Jesus was transfigured.  Because Mark is the earliest gospel, written around 70, we know that this tradition is very old, very close to Jesus.  The story is missing from John’s gospel, but it could be argued that all of John’s gospel reflects Jesus’ transfiguration, especially the prologue when John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3b-5). 

            The point, though, is to remember that all the gospel writers describe Jesus as having some type of relation to light – Jesus as light, Jesus as the conduit of light, Jesus as the source of light.  Here in Mark, Jesus was transfigured and his countenance dazzled them. Matthew is even more explicit and poetic, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” (Mt. 17:2).

            You can see why some view the story as an epiphany, a manifestation of God. Others say that what we have here is a theophany, meaning a vision of God.  Both are probably accurate.  Both epiphany and theophany are inadequate to capture the power and meaning of this event.  It’s oddness and strangeness should not be managed or domesticated.  It’s mystical and unique.  In the history of world religions there’s no parallel story found in any other faith.  The idea of dying and rising god, for example, is not unique to the Christian story.  But nothing compares to what we find here:[1] human beings witnessing the presence of God, of a human being whose appearance is transfigured revealing the essential nature of that human being as participating presently in the very being and light of God; an experience where the past (represented by Moses and Elijah), and the present (represented by Peter, James, and John, and Jesus) are both relativized, that is all related in the moment by virtue of the constant speed of light emanated from Jesus.  Light unites them.  As Albert Einstein (1879-1955) showed, light is the constant of the universe, everything exists vis-à-vis our relation to light, especially time.  Jesus is revealed as the constant of the universe and like light is ever faithful, who as the Son is at the same time mediating the uncreated Light of God.  Here we have Jesus becoming light, of Jesus and God sharing in light, and by his light opening up a vision, illuminating the future, of Jesus’ eternal embodiment as fully divine and fully human:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” 

            And it’s stunning, really, to think that the apostle Paul makes a similar claim; stunning given the fact that having never read any of the gospels – writing before Mark’s gospel was written – he could say, “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 God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:6).

            And there might be another very early reference to Jesus and light.  In December 1945, farmers in Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt along the Nile River, discovered a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book.  The mother of the farmers burned one of the books and parts of a second (including its cover). Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive.  The codices, the earliest dating back to the 2nd century AD, contained 52 early Gnostic texts, which were probably buried and hidden away when Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy.  The codices together are now known as the Nag Hammadi library.  This is one of the most significant manuscript finds, ever.  In addition to the Gnostic texts there are sections of Plato’s Republic, a Gospel attributed to Philip the disciple, and, most significantly, a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas written in Coptic. 

            Why is this significant?  In 1945, scholars knew that there once existed a text known as the Gospel of Thomas (the earliest reference to it is from 230 AD), but up to that time no one had ever actually read it.  The Coptic version of the gospel dates to around 320 AD.  With a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas intact scholars were then able to compare the text with papyri fragments of unknown authorship and origin that were discovered in the late nineteenth century in the sands (in a garbage dump) of Oxyrhynchus, also in Egypt. Scholars, who have a lot of time on their hands to study texts, were then able to compare the Gospel of Thomas with these earlier unidentified fragments and discovered that they were from Thomas’ Gospel and date from between 130 and 250 AD. Scholars believe Thomas was originally written as early as 60 (or as late as 125 AD). 

            The Gospel of Thomas is unlike the four Gospels of the New Testament in that it consists entirely of sayings (logia) of Jesus, with no narrative structure.  The Gospel of Thomas, however, is very – amazingly – similar to what we have in the New Testament in that some of the sayings ascribed to Jesus are exactly the same, or close to it.  There are other sayings that reflect an image of the Cosmic Christ that we find in John 1 and in Colossians.

            Listen to a few of these sayings, could the Transfiguration have inspired them?  Logion (saying) 77: I am the light shining upon all things.  I am the sum of everything. For everything has come forth from me, and towards me everything unfolds. Split a piece of wood, and there I am. Pick up a stone and you will find me there. 

            Or what about this one, from Logion 24?  “His student said to him, ‘Take us to the place where you are, since we are required to seek after it.’ He answered them, ‘Whoever has an ear for this should listen carefully!  Light shines out from the center of a being of light and illuminates the whole cosmos.  Who ever fails to become light is a source of darkness.’” 

            Or this one, Logion 83:  “Jesus says, Images are revealed to humanity while the light within them is hidden by the brilliance of the Father’s light.  It is God who is being revealed, but the image of God remains concealed by the blaze of light.”[2] 

            Echoes of the transfiguration?

            In the long history of the Church, the Eastern Church (Byzantine, Orthodox traditions) has always had a strong fascination with the meaning and wisdom of the Transfiguration. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants have largely ignored it in the Western Church.  The Eastern Church has also been more mystical in its view of the Christian life, while the Western Church has emphasized morality (right belief, right behavior, etc.).  The East emphasized the mystical. 

            For example, there’s an ancient text coming from the Armenian Church (first translated into English in 1924), known as The Revelation of the Lord to St. Peter, which describes the Christian life as participating in “the luminous mystery of the children of light…and with the same light they were illumined and illumined until the second epiphany of that light.”[3]  Light illuminating light.  As the psalmist said, “For with you,” O God, “is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9).  The Eastern tradition affirmed that Jesus was transfigured so that when we stand or kneel in his presence we too might be transfigured by his light, that we might be transformed.  His light yields light and thus illumines our lives.

            God is light, “the supreme Light, the Source of all light, …the Creator of the universe, the stars and galaxies, and all physical light, as well as the light of human understanding.”  In a few weeks Iain Torrance, the president of Princeton Seminary will be with us.  His father, Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century.  T. F. Torrance wrote extensively on the theology of light.  Relying heavily upon his study of the physics of light he saw an analogy between God as uncreated Light and the light that infuses this universe.  He said, with God, “we have to do with the ultimate invisible reality, the uncreated Light, in accordance with which the world was framed by the Word of God.”  But, he says, “as a matter of fact, we do not see any kind of light, but see only what is lit up by light, and thus ‘see light,’ as it were, only in the light of light.  Light moves so fast that our eyes cannot keep pace with it.”  We don’t see light – unless it’s refracted and we see the color spectrum in a ray of light – but even that is not light, only what light allows us to see.[4]

            In Jesus Christ, Torrance claims, “God’s uncreated light has come into the world, where it has been translated” – can we way transfigured, transformed? – “into the form of a human life.  He is not just a spot of light in humanity lit up by the uncreated Light of God, someone who merely bears witness to the Light, but is the incarnation of the uncreated Light of God, what the Gospel calls ‘the real Light’ in contrast to all others.  When we meet him and look into his face, we see the eternal Light of God himself.  The Lord Jesus is the Light of the World, for he is the life-giving light.”[5] “In him was life and the life is the light of all people.”

            Light revealing light.  That’s who Jesus is.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s what our lives can experience in the light of his presence when we too are transfigured.

            C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) tells the story of a time when he was in a dark toolshed.  “The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam.  From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dusts floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black.  I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it” or with it.

            “Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes,” that is looking into the beam of light.  “Instantly the whole previous picture vanished.  I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.  Instead I saw, framed in the irregular canny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.  Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experience.”[6]

            His experience shows us that there are two different ways of knowing.  One is through observation from the outside – looking at the beam of light; the other is participation from the inside the beam of light, with the light.  Observation from the outside would be look at Jesus from a distance – studying the scriptures to learn about him in an objective, scientific approach.  This is needed, to be sure.  But this way alone is insufficient.  It doesn’t show us everything.  The second way of knowing is by participating in the light, with the light, from inside the light. 

            The shift from observing Jesus from the outside, looking at him from a distance to seeing from within the light, from inside who he is, participating in the light, changes everything that we see.  The shift from looking at Jesus to looking with Jesus will change how we see everything.  To move from the outside to the inside is to be transfigured.  To make this move in our own lives, from looking at to looking with Jesus, in our journey is what it means to be transfigured.  It’s when light reveals light and everything around us changes.

Image:  Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-c.1410), Transfiguration (1408).

[1]Andreas Andreopoulos, Metamorphosis:  The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 35ff.
[2] All of the Gospel of Thomas quotations come from Lynn Bauman’s translation, The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin  - A Dynamic Translation with Commentary and Notes (Ashland, OR:  White Cloud Press, 2004).
[3] Cited in Arthur Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009).
[4] Thomas F. Torrance, “’A Theology of Light’:  A University Sermon,” in The Christian Frame of Mind: Reason, Order, and Openness in Theology and Natural Science, Introduction by W. Jim Neidhardt (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 154-155.
[5] Torrance, 154-155.  On the use of Torrance’s theology of light as way to approach the meaning of transfiguration, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 194-198.
[6] C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945), reprinted in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1970, 212-215).

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