Transfiguration in a Time of War

I usually love Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the grand finale of the Epiphany season – the spectacular revelation of Jesus on the mountaintop with the two biggest heroes of Jewish faith and history. The glorious spectacle almost reminds us of Easter.
And as we stand in the doorway between Epiphany and Lent, we could see this as a bookend, paired with the splendor of Easter Sunday to come. 

I also love the mystery of the mountaintop experience witnessed by the disciples, the rending of the veil between heaven and earth. We can’t fault Peter for wanting to capture the moment, store it in a structure, to be savored over and over. Having such an up-close encounter with the Divine would be both amazing and unfathomable. I envy Peter and the others who were there. So, yes, I love the glory, the mystery, the brilliance, the knowledge that such encounters can even be possible. 

But today – once again with news of the world intruding on our celebration – it’s hard to feel celebratory. Those of you from the Roman Catholic tradition may know that Transfiguration is celebrated annually on August 6 – which creates an interesting juxtaposition in light of current events.

August 6 is Hiroshima Remembrance Day. In 1945, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There was a dazzling, blinding light from the blast followed by an overshadowing cloud. Sounds eerily like the description in the gospel stories.

Going back even further, August 6, 1456, Pope Callixtus III declared the Feast Day of the Transfiguration due to the victory of the crusaders over the Turks. Interesting, to say the least, how this day is intertwined with acts of war. What is a preacher to do?

The mountaintop experience of Divine glory seems far away from the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The image of Jesus and Moses and Elijah as the superheroes of the world seem pale beside images of political strong men and heavy artillery. I have always thought of the Transfiguration as the possibility of trans-formation for all of us, indeed for the whole world. But war brings feelings of hopelessness, of despair for the future of the human race if we cannot – or will not – live together in peace. 

You know, I used to not like the way the lectionary includes the next section of the gospels, where Jesus is confronted by a man with a son who had epilepsy (although Luke says the boy is afflicted by an unclean spirit, demon) and heals him. It felt to me like it took away from the majesty of the transfiguration. I guess you could say that I wanted to build a booth and stay up on the mountain with Jesus.

But one thing today’s juxtaposition of Divine revelation and military invasion has done is flesh out a little more of these two stories together and what they can mean for us. Think about that mountain. We don’t know what mountain it was, but I am imagining that from its heights Jesus and the disciples were able to see down into the countryside where there were hundreds of people crucified on Roman crosses. So even though they had their mountaintop experience, the realty of everyday life in Palestine was never far from their sight. So coming back down and encountering a real-life situation is not as jarring as perhaps we might read it.

Divine revelation and everyday life are not at odds with one another;
they are both part of the whole reality of faith and life. 

As Franciscan priest and mystic, Richard Rohr has written:
We have created an artificial divide or dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism is precisely what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are — and always have been — one. Rohr challenges a ‘mountaintop’ religiosity that divides the sacred and special from the secular and ordinary. 

I like to believe that’s true, at least I do when we’re talking about the ordinariness of everyday life. I do believe that our time with family, our time at school, at work, at play are all part of our spiritual lives. But war – that’s another story – as is any violent act, bullying, any kind of abuse. These should not be part of the ordinariness of everyday life. So what do we do with the ugly side of life, the view of crosses from the mountaintop?

Jesus certainly knew what to do. Even though he could see those crosses and could look ahead and envision one in his own future, he came down from his mystical, glorious, Divine mountain and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. A demon had seized a boy and was making his life a living hell. We could discuss their understanding of demons and unclean spirits, but the point was that for Jesus, there was work to be done. And he did it. 

We could say that a demon or unclean spirit has come upon us. War is not part of God’s intention for God’s people. But lust for power and domination, violence have infected our world from time immemorial. The invasion of Ukraine is just the latest episode of our warring madness.

It is not part of God’s intention, but it is part of our reality. Our secular lives are not separate from our spiritual lives. And so we must consider what our response will be to this war, as well as to any part of the maelstrom of human misery and need.

Perhaps you feel that church is no place to discuss a political situation, that this hour on Sunday morning is sacred, our mountaintop, where we come to commune with the Divine, to get away from the worries of the world. And that may indeed be true. We do come here to be refueled by the Spirit. And that is as it should be. But like Jesus and company, even from the loftiness of our spiritual high, we can see the crosses. We might try to shut them out of our consciousness, but its hard to do. Especially when we have Jesus himself talking about going to Jerusalem to die. The cross always looms over Transfiguration Sunday. 

And we know what to do. Like Jesus, we come down from our Sunday mountaintop experience and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. How do we respond to this latest war? Partly it’s up to each of us to decide how to respond based on our own sense of calling as a follower of Jesus. There are certainly many appeals for money for medical supplies, humanitarian aid, or refugee assistance. I’m sure organizations such as Heart to Heart International and Church World Service who have gathered hygiene and school kits in the past are in the process of mobilizing to do so again. I remember at the start of our Iraq invasion, there was an initiative here in the Bay Area to send school kits to the children of Iraq. We should be on the lookout for opportunities. 

And of course, we should be in prayer – for both Ukraine and Russia. If praying for Russia seems extreme, remember Jesus’ words from last week: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus was no stranger to violence, oppression, and war. He didn’t call disciples into a hermetically sealed bubble, safe from the realities of everyday life. We are not called to be followers of Jesus who seek only mystical union with the Divine. Those transfiguring, transforming experiences are of one piece with the gritty, messiness of human experience. He calls us now – to pray for oppressed and oppressor, to tend to the afflicted in whatever way we can. 

As we move into Lent and ever closer to the cross, it may be hard to remember the gloriousness of the Transfiguration or to anticipate the splendor of Easter. In the shadows of Lent, we embrace the suffering of the world – hoping and trusting that resurrection life will prevail, but unsure that it will. For Jesus, yes. But for our situations of discord and death and war? We’re not always so sure. But it’s not called a wilderness time for nothing. Our faith will be tested. Our discipleship questioned. 

Now is the time to remember Jesus on the mountaintop with the great heroes of faith, to bask with the disciples in that glory. The Divine Presence is in the world. Now is the time to go back down the mountain with Jesus into the needs of the world. We now bring that Divine Presence to others. As C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote:

Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

The rhythm of the church year has brought us now to this liminal moment, this threshold between the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle and the Lent/Easter/ Pentecost seasons, this dazzling moment of timeless Holy glory and endless possibility. It has been said that the mission of the Church is to be a vessel where transformation can happen. Where lives are changed – from the bottom up, from the inside out – by the enlightening presence of God. We have to leave the mountaintop. But hopefully we go as transformed people. Something has changed or something has shifted. We’re not exactly the same as when we arrived. There’s a little bit of extra glow around us, a renewed vigor to be salt for the earth and light for the world. A re-energized optimism to believe in God’s vision for the world – a world of justice and true peace.

We can’t know what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears, Jesus remains among us — Jesus alone. So keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him.

It is all of one piece. 

Amen.

Photos
Transfiguration, 1973
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon. Each reading was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.

Attribution: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Gospels, Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy, Walters Manuscript W.592, fol. 48b by Walters Art Museum Illustrated Manuscripts. This work has been marked as dedicated to the public domain.

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. 

Luke 9:28-43a
About eight days after saying this, Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up onto a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and the clothes he wore became dazzlingly white. Suddenly two people were there talking with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. They appeared in glory and spoke of the prophecy that Jesus was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had already fallen into a deep sleep, but awakening, they saw Jesus’ glory—and the two people who were standing next to him. When the two were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and the disciples grew fearful as the others entered it. Then from the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my own, my chosen one. Listen to him! “When the voice finished speaking, they saw no one but Jesus standing there. The disciples kept quiet, telling nothing of what they had seen at that time to anyone.

The following day when they came down the mountain, a large crowd awaited him. A man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Teacher, please come and look at my son, my only child. A demon seizes him and he screams, and it throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth. It releases the boy only with difficulty and when it does, he is exhausted. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t.” Jesus said in reply, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be among you and put up with you? Bring the child to me.” 

As the boy approached, the demon dashed the child to the ground and threw him into a violent convulsion. But Jesus reprimanded the unclean spirit, healed the child and returned him to his father. All those present were awestruck at the greatness of God

Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

Well now, what was that all about? We call this event in the life of Jesus his transfiguration. But what is transfiguration anyway. Here’s a quote I found when trying to find a good explanation. See if you can tell who said it:

I do hope they start right away; there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else.
Of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.

c7f1e9e67b87eb182613c9c9993c1943976b23bf_00

Got it? It’s Hermione, in the first Harry Potter book. Transfiguration was a core class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which taught the art of changing the form and appearance of an object or a person. It was considered very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic.

Although the transfiguration of Jesus was about something – or rather someone – turning into something else, I think it’s safe to say that Mark, the gospel writer wasn’t referring to a magic spell. But it did get me thinking. 

Mongolia,-,Person,1972:,On,A,Stamp,Printed,In,Mongolia,

The Transfiguration of Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of the story. It’s also referred to in the Second Epistle of Peter. And while it’s not specifically in John’s gospel, some think that it’s what John means when he says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld this Word’s glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God, full of grace and truth.” So this strange event obviously had a great deal of meaning for those early followers. 

We celebrate the Transfiguration on the last day of the Epiphany season, the season we’ve focused on the revelation of Jesus to the world. Transfiguration is sometimes called the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Jesus at the start of the season. This is also the last day of the first half of the Christian church year. Transfiguration is the bridge between the Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany cycle (the birth and revelation of Jesus) and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost seasons (death, resurrection, and the Church). 

OK, so here we are, sitting on this bridge recognizing that transfiguration should be as important to us as it was to Hermione. But maybe we’re still not sure why. I have always loved the Transfiguration as the culmination of Epiphany. It’s a magnificent ending to this season of awe and wonder, like the grand finale of the biggest and best fireworks display ever. And I never really questioned what happened up there on that mountain, how it happened, what could scientifically explain not only the appearance of two long-dead biblical heroes but the being of brilliant light that Jesus became as he talked with them. Science, I thought, can’t always explain what went on in the spiritual realm. Or can it?

The second part of the description of the class at Hogwarts claimed transfiguration was more scientific than any other form of magic. Now, fear not, Harry Potter isn’t the only place I’ve found a connection between science and religion. In fact, today is also Evolution Sunday. No, it’s not on the church calendar. 

images

Evolution Sunday began as The Clergy Letter Project in 2004. The school board in Grantsburg, WI had passed some anti-evolution policies and biology professor Michael Zimmerman felt a call to action. Working with  clergy throughout Wisconsin, they prepared a statement in support of teaching evolution. Zimmerman said, “For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.”

Now to be clear, it is not only many evangelical Christians who have trouble reconciling faith and science, but fundamentalist atheists as well. As John Worrall, professor of philosophy of science stated: “There is no way in which you can be both properly scientifically minded and a true religious believer.” The Clergy Letter Project would disagree.

The project began with 200 clergy signing the statement. As of today that number is 15,658. And that’s just Christian clergy. In addition to the Christian Clergy Letter, there is a Rabbi Letter, a Unitarian Universalist Clergy Letter and a Buddhist Clergy Letter. 

Then, in 2006, congregations were invited to participate in the first Evolution Sunday (later changed to Evolution Weekend to be more inclusive) The date chosen is the closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. The stated purpose is “an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science” and an effort “to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries.” “Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and locations around the world understand that evolution is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in God. In fact, for many, the wonders of science often enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards God.” 

Darwin

I have to say that I love the picture I sent along with your bulletin of the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish kissing – seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day today!

I signed the letter back in 2006 and decided to sign up my church for the first Evolution Sunday. One member of the congregation, though, wondered why we were doing it since no one there needed to be convinced of the compatibility of science and religion; after all we had scientists in our congregation – as we do here. But I felt it was important to take a public stand on the issue and I’ve been observing the day ever since. Although I have to say that in the beginning it was rather a perfunctory effort.

That is until I began to learn about evolutionary Christianity, which goes beyond the realm of mere support of evolution theory and more deeply into the heart of Divine Mystery, in which the Christ of the cosmos is a central figure.

Usually, when we hear ‘evolution,’ we think about the history of the earth and the development of human life. But evolutionary Christianity says there’s even more to it and says that, just as the universe is evolving, so is Christianity and so is the Church. As Rev. Bruce Sanguin, author of If Darwin Prayed- Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics writes: “We are meant to evolve. If the Spirit is involved in the evolutionary process – as I believe is the case – then we need to start thinking about our lives in Christ through an evolutionary lens.”

There are a number of thinkers and writers on evolutionary Christianity who see the evolution of the universe as an ongoing sacred story connecting all people, all cultures, all religions, and virtually all of creation. But the grandfather of them all has to be the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And lest you think this is some new-fangled, new-age nonsense, Teillard (as he was known) was born in 1881 and died in 1955. He was a Jesuit priest. He was also a scientist, trained in geology, botany, zoology and paleontology. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1926. In his 1929 book, The Divine Milieu, Teilhard synthesized scientific discoveries of his day with what he believed about God and how God was at work in the world. 

As is often the case with new ideas, his religious superiors would not allow the book to be published. The French edition was not published until after his death. The English translation was not available until 1960.

In an unpublished piece written in 1933, “Christology and Evolution,” he re-envisioned the gospel message, shifting the emphasis of a redemption-centered theology to a creation-centered one.

So rather than seeing life on Earth as a test for worthiness to get into heaven, and Earth to be a dangerous place full of sin and temptation, Teilhard saw Earth, our home, as an unfinished divine project, brimming with opportunities toward the fullness of life, and open to continual improvement. He saw Jesus’s teaching as integral to a universe in continual evolution. He wrote, “If we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe.” 

For him, evolution is the underlying force driving growth in the kingdom of God. He calls the gospel “the very religion of evolution.”

Now, this isn’t just a heady theological exercise. Not only are we invited to rationally understand ourselves more fully as part of the body of the Christ of the cosmos, but to experientially become mystics who are continually in awe and wonder of where we live. Teilhard said that we exist in the ‘divine milieu.’ For him, the most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every moment we are swimming in a divine sea. Like fish who live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it, we are at every moment inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. 

For Teilhard, the divine milieu is the Cosmic Christ. He resonates with the theology of St. Paul and others in passages such as: “Christ is the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation, for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, sovereignties, Powers—all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.”

Hildegard-of-Bingen-CosmicWheel

We can go still further back than Teilhard. St. Hildegard of Bingen, along with other medieval mystics, expressed her experience of this Cosmic Christ. Through music, writing and painting, she formulated a cosmological vision that transcended male/female, human/divine, earth/heaven duality. Her visionary work, Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), is a result of what she called “an extraordinary mystical vision” in which she experienced insights into the cosmic dimensions of the Prologue to John’s Gospel. One of the ten visions Hildegard illustrates in this work is of the cosmos, with a human figure at its center, inside the womb of divinity: a visual portrayal of the Cosmic Christ. Hildegard explains: “From the primordial source of Divine Love, in whom the cosmic order rests, shines her exceedingly precise ordering of things. It comes to light in ever-new ways, holding and tending everything there is.”

Ilia Delio, who bases her theology of the “ecological Christ” on the cosmic Christ mysticism of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, concludes: “Every age must discover Christ anew. Our traditional Christology – the formal study of Jesus Christ – was formulated in the 4th and 5th centuries: Jesus Christ is true God and true man, fully divine and fully human without change, without confusion, without separation, without division, two natures in one person. The language is a mixture of  New Testament, Greek metaphysics, and Plato and Aristotle, and reflects an understanding of the universe as fixed and unchanging, not dynamic and evolving.

transfiguration

Which brings us back to the Transfiguration. I read someplace once that physicists are the new mystics. Now I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I attempt to read about quantum physics and even quantum theology is way beyond me. But I am intrigued. For instance, in recent decades there’s been continuing debate over what really happened at the resurrection of Jesus. One side argues for the absolute truth of the biblical witness, even though the versions in the gospels vary greatly. The other side argues for the absolute truth of the impossibility of a physical resurrection; the story is myth created for the grieving followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration itself has often been described as a resurrection story, either misplaced in the timeline by the writers or a vision of the resurrection and new creation to come. 

But a new way of looking at it, combining science with theology, sees the Transfiguration as more than the historical self-revelation of the divinity of Jesus on that mountain. It’s also the basis for a new form of perception, a new mode of existence, a transformed way of being in the world. On that mountain, the possibility of a new unity between matter and Spirit became reality. Even time became blurred as the lines between the dead and the living were erased. Scientists and theologians are coming together to help us make sense of the wide universe in which we live, as well as the small places in which we shelter. 

“A case for consonance between science and theology: The cosmological Christ as the scriptural and confessional focal point for dialogue”

Evolutionary Christianity might seem like a foreign language to us. We may feel more like Hermoine, worrying that transfiguration is supposed to be very difficult. But evolutionary Christianity offers us some new ways of thinking about and experiencing our faith, as well as promoting an ecology theology that is much more helpful and hopeful for our planet.

It also gives us hope as we navigate the evolution of our world as we adapt to the pandemic, the aftermath of the pandemic, the future of the church at large, as well as the future of our own little congregation. 

We might not understand all the theories and scientific and theological language, but we can rest assured that the bottom line of the life and love offered to us in Christ never changes. But we do. Transfiguration is about transformation. And in the freedom of that love and grace, we can grow into what we will become. 

Amen 

Medjugorje,,Bosnia,And,Herzegovina,2016/11/13.,Painting,Of,Christ,In,Glory

Continue reading Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration