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Last Sunday of Epiphany – Things Transfigured and not Transfigured

Last week one of my tweeple, @RevDaniel,  posted this and it got me thinking:

Tweet from @RevDaniel: "the Transfiguration is less about a temporary change in Jesus’ appearance, and more about a permanent change in the disciples’ vision."Most years I’ve focused on trying to make the vision of the glorified Jesus real to my congregation. Sometimes I’ve done that by elaborating on the details of the biblical narrative we receive for this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 9.2-9):

 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

I often spend some time on the notion of dazzling whiteness: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” is the sort of line that lends itself to lavish midrash. I sometimes tell the story of how, when I was a kid, I’d obsess over washing my Karate uniform. Bleach, multiple washings, extra soap, and so much anti-stain stick that I would just carve it off like butter pats and drop into the water (thank God my mother never caught on). Yet somehow I was never able to make it so, so white, as I could imagine it becoming.

The Tides have turnedOr maybe I talk about how many modern detergents use special chemicals called “Optical Brighteners” that make white clothes appear whiter by emitting a blue glow when exposed to UV part of the light spectrum (such as when in sunlight). The white is being made whiter by a kind of optical illusion made possible by modern chemistry. Imagine all human cleverness to make a crazy white white is not anywhere near the whiteness of Christ’s clothes at this moment.  How does it make you feel to picture that?

Then I’ve often launched into some good old mystagogy: one of most undertaught of the “-gogies.” I’ll quote from books like the the “Cloud of Unknowing” with his fantastically promising and seductive prologue:

IN the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost! I charge thee and I beseech thee, with as much power and virtue as the bond of charity is sufficient to suffer, whatsoever thou be that this book shalt have in possession, either by property, either by keeping, by bearing as messenger, or else by borrowing, that in as much as in thee is by will and advisement, neither thou read it, nor write it, nor speak it, nor yet suffer it be read, written, or spoken, of any or to any but if it be of such one, or to such one, that hath by thy supposing in a true will and by an whole intent purposed him to be a perfect follower of Christ not only in active living, but in the sovereignest point of contemplative living the which is possible by grace for to be come to in this present life of a perfect soul yet abiding in this deadly body; and thereto that doth that in him is, and by thy supposing hath done long time before, for to able him to contemplative living by the virtuous means of active living. For else it accordeth nothing to him. (more)

Julian of Norwich

St Julian of Norwich at The church of SS Andrew and Mary, photo by Evelyn Simak (CC BY-SA).

Wow. Doesn’t that make the Contemplative Journey the most awesome-sounding path ever? And, indeed, we Christians might just be a “nation of mystics,”: full of stories of weird and raw and awesome and transcendent experiences of God. We should probably educate our congregations more on how to deal with such mystical “showings,” or else they will think they are alone in encountering such graces.

This brings up Bernard of Clairvaux and his incredible Commentary on the Song of Songs. Like Julian of Norwich and “The Cloud of Unknowing” this is required reading for anyone on the contemplative path. He said that mystical experiences are not something that can be forced and that may happen with more or less frequency. Even more critically, that if we do have them their visceral and life-changing power will fade as quickly as we end. In other words, even the most powerful beatific vision will fade as it slips into the past. He suggested, therefore, than instead of trying to grasp onto or attempt to recreate such experiences we should instead rest in the “memory of divine favor.” That is, we should be content simply to remember that such a moment happened at all.

Here’s the problem with trumpeting mystical experiences as the ultimate divine blessing for Christian pilgrim–they aren’t that at all. Yes, Peter, James, and John received an incredible gift. So did Julian, Bernard, and many more. But what about the other disciples who weren’t invited by Jesus up the mountain that day? What about the millions of Christians who have never experienced anything that could be identified as a mystical experience, are they not blessed?

The truth is that we don’t know why God shows himself in great glory to some people and not to others, but we do know that there is nothing we can do to cause or earn such encounters. They happen or they don’t. And sermons which make people feel guilty or in any way inadequate because they don’t should be avoided at all cost. So should sermons that attempt to recreate the Jesus light. Instead, we should focus on what we can affect, which is not what we see, but how we see it. You see, the story of the transfiguration is told in the Gospels because it is meant to change how we see Jesus. Just like the stories of miracles or healings this story functions as evidence of who Jesus was and is. Instead of becoming self-absorbed by trying to place ourselves into the story, we should (for once) remain in our seats as those who hear the testimony of others. This is a case where midrash can lead us astray. The mystical vision is not the point, the revelation of Christ’s being is.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls, or mystical bleach–simply hear the testimony that these people saw and believe it.

About Tay Moss

Priest, blogger, diplomat: Tay Moss helps people navigate God's crazy universe with humor, good food, and an occasional idea. He is leading his congregation (Messiah, Toronto) through major transition as they launch a fresh expression of church. His professional interests include missional church, new media, and the mysterious arts of the priesthood such as manual acts and cassock-wearing. In spirituality: a monastic. In management: a skipper. At home: a cook. A man with too many hobbies, Tay also finds himself sailing, cooking, watching TV, producing videos, brewing, and building canoes. He can be followed on twitter (@taymoss), pinterest (wtaymoss), youtube (taymossninjapriest), and facebook (tay.moss).
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