To Dream It Up Again

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”And you begin to lean against some longing till it shifts.”1

Few people set out to be professional doubters. The most famous Western example is Descartes, who resolved to question everything he thought he knew. He arrived at one indisputable truth: Cogito, ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am.” In the method he devised for learning, humility was central, along with the tolerant observation of others and a reliance on personal experience over the theories of theologians and philosophers.

He hoped, he said, to get to heaven as much as anyone else, but when he learned that heaven was open to the ignorant as well as to the learned, and when he saw that revealed truth was beyond his understanding, he reckoned that one had to be more than human to study the ways of God successfully. About the existence of God, Descartes had no doubts, and that he was a creation of God, he was equally convinced. With that assurance he carefully went about deconstructing the system of belief and truth he had grown up with.

Descartes was an exceptionally patient person. He gently advised those who were neither born to leadership nor exhibited the traits needed not to attempt reform simply for its own sake. His metaphor of knocking the house down to its foundations and rebuilding it anew included using what could be salvaged in the reconstruction. Although his method was radical (from the Latin radix, root), he would probably be regarded today as a moderate. But perhaps the comparison pales, since he lived and served — and died — under monarchies, notably the court of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Today, when I read Descartes’ Discourse on Methods or his Meditations, I feel myself in the presence of a kindly and sagacious tortoise. If nothing will accelerate him toward the finish line, it’s not for lack of mental speed. Unlike the innumerable hares among us, Descartes the Tortoise need not hurry because he’s already seen the end. He ambles along without resentment or competitiveness. He declares himself a happy man, secure in the God he knows, yet incapable of conforming to an ignorant authoritarianism. You won’t find him at a Black Lives Matter protest or demonstrating against Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court. He is a universe of one.

Those of us who admire and envy Descartes his intellectual rigor and equanimity still would not follow him in matters of the soul. He became famous for his distinction between matter and mind, body and soul, as two completely different substances.

The soul was a spiritual substance somehow united with a body governed by purely physical laws. Descartes struggled with this distinction, trying to find a mechanistic explanation for the invisible spirit we call mind. He thought it harmful to spend much time on metaphysical questions about God and the soul, questions that could only be answered through the imagination and the senses. Better to come to terms early with one’s relation to God as that of an inferior to a superior, and then set that aside to deal with laws that could be tested and reasoned out.

What I know of God has come through the myths and stories of religious scriptures; through literature, art, music, poetry, and drama; and through the works of theologians and philosophers who speak from hearts in tandem with their heads. That, together with my own experience and what I have learned from my religious community, is synthesized through imagination and the senses. Thanks to Abraham Joshua Heschel, my faith and trust now begin with wonder and awe. It was not always this way.

Like many of my generation, my religious education began with the certainty that heaven was the prize for the diligent perfectionist. I don’t fault those who led us in those paths; they knew not what they did. But what they did when we were children stamped down the possibility of entering the kingdom like a child—that is, with wonder and with awe.

Wonder and awe are signs of innocence, the unmarked snow of childhood. It may seem odd, even perverse, to seek innocence after six decades of life. After all, we cannot unring the bell or unsee what has been burned into our retinas. Most times, we cannot even forget what we have forgiven. But we can be born again.

Innocence here does not mean naiveté or a deliberate denial of contrary evidence. Rather, it is the deepest, most intimate, most honest core of oneself, the “still, small voice” that we hear as an undertone among the clanging cymbals and sounding brass of the spiritual marketplace.

It is our willingness to give up second-guessing God and building in every fail-safe we can think of for our lives. “You must protect this space,” says Christian Wiman, “so that it can protect you . . . Something in you must remain in you, voiceless even as you voice your deepest faith, doubt, fear, dreams . . .”2

To me now, wonder and awe are the necessary candles for our nights of darkness. They prepare us for the sudden reversals of fortune, the ordinances of humility as well as the modest epiphanies and glimpses of understanding. Through them we find what we can give back to God — our spiritual innocence.

This is my final regular column for Spectrum. In the past three-and-a-half years I’ve sought to give expression to one journey of faith, doubt, and mystery. It’s time, as U2 said, “To go away and dream it all up again.” I feel myself to have been on the road to Emmaus, recognizing the Stranger only after he disappeared. Thanks for sharing the road. Not all who wander are lost.

  1. Elson, Rebecca. “After” in A Responsibility to Awe. Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, Ltd., 2001, p. 40.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 64.

Simple Truths

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“Jesus said great things so simply that he seems not to have thought about them, and yet so clearly that it is obvious what he thought about them. Such clarity together with such simplicity is wonderful.”1 — Pascal

Is there a spiritual innocence that comes with age and experience or does our trusting nature diminish as our gathering knowledge increases?

I attended the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting recently, in San Diego. There were ten thousand people, maybe more, crowding the hallways, gathered in clumps, striding along the sidewalks, and holed up in restaurants and bars. The catalog of sessions for the five-day event was an inch thick, the venues included most of the hotels along East Harbor Drive, as well as the massive Convention Center.

It is daunting to remember that all of this—the sessions, the monographs, the books, the societies, interest groups, units, bylaws and constitutions, debates, discussions, arguments and extended soliloquies—all of it can be traced back to a Jewish peasant whom we wouldn’t have recognized were he to stray into the Gaslamp District of the city or wander down by the Marina. Would we see him in the faces of the homeless outside the Hilton or tip him for bussing tables at the trendiest fusion restaurants?

I stopped into a session on Liberation Theology, recalling my courses in it years ago in graduate school. It was for me back then both liberating and troubling, and I entered every class session with anticipation and adrenaline.

The liberation theologians we were studying—Gustavo Gutierrez, Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, James Cone, and many others—read the Bible in ways that scorched the fair pastures of my white, middle-class, upbringing. They read the prophets as if their words were fire, the Psalms were their battle cries, the Gospels arose from the streets of the favelas and Jesus was black, and he was red and brown and yellow, and most of all, he was poor. For the first time in my life, I was seated at the back of the bus.

Now I was listening as a Jesuit priest from Dublin read a paper about his friendship with a well-known priest who had been murdered in El Salvador along with four fellow Jesuits. They were killed in the bungalow they shared near the campus they served, the priest in question having been marched out to the darkness behind the house, made to lie face down, and shot at point blank range. The soldiers who killed him and his friends had been trained, armed, and inspired by American officers, backed by the full authority of the United States government. The Dublin priest was assessing the legacy his friend had left behind, the practical methods of teaching scripture that he pioneered and the effects of the lay Bible study groups that he set up.

I allowed my imagination to be there with him, trying to feel my way into his heart and breath as the soldiers burst through the door. A young PhD student was reading from his paper now, commenting that the men had been warned the week before that they were targets. One of their group had left for another town just a day before; he had escaped for the moment. But our priest had not believed the parishioner who came to tell him he and the others would be killed. The priest did not think that soldiers would kill priests, nor did he think it was honorable to abandon his station over a threat. But the soldiers came and shot them all anyway and left their bodies to be found by others as the sun inevitably rose and people went about their business.

I slipped out as the questions began for the presenters. I was in a jumble, trying to square the polite and distanced discussion with these imaginal fragments of violence I was now carrying. Did Jesus feel fear like an icy knife between his shoulders when the temple police surrounded him in the garden? In the torchlight did he see his death in their eyes, these men who would go off shift near dawn and return to their homes? Peter had reacted instinctively, drawing blood with a glancing blow that sheared the ear off the High Priest’s servant, no doubt the only unarmed person in the mob. Jesus wryly comments that they had had plenty of opportunity to take him when he was speaking in the temple; did they really need the weapons that were bristling in their hands?

Outside our conference room, the late afternoon light sparkled on the waters of the bay and the palm trees swayed in the breeze. A festival of rap and hip-hop throbbed near the hotel entrance and the light-rail cars glided past the clanging alarms that held the crowds at the sidewalk’s edge.

Did the priest and his friends die believing that their lives had not been lived in vain? They had been boys in Ireland, wedded to the Church from an early age, marked even then by sectarian fury. When they took their vows, did they have the slightest premonition that decades hence they would seal that covenant with their own blood?

***

Professional conferences like this one are cornucopias of knowledge and scholarly diligence. The daily schedule runs from early morning to late in the evening. They are opportunities for graduate students to begin the process of publishing and presenting, building their resumés, and making contacts. They advance knowledge in hundreds of areas of scholarship and sustain debate and discussion across a multitude of areas of interest. At a micro level, wherever individual presenters and participants are, their subjects are for them of consuming interest. At a macro level, seen against the backdrop of global problems, they are examples of how wide the breadth of human knowledge, how curious the particulars, and how incremental the effects of their presentation.

Yet, there is pleasure in mastering a subject and joy in learning about it. Not everything need be pressed into service for immediate problems; there is room in the human experience for extension of one’s imagination and understanding. We are inspired to join our thoughts to those of the giants in our fields and to create something beautiful out of the strength of our curiosity.

Beyond the joy of discovery and the pleasure of a willed collegiality, there is the satisfaction of vocation, the recognition of answering to one’s calling. The characteristic of our times, for many people of faith, is the sense of the absence of God, but for many it is an absence that calls to us. Our vocation, our calling, is to respond with all of our being from within the places that we find ourselves. “The Christian layperson is homo liturgicus, comments Rowan Williams, “the man whose whole life is directed to God, and who thus is able to direct all that is in his world to God, ‘to be in love with all of God’s creation in order to decipher the meaning of God in everything.’”2

The student toiling away at a paper may agree that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,”3but that which is offered in honesty from the heart of one’s experience and understanding “becomes the vehicle of theophany in the world, we become transparent to God, and the light of the divine energy shining through us transfigures all things.”4

At conferences like these there are displayed a wide range of writing and speaking styles. Some are like windows: we see through to the speaker’s purpose with quickness because of the lightness and transparency of her words. Others are like walls: we must scale them to see the point far in the distance and pray we don’t fall first. “Explanations must be as simple as possible—and no simpler,” Einstein said.

To the extent that the writer’s skills of beauty, clarity, and simplicity point to the purpose—to that extent they are truthful and honest. In our time we use symbol, metaphor, “figures of speech,” as Jesus said, in order to carry our meaning through the cacophony of competing claims. The world’s greatest sages spoke their truth simply and profoundly. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “I am the Way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus.

***

It is greatly to be desired that the farther we travel on the Way, the more we trust the path to take us where we should be. This would mean a radical innocence, knowing the danger, yet remembering the joy that transported us as we set out on some new adventure. It will mean shedding some of our baggage on the way, learning that sense of precariousness that comes from stepping forward into empathy with others, silencing our sounding brass and our tinkling cymbals.

  1. Pascal. Pensées. Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1966, p.125.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action. Louisville, KT: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 33.
  3. Ecclesiastes 12:12, NRSV.
  4. Williams, 33.

Stranger Mysteries

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Jesus crucified is our central image of the strangeness of God, consuming what comes close to it . . . He is that which interrupts and disturbs and remakes the world. That’s the first thing: the story we tell.1

He stands motionless in a wilderness of heat, the bones of the earth whitening between the razored shadows in the desert. Black birds wheel overhead with the faintest whisper of pinions. There is a silence about him that stops the words behind the teeth. My blood beats in my ears.

Whatever he is searching out, my eyes cannot follow.

Whatever he is seeing is not visible.

There is a gulf between us; I believe he is in combat.

***

The Gospel of John assures us that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” There are layers of mystery here that must not be painted over with the wash of complacency. Two thousand years of theological and political cross-referencing have smoothed out the jaggedness of the divine touching the human. We are no longer alarmed by Jesus’ confrontation with evil or how his life sets in stark relief our great need for honesty and spiritual courage. When he fits the order of things—when we confine him to the church where he can preside over committees and validate decisions—he is . . . harmless.

The story of Jesus sets us at an oblique angle to the plane of the world. It is an Escher print in motion, a Matisse cut-out, with the spare lines of a haiku and the tragic realism of a Rouault painting. I describe the story in this way because I see it in these ways: angles, lines, planes, curves, edges, silhouettes of a lean starkness against the light.

We don’t much like mysteries when it comes to spiritual matters. We call them “paradoxical,” another term that seems to be a dodge, a giving up of the intellect just when it is most consequential. Rowan Williams, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, sees that our language cannot keep up with the quick-changes of life. We’re using terms that no longer fit the situation, but we haven’t yet come up with something that expresses clearly what we are experiencing. We call it a “paradox,” he says, not because we are trying to muddle things or avoid the truth, but in order to remind ourselves that things are not always what they seem. “We speak in paradoxes because we have to speak in a way that keeps a question alive.” 2

The death of questions for a person involved in religion is another paradox. It is a relief to those being questioned, but it is in answering those questions that a religious authority believes himself to be an authority. Likewise, for the questioner, the constant twitch of questions can become exhausting and distracting, but it is only by asking and seeking that we find.

My paradox, the one that keeps me spiritually alive and a question to myself, is how Jesus has been for me both a threat and a promise. Like Thomas Merton, who knew himself to be living under ‘the sign of Jonas’ (Jonah), “I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” Jesus took to himself the metaphor of Jonah’s engorgement in the fish to allude to his death and entombment. Merton meant that we are to understand Jesus in the only way possible—through his resurrection.

But my paradox begins with the Incarnation and winds forward to the crucifixion. I have an idea where this comes from and what it might reveal about me. To begin at the beginning has always been my Sisyphean rock to roll. Nothing less than a comprehensive grasp of what may be known on a subject is my default desire. The utter impossibility of this has not lessened my instinctual turn toward it. Thus, my loathing of true/false and multiple-choice questions on exams (Nothing is that certain. Nothing is that cut and dried.), and a febrile sense that I could filibuster my way out of most philosophical cul-de-sacs, meant that as a student I was constantly retracing my steps, like a man on a treadmill—plenty of exercise, little forward progress.

If there is one movement in life of which I am certain, certain because I experience it and see it recapitulated in Nature and in Being, it is the fall from Innocence to Experience and then the rise—hoped for but not inevitable—to Experienced Innocence. Our innocence is birthed with the capacity for experience; experience often arrives in a disruption of innocence, a tearing away from our transient blissful slumber to awaken in harsh light.

Experience jars us in individual but similar ways. It may be the loss of a parent in childhood, or the awareness that others resent us for being an Other or any number of slips, falls, or crashes. There are surely other ways of coming to knowledge, but the reality east of Eden is that we ate of the fruit and that has made all the difference.

Experience arises within a tragic context—we cannot choose the particulars, but it is necessary that we choose—yet, it is usually through experiencing a fall that we recognize our need. Broken and stunned, we are fortunate if someone cares enough to say that it matters how we respond to our brokenness. The passive receptiveness of our innocence gives over to our active seeking for a way to rise to our Experienced Innocence, what Christians call ‘new life.’

Our experience continues: any learning is a kind of fall from innocence and a rising. To find a new innocence in this way “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”3

What strikes us as strange is that which comes from beyond our experience—our physical, emotional, imaginative limits. The word derives from estrangier, Old French, and before that from Latin extraneus, that which is external to us, which comes to us from the outside. Literally speaking then, everything we experience for the first time is strange and we will be a stranger wherever we are that is not part of our interior geography. Everyone is a stranger in more places than they can call “home.” We are all “the stranger” within someone else’s gates.

The Incarnation cradles the paradox of the divine becoming human and the human glorified in the divine. The mystery and the strangeness of Jesus is that he speaks and acts for God through his humanity, not in spite of it. The apokalypsis is the revelation that God is in our midst in the heat, sweat, hunger, joy, weariness, delight, and humor of Jesus. The Incarnation puts flesh on the shimmering hologram of the Word; the abstract infinity of the Word is rendered visible as an itinerant rabbi who speaks with authority because he knows God as God knows him—so much so that he can truthfully say, “I and the Father are one.”

“He came to his own,” says John, “and his own received him not.” He came home and was a stranger to those who dwelt within. He came and was not recognized as God because he is through and through one of us. But adding to the mystery is the manner of his coming. We humans project our images of mastery and power up into the heavens and call them ‘God.’ We see God as a superhero, flashing his omnipotence in a slashing, blinding intrusion into this chaotic world. But God cannot be anything but what his nature is, and his nature is nothing if not that of self-giving love. “What he does is identical with what he is.”4

To appear in the world quietly, in humility, in the form of a servant, is the most God-like form we could imagine—and it does take imagination. Infant, child, teenager, man—these are the iterations of God-in-Christ, beginning from the moment he is enfleshed, incarnated among us.

The arc of his life, from incarnation to crucifixion, appears in all its strangeness as a series of reversals: a servant, not a superhero; humility rather than arrogance; the Word instead of the sword; death on a cross instead of victory over the vanquished.

For two thousand years the church has more often than not chosen the warrior over the servant. More than that, it has refused to accept the implications of the words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” a claim not about Jesus, but “a declaration made about God.”5 The strangeness of a God whose character persuades rather than coerces, whose glory is revealed in mercy and forgiveness rather than cruelty and arbitrariness, confronts our fears. The way to God is narrow because we travel it in and through Jesus who, in God’s name, throws open the gates of the kingdom to those we fear and despise—the strangers and aliens who gladly exchange their pride for love and mercy. We must choose to enlarge our lives.

Like Rilke, I have questions, the answers to which I must live into. Shall I—shall any of us—one day arrive like Jonah, strangers tossed up on the shores of a great city to wreak judgement on other strangers, only to find that God-in-Christ, ever constant in his love, has showered grace instead of fire on those whose hearts of stone are broken?

  1. Williams, Rowan. “A Ray of Darkness” in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 122.
  2. Williams, 119.
  3. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 64.
  4. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1992, 138.
  5. Taylor, p. 140.

The Edge of Innocence

1DesertHills:stephen-pedersen-172497-unsplash

To choose what is difficult all one’s days

As if it were easy, that is faith.— W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

I have been thinking about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. It features in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it is a story that somehow connects heaven and earth, faith and doubt, God visible and God hidden, the past, the future, and the present—and so it is a subject for a New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day we come the closest to innocence that we are capable of as adults during the cycle of seasons in the year. We are done with the old year and its failures. We’ve shed that year like a snake sheds its skin, and we look to the new year with a touching naiveté, believing that if we want to fly, we can make it so. We will make new beginnings, we’ll have a breakthrough, all our false starts will fade away. Never mind all the home gym equipment that was set up in the basement with such resoluteness the day after Christmas, only to appear on the curb in March with the rest of the trash.

And so, we keep at it, this starting again and making promises to ourselves, because we absolutely must have a way to break up the surge of time and divert it at intervals. If December 31 is the lowest trough of the year, then New Year’s Day is the wave crest. End and beginning curve back to touch each other like one of Einstein’s sinkholes in time.

At the bottom of the worn-out year, scraping the barrel as it were, all the social norms for many ancient civilizations could be reversed or at least suspended for one night. Kings could be dissed without fear, peasants could don kingly robes. For a few hours, in a bacchanal celebration, all the fears and anxieties of the year could be discarded like old rags. It was a time for the expulsion of sins, for starting afresh, for the regeneration of time itself.

Recently, I read a news article about a dairy farmer who was finally selling off his cows after four decades of running the family farm. “It is said that farmers get forty chances,” he wrote in conclusion. “I’ve had my forty and I’m getting out.” Forces beyond his control had made it impossible to carry on, despite the efforts of him and his family. The plight of small family farms only highlights how important it is to us that we have a chance to start over.

Our lives are played out in an arena of paradoxical claims, as we try to unite opposing elements. “Be ye therefore perfect” sniffs at “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” “Why hast thou cast us off, O God? Is it for ever? Why art thou so stern, so angry with the sheep of thy flock?” gapes in disbelief at “The Lord’s love never fails those who fear him.” For those who search for God with all their hearts, the wry observation of R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, rings true:

. . . He is such a fast

God, always before us and

leaving as we arrive. — R. S. Thomas, Pilgrimages

We may be breathless to keep the back of God within sight, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s offers a chance to catch one’s breath. It is a fertile field of both regret and promise, of challenge and joy, of surrender to the Incarnation and determination for the year ahead. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reveals the poles-apart thinking of the disciples; we see his glory revealed even as his compassion drives him deep into the common suffering of the world, and he is shadowed by the ordeal to come.

He had taken three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of what might have been Mount Tabor or maybe Mount Herman, leaving the other disciples at the foot of the mountain where they soon attracted a crowd. The three accounts in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are substantially the same, with Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark’s core story, but adding significant details of their own.

Maybe Jesus anticipated what was in store for him on the mountain, or maybe he just needed to get away for a bit with his three good friends. In any case, there is an eerie resemblance to his night of sorrow in Gethsemane. The same three disciples are close to him while Jesus has a divine encounter; in Luke’s gospel account the disciples grow heavy with weariness and fall asleep, and Peter—bless him—speaks and acts in ways that Jesus must reject or risk losing his focus.

The outlines of the story are simple enough. Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain, when Jesus is suddenly radiant with light, his robe so white that it is almost blinding. Two resplendent figures appear and the three of them speak together.

The symmetry is arresting: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bookend Jesus with support just as he is growing into the conviction that he will die violently at the hands of authorities, religious and political, in Jerusalem. (An aside: how did the disciples know who they were? Were there introductions all round?) The disciples are both awed and terrified, so much so that Peter is babbling giddily about constructing three shelters when a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground, overcome, and the apparitions vanish, leaving Jesus to touch the disciples: “Stand up,” he says, “do not be afraid.” And when they raise their heads, they are alone with Jesus.

What were they talking about? Luke tells us they “spoke of his departure, the destiny he was to fulfill in Jerusalem.” On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells the three not to talk of what they have seen until he has been raised from the dead. Ah, they say, apparently unfazed by talk of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. In Matthew’s account, the disciples raise a question on a technicality. Wasn’t Elijah’s appearance supposed to precede all this? Yes, responds Jesus, Elijah has already come, but nobody recognized him. “Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.” What remains unremarked upon by the disciples is that this future event, Elijah preceding the Messiah, is already in motion. John the Baptist is dead, the Messiah is Jesus, and he is going to die.

When they reach the bottom of the mountain, they see a commotion in the crowd gathered there. A man has brought his epileptic son to the disciples to be healed—and they can’t do it. The father implores Jesus to heal his son and Jesus explodes: “What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you all? Bring your son here.” There is a final convulsion as the boy writhes on the ground, the demon departs, and Jesus hands the boy back to his father. Mark up another victory against the forces of darkness. All’s well that ends well, right?

If we were filming this episode, we would have used tight shots on the contorted face of the boy, closeups on Jesus as he casts out the demon, and then a slow zoom out to encompass the crowd, ecstatic at the miraculous healing, filled with admiration and awe for the power of Jesus. Luke says that after this Jesus went indoors and the disciples, those who had remained at the foot of the mountain, had a private word. Why couldn’t we cast out the demon? they ask. Well, says Jesus, this kind takes prayer.

***

Pull the cameras back into a high, wide shot stretching to the horizon, high and behind a group of tiny figures making their way south on the Jerusalem road. We know that Jesus has set his face like flint toward the holy city and that ahead of him lies the final conflict and his approaching death. Nothing is scripted here, no one’s hand is being forced; each actor in this drama sets his own lines and actions, according to his will. The events jerk and tilt toward their bureaucratic finality in a way that seems, in retrospect, foreordained, but for those caught up in it, the outcome is realized too late.

***

For us, poised on the cusp of the new year, the transfiguration offers us a way to into the times ahead. The Incarnation has been our transcendental experience on the mountaintop, our unexpected blessing coming out of the darkness; we would like to remain there — if only for a few more days. It’s a time when people seem to set aside their egos and think of others. If they — we — can do that consciously for several days, why can’t we continue? Perhaps we can keep that going for a week and then New Years’ can act like a slingshot to keep us in orbit above the Earth.

“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey. “But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves, “This is it… everything fits… all I ever hoped for is here.” This is what Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountain with Jesus. “This is the experience of the fullness of time,” writes Nouwen. “These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away, and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”

But we can’t remain on the mountaintop, up there in the glorious light with revered figures from our past. Down below, back in the world, there are the constant reminders that suffering continues and that we are not complete. This kind takes prayer, says Jesus.

Up ahead are trials, but also moments of transcendent joy, communion, beauty. We are blessed by the Spirit, by the epiphanies granted to us that open us to a steadfast courage. There are crosses up ahead, no doubt, but Spring is coming and there is a resurrection.

Photo: Stephen Pedersen, Unsplash