For Sunday February 7, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
On the mountain, a man bent in prayer erupts in sudden light. As glory leaks from every pore, three sleepy disciples cower in the grass and watch their Master glow. Two figures appear out of time and space; in solemn tones they speak of exodus, accomplishment, Jerusalem. The disciples, comprehending nothing, babble nonsense in response — "Let's make tents! Let's stay here always! This is good!" A cloud descends, thick and impenetrable. As it envelops the disciples, they fall to their faces, certain the end has come. But a Voice addresses them instead, tender and gentle. "This is my Son, my Chosen." The Voice hums with delight, and the disciples, braver now, look up. They gaze at their Master — the Shining One — and a Father's pure joy sings with the stars. "This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him."
* * *
In the valley, a boy writhes in the dust. He drools, he cannot hear, and his eyes — wide-open, feral — sees nothing but darkness. Around him a crowd gathers and swells, eager for spectacle. Scribes jeer, and disciples wring their hands in shame. "Frauds!" someone yells into the night. "Charlatans!" "Where's your Master?" the scribes ask the disciples an umpteeth time. "Why has he left you?" "We don't know," the disciples mutter, gesturing vaguely at the mountain. Panic wars with exhaustion as they hear the boy shriek yet again — an echo straight from hell. He flails, and his limbs assault his stricken face. A voice — strangled, singular — rends the night. "This is my son!" a man cries out as he pushes through the crowd to gather the convulsing boy into his arms. Everyone stares as the father cradles the wreck of a child against his chest. "Please," he sobs to the stars. "Please. This is my beloved son. Listen to him."
It's Transfiguration Sunday — the apex of the liturgical season we call Epiphany. After weeks of hints and intimations — a star, a dove, six jars of wine — today we stand in full sunlight, basking in the Beloved's glory. Today we hear the very voice of God.
All the Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration (underscoring its importance to the early church), and all of them end their accounts with the narrative of the "demon-possessed" boy. Not as a postscript, but as a "meanwhile." "Here's what was happening down below while Jesus turned bleachy on a hilltop."
So why do we tell the story so differently? Why do we treat the Transfiguration as main event, and the boy's story, if we mention it at all, as sidebar?
Over the centuries, the Transfiguration has steadily acccumulated meanings — most of them thickly theological. That, after all, is what we humans do; we take the ineffable, and insist on containing it.
Growing up, I was taught that the Transfiguration is important because it does the following (cue dry professorly voice here): it reveals Christ's divine nature, confirms his Sonship, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel's salvific history, exalts him above the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), and prefigures his Resurrection.
Weighty stuff. I rarely heard the sick boy's parallel story mentioned in this theologizing, though, and if it was, it was only to underscore a spiritual point that "mountaintop experiences" aren't meant to last. If the bumbling Peter thought it would be cool to pitch a permanent tent on Mount Glory, then the sick boy functioned as a convenient corrective: "No, Peter, that's actually not the plan. You can't stay up there; the world needs you. Get down."
I don't have any particular arguments with Transfiguration theology — it's all lovely, I'm sure. But it leaves me cold. Maybe this is because my eyes aren't on the clouds this year; they're pretty earthbound. So here's what I'd like to know: how does glory on the mountain speak to agony in the valley? What does it mean that they share a landscape? Can a love song on a pinnacle reach a scream in the depths? What happens if it can't? Aren't there two beloved sons in this story?
I have no idea how the crowd at the base of the mountain experienced the Transfiguration. Did Jesus's fierce light cast even a single beam downwards to those who waited in the dark? Did the crowd glimpse the ominous cloud that descended over Peter, James, and John? Did they hear even a rumble — distant like thunder — when God spoke of his Chosen One? We'll never know.
What we know is that Jesus invited three disciples — only three — up the mountain. What we know is that the remaining nine spent the night in anxious futility, trying in vain to do their Master's good work as the stakes rose higher, higher, and higher still. What we know is that the scene soon became tense and ugly — a breeding ground for anger, shame, despair, and doubt. What we know is that an anguished father and a broken son suffered mightily for hours, even as the heavens broke open above their heads. What we know is that many people who needed Jesus that night experienced only the ache of his absence — while a select few reached a pinnacle and basked in glory.
I tend to interpret the Bible as if its stories apply only to me — me, an individual. My mountaintop experience. My valley. My relationship with God. But this is so misguided. So dangerous. The truth is that my mountain lies right next to your valley. The truth is that your pain does not cancel out my joy. The truth is that it is entirely possible for you to sit in church on Sunday morning and bask in the sweet presence of God's Spirit — while one pew over I cry my eyes out because the ache of His absence feels unbearable.
The same applies if I widen the lens. Do we not — in the privileged West — occupy so many mountains, while our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world dwell in valleys of hunger, warfare, violence, and abuse? Do we not at the same time experience valleys peculiar to modern 21st century life — isolation, anxiety, depression, frenzy — while many who have less by way of material comfort enjoy the mountaintops of more nourishing cultural traditions and communities?
To say this is all unfair is completely besides the point — it is the world we live in. And so here's the great challenge to the Christian life — the great challenge to the Church, Christ's body: can we speak glory to agony, and agony to glory? Can we hold the mountain and the valley in faithful tension with each other — denying neither, embracing both? Can we do this hard, hard work out of pure love for each other, so that no one among us — not the joyous one, not the anguished one, not the beloved one, not the broken one — is ever truly alone?
Yes, Jesus came down from the mountain. Yes, he healed the tormented boy. But we dare not forget the suffering that came before the miracle, simply to give our religion neat lines and soft edges. The suffering was real, and it deserves honest witness. After all, the cry of that human father, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" is the most authentic and powerful description of the Christian life I know. He didn't find that testimony in the clouds; he forged it in pain.
With Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. Having seen the light of Epiphany, we prepare now for the long darkness of Lent. I don't know what voices will speak to us in the wilderness. Maybe you'll hear glory. Maybe I'll hear agony. Maybe we'll hear each other. But whatever you hear, don't flinch. Don't flee. Both voices need to speak. Both voices have much to teach us. So privilege neither; just listen. Both voices are beloved of a Father.