An exhortation rather than a text study—–
When we love something very much we have a obligation to cherish it, nurture it, be changed by it, and also to render our own criticisms of it. In my case this certainly applies to both my love of preaching and the Church. I have found writing this blog post to be very challenging because two Sundays per year I totally hate to preach—and honestly, I’d probably skip worship on those Sundays to avoid hearing the sermons pro-offered by other clerics. Those Sundays are Trinity Sunday and Transfiguration Sunday. Both of those Sundays are so full of dry dogmatic plop as we take up the tools of reason, logic and science to pitifully attempt to define Mystery. It might be palatable were we to wrestle with mystery or to be enthralled by mystery, but rather our province is to explain and explain and explain—and bore both the heaven and the hell out of people by our efforts—and at the last to drain all enchantment and beauty from the text. And I truly do blame the Church for this pattern which I believe got its start around 300 years ago when the Church tossed mystery and contemplation out the door in its wrangling for “Truth” against science. Science is science and science is good. Mystery is mystery and mystery is good. Neither are antipathies yet we’ve made them so.
Author Richard Rohr nails it—–“Religion knew the truth of metaphor and symbol for almost all of history until the past few hundred years, and especially until the wrongly named Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then we started confusing rational and provable with real. We actually regressed and went backward. In trying to defend its ground in the face of rationalism and scientism, religion tried to become “rational” itself and lost its alternative consciousness, which many of us call contemplation. It’s as though we tried to deal with Mystery with the entirely wrong “software.” We lost access to the higher levels of consciousness, the transrational, the transpersonal, the transcendent itself. Most tragic, we lost most inner experience of our own outer belief systems. That is the heart of religion’s problem today, and it is indeed a deep and serious problem for upcoming generations. My generation took the symbols too literally, and now the following generation is just throwing them all out as useless. We are both losing. It might surprise you, but both religious fundamentalism and atheism are similar in that they are self-contained rational systems. Such a system works if you stay inside its chosen logic and territory.”
And therein in lies the challenge for preachers—to forsake or forbear our dogmatic, intellectual approach to what is clearly Mystery, and dare I even add, perhaps magic and enchantment as well. With one of the most powerful stories in Mark, we will drain the life out of it by rationalizing it through the saying of totally foolish things like, “this is the body Jesus got and will be the body we get in our own resurrection.” Mind you, that’s not in the text, but it’ll be preached. Some well-meaning soul will preach that, “Since Jesus was ‘transformed’ we must also be transformed,” and this implies through our own handiwork—works righteousness—and also not in the text.
What might happen if we let the story stand on its own merits? What if we seek to put ourselves into the story as one of the characters? Or rather, what if we consider how the story was experienced through the character’s eyes?
What I suspect we will encounter is not dogma but mystery, not answers but questions, maybe questions about us, but certainly questions about Jesus. And these questions will come from fear and awe rather than reason and science.
We need a shape-shift. The word “transfigure” comes from the Latin word which means to change the shape of something, “transfigurare.” And since the text is originally in Greek what the Latin word seeks to translate is the Greek word μετεμορφώθη—a compound word that means to change shape. It is where we get the compound English word metamorphosis. No matter how one looks at it, when Jesus changes shape before his compadres their response is terror—not some well-presented array of geometric theorems.
This a matter of awe rather than a matter of carefully arranged postulates. And herein lies our challenge in preaching—we need the mystery and magic of this mountain excursion to “transfigure us.” The awe might do it. The terror might do it. The reality that Jesus shows us what his end looks like might do it, but flailing about in failed comparisons will get us nowhere other than bored to tears. We need the magic of the moment to capture us and shape us. We need the power of the mystery that lies beyond us to jar our imaginations. We need to have our shape shifted!
And it won’t get done by comparing the glow of Jesus to 10 million lightning bugs swirling in a jar. But I suspect it might get done by resurrection. It might get done when preachers are inspired, even transfigured by the acts of an unpredictably, attractive God, who inspires devotion and terrific awe all at once.
We can act like Peter in the text and babble out our anxious musings come Sunday, or we can experience terrific awe. Yet none of these will happen if we pick up the tools of another trade—the tools of the Church are Holy Mysteries, not rationale, beakers, and electron microscopes. There is magic to be found in reason and science, magic to be found in medicines that heal and planes that fly. Consider the mystery of “lift.” There is magical mystery in water and Word that shape shifts one from the outside of God’s family to the inside of God’s family. There is terrific mystery to be had in bread broken and wine poured when these are in a certain sense shape shifted—bread, yes, wine, yes—but Body and Blood of God—oh yes, deeply magical mystery. These are the tools of our trade, Preachers, and these are the tools that suit our hands best. Celebrate reason and science, yes, but embrace mystery and be transfigured.