Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (2)

lakeGray1Two dramatic events from the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted as prefiguring baptism are the Flood and the deliverance at the Red Sea. Both are deliverances from highly dysfunctional societies.

Genesis 6 portrays human society as consumed with violence. No wonder if everybody was like Lamech and inflicting seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anybody whom he thought had wronged him. In his second epistle, believed by many scholars to be a baptismal homily, Peter says that the deliverance of Noah and his family corresponds to baptism which saves us now through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 3:21) René Girard has suggested that a flood is an apt image for a society overwhelmed with retaliatory violence. In such a scenario, a man who tried not to be a part of this violence would be an obvious choice of a victim to unite the fragmented society. The Christological interpretation in Peter’s epistle suggests by being baptized into Christ’s death, we are brought out of society consumed with violence and given the chance to begin life anew, the chance that Noah and his family had after the flood waters receded. It is worth noting that when referring to Jesus descending into hell (Sheol), Peter does not say Jesus just brought out righteous people like Abraham but that he preached to the very people who had brought humankind to the boiling point while Noah was building his ark.

St. Paul says that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) Once again we have an overwhelming flood. Moreover, we have a story of a people delivered from a violent and oppressive society. In his book Jesus: the forgiving Victim, James Alison suggests that the Jews were expelled after being blamed for the plagues scourging the country. If the Jews were expelled, why would the Egyptians runs after them to bring them back? Perhaps they realized they would implode without the victims who were deemed responsible for their turmoil. This is what seems to have happened with the Gerasenes when their demoniac was cured by Jesus. One could take the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh as indicating this same tension. (See Dispossessing a Town Possessed) Being overwhelmed by the waters is, again, an apt image of a society succumbing to its own violence once the scapegoats are gone.

Unfortunately, neither new chance at a new life went well. Noah’s drunkenness and rivalry among the brothers that made Ham a scapegoat set humanity on a course where the curse laid on him was used to justify slavery and lynching. The people delivered at the Red Sea suffered from chronic social unrest, leading to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the desert to stop the plague of violence. Likewise, the church continues to fall back into the same rivalry and persecution. Most lynchers, unfortunately, were Christians. A tendency to see baptism as deliverance from personal sin surely reinforces such backsliding. Baptism is not a magical deliverance from personal sin but is a constant invitation to be reborn into the new social life of God’s kingdom centered on the forgiving victim who, like the bronze serpent, was raised up to draw all people to himself.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd