Perfect Time

Sister Gloria chose the transfiguration [Luke 9:28b-36] for our reading this week. I was torn between two phrases: “Listen to him” was my first impulse, but later I was drawn to “his face changed in appearance.” When the lady next to me took, “Listen to him,” my contrarian nature took hold.

The thing that I wanted to explore with those gathered was what exactly the phrase meant. Was it that Jesus’ face expressed an unfamiliar emotion, or did he really look like a different person? When I began to speak, however, the power of the contemplative unity overwhelmed me again. I was confident that it was the latter.

Our avatars come down and occupy bodies, bodies that become corrupted by their struggle to bring us to grace. In offering “his face changed in appearance,” I believe that the gospel conveys the enormous power of this event. Jesus appeared in his perfected form. The transformation was accompanied by Moses and Elijah in their glory. The text relates that they “spoke of [Jesus’] exodus…in Jerusalem.”

Not quite. The reason they appeared in glory was because Jesus had progressed in his exploration of his age to the point that he was ready to work with Moses and Elijah to construct that future. This was not idle chatter, but interaction between those involved in doing a powerful work on human nature.

The Old Testament is the record of the struggle by God to prepare every person of faith to enter into direct relation with the power of unconditional love. The root of the process was the Law, which in application required rationality and discipline, but we also have the assignment of the Levites as philosophers and teachers, something truly unusual in the era. Moses guided this social transformation, and understood intimately the intention of every line in the law.

The problem was that advancing the into unconditional love was difficult so long as the people were preoccupied with migration. So the Israelites were given Canaan, but the possession of the land brought with it conflict. Awed by the military power of their enemies, and not trusting in God’s intervention to ensure that they would eventually escape domination, the people demanded a king. It wasn’t long before the kings began to compete with the priests for authority. It was Elijah that struggled with greatest integrity against this corruption, his final act of power being to annihilate the king’s horsemen that arrived to force him to descend the mountain for an audience.

So the three men looked into Jesus’ future, and when a confrontation arose, Moses would offer counsel that stymied the priests, and Elijah counsel to stymie the kings. Not confront, not intimidate, not destroy, but stymie. Those other paths had been tried, and found impotent.

So I see in this event a moment of exceptional power, unparalleled until the moment of his resurrection. Yes, even greater than the crucifixion: it is not recorded, as it is here, that “his face changed in appearance.” In that final submission to human brutality, Jesus was still trapped in the throes of his human manifestation.

Against this glory, we have the contrast of the three witnesses: Peter, John and James. Why them? Was it that among the disciples only they were ready to experience the grace of this moment, grace that once might have brought the warning “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” [Exodus 33:20]

Somehow that seems unlikely. The importunity of Peter is recorded in this very passage, and caused Jesus on one occasion to rebuke him with “Get behind me, Satan!” [Matt. 16:23] And of John and James, we know them as the “Sons of Thunder.” [Mark 3:17] No, I would hazard that these three were apt to act on their own counsel, requiring Jesus again and again to turn from his way to clean up after them.

The Greeks were not big on punctuation, and so most adopt a tone of gentle reverence when speaking in God’s place. But in this case, I can’t help but hear the cloud with the intonation:

This is my chosen son. Listen to him!

City on the Hill

I’ve started attending a contemplative prayer gathering. The process starts with twenty minutes of silent meditation on any devotional word that comes to mind. Then we read a passage from the Bible three times, allowing time between each recitation for it to settle, until a single word or phrase stands out from the text. After sharing our personal reflections, we close with reflections from the greater church on the passage, allowing us to project our personal focus against the longer backdrop of Christian experience.

This week’s passage was Matthew 5:13-16, the famous “You are the salt of the earth.” Most of the reflections celebrated both the salt and the light. But before the incongruous image of the city on the hill, I heard a contrast in Jesus’s assertion:

But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

This was the condition of the people – their kings and priests had sundered their bond with God, and the Romans arrived to trample them underfoot.

I held my tongue, though, as the gathering celebrated the qualities of salt, only after the meeting had ended calling the facilitator over to engage her in discussion. When I suggested that Jesus was offering a metaphor on the condition of his people, I felt truth cementing our connection. She did not repel it, as so many do when confronted with a contradiction of received wisdom, but bowed her head and said “Yes, that is how it was.”

So I continued, as I have never been allowed before, observing that Jesus was proclaiming that they were no longer salt, because he was making them a light to the world. He, the lamp lighter, would not hide their light, but send them forth to inspire faith in God. And she simply continued to nod, saying  “Yes, yes. Brian, you have a gift.”

We talked further, affirming each other. The things she said were so terribly confounding. I have decided to move out to Port Hueneme, seeking to find simple people with open hearts who don’t ask “What’s the price?” when they are offered a gift. It is a form of withdrawal from the world, which has given me some deep wounds recently. But I woke up this morning, and realized that nobody in my life had ever said what she said to me, an affirmation that sums up to this:

Brian, people need you. They might not realize it; they may even act frightened of you. But keep on doing what you are doing. They need to hear what you have to say.