Sermon preached in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY
Commemoration of the Transfiguration, 2004
Three times, every day, the bells ring, and about a hundred monastic brothers (and a handful of neighboring sisters) enter the Church of the Reconciliation to pray. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, they have come from around the word to this tiny village of Taize in the south of France. Their calling is to live a parable of communion – in simplicity of life and a spirit of trust. Every week, especially in the summer, the brothers welcome young people by the hundreds and sometimes thousands, into their rhythm of work, study, prayer, and fellowship.
The young people all arrive on buses that wind through the French country roads, past the ancient monastery at Cluny, through fields full of sunflowers, far as the eye can see. They come seeking a meaning and purpose for their lives, seeking a spirituality that’s for real, seeking a glimpse of God. Many come every year, and as the buses reach the top of the hill, you can often hear singing through the windows – Bless the Lord my soul, Ubi Caritas, Laudate Omens Gentes.
These days, young people come from as far away as Korea, Argentina, Mexico, Uganda, India, Australia as well as Western Europe. But almost without fail, the largest groups are from Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe and Russia.
They bring to Taize the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox churches – you can see it in the onion domes on top of the Church of the Reconciliation, in the Byzantine crosses with that extra slanted bar at the bottom, and in the icons that seem to be everywhere – icons of the Resurrection, of Mary, of Christ and the Christian arm-in-arm, and icons of the Transfiguration.
The Eastern churches do a much better job at the Transfiguration than we in the West. For them, Transfiguration and Resurrection stand together at the core of their spiritual imagination. Jesus appears, with Moses and Elijah, in what they call the “uncreated light,” the energies of the divine nature itself. We, too, can partake in God’s light, and as we do our lives are transfigured into the image of God which already lives inside each one us.
Most sermons I’ve heard about the Transfiguration take a different route.
Basically they go like this: Jesus invites his disciples to the mountain, they fall asleep as usual, they wake up to see Jesus-turned-white, with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to build booths, he gets in trouble (also as usual) … and the moral of the story is that you can’t capture God’s presence, you can’t stay on the mountain. You have to go back down into the valley to do God’s work in the world.
Sounds good – and very “Union!” The text even supports that theory, since the Transfiguration is followed in each Gospel by the healing of a demon-possessed boy.
But there are two problems.
The first is that anti-Judaism lies just below the surface here:
Although the scriptural text itself is more a mystical image than a theological formulation, many commentators (and preachers) feel the need to explain what happened at the Transfiguration.
When they do it usually involves contrasting Jesus, one one hand, with Moses and Elijah, on the other. God’s voice says listen to Jesus, not the two people beside him. Jesus fulfills the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). One scholar even chastised Peter for wanting to make three booths, when he should have only wanted to make just one, for Christ alone.
A common hymn for the Transfiguration ( we sang it at my church yesterday) says this: “Christ upon the mountain peak stands alone in glory blazing –– Law and prophets fade before him; first and last and only one.”
But this is wrong.
Other people besides Jesus are transfigured. Jesus does not stand alone in glory blazing: Moses and Elijah appear in glory, too. In Exodus, Moses’ face lights up and glows after meeting God, so much that he has to hide it from the rest of Israel with a veil.
In Ezekiel, there is the figure of a man, in Daniel the Ancient of Days, and Revelation one like a son of man, all appearing in glory, all transfigured. Not to mention the saints long after Jesus, like Russia’s famous Seraphim of Sarov, who appeared clothed in light as well.
But the words of Second Corinthians still loom large. Referencing the veiled-Moses in Exodus, it reads: “when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
This conflict about what happens at the Transfiguration embodies, for me, the central challenge of Christology today.
Is it true that Jesus brings into the world something entirely new and unique, a God-incarnate, who is the fulfillment of all hopes: past, present and future? Is what happens with Jesus a cosmic event that forever changes the structure of the universe and God’s relationship with Creation?
Tradition would say, “yes.”
And the consequence is that “Jesus” is projected forward, backward, and sideways, so that grace and salvation flow through him alone, in all directions. The Transfiguration becomes a sneak preview of the Resurrection, Moses’ glowing face becomes an incomplete pre-figuring of what happens with Jesus, and prophecies of the end of days – by Daniel, Ezekiel, John and more, are said to be pointing to Jesus as well. Everything coheres in him, so the story says.
I used to believe that, but I can’t anymore.
Knowing and loving and learning from people of many religious traditions, and none, makes it hard for me to believe that Jesus is at the center of the universe. My systematic theology papers agonized over these questions, looking at my faith with new eyes. I wonder whether Jesus would have wanted to be at the center of the Universe (or of a religion, for that matter), or whether he would be pointing us over and over again to the reign of God.
I wonder what it would be like to see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together on the mountain, partners with God in the New Creation and the work of salvation -– each with a particular, necessary, and distinctive role to play, but none prefiguring or fulfilling the other.
I wonder who else might have been on that mountain talking with Jesus, maybe Miriam or Rachel, people that Peter and James and John and Luke forgot about or didn’t even recognize. I wonder what it would mean to read this story as one where Jesus is being welcomed into the company of the prophets and sages and leaders of the faith … rather than the other way around. I wonder what it would mean for us to see all of them, together, transfigured, in glory. I wonder….
But back to the second problem.
Usually the story of the Transfiguration goes from the overly-excited Peter wanting to build booths, to someone telling him that’s a bad idea, to The End. But I once heard a pastor say that whenever we pray, we get either what we asked for or something better. Here Peter gets something better… though definitely not what he asked for.
Just after he asks to build the three booths, a cloud moves in … and they’re terrified. They know what a cloud like this means: God is here. It’s one thing to look at Moses, Elijah, and Jesus from a safe distance, to be thrilled by this bright new vision – it’s another when the vision envelops you.
“Their fear increased as they entered the cloud,” Luke writes.
In just two days, after a wonderful carnival of Carmina Burana and Union’s legendary Mardi Gras party, Lent will begin – a time of soul-searching and repentance, one of many chances the church calendar gives us to begin again. There are three traditional disciplines for Lent: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Usually we get stuck on the middle one, fasting: eating fish on Fridays, giving up chocolate … or carbs.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, we remember that the simplicity of this season is meant to turn us outward, in almsgiving, to offer more generously, even sacrificially from our abundance to those who have little – to remember how little we really need.
For me at least, prayer is the hardest one. I’m always too busy, with class, meetings, friends, studying, work, work and more work. But what’s behind the busy-ness? Maybe fear, fear that God’s cloud just might transfigure me if I gave it a chance?
It’s so easy to run away, from ourselves, from that Spirit pulsing within. Like Peter and James and John, our fear increases when the cloud comes near. My hunch is that the disciples were ready to race back down to the valley as soon as the cloud moved in, but Luke tells us that they stayed on the mountain until the following day.
What would it take for us, who are so committed to changing the world, to stay for a while on the mountain. To enter the cloud, to pray. Prayer is the whole reason why Jesus went up the mountain in the first place.
What would it take to stay, and pray? I don’t know about you, but for me, it usually takes a moment of discouragement, when I wonder why I ever got into this crazy church life in the first place!
And then I remember: I remember my first trip to Taize, when I caught a glimpse of the world as it might be. I remember what it feels like to hear a vision so powerful that you would drop everything and give your life for it in an instant. I remember what it’s like to stop, and pray, with two thousand people, three times a day, when the bells ring.
I remember what it’s like to hear dozens of languages spoken everywhere, to sing and pray in Latin, German, French, Spanish … even in Polish, as we will in just a few minutes. I remember what it’s like to feel enveloped by the cloud of God, to feel the Spirit really enter in or, maybe, flow out – to connect with what the Brothers at Taize call the source of our faith, the wellsprings of the Gospel.
Whenever I sing these Taize songs, whether in the Church of the Reconciliation, or in Lampman Chapel on Tuesday nights, or in the corner of my room, I’m transported back into that cloud – and, if I’m willing to stay a while, I can experience that “uncreated light” of God’s presence again.
I remember one day I was meeting with my undergraduate thesis advisor, an Orthodox deacon known on campus as the Professor with the big long white beard.
We were talking about this uncreated light, about experiencing God’s presence, about receiving grace. And he asked, “Is there anything we can do to receive this light, this grace of God?” In good Protestant fashion, I was just about to answer “No, of course not, it’s a free gift!” But he beat me to it “Yes, of course there is – prayer and the ascetic life of spiritual discipline,” through which, over and over, we enter the cloud of God’s presence, and slowly but surely, perhaps without even noticing it, we are changed.
Lent is coming. Don’t forget to pray. And to get some pre-season training, I invite you to enter into the cloud today, in song and silence, through image and imagination.
Come to the mountain, stay a while, and meet God here. Amen.