Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9: 2-9)
The Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge has been broadcast every year since 1928, with the exception of 1930. A hymn setting is commissioned every year. Begins at 3 p.m. local time. If you join the queue before 9 a.m. you will most likely get in. The doors open at 1:30. The gates to the college are opened at 7:30 in the morning.
Although I am not generally home much on Christmas Eve day, I do know that it plays on our radio from about 10 until about 11:30 in the morning over WXXI. This year I happened to be home and paying attention towards the end of the broadcast.
As the service came to an end the BBC announcer began to describe the scene in the chapel. He described that the choir was recessing, the officiating clergy were recessing, and finally he described the people who had attended the magnificent event. They were slowly making their way toward the exits to – as he put it – return to “the real world.”
Return to the real world? To leave beauty and reverence. To leave magnificence and wonder. That is leaving the “real world?”
I beg to differ. They had been in touch with the real world. They had experienced the real world of transcendence and beauty, holiness and joy. That is the real world.
Now they were going back into a pale and fragile shadow of the reality they had experienced and it would be that reality that they carried with them from that time of worship which would shed reality on their experience afterwards.
This opens for us the question of “what is real?” That is a deep question, but
I do ask us to note a certain cynicism or suspicion or almost negativity when we use the world “real” in many contexts. For example: in common speech to be “realistic” is not to hope for too much, to focus on people’s less noble qualities, to assume the worst. To be “realistic” is to assume people acting only in their own self-interest, to be vindictive, or only out of fear or greed. It is contrasted with “idealistic.”
Since the rise of explanatory social science, what has seemed most realistic or plausible is that people generally act out of their own desires for power or sex or money. Whole theories of what it means to be human – the psychology of Freud or Nietzsche; the political economy of Machiavelli or Hobbes or Marx or Ricardo all assumed a set of motivations that were founded on a kind self-interest or class-interest.
I have no doubt that there are many instances of people acting out of evil motives or from what we might call animal instincts or selfishness, but why are we so quick to call them that which is real? Why do we assume them as more basic? More real?
A passage from the Screwtape Letters. This was an important book in my return to the Christian faith. Not to everyone’s taste. One has to keep in mind that “the Enemy” is God in these upside down letters.
The premise of the book is that an elder, master devil is instructing a junior devil by letter. The instructions are all about how to work on the man to whom he has been assigned so that he will be kept from God. This man is the patient. The senior devil’s name is Screwtape. The devil he is instructing is called Wormwood. In the book’s first letter Screwtape warns Wormwood that he should not use logic or argument with his patient, because once he does that his patient is apt to look at the big picture and universal concepts and not be distracted by the “stream of immediate sense experiences.”
Read from Chapter One.
Screwtape’s patient was close to God in a moment of reflection. Screwtape’s goal was to get him out into “reality” and cover over the transcendence and holiness with the bustle and noise of the city.
What happens on the mount of Transfiguration?
This experience connects the disciples with the reality of who Jesus is. Can’t be fully explained.
The holiness of God in Christ shines through.
This reality is to frame their coming to understand at a later point. They are not ready to understand yet. This reality is to shine for them through the dark days ahead.
In light of this reality we are to understand, take in, experience all other reality.
Transfiguration on the mountain is of Jesus, but this experience, this event is to transfigure every other event/experience, because it illuminates that Christ – the beloved son of God – has transformed the world and is transforming the world and is transforming us to see the beauty and goodness and grace that takes shape within us among us and around us.
Sometimes preaching on this text – maybe even some of my own – has focused on how we cannot stay up on the mountain, but must return to the real world, down in the valley. I think this misses the point: the idea is to understand that the reality is the revelation on the mountain and then to take that revelation to shape and frame all our experience and understanding.
Jesus is revealing for us the reality of love and justice, compassion and mercy. On the mountain we are told: this is my beloved son, listen to him. Listen and learn this reality of peace. Listen and learn this reality of reconciliation and beauty and purity.
As we move through lent toward holy week and finally Good Friday this reality will be obscured by the competing claims of retaliation and condemnation and torture and death. They will seem strong, but we will learn if we continue to the end with Jesus that they are not the realities that they pretend to be. They are passing away.
Only that which will finally attach to God can finally be real. Only that which is good and true and beautiful and just can be real, because only those things can be eternal and shine with the light of Christ.
At the end of September I went to NJ to attend my high school class’s 40th reunion. I have to say I had a great time. I saw some folks who I went to 2nd and 3rd grade with. Even someone from 1st grade. I was surprised how old they all were. At the same time in a lot of folks I could see the 10 year old or the 14 year old. And I got to know some folks I didn’t even really remember from back then, but there was something about connecting with people with whom I’d grown up – knew well or scarcely at all. It was a joyful event.
And behind it all I felt a spirit of reconciliation. We all knew or at least vaguely remembered the rivalries, the competitions, the slights, the insults, the embarrassments in all of our trying to learn to be human beings: to grow up and find out who we were to become.
It’s a tricky business and all of us had stepped on one another’s toes as we tried to sort it all out. But let me tell you about one encounter there in particular.
The reunion event had a website where I could see who was going to show up. I noticed that George Sirgiovanni planned to be there. I made up my mind that I was going to have to make sure that I talked to him. You might be wondering why. George was one of perhaps two or three guys I had an actual fist fight with in those days. We mixed it up in the locker room until a gym teacher came and intervened. By now I really don’t remember what it was about. I just knew I felt bad about it.
I knew I needed to apologize to George. I wondered whether I would recognize him. Finally after dinner I spotted him across the room. While I was still probably 15 yards away he saw me coming and recognized me. Within moments we were apologizing to each other and laughing and shaking hands and then embracing.
Amazing moment. He couldn’t remember what the fight was about either.
That moment was reconciliation and that moment was reality. He teaches history now at a Catholic college in NJ.
That reunion was a taste of those enduring realities of forgiveness and reconciliation. Of honoring relationships and shared history of joy and of sorrow.
In the days and weeks that followed I began to think more and more of that reunion weekend in NJ as a taste of the enduring reality of heaven. The enduring reality of peace and joy and beauty. The enduring reality of reconciliation and laughter. The enduring reality of connecting with love and so connecting with the realty of God’s presence. It is the reality of that connection that allows the reality of all those things to shine forth also in our so-called ordinary moments. Grace shines through when we have heard and seen it on the mountain already.
That taste of holy reality is ours in worship, in prayer, in all beauty, in moments of love and compassion, in encounters with forgiveness and mercy.
Holy reality seeps into all of life once we have seen it, once we have heard it, once we have learned to encounter its beauty shining all around us – as our hearts learn to be open to it.
On the mountain and in our midst.
Thanks be to God. Amen.