Monday, August 01, 2005

Transfiguration: In a new light

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9.28-29)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... and God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. Have you ever thought about the fact that God created light before God created the stars, the givers of light?

A thread of light connects all three readings. There was the mysterious light shining from Moses’ face that frightened the Israelites. In 2 Peter the author speaks of the “prophetic message” he delivers as a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.

And finally, there is the story of the Transfiguration, the story of Jesus’ journey to the top of a high mountain, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. While there the disciples saw Jesus transformed into a being of light: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. And they saw Jesus talking with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.

I am inclined to think that the transfiguration of which we speak today was not so much in Jesus as it was in Peter, James, and John. The light that they saw pouring from Jesus had always been there; they just had not seen it before.

The life of Jesus had already shed a radically new light on the world. The poor had been regarded as unloved and unwanted by God, but in the light that Jesus brought they came to be seen as special objects of God’s favor. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Tax collectors and prostitutes were shunned, but Jesus cast an entirely new light on their status when he shared meals with them. “He receives sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15.2)

To the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him “by night”, Jesus brought light. “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3). “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light...” (John 3.19) Jesus saw that Nicodemus’ real need was not a theological discussion but a radically new way of seeing. And Nicodemus, who arrived in the dark, left amidst God’s blazing light.

And then there was the “man blind from birth” (John 9.1) that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Jerusalem. But even the disciples were in darkness, for they saw this sightless man as nothing more than a theological dilemma: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2)

However, Jesus saw the man and his blindness as an opportunity to do the work God has been doing ever since the first chapter of Genesis: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. (John 9.3) And taking the dust from which God had made Adam and the water with which he makes the new Adam, Jesus gave that man blind from birth God’s first creation and gift to the world—light.

Today’s gospel retells the story of a moment when Peter, James, and John suddenly saw Jesus for who he was—a man filled with God’s light, the light that God created even before he hurled stars and moons and planets into the inky void.

The New Testament speaks of a world hovering between light and darkness. According to 2 Peter we are in that dim moment just before “the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1.19).

According to John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 9.5). The darkness has not overcome the Light, but neither has the Light quite overcome the darkness. There are still those who, like Nicodemus, prefer to do their business by night. There are still those who saw not a great and wondrous miracle when Jesus healed the blind, but merely a sinner violating the Sabbath rules.

The light of which the New Testament speaks is not so much about heavenly bodies or luminous filaments; it is about opening our eyes and stepping out of the shadows. It is about taking the risk of adopting a new perspective.

There is darkness in every life. There is an unwillingness to see in each one of us.
A child who awakens from a nightmare may see the face of a monster on her wall, but when Mother switches on the light, it becomes the laughing face of a clown in a picture.
The Bible tells us of Saul who became Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, who had seen the followers of Jesus as enemies, but suddenly came to see them as brothers and sisters.
By eerie and unsettling coincidence August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, was also the day on which a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The overwhelming light generated by that nuclear explosion was quite different from the light that shone from Moses’ face or the light of Peter’s message, much less the light that frightened Jesus’ disciples atop the Mount of Transfiguration.

My father served in the Pacific, and I am deeply grateful that the destruction of Hiroshima prevented an invasion of Japan in which he would have fought. But even though the bombing of Hiroshima brought a terrible war to a quick end and probably saved the lives of thousands of troops, both Japanese and American, nevertheless it took the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.

For over forty years men and women saw the world in the light of nuclear destruction. The light that Jesus brought invites us to see the world in a radically different perspective.

Years after the end of the war between the U.S. and Japan American veterans of World War II returned to the sites of mighty battles and so did their German and Japanese counterparts. Peace sheds a new light on those battle fields. Men who once saw each other as enemies, now see each other as neighbors.

A little over a hundred years ago here many in this country saw black people as slaves. But the civil rights movement opened our eyes, so that we learned and are still learning that black and white people alike are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...”

According to the Talmud, a Jew must pray at dawn. But that begs the question, when is dawn?
It is said that a young student came to his teacher and asked, “Rabbi, when is dawn? Is dawn the moment when the last star fades from the sky, or is it when the sun creeps above the horizon?”

The wise old teacher replied, “No, my son. Dawn is the moment when you can look at the face of another and see not an enemy but a friend.”

In the light of Hiroshima we came to see half the world as our enemies, dedicated to our destruction. And we saw ourselves as their enemies, and dedicated ourselves to their destruction.

But in the light of the Transfiguration God invites us to see the poor as heirs of heaven; to see sickness not as divine punishment but as an opportunity to do God’s work; and to see each other as God’s beloved children.