During my three days away taking the Education for Ministry training I needed to continue my certification as an EfM mentor this past week, I was reminded of an old story about children’s sermons:
A pastor was giving his children’s message at the beginning of a church service. For this part of the worship, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them to Sunday school.
On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.
“This thing lives in trees . . . (pause) . . . and eats nuts . . . (pause) . . . .”
No hands went up. “And it is gray . . . (pause) . . . and has a long bushy tail . . . (pause) . . .”
The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch . . . (pause) . . . and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited . . . (pause) . . . .”
Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
I laugh at that story because Laura (the parish secretary) and I often use a squirrel as a metaphor for losing our focus on the task at hand. One of us may get distracted from something we are working on the other will call our “Squirrel!” to get our attention back on track. But sometimes we are supposed to be focusing on the squirrel!
At about the same time I was being reminded of that story, I was also introduced to a statement from the 20th Century Spanish philosopher Julián Mariás that “Christianity does not give solutions, but does give light by which to seek them.” (Quoted in EfM Mentor’s Training Resource, June 2017) And both the squirrel story and this quotation from Mariás suggested to me a way of understanding the Transfiguration of Christ quite different from any that I have had before.
You’ve heard several sermons from me about the Transfiguration over the years. Not only do we celebrate this event on the specific date of August 6, we also commemorate it in our readings for the Sunday just before Ash Wednesday. We often call that day “Transfiguration Sunday,” although that is not it’s official name; officially, it is simply “the Last Sunday after Epiphany.” Today we heard Luke’s story of this mountain-top experience Jesus shared with Peter, James, and John, which is also read on Transfiguration Sunday in Year C of the lectionary cycle (together with the optional addition of the story of their descent when they are met by the father of an epileptic boy whom Jesus heals). In Year A, we hear Matthew’s version (17:1-9) and in Year B, Mark’s (9:2-9).
All three Evangelists tell the story in basically the same way with the same important elements: Jesus takes only these three disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him; they witness the change in his face, which shines, and his clothing, which seems a dazzling white; Elijah and Moses appear and converse with him; Peter offers to build memorial booths, but is interrupted by the Voice which says, “This is my beloved son; listen to him;” the disciples fall the ground; Jesus tells them to not be afraid, but also instructs them to tell no one what they have seen, and apparently they don’t, at least not right away.
Most of the time we preachers focus on Jesus as the subject of this story. As Aristotle Papanikolaou, professor of Eastern Orthodox theology at Fordham University, says, “The story, in short, teaches us about what the Church has affirmed for centuries: the divinity of Jesus Christ.” (Transfigurating Practices) The thing to pay attention to in the story of the Transfiguration, we say, is the face of Jesus, his appearance, or his glory. An important element, we note, is the three disciples seeing and understanding Jesus divinity. We focus on the Father’s voice declaring, “This is my son;” again, Jesus is the subject of the story. We call attention to the Father’s admonition, “Listen to him,” again making Jesus the principal focus of our attention. If we have completed the story in the Gospel proclamation with the verses about Jesus healing the sick boy, we may talk about how Jesus was able to cure the lad while his disciples were unable and, once again, the spotlight shines on Jesus.
But . . . maybe, as in the story told to the children, the answer isn’t “Jesus” because if we pay close attention to the story as it is told by the evangelists, the spotlight isn’t ON Jesus. The spotlight IS Jesus! Matthew uses the word Lampo – “to shine” – to describe Jesus’ face and the phrase Leukos ho to pho – “brilliant white like light” – to describe the change in his clothing. Luke says simply of the Lord’s face that it became Heteros – “of a different nature” – but of his garments he uses the word Exastrapto – “to be radiant like lightning.” Similarly, Mark uses the simple word Metamorphoo – “changed” – to describe Jesus’ face, but describes his clothing as Stilbo – “radiant or glistening.” The light isn’t ON Jesus in this story as told by any of the Evangelists. The light is coming FROM Jesus. Jesus isn’t just IN the spotlight; Jesus IS the spotlight.
Which brings me back to philosophor Mariás: “Christianity does not give solutions, but does give light by which to seek them.”
I think my favorite liturgy of the Christian year is the Great Vigil of Easter, especially when we celebrate it in the wee, small hours of early Easter Sunday morning starting before there is even a hint of the sun’s light in the eastern sky. We kindle the new fire outside of the church giving thanks to God for light and warmth, then light the Paschal Candle and carry it into the pitch black church chanting, “The Light of Christ! Thanks be to God!” From the Paschal Candle, individual hand candles are lighted and soon the entire space is filled with light. Then, after the Exsultet, the ancient hymn giving thanks for the Light, leaving only the Paschal Candle burning, we extinguish our hand candles, a reminder of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, of the darkness of sin obscuring the world. We read several stories from the Old Testament, stories of what we call “salvation history,” stories of the in-breaking of God’s grace into the life of God’s People. As we do so, largely unnoticed by us inside the church, the sun is rising and the light is returning to the world. By the time we read the Gospel of Jesus’ Resurrection and shout the Easter Acclamation, “Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!” the sky is fully illuminated and the sun’s glorious rays flood in through our stained-glass windows.
I sometimes think that at that point in the Easter sunrise vigil we should read a second Gospel Lesson, the one which is always read on Christmas morning:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
So I am reminded of something Jesus asked his disciples, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?” (Mark 4:21). No, he said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:15)
When we baptize someone, the Paschal Candle is always standing nearby, lighted. We often light a smaller candle from it and give that newly lighted hand candle to the newly baptized person or to a Godparent saying, “Christ is the Light of the World.” This is the light that darkness cannot overcome. We also say as we hand the candle to our new brother or sister, “Spread this light abroad in your world.” Our light is to shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to God the Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
The shining, radiant light of Jesus’ transfigured face, the brilliant, dazzling light of his shining garments lights the world around us in a new and transformed way. The old light, the world’s light, “is safe, controllable, predictable, and self-serving. We like the reflection we see in the world’s light – it’s not too glaring nor does it spotlight our flaws. And if it does, we can turn it down….” (C. Millen, Seeing Others with the Light of Christ)
We who have seen the Light of Christ, who have opened our eyes to the light of creation, are called to see all things through the eyes of Jesus. Like the lamp put on the lampstand, rather than under the bushel basket, the light of his Transfiguration illuminates the world around us in a different way, and in that light “there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (Mark 4:22) The light of the Gospel compels us to a deep recognition of the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever anyone’s faults or flaws may be, and that we are all deserving of the same dignity and love.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man; the disciples ask Jesus why the man is blind, whether because of his parents’ sin or his own sin. Jesus answers that it is from neither cause and then says, “I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5) He then opens the man’s eyes and in the confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes which follows, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see . . . .” (v. 39) A Canadian Catholic high school student named Julian Paparella wrote about this healing story:
Jesus is the true light by which we are able to see ourselves and our neighbour. The way God sees things is as they truly are. Jesus reveals God’s perspective. He is the antidote to our cynicism, our disbelief, our doubt and suspicion. These do not allow us to see reality clearly. They fog our vision and cause us to stumble. When we doubt the goodness of God, we too can become insecure. We can resort to projecting our insecurity onto others, trying to put them down so we can come out on top. We can dismiss them to reassure ourselves. We can fail to see where our true value lies. Pride and selfishness come from not seeing ourselves as God sees us, and trying to compensate by being better than others, putting them down to reassure ourselves. Like the Pharisees, our blindness to seeing the truth about others comes from our blindness to the truth about ourselves. (Dispelling Blindness: Seeing in the Light of Christ)
I believe this young writer’s words apply equally to the shining light of Christ’s Transfiguration. We don’t light a candle in a darkened room and then stare at the candle. We don’t turn on the lamp over our reading desk to look at the light. We don’t put a street lamp over a roadway or a walking path and then just stand there. Neither does God.
I think we may have been reading and hearing the story of Christ’s Transfiguration the same way those children heard the pastor’s story of the squirrel. Like them, we are convinced that the answer is supposed to be “Jesus” and so we have focused on the light instead of on what the light illuminates. Perhaps this is why Jesus told the three disciples not to tell anyone about what had happened because he knew that’s what everyone would do. Perhaps the light of the Transfiguration was not there to call attention to Jesus, but to light up the world around him, so that we might see not the truth about Jesus, but the truth about ourselves, and seeing the truth about ourselves, we might see the truth about others.
The light of Christ’s Transfiguration illuminates the “divine glory present in us, visible in others, obvious in creation, deep within the simplest and most ordinary, everyday experiences of justice, truth, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion,” and compels us to “share those moments of grace and light with others.” (Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, An Awesome and Terrifying Mountaintop Experience) Often, “Jesus” IS the answer. But sometimes the light of the world is meant to illuminate something else; sometimes the answer is “Squirrel!” To paraphrase philosopher Mariás, perhaps the Transfiguration of Christ does not give solutions, but does give light by which to seek them.
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; and St. Luke 9:28-36. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)