Saturday, February 10, 2018

You, Transfigured

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor

Nave, Church of the Transfiguration.  Worshipers are focused on the lower altar.

Jesus’ transfiguration is an important story.  It is one of the few incidents in his life that commands both a Sunday and a separate holy day to be remembered and celebrated.  We always hear the transfiguration story on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday immediately preceding Lent.  The other occasion is August 6, which only rarely falls on a Sunday. 

Ruins of the Byzantine Church, 4-6th centuries, Mount Tabor
I love the transfiguration for reasons that probably will become apparent in a few minutes.  But one of the reasons I love it is that it is now tied up with a memory of visiting Mount Tabor in the Holy Land some years ago.  Mount Tabor is the traditional site where the transfiguration took place.  It might or might not have happened there, but Tabor is in fact a “high mountain,” actually not a part of a range but in the middle of an otherwise pancake-flat plain.  It appears as if some gigantic ice cream scoop dipped down into the earth and plopped its contents right there in the middle of fields.  Back in the middle ages, Crusaders hauled an enormous amount of stone up that giant hill, an almost unimaginable task.  There they built atop the ruins of an earlier Byzantine church a new one commemorating the transfiguration.  When that edifice lay in ruins in the last century, a brilliant Italian architect named Antonio Barluzzi designed a church for the Franciscan Order that is one of a number of his creations in the Holy Land.  Barluzzi had a way of taking theological concepts and translating them into the fabric of churches.  So he designed a church that embodies the story of the transfiguration. 

Nave showing both altars,
Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor
As you enter the church, you immediately see two altars, one above the other. In order to reach the nave, it is necessary to descend a flight of steps.  Almost all worship takes place focused on the lower altar, set within a domed sanctuary reminiscent of a cave.  Light comes in from above and behind.  Perhaps the most striking visual image is in the stained glass behind the altar:  a pair of peacocks, symbol of rebirth and resurrection.  Sitting in the nave, one can view the upper altar remote from worshipers.  The apse of the church is completely given to a brilliant gold mosaic up there showing the transfigured Christ, indistinguishable from the risen Christ.  I’m told that the sun is just right on August 6 to shine directly on a mirrored plate in the floor that throws full solar gleam onto the mosaic making it resplendent in beauty. 

Churches like Barluzzi’s are clearly meant to lift the human spirit, to engage our minds, and to inspire us to praise and even to love Jesus.  The church does that by staking out sacred spaces completely devoted to adoration and inspiration.  That is what temples of all traditions do.  Just as we have times like this Sunday and August 6 to celebrate and ponder God—or specifically God the Son—we carve out spaces for similar purposes.  In all of these we generally experience awe and wonder.  There is no end to the marvels of God.  The more we open ourselves to awe, the more we discover just how awesome God is.

That is a good thing.  And it carries with it a danger.  In seeing how special Jesus is, particularly as revealed in something like the Transfiguration incident, we tend to dwell on the divine light that shone uniquely in him.  Rare in Christian experience for even the most ardent believers is catching on to the fact that Jesus is not busy demonstrating how different he is from us.  On the contrary, he is the pattern of how divinity transfigures all humanity—indeed all creation.  So the transfiguration is not essentially about the specialness of Jesus, but about how the divinity that indwelt him is the same divinity that indwells you and me.  If the transfiguration is about anything at all that we can relate to, it is about how God is alive in us.

Upper altar
Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor
Barluzzi, whose church atop Mount Tabor was completed in 1924, was about a century ahead of his time in planning a church so that the worshiper has to go down, down, down in order to approach the Divine.  I don’t know how often mass is celebrated at the upper altar—rarely is my guess—but surely it must be strange to look up high to see the action in “heaven,” as it were.  The lower space is the human space.  Not because we are unworthy to be transfigured but precisely because transfiguration is the divine energy suffusing the flesh and bones that we are.  Those peacocks spreading their magnificent tail feathers remind us of the beauty of the earth, the glories of our birth and rebirth.  Divine light comes through the enfleshed Word, dispelling darkness, speaking Truth, driving away everything that is opposed to wholeness, setting us free. 

Maybe you’ve noticed that at the beginning of the Epiphany season we have the story of Jesus’ baptism.  At the end of Epiphany we have the story of his transfiguration.  At both we hear the divine voice attesting, “You are (this is) my beloved Son.”  That is the heart of transfiguration—not the dazzlingly white clothes.  Transfiguration is of course about the power of God unleashed with such strength as to change the appearance of a human being.  But that power is not about elevating the person so much as it is about loving the person.  Jesus needs no elevation, nor do you or I.  Barluzzi’s steps down into the nave remind us that the way up is the way down.  It is precisely in claiming our full humanity, and our solidarity with all humanity—and all creation—that we catch the fire of God.  Jesus identifies with humanity in his baptism.  After his transfiguration, he leads his disciples on the road to Jerusalem where they will share in his death and resurrection.  Transfiguration is not an escape from the body.  It is only possible when there is a body. 

“This is my son, the beloved.”  Listen to him.  Follow him.  Learn how to be human from him.  Find your path as he found his.  And let the golden light of God shine on that path, for it will lead you through enormous suffering and exquisite love.  You will find rare joys and encounter fierce beasts, most of them inside you.  Meanwhile, you’ll find day after day that the Holy One is very near you, in your heart and on your lips.  You won’t have to ascend to heaven to bring Christ down, nor descend into the abyss to bring him up from the dead. No, the Holy One will always be near you, on your lips and in your heart.[1]  For it is the same God who said, “Let there be light” who lavishly allows your very own body to be full of that same light which shone in the face of Jesus.

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany based on Mark 9:2-9.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

Mount Tabor

[1] Romans 10:6-8.