Leaving space for mystery

Transfiguration Sunday

Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14; Ps 99; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM 

There’s a moment I always savor when I am lucky enough to get to the country for a few days. It’s the first clear night, after supper is ended, after the dishes have been washed and put away, when I step out into the silent darkness and look up and am able to see, once again, the stars. In the city, it’s easy to forget they even exist, so well are they hidden by the busyness and electric lights of our lives. But when I enter that darkness and see that great spill of silver overhead, it re-enchants the world for me. What I had thought I knew becomes strange all over again. The pockets of darkness reappear, each with the possibility of mystery, and I am rejoined to the world, not as I imagine it, but as a created order which exceeds my understanding.

The Transfiguration must have been a moment like that — for the disciples, and perhaps even for Jesus. For three years the disciples have been living with Jesus, traveling with Jesus, eating with Jesus, laughing and weeping with Jesus — and suddenly, he is transformed before their eyes, and they realize they do not know him at all. Or, rather, they do know him, but not all of him. The Transfiguration points us toward mystery: that however well we think we understand God, what we do not know dwarfs what we do.

Preachers traditionally talk about the Transfiguration as preparation for Christ’s upcoming death: preparation for Jesus himself, who has the opportunity to speak about it with Moses and Elijah; preparation for the disciples, who will be able to remember, during the horror of the crucifixion, that they have also seen Jesus in glory. Interpreters point out that Moses and Elijah embody the divine law and the prophetic tradition, pointing towards Jesus’ role in uniting the two.

All that is true and even helpful, but it’s not where I want to invite you to go today. Instead, I want us to linger in that experience of mystery, that mystery which renews the strangeness of God. We don’t talk much about that in our tradition. We tend to direct our energies to loving Christ, growing into Christ, serving Christ. Our hymns speak of Christ as our friend, our lover, our teacher — and yet, each of those beautiful images carries within it the danger of over-familiarity, of thinking that because we have tasted Christ, we know Christ.

Peter clearly fell into that trap. When he stammers his offer to make three dwellings — one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah — what was he doing, if not trying to stuff Mystery back into a container he could understand? In offering shelter, Peter was acting as if Moses and Elijah were men like any others — living men who could become hungry and tired and need shelter from the heat. But Moses and Elijah had been dead for centuries! The one thing they could not have been, at the time Peter saw them, was ordinary men. And by appearing beside Jesus, they suggest that something more was going on with Jesus, too.

Peter, of course, had more than enough evidence of his own to know that. He’d seen Jesus cast out demons, heal the sick, walk on water, raise the dead, feed a multitude with a few scant loaves of bread. But each of these miracles had also been done before by the prophets, and, perhaps, Peter had seen so many of them that he’d come to take them for granted. He’d refashioned Jesus in his own likeness — something we do all the time. We remember Jesus our friend, but forget the Judge of the world. We remember the lover, but ignore the purifier. We revel in Christ’s acceptance, but forget that it brings about our transformation. We cling to the images we love and close our eyes to those which challenge us. But only in honoring the ultimate incomprehensibility of Christ do we hold space for the true Christ to pour into our lives.

Leaving space for mystery is not only a spiritual discipline: it is necessary for our survival in this world. One reason things are so precarious right now is that we have been taken over by a spirit of anti-reverence. Two weeks ago, I traveled to California for my sister’s wedding and found myself immersed in the peak of the phenomenon known as Barbenheimer. For those of you lucky enough to have been living under a rock, Barbenheimer was the simultaneous release of films about Barbie and about Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the development of the atomic bomb — whose power was unleashed on Hiroshima on this day seventy-eight years ago. The convergence produced a weird kind of cultural hysteria. People dressed themselves in pink and went to the films as a double feature. Others  made memes in which pink Barbie lettering was used to spell out phrases like, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It became so pervasive that Warner Brothers in Japan rebuked its U.S. cousin, suggesting that jokes about nuclear annihilation may not be in the best of taste.

To me, the trend threw a harsh light upon the crassness of certain aspects of our culture. Used well, irony is the idealist’s way of coping with the painful condition of our lives; it allows us to acknowledge what is heartbreaking without being overwhelmed by it. But if used too consistently, irony shades into a toxic overfamiliarity;  it teaches us to laugh at what ought to be unbearable rather than working to change it.  There is a laughter which supports resilience, and another laughter which undermines resistance, dissipating the energy we need to use.

That spirit is pervasive in our culture right now.  People use toxic irony to joke about climate change, about the loss of human rights, to trivialize the ways we injure or discount one another. A lot of it is a survival mechanism, a way to cope when the world seems un-cope-able. But we who are people of faith are not called to adapt ourselves to a world which breaks human beings and all of creation. We are called to shape this world in accordance with the loving precepts of God. That’s what it means to be Christ’s disciples.

Holding space for mystery, for wonder, is the fundamental act in the spiritual life — and in human existence.  If our ancestors had seen nature as the dwelling-place of God, would they have been so blithe about the dark clouds of coal smoke which poured from every train and furnace and factory in the land? Even today, this casual sense that we “understand” how nature works prevents us from responding swiftly to the mounting evidence that nature is changing, and that we do not fully understand the impact of our lifestyle upon our world.

A sense of wonder about other people — rather than a false certainty about how they “should” be — might open space for creative dialogue across racial and cultural differences, or between people of different generations or genders. It might chisel away at our sense that we have a right to control one another, and allow us to welcome differences in giftedness or sexual orientation or neurological configuration. It might teach us to see in our very variability the complementary gifts we all need to thrive.

I am speaking of a kind of existential humility: of acknowledging what we have to offer  while also honoring others. At its heart, our ability to live well with others hinges on our acceptance that each of us is finite: each of us is essential to God’s vision, but none of us is the capstone of creation. When Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Jesus, they spoke of his departure. Even Jesus, who was the keystone of creation, could not remain as he was. As a human being, he constrained his infinite divine nature to our finite one; now, it was time to reverse that act, and allow his divinity to transfigure our humanity forever.

At the end of the story, the disciples keep silent. Silence is the truly human response to mystery; it reverences what we cannot understand. It allows us to listen to the presence of Christ in our hearts and in one another. Silence, too, is often hard to find in our world — or perhaps we just need to learn to seek it. To find it, we need to cultivate attentiveness: the attentiveness of a parent gazing lovingly on a child, or a lover on their beloved, or a person walking through the woods who takes time to notice the sunlight dappling the leaves, the first, speckled trout lily blooming in the shadows at their feet, the infinite beauty of the path a bird wings across the sky. St. Peter writes, “You would do well to be attentive to this as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.” Yes, my friends, we would do well to be attentive: to God, to this earth, and to one another. To be attentive to what we do not know as well as to what we do; to move with a little less certainty in this world; to train our gaze upon what really matters; to expect transfiguration, for, in Christ, the truth really does break through.

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