Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The gospel reading for this day is always the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, and it’s one of my favorite snapshots of the life with Jesus that the first disciples enjoyed. Over the years I’ve had a great time reflecting upon the nature of transfiguration, and how we humans experience the transcendent. It’s very much about perception. If you think of it, even just a little bit, you may find yourself realizing there have been moments in your own life, moments in which time seemed to stand still and you felt something like a floaty-ness. It could be in conjunction with theatre, music, poetry – or, even more likely, in relation to another person – maybe a baby. My favorite story is about my first-born nephew who charmed my whole family so much as he crawled around on his blanket and cooed in our midst until my aunt, a nun, with persuasive gentleness, “reminded” us during a pause in our squeals of delight, that God regards each and every one of us with the same beauty, the same suspended sense of enchantment.
I prayed and meditated on this understanding of transfiguration – hoping for some new and exciting revelation. But one can “mine” a layer of meaning only so much. Instead, I found myself being led by the Holy Spirit into what now seems to me a somewhat deeper place.
Stepping away from my own personal level of comfort with this gospel story, it becomes clear that it may seem very strange to others – especially those of us who have been conditioned by modern life to regard, with an almost religious fervor, truth as it’s known through facts. Many people are suspect of any account of “reality” that ventures outside the world of empirical evidence. In fact, pretty much none of us can escape the insistence of our science-bound culture that sacred texts, like everything else in this world, should conform so far as possible to demonstrable truth assertions. Whether we admit or not, even those of us who think of ourselves as particularly open to “mystery”, can feel quite uneasy in the presence of texts like this gospel lesson.
And yet we’re also susceptible to moments of surprised illumination when, through some outward episode, someone we thought we knew fairly well is suddenly revealed in a new light. This pertains, especially perhaps, to the departed and our capacity to realize how inadequately we may have grasped the depths of meaning in a person’s character.
The earliest Christians, for example – loving, well-intentioned, deeply flawed individuals that they may have been – were likely left with some hint of this common human experience as they repeatedly returned to this shimmeringly resonant story of transfiguration that is largely considered to pre-date the written gospels. Imagine the context. Imagine the questions they were left with – questions as to the nature and purpose of the one in whom their budding faith was centered. They were, likely, immersed in disturbing and yet fascinated recall, remembering conversations, encounters and events that were puzzling at first and then, in light of all they had collected in the way of insights and attributes of their leader, somehow brought multiple observations together and into settled perceptions, the collected views developing a warmth as all things began to be seen through the eyes of faith. And it would seem that this happens over time. A wise woman once said, “Epiphanies are rarely confined to the moments of their supposed occurrence. They may, indeed, require some time and contemplation for illumination to begin to burn bright.”
So, there are some transcendent experiences that may be common to us all. Acknowledging this may help lessen feelings of strangeness related to this text. But the place to which the Holy Spirit leads is usually somewhere beyond ordinary human experience. Inextricably linked to this brilliant scene of Jesus’ hyper-illuminated state is the question that’s woven like a thread through the entire New Testament – in the words of Jesus from the previous chapter in Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?” – or, perhaps better stated for this discussion, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
In the historical debates about Jesus, some subscribe to “the Jesus of history”, whereas others emphasize “the Christ of faith”. Some might regard Jesus through the lens of humanity and others the lens of spirit. I’m one of those Christians who cannot embrace either side exclusively. Instead it seems vital to hold both experiences of Jesus together. And it’s begun to seem like that is, indeed, what this account of Jesus’ transfiguration would have us affirm.
Canadian theologian John Douglas Hall, for whom I give great thanks for many of these ideas, suggests that:
“The transfiguration does not intend to transport the faithful into a trans-historical realm where the Jesus known to fisherfolk, tax collectors and prostitutes suddenly appears in ghostly mien, lit up from the inside, and having discourse with famous figures long since dead! Rather, it intends to confess that these untutored down-to-earth men and women who left everything and followed him, hardly knowing why – these same persons, later, knew they had been drawn to him because, for all his obvious humanity, something radiated from him that spoke of ineffable and eternal truth. Some of them remembered now, when he had left them, one incident in particular when this radiance seemed to manifest itself almost….visibly.”
So this gospel moment seems less and less about the factuality of this occurrence – less about the “special effects” and more about communicating in the way a first century audience might best comprehend, the dynamic spiritual tension that is, indeed, God’s presence among us.
“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
Perhaps we might begin to answer Bonhoeffer’s question by holding together, in tension, certain matters earthly. And as I searched for such an example I found myself driving home from New Jersey on Friday after my physical therapy and listening to NPR. It was Brian Lehrer’s program and I caught his back-to-back guests Jessa Crispin and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Jessa Crispin is the author of a blog entitled “book-slut” and, perhaps more to the point, a recently published book “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She spoke passionately about the ways in which she feels the feminist movement has failed. She referred to the second wave of feminism – the first being what occurred around women’s right to vote, and the second being rightly or wrongly identified with Gloria Steinem. This second wave of feminism in the US, Crispin suggests, has long been and in many ways is still rooted in a system of binary thinking that promotes or perpetuates oppositional structures. She contends that in order for feminism to really be effective, it must reach a place in society where it is mundane or not necessary. It cannot be a party to whom only some are invited – it must become part of popular culture and seamlessly. To be what it really wishes to be feminism must become completely about the removal of hierarchical structures that have any impact on gender identity. And part of the process is accepting that understanding, especially at first, will not be completely perfect. This Crispin says, is a form of elevation for society in toto.
There was no God-speak or spirit-speak or even reference to energetic principles, per se, in this interview, and yet it felt to me – partly because of the title of her book “Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto” – opposing terms, to be sure – it felt like an approach to the mystery – a place where the kind of spiritual tension that exists on the mountain as the glowing Jesus is held in connection with the down-to-earthling in an effort to come to greater understanding. Potential for deeper understanding seemed part of the discussion between Brian Lehrer and Jessa Crispin, and it got even better in the following segment where the host had a great chat with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Ms. Adichie is, apparently, one of the authors featured in the current competition “One Book: One New York”. A selection of five different books has been devised and city-dwellers are invited to vote for one in hopes that the entire city might all read the same book together. The books and authors, for your edification are:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
- Paul Beatty’s The Sellout
- Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me
- Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and,
- Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Julie Menin, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media an Entertainment said that, in addition to this being an effort to increase literacy, it’s incredibly timely that the themes of these five books all deal with either immigration, race or being an outsider.
Ms. Adichie’s book Americanah follows two Nigerian teenagers who decide to leave their country. One goes to the New York and the other to London, and as the narrative unfolds we find revelation upon revelation.
At the outset of the interview, Mr. Lehrer asked Ms. Adichie what the book is about. “I don’t know”, came the reply, “Why does a novel have to be about one thing?” She went on to say that it’s about:
- Leaving home
- What home means
- The strange displacement that happens when one is not forced to leave home
- The upper Middle class African who is not forced into a decision due to war or other political and social factoids of aggression or catastrophe
- People who leave because they just want something more or different – the way people always have throughout history
- The strangeness that follows a voluntary displacement when one is forced to come to terms with “reduced circumstances”.
Ms. Adichie went on to say that she wanted to write a book about race in America – about what it means to be a black person who is not a black American. She feels that, to be a black person in America is to be told that things that are racist are not – and that what undergirds that is a willful refusal to see. And while she is committed to including all voices in this matter as she reaches to gain greater understanding – she admits to reading a large number of what she characterizes as “conservative” publications, she stops short of entering into debates regarding the full humanity of groups of people. “There is massive arrogance there”, she says.
Ms. Adichie shared something about one of the minor characters in her book. A liberal white woman in Princeton (where one of the two teens landed after years of challenges). The woman continually referred to black people not as “black” but as “beautiful” – she met a beautiful woman on the bus – a beautiful man works in that store. And while that may be well-intentioned to some degree, it’s also deeply disturbing because, of course, not all black people are beautiful, just as not all white or brown people are beautiful, and use of the expression seemed to signify a deep rooted discomfort about race. This brought her to her main motivating question: How do we talk about race? How does one acknowledge that race is such a significant part of the American story?
How does this relate to Bonhoeffer’s question about who Jesus is for us today?
Most gripping, in this interview, for me – and it’s hard for me to characterize the discomfort that came of the revelation – was Adichie’s disclosure that she hadn’t realized she was “black” until she came to the United States. Caller after caller affirmed this when the host went to the phones, and the discussion coalesced around the vital necessity of insisting on a multiplicity of views if we are to come to understand each other. Imperfect understanding. There are many voices and many ways of looking at the world and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asserts that any view is valued as long as it does no harm. What would make her happiest is for a conversation to begin about race – even in the most progressive circles – a conversation that affirms that we see things differently. She feels that the idea of blackness not being one thing is important, and that ultimately it may come to be regarded as a collection of different ethnic groups, among which African Americans are one such group.
This insistence on a multiplicity of views came as no surprise to me. A few months ago I stumbled upon Ms. Adichie’s TED talk entitled “The Danger of the Single Story”, in which we find her broader perspective was hard won. She explains how, when she first came to the US (and he college roommate was so shocked that she spoke English so well, that she could use a stove and that she did not listen to “tribal” music), even so, Adichie herself had been guilty of the single story because, for years after she first arrived in America, all she ever heard about Mexicans was that they are illegal immigrants, they take advantage of the American social and healthcare systems and they steal American jobs. This evil myth was dispelled when she visited Guadalajara and saw normal, seemingly nice, responsible people coming and going to work, eating, laughing, smoking, shopping and doing all kinds of things that people in America do.
I will admit that I began this discussion thinking of the ways in which that spiritual tension e spoke of – the historical Jesus together with the Christ of faith – the human AND the spiritual – I began by thinking that this speaks to the kind of multiplicity of views that is required if we are to gain greater understanding of non-feminism and racial generosity. I’ve come, instead, to believe that the speaking goes both ways and that’s how Jesus would have it. What we learn in scripture speaks to us in our day, and what we do in our day, as a result, speaks right back. At least that much of an exchange seems necessary.
Our Collect for the Day, that we prayed at the opening of this service beseeches of God to help us behold by faith the light of Christ’s countenance – that we might be strengthened. The Jesus shown in the Transfiguration holds in connection both the earthly and the eternal and it seems, now, meant to illuminate in us a deeper understanding of how God moves in us and through us as we hold together the diversity of ourselves and our neighbors in ways that bring about deeper understanding as we live God’s love in the world.