Transfiguration Sunday – Year A
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Let us pray: O God, our lives are occupied with the seeking of holy moments. Open our eyes that in our searching for something extraordinary we might find you in the events of daily life. Amen.
The story of the transfiguration is one that seems best suited to the special effects wizards with whom we are well acquainted from the movie industry. I'm sure it wouldn't take much for them to figure out a way to make the face of Jesus glow like sunlight pouring from his face. In fact I'm sure it's already been done, as there seems to be a new feature docudrama about the life of Jesus on average every three years or so. A quick search on Wikipedia revealed thirty-nine of them since 1903. The problem with these movies (although I have to admit that I have seen only a few of them) is that they often take a very literal approach to the story. So, if the story tells about Jesus' glowing face, then it must have happened exactly as it is described.
Of course the piece of information that gets lost in all of this is that there was no film industry when the gospel writers were writing their accounts of Jesus' life. We live in a visual age where special effects artists can make just about anything happen right before our eyes. I suspect however that none of us despite how captured we might be by the story line of the movie ever literally believe what we are seeing on the screen actually happened, at least in many of the more elaborate special effects that get portrayed in films.
A literal reading of the bible is not limited to the movie industry. As a number of us learned a couple of weeks ago when we stayed after worship to watch a screening of “For the Bible Tells Me So” the Christian community is deeply divided around the interpretation of scripture – those who try to take the words literally and those who understand the bible to be a library of stories in many different forms and genres that tell of the relationship of people with God.
I believe we have to remember that the gospel writer in the case of this day's reading is a special effects master. He wants to convey an important concept and thus describes a mystical incident. That goes with the territory. Mystical experiences are almost by definition beyond description. So, we do the best we can, choosing words and visual images that attempt to describe what happened and how we were feeling.
I've read in some places the rationalization that since Jesus, Peter, James and John were at the top of a high mountain they might have been suffering from oxygen deprivation. We all know that this can happen, the thin air and accompanying lack of oxygen can result in hallucinations and an altered state of reality. In addition, the thin air at the top of a mountain can also make everything more brilliant – sunlight has less atmosphere to filter it and therefore it shines more brightly. Was that what was happening? Was Jesus face shining more brightly because of thin air? It's an interesting theory but again I think it misses the point, as this explanation is just another way of interpreting the story literally.
Rather than trying to figure out what happened on the top of that mountain, we need to spend some time considering what Matthew wants to tell us by writing this story. In part it puts a bracket around the ministry of Jesus, telling a story similar to the one of Jesus' baptism. In both stories we read of a voice from heaven confirming Jesus as the Son of God. It is also, as I described earlier, a mystical experience. Do you know what that is? I have previously described them as “whoa moments”. Moments when we know that something just happened which transcends the temporal. Some people experience them when they see a beautiful sunset or sunrise. Others when they experience a beautiful vista in nature or read a particularly beautiful piece of poetry that opens up new perspectives and ways of seeing. Whoa moments because that's the best I can do to describe the feeling I get. Again in the movie industry they might use a kind of muffled rush of air as the special effect to accompany such times. They are also when the concept of time changes. Normally we count time in the way the Greeks called Chronos – the root word of chronology and chronometer – and the orderly second by second, minute by minute, and hour by hour passing of time. But there is another Greek word for time, this one is Kairos – and yes, you've heard that word in the news lately as the name for the Christian social justice organization that was in the midst of the so called Bev Oda affair. Kairos is different from chronos. Chronos is carefully measured out in equal portions – one second or minute is no different in length than the other. But I know that you've also experienced Kairos – when chronos time seems suspended or just not in effect. In fact I imagine that you can look back on your life and measure it not in Chronos time but in Kairos time, for there are certain events, actions and decisions in your life that mark the path you've taken. These are Kairos moments, also known as God's time – different from Chronos, because they are differently measured and have lasting impact.
I think the story of the transfiguration is Matthew's description of a Kairos moment. Celtic Christians have a term to describe these moments and places where God's presence is especially observed, felt and experienced. They called them “thin places”. Thin places describe geographical locations but they can also be understood as moments in time – mystical moments, whoa moments, kairos moments.
Peter wants to seal the experience by building a memorial, but as we read they did not stay, they went back down the mountain, and resumed their work travelling around Galilee.
That's the way it has to be. Thin places, kairos moments, mystical experiences are like battery chargers for our souls. They are important to us as a point of connection, as a point of renewal and recommitment. But we can't live our lives always glowing the bask of such times. How many times have I read books by people who have written them with the intention of describing a quest for God, and the discovery is so often that God is to be found in the midst of the everyday, in the glimpses of God's work and presence that come to us in the everyday occurrence.
We all know that a life of faith is often described as a continuing journey towards transformation. We also know that our faith stories are described more clearly and accurately by the things we do rather than the things we say. Transformation and transfiguration have a lot in common. Transformation can happen in a moment, but it far more often happens by the little things we do, by the small changes we make in the way we live our lives, by the ways we learn to be faithful from those around us. Rather than causing a critical readjustment in our faith journey, kairos moments are just as I described a moment ago – battery chargers, moments of minor course correction, or confirmation of the path we are already on.
I began today with a connection between the special effects of modern movie making and the story telling of the gospel writers. I hope that when we read the scriptural record we might be given the spirit of discernment which I believe is a gift from God, namely to read what is there and be given wisdom to find the truth that is to be found, whether or not we regard the story to be true. I am reminded of an aboriginal elder who would always preface his many stories with this comment: I don't know whether this happened or not, but I know that it is true. Amen.