Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.
My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”
Just as the top of Raphael’s painting captures the splendor of the Transfiguration, the bottom captures the tragic need and suffering of this man, of his son, and of the disciples unable to cure the boy. It depicts and connects the contrast between the mountain and the valley, between the contrasting experiences of human existence: joy and suffering, righteousness and sin, success and failure to the Incarnation. God incarnate in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, celebrates with us on the mountaintops of triumph and weeps with us in the deep valleys of sorrow.
Anyone who knows me well knows that there are two sorts of literature that I read for recreation and relaxation: science fiction and theoretical physics. I’ve been reading science fiction (and watching SF movies and TV shows) as long as I can remember. My bachelor’s degree is, officially, in “Contemporary English and American Literature” but, if truth be told, it’s really in science fiction; I went to university that allowed students to design their own major curricula, so that’s what I put in mine.
I might have gotten a degree in physics if I’d been willing to do the hard of work of understanding the math. However, barely passing three courses in integral and differential calculus convinced me that I wasn’t willing to work that hard and that the sciences weren’t going to be my life’s work. They would remain an active interest, but they would never be a career choice. (It always surprises people when I tell them that my first “real” job was as a laboratory assistant to two experimental physicists in the University of California system. It surprises me, too!)
One of the sub-genres of science fiction literature that I have particularly enjoyed over the years is that group of novels that explore the concept of multiple universes or alternate realities. Robert Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and Glory Road, Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador are of this sort. So, too, is a novel given me by my son and daughter-in-law as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago, The Long Earth by the late Terry Pratchett and his co-author Steven Baxter. In this novel and its sequels, people known as “steppers” move among millions or billions or possibly an infinite number of parallel worlds, either by natural ability or by using a simple “step box” powered by a potato (remember, Terry Prachett was a co-author).
This “parallel universe” idea has been a favorite of science fiction authors for years. What’s great fun these days is that it is now gaining some credence with the science fact folks, too! With the advent of superstring theory and now m-theory, the idea of alternate universes, in fact an infinity of them, is finding justification in the mathematics of theoretical physics. A few years ago, the science website Space.com published an article entitled 5 Reasons We May Live in a Multiverse which began:
The universe we live in may not be the only one out there. In fact, our universe could be just one of an infinite number of universes making up a “multiverse.”
Though the concept may stretch credulity, there’s good physics behind it. And there’s not just one way to get to a multiverse — numerous physics theories independently point to such a conclusion. In fact, some experts think the existence of hidden universes is more likely than not.
By now, I’m sure that you are wondering what any of this has to do with Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop or Jesus healing the boy in the valley. Well . . . as one of the characters on the British sit-com Miranda is fond of saying, “Bear with! Bear with!” I’m going to make a sideways step for a moment and then pull this together.
At the end of this week is the anniversary of the execution of the 16th Century Dominican friar and condemned heretic Giordano Bruno; he was burnt at the stake on February 17, 1600, for among other things suggesting an infinite number of parallel worlds.
Yes, you heard that right. A Dominican friar more than four centuries ago proposed as reality a staple of 20th Century science fiction and a theoretical construct of 21st Century physics, and he did so in the context of a theological meditation. In 1584, he published De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (“On the Infinite Universe and Worlds”). In it, he argued that there are an infinite number of worlds inhabited by intelligent beings. The universe, he said, reflects God in God’s infinite nature, thus God must exist everywhere, not as a singular remote heavenly deity. Bruno’s reasoning is summarized as follows:
God is omniscient, perfect, and omnipotent and the universe is infinite. If God is all-knowing, he must be able to think of everything, including whatever I am thinking. Since God is perfect and completely actualized, he must create what he thinks. I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.
So here’s a pre-Lenten question to take into Lent with you for meditation: What if Bruno was right? Or at least partially right? What if there are an infinite number of worlds, as m-theory mathematics suggests there are? But instead of a single, unique Jesus needing “an infinite amount of time” to go from world to world, what if that single, unique incarnation of the Godhead had (and has always had) instant access to all of the infinite worlds? (I realize that words like always and instant become problematic when we begin to speculate about infinite parallel universes.) What if Jesus could “step” between universes like the characters in Pratchett’s and Baxter’s The Long Earth, not in the limited way those characters can but in an omnipotent way, instantly from any of the infinite worlds to any other? What if Jesus were able in some way to bring into this disordered universe the proper, unfallen reality of a parallel creation? What if that is how it is that Jesus could converse with Moses and Elijah? And what if that’s what Peter and James and John beheld, the radiant energy of the connection of infinite universes, the light of the immortal and infinite love of God for the universes?
He could, when coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration, heal the epileptic boy by bringing the reality of his good health from a parallel world into this world. He could, when feeding the 5,000, reach into an alternate reality of abundance and bring its plenty into this world of scarcity to more than feed the gathered crowd. He could, when a wedding party in Cana of Galilee ran out of wine, supply this world’s need with the overflowing vintage of a parallel existence.
Perhaps that is why the lectionary steers us, at the end of Epiphanytide, just before the beginning of Lent, to the mountaintop experience of those three disciples and (if we read further as truly we must) of the disciples down in the valley and the healing of the epileptic boy, to considering a story of God’s power and grace that, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) I’ll admit that this all may be a flight of fancy, a fit of fantasy, but the question of God’s omniscience or omnipotence, attributes that classical theology insists God must have, becomes all the more intriguing if we do live in a multiverse rather than a universe, if creation is multiform rather than uniform.
It suggests, does it not, that there may be a reality in which life is like Peter thought it might be, where one can stay on the mountaintop, continually enjoying the radiant presence of God, where (in the words of one of our Eucharistic canons) we can “rejoice in the splendor of [God’s] radiance . . . beholding the glory of [God’s] presence.” That, after all, is the Christian hope for which our soon-to-begin Lenten fast is meant to prepare us.
Let us pray:
Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 11, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; and St. Mark 9:2-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
The illustration is The Transfiguration by Italian artist Raphael. It hangs in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.
 Mark 9:14-18 (Return to text)
 Fawcett Publications, Robbinsdale, MN:1980 (Return to text)
 Avon Books, New York:1968 (Return to text)
 Harper Voyager, New York:2010 (Return to text)
 HarperCollins, New York:2010 (Return to text)
 Ace Books, New York:2004 (Return to text)
 Harper, New York:2013 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer “D”, page 373 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Collect for the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, page 216 (Return to text)