Last Sunday in the Season of Epiphany
February 7, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here’s a question to think about for a while: Have you ever experienced God’s darkness? The transfiguration story that we have today in the gospel dances with God’s darkness. It shows how terrified the three companions of Jesus were up there on that mountain. Note that they didn’t get scared when Jesus shone out in dazzling glory and when Moses and Elijah joined him up on top of the mountain.
The fear came when the dark cloud overshadowed them—when the darkness of God’s presence swallowed them up.
We put a close-up of a portion of the classic Orthodox Transfiguration icon on our bulletin cover today. It shows Peter, James, and John, struck down by sheer terror on top of that mountain. I love this picture as it’s rather quaint and it doesn’t seem to me to be altogether successful in its attempt to illustrate their shock and terror. (But that’s what it’s supposed to be.)
So let me tell you a little story about being terrified by the darkness of God. I had an interesting experience when I was ordained priest. I’d heard from people how beautiful and wonderful it was when the bishop’s hands were on your head, and when all the hands of the other priests were all over your back and neck, and the Holy Spirit was being invited to enter into you and make you a priest.
But when that moment finally happened, at St. Andrew’s Church in Madison, what I experienced wasn’t glorious and wondrous. Instead I experienced a great sense of darkness and a very intense fear and heat. I wanted to get up and run, but of course after all that hard work I didn’t. But that darkness was terrifying, and I’ll never forget it.
So as I thought about those three friends of Jesus up there on the mountain with him, I could perhaps understand a bit of what they might have been feeling. Might they have been scared because it was totally dark and they couldn’t see? Might that have been a terror caused by powerlessness in the face of something so enormous that they were reduced to total insignificance? I wonder...
It’s true that terror is an appropriate reaction to coming close to God. In the past it’s been called “the fear of the Lord,” this reaction based on our own sense of insignificance up against the huge and powerful, yet dark and mysterious sense we have of the Divine.
Our psalm takes us to this territory, too. Verse 1 reads: “The Lord is King; let the people tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.” Verse 3: his name “is great and awesome; he is the Holy One.” Verse 5: “Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and fall down before his footstool.”
Now, if you remember, last week we reflected on how very much God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit loves us. How, despite who we are and how we’ve lived, our God yearns for us and adores us.
This week we get the other side of that coin, don’t we? It’s not so much the wooing of God for our souls as it is our souls’ reactions to this great, awesome, dark, and fear-inducing tremendous God. Here are two sides of the same coin. Two perceptions of God that are very good to have in balance—God’s power and God’s love. Same coin, different sides. No contradiction.
These two great attributes say volumes about who God is, and how God loves us all.
Holy fear and holy love. Caution and terror vs. attraction and glory. And all our lives long we struggle to integrate these two perceptions. Hopefully we’ll come out on the same side as Richard Rohr. He says, “God is not someone to be afraid of but is the ground of Being, and is on our side.” [Richard Rohr, Yes, And, p. 63.]
Now I think that this story of the Transfiguration plays a very important role in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It shows us Jesus’ divinity shining forth from his humanity, and it does so just before the gospels make the narrative turn toward Jerusalem and Crucifixion. Perhaps the disciples are shown Jesus’ divine nature so as to help them through the dreadful days that are to follow.
And perhaps—who knows?—perhaps Jesus is reminded by this episode that his Father loves him and supports him fully, even as he moves toward suffering and death.
The Transfiguration and the Crucifixion. Each one happens on a mount. On Mount Tabor Jesus is transfigured and his glory shines forth. On Mount Calvary Jesus dies the dreadful death of a traitor to the state upon a Roman cross. Two different mounts, two very different aspects of Christ.
The Jesus of Mount Tabor and the Transfiguration is the Jesus we want. He is the Jesus of a multitude of stained glass windows, who looks even better when the sun is shining through. He is the Jesus that it’s easy to love and revere.
The Jesus of Mount Calvary and the Crucifixion is the aspect of Jesus that we’d often rather not consider—the eternal Christ of God who comes to show us how to live and how to die, and who suffers deeply on Calvary’s cross before he dies the death of a common criminal.
Beginning this coming Wednesday and going through Good Friday we’ll wrestle with these two aspects of Jesus—the divine and the human. We’ll see him enter into all kinds of suffering—both physical and psychological.
And on Easter we’ll encounter another aspect of the Christ—the One who is resurrected to a different life with God—and then we’ll have yet another lens through which to know him.
God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is infinitely complex in nature. Dark, tremendous, hidden. Available, light, glorious. Humble, suffering, dying, resurrected.
As we grapple with all these ways to know him, may we be blessed with a heart that yearns and pines for his presence. And may God always be with us, pulling our hearts heavenward, and reveal himself to us in the deep darkness of mystery, in the deep darkness of suffering and in the dazzling call of Love.