15 February 2015

Vistas, Visions, Voices

Theophanes the Great, 14th century (Russian), Transfiguration.
Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration of the Lord/ 15th February 2015

Six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, six days after denying the Messiah would suffer and die, six days after visiting the pagan, Gentile region known as Caesarea Philippi, Jesus took Peter, along with James and John, up a high mountain.  He took them aside, these three, to show them something, to experience something that would change them and confound them and call them. 

Tradition says this “high mountain” was Mount Tabor in Galilee.  This is probably wrong.  We know from the historian Josephus (37-100) that there was a fort on Mt. Tabor with a garrison of Roman soldiers during Jesus’ time.[1]  Jesus wouldn’t have taken them there.  I’ve seen Mt. Tabor, drove around its base. It’s not that high.  I’m sure there’s a pretty good view from the top (there’s a Franciscan monastery there today), but there’s an even better vista not far from Caesarea Philippi and that is Mount Hermon.  And it is high.  When I was there in June several years ago there was snow at the peak.  It’s situated where Syria, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights come together.  Elevation: 9,232 feet.  That is high, set apart, remote.  It would have taken them days, maybe six days, to reach the summit: a place with a vista, and in those rarefied heights, a good place for a vision, a good place to hear voices.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each contain a version of this story.  John’s Gospel, as a whole, can be seen as one mystical, transfiguring vision.  Mark’s story is the oldest—simple, unembellished, to the point.  Placed within the context of all the stories we have about Jesus this is, by far, the most mystical.  The resurrection is a mystery.  But the account of the Transfiguration is mystical, mysterious. It’s liminal, that is, caught between two realms, two worlds, two dimensions: heaven and earth meet, past and present meet, God and humanity meet.  It’s an experience full of light that reveals what was previously hidden, clouds that cover and conceal, conversations overheard without ever really knowing what is being said, and disciples saying stupid things that don’t make any sense.  And then a voice thunders and reverberates, causing multiple voices to echo:  THIS-this-this-this, …IS…MY…SON-Son-Son-Son, MY, BELOVED-Beloved-Beloved-Beloved. LISTEN-listen-listen-listen…to him! 

And when the ecstatic vision was over, when the world went silent, the disciples looked around and saw, as Mark says, no one was with them any more, “only Jesus.” 

You can’t stay in a mountaintop experience forever.  You have come down.  You can’t live on that religious high.  You have to go down the mountain.  Previously set apart, now it’s time to return and reconnect.  Invited to go up the mountain—that’s an expression of grace.  But the return—the return with Jesus—is also grace.  And both his presence and his grace were needed for what was coming. 

In chapter 8, Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, but Peter wanted nothing to do with a Messiah who suffers and dies.  Up on the mountain, full of light and glory, presence and blessing, I wonder if Peter and the others remembered his statement about the cross.  Who wants to dwell on suffering and dying when we can bask in the radiant glow of Jesus?  But when they go back down the mountain, down into the rest of chapter nine Jesus commands them, orders them not to say a word about what they had seen until after the resurrection, but even that statement was mysterious for them because they didn’t know what it meant. The disciples continue to follow him down the mountain and deeper into chapter nine.  Jesus heals an epileptic child (Mark 9:17-29).  And then Jesus says it again:  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31). The text says, “But they did not understand what [Jesus] was saying—and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32).  Would you?

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is bracketed by these two, pivotal verses in Mark’s gospel: 8:31 and 9:31.  When I was in seminary we were taught to pay attention to these two verses, for Mark’s gospel is built around them.  These two, startling verses say that Jesus will undergo great suffering, be killed, and then rise three days later. In between we have this extraordinary mystical experience.  So, we have a reference to suffering on the cross, then transfiguration, followed by another reference to suffering on the cross.

What are we to make of this sequence?  Well, it all depends whether you approach the story from the West or the East. 

We in North America are the product of what we might call the westward expansion of the Church.  The historical narrative we live in goes something like this: Pentecost in Jerusalem, the transformation of Saul into Paul, Paul travels all over Asia Minor, Paul is called to Europe, travels to Greece, and dies in Rome, the Roman Church carries the baton for several hundred years, the Great Schism occurs in 1054 leaving the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Greek Orthodox Church in the East, Luther and Calvin and Knox and others get ticked off with the Roman Pope in the sixteenth century, the Church splits again, part of the Church moves west from Spain to the Caribbean to South America (a Roman Catholic track) and from England to Jamestown and Plymouth (a Protestant track), the Presbyterians show up on Long Island in 1640, in 1683 the Presbyterian minister Francis Makemie (1658-1708) arrives in Maryland and eventually we have Catonsville Presbyterian Church.  We know more about the Roman Catholic-Protestant development of the Church and its theology. We in the West know very little about the development of the Church and its theology as it moved north from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and into Armenia and Russia and northeast into Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and into India, or southeast into Arabia.  It’s not what I learned in seminary.

The Christianity of the West is not the same as that of the East.  While we together serve a common Lord, we emphasize different things. The divergence and difference between these traditions can be seen in how each approaches the Transfiguration.[2] 

Eastern theology has always been far more mystical.  Eastern theologians view the redemption achieved by Christ as cosmic, saving persons along with an entire cosmos or world, and, therefore the Christian life is viewed as participating within the new creation wrought by the resurrection (as Paul, himself, said[3]).  Their outlook has always been more mystical than moral.

The West, on the other hand, is moral rather mystical in its emphasis.  The Roman Empire’s philosophical bent combined with its obsession with law had an enormous influence upon Western Church, as seen sometimes in our obsession with theological ideas such as justification and distinct theories of the atonement, slipping into a moralism or legalism which misses the cosmic context of the Christian life. 

The East approaches the cross in light of the resurrection, almost to the point of absorbing the cross into the resurrection, emphasizing the glory of Easter.  The West, on the other hand, often isolates the cross from the resurrection.  We see this in the way the West, within the Roman Catholic church but also in large portions of the Protestant world, has focused primarily on Jesus’ suffering on the cross as a means to obliterate the transgressions of the law, focusing on the forgiveness of sin.  

Transfiguration, St. Catherine's Monastery, 12th century.
Eastern Christianity has a special fondness for the Transfiguration, it’s honored and cherished.  This is evident in the thousands of beautiful icons of the Transfiguration produced over centuries in the East.[4]  The Eastern Church elevated this story liturgically, designating it as one of the Great Feast Days of the Church, while in the West it has secondary status.  I’ve never seen a packed-house in worship on Transfiguration Sunday here in the West, have you?

The West, being moralistic and practical about so many things, wants to know what the text “means,” the lessons learned, the theological claims being made.  The West focused on the Transfiguration as an event and tried to develop dogma around it.  The East, by contrast, prefers to see it as a “symbol of something that pervades all dogma and worship.”[5]  They want, they encourage us to allow the image, the icon, the story, the scene conjured by the creative power of our imaginations to shape us and move us. The East prefers to indwell the image, rejoice in it, glory in it, bask in the warmth of Christ’s presence, allowing the radiance of his life rain down upon us as we stand or kneel there on that mountain in holy terror and awe and confusion, letting it shape us, inform us, speak to us.  God says from the clouds, “Listen to him!” This requires attentiveness and silence, it requires being still, being fully there—on that mountain, not somewhere else—listening with the ear of our hearts.

In our liturgical calendar we remember the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent.  Placed at the threshold of Lent, given such prominence, one would think that the story and all that it conveys would inform the way we enter into this season in the church.  And, yet, it’s often overlooked or just left as a baffling story that we ought to read and preach on because the lectionary says so.   

The Church likes to go from 8:31 to 9:31, these two references to Jesus’ suffering, two strong statements about the cross, often ignoring the Transfiguration.  It’s easy to think, then, that Lent is all about the cross—the cross is important, of course, crucial here.  But it’s really important for us to place the cross within the context of the resurrection, that is, the image of God that Jesus showed us in and through the resurrection—the kind of image of God that is given in the Transfiguration.  It’s a vision of a God who is present in and through Christ, divinity and humanity uniquely conjoined in him.  In his light we see light (Psalm 36:9).  We get a glimpse of the power contained in this man who will suffer and die on a cross.  We hear again what Jesus first learned at his baptism, “You are my Son, my Beloved.”  It’s the Beloved Son who invites us to the mountain to see who he really is and it’s the Beloved One who walks us back down the mountain, down and into the world where people are hurting and suffering and dying—because that’s where the Beloved wants to be, precisely in those places. It’s why the Beloved One sets his face toward Jerusalem.

We’ll never know for sure, but I wonder if the disciples heard Jesus’ statement about suffering and the cross with just a little more insight after the Transfiguration than they did before.  We have 8:31, then the Transfiguration, and then 9:31.  The disciples still don’t fully “get it” by 9:31. Who would?  “They were afraid to ask him.”  But this second time there’s no protest from the likes of Peter, no resistance at all.  While they don’t full understand him, and they bumble along to the end of the gospel, they’re remaining open and learning and trying to process what just took place on the top of that mountain.  Because you see, once you’ve been to the mountaintop you never again see the world the same.  Once your reality has been transfigured you never again see your life the same.  Everything, including suffering, the nature of suffering, the nature of Christ’s suffering has been transfigured.

As a result, we as followers of Christ should never approach suffering as an end in itself.  We don’t celebrate suffering for suffering’s sake; we don’t glory in suffering. Yet, Jesus never said, “Follow me and you’ll never suffer again.”  Instead, Jesus shows us that suffering can be transfigured; that is, our experience of suffering is transfigured when we know, when we come to know that whatever we face in our lives we are connected to the power and presence of the Beloved One.[6]  Because Jesus was committed to his calling and because he was confident of God’s commitment to him, he was able to face his own suffering and enter into the suffering of the people he met along the highways and byways he traveled.  And that’s what we’re able to do because we walk with him and he walks with us.

That’s what we’re able to do: suffer with and in and sometimes for another, for the people we love.  That’s what love does. It suffers. 

I was moved, as I’m sure you were, by the brave witness of Kayla Mueller (1988-2015), the hostage of ISIS who was killed in the last week or so.  She sounded like a remarkable human being.  Not much was made about her Christian convictions and the call in her life.  I listened to an NPR story this week and nothing was said about why she was where she was—I mean really why she was there, about what motivated her.

She wanted to alleviate human suffering. This, on its own, is a noble cause, worthy of human effort.  But, as her closest childhood friends said, Kayla had “great empathy,” this “was her greatest strength.”[7]  And we discover what stands behind this empathy, this ability to enter into another’s suffering, in these words that were shared this week.  They’re from a letter she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011, “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you [God] are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.”  She wrote, “I will always seek God.  Some people find God in church.  Some people find God in nature.  Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”[8]  In a letter written to her family while in captivity, she said, “I have a lot of fight left inside of me and I will not give in no matter how long it takes.”[9]

I have no idea what kind of inner spiritual life Kayla had, but my guess is, somewhere along her 26-year journey, she saw something, felt something, came to know something about the Transfigured One, and that she was herself transfigured—because you can’t make statements like these, backed up with a life of extraordinary strength, unless you’ve had a similar kind of experience of God’s suffering love, which changes everything.  Because, as Jesus showed us with his life, that’s what love does—it suffers in and with and through and for God’s children—for all God’s children.  That’s the love that calls us and sends us.  It’s the kind of love that moved Jesus to begin his walk toward Jerusalem—and, in love, he invites us to go there with him.

[1] Josephus, Jewish Wars, iv.I.8.
[2] In what follows, I’m relying on the helpful comparison found in Arthur Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1949), 133ff.
[3] See Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5.
[4] See Andreas Andreopoulos, Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005).
[5] Ramsey, 137.
[6] Ramsey, 145.
[9] The full text of the letter may be found here.

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