Sunday, March 2, 2014

Glory Everywhere (Reflections on the Transfiguration, part 1)

Two boys, Tommy and Jimmy, lived with their parents in a small community. The two boys had become something like the terrors of the town. They left their marks everywhere: toilet paper wrapped around trees and bushes and strewn across lawns, dead mice on porch swings and hanging on close lines, cars clinking and clanging pulling out of driveways with strings of pop cans trailing behind. One day a few of the town folk cornered the pastor where the two boys and their parents were members. “Pastor, would you have a talk with the boys?” The pastor was hesitant, but when pressured conceded.

The very next day he spotted, out of his church study window, Tommy, the oldest, walking down the street. He intercepted him and invited him in for a chat. Reluctantly, Tommy agreed. The Pastor decided to open the conversation with an intriguing question: “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy was silent. He had no idea where God was. Again the pastor asked, “Tommy, where is God.” Again, no response. A third time with emphasis, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy jumped out of his chair, raced out of the church, down the street, into his house, into his room, and into his closet. Jimmy had never seen his older brother in such a state of mind. He entered his room, crept over to the closet door, and as he slowly opened it, a hand reached out and grabbed him by the shirt, “Quick little brother, get in here. God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”

Perhaps the question posed by the pastor is a good one for all of us to consider: Where is God? Where do we encounter God and what difference does it make? 

The story of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels raises some questions about epiphany experiences. W.D Davies and Dale C. Allison in their excellent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew observe parallels and contrasts with another prominent story in the Gospels, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. They call the story of the crucifixion “the dark twin” to the story of the Transfiguration.

In both stories Jesus is elevated on a mountain. In one case Jesus is transfigured in light, in the other a supernatural darkness descends upon the land. In the one Jesus’ garments are illuminated, in the other they are stripped off. In the one Elijah appears, in the other he is mentioned, but does not appear. In the one two saints appear with Jesus (Moses and Elijah), in the other Jesus is crucified between two criminals. In the one Jesus is glorified, in the other he is humiliated. In the one a divine voice confesses Jesus to be God’s Son, in the other the confession is expressed by a Roman soldier. In the one Jesus is honored, in the other Jesus is mocked.

Davies and Allison remark: “Together the two scenes interestingly illustrate the extremities of the human experience. One is spit and mockery, nails and nakedness, blood and loneliness, torture and death. The other makes visible the presence of God and depicts the divination of human nature. So Jesus embodies the gamut of human possibilities; he is the coincidence of opposites. . . . Jesus is the paradigm of both despair and hope; he is humanity debased and humanity glorified.”

Perhaps the starkest contrast between the scenes is the voice of God at the Transfiguration and the voice of Jesus on the cross. On the mount of glory, the Divine Voice affirms Jesus, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At the cross, God is silent, but Jesus in anguish cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Now, we know that Jesus was not actually forsaken at the cross. He felt forsaken. He felt abandoned, but God was with him. How do we know this? Because the rest of the story affirms it.

Jesus was executed by the Romans and died a tragic death. But then afterward, we hear the voice of God’s messenger telling the women who had come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices: “He is not here, He has been raised.” God validated and vindicated Jesus’ life, message, and ministry by raising him from the dead. God had not abandoned Jesus. God was with Jesus through the whole ordeal.

The same is true for us. The risen Christ, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Really Real (use whatever name you prefer to speak of the Divine Presence) is with us through all of life, in times of joy and hope, and in times of pain and disappointment.

The whole world is God’s temple. God’s glory can show up anywhere because it is present everywhere, even though in most cases the Presence remains hidden. In the letter to the Colossians, the Pauline writer says that in the cosmic Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3) and later he tells his readers, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).

God works behind the scenes, seemingly out of the way, hidden, but present with us in the midst of all of it. In all the messiness and hurt and heartbreak God is present and if we choose, we can freely tap into these hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 


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