Refracted Light

Posted by secondchurch on March - 20 - 2019


When a ray of light passing through the air hits another medium like glass, it changes speed.  Some of the light penetrates the glass at a different angle than it began its journey, and some of it bounces off the hard surface of the glass and is sent in another direction.  That’s how signals get sent when light is bounced off the hard surface of a mirror.  It also explains that certain time of day when you’re driving through a grove of tall pines and the sun light seems to hit and bounce through the trees, so that it’s almost like a strobe effect.  It’s why poets say light dances, and why the impressionists used tiny little dots of paint to capture its movement.  It’s how you can tell when you have stained-glass windows created by true artists. Light changes the look of things.  It draws attention to previously hidden details.  When something is illuminated, presumably, we understand it better.


Not so much this strange story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  It’s the story of a moment in the lives of Peter, James and John that frightened them, stirred something within them, caused them to blurt out misunderstanding words, and to wonder what on earth had just happened to Jesus.  It was a significant moment in the Jesus story.  It placed him in company with Moses and Elijah, two of God’s great Hebrew prophets.  It echoed the experience of his baptism when it was revealed that Jesus had been uniquely chosen by God.  His clothes turned dazzling white, a hint of what was to come in the resurrection.  And his face glowed, reminding us of how Moses’ face glowed from his experience with God, a glow from which he protected his people because it frightened them. 


In his book, Jesus: A New Vision (Harper: San Francisco, 1987), Marcus Borg described the transfiguration, along with other mystical, spirit-filled stories about Jesus, as belonging to the eastern tradition that portrayed Jesus as a charismatic, spirit-filled person who drew upon mystical experiences as a rich resource for his authority and power.  Borg argued that to ignore this strong theme of mysticism in Jesus’ life, in favor of the more politically savvy view of Jesus, is to ignore the impact of Jesus’ mystery for his original disciples and for disciples even today.  Jesus appeared to have a direct connection to the life of the Spirit, a consistent, albeit mysterious experience of communication with heaven.  His disciples, most notably Peter, did not understand those experiences.  When Peter himself was allowed to witness one of those moments, as in the transfiguration, he wanted to contain it, categorize it and put it in some context he could understand.  Peter, patron saint of the pragmatic, at the moment of the heavenly vision, spoke for all of us when he spoke an ancient version of “Whoa! Let’s build some boxes to put this in!” 


I’m a person who draws great inspiration from the politically savvy and culturally confrontational dimensions of Jesus’ life.  I admire his truth-telling and his calm, even in the face of his most profound enemies – the most oppressive cultural traditions.  I have also learned a great deal from Jesus’ retreats at key moments – his days in the wilderness, his leaving behind the sometimes flustered disciples to go to a quiet place to pray.  It’s reassuring to me since I too need to retreat to a place apart from time-to-time.  The weaving back and forth between those public moments of wisdom and courage and the times when he went away alone, these have taught me much over my years of public ministry and private renewal.


But the mystical Jesus, the stories like this one that identify Jesus as uniquely touched by God, the meaning of these stories escape me, I have to confess.  What happened when Jesus’ was baptized?  What happened up on that mountain?  What happened in that tomb?  The point Borg made in Jesus: A New Vision is that to know Jesus also requires knowing the charismatic, spirit-filled tradition in which he stood, and to recognize its power for Jesus himself, and for those first century Christians who believed in him, not only in his radical message of love and justice and grace, but in his authority and power and glory which were direct gifts from God. 


And of course, that is hard for us rational, progressive, intuitively wary folks.  We, just like Peter, want to draw parameters around those other-worldly experiences.  We do not trust their authenticity or their source.  We do not trust their ability to provide truthful experiences of God, of the mind of God.  We prefer to pass these stories by and go instead to the ones we like more, the interactions between Jesus and the disinherited, the outcasts, or the ones in which he appears to get the upper hand against the Pharisees and Sadducees, or when he welcomes children into his arms.  If we did not at least try to enter into the more mystical, miraculous encounters between Jesus and God, we might think they were just made up to try to prove there really was something holy about this man, something unique, special.


When did we become so cynical?  Have we forgotten how miraculous it is that human flesh mends together when it is sliced open?  Have we never been forgiven for our cruelty or unkindness by the loved ones we have hurt?  Has that inexplicable calm never come over us at the precise moment when we are most anxious?  Isn’t love itself a miracle?  the ability to live another day and another one after that after a tragedy?  do we not remember the satisfaction of a sudden insight or the understanding that finally comes after hours and days and months of study?  Has God never answered our prayers?  never comforted us in the night?  never given us the courage to face the unbearable?


Why should the mystical, spirit-filled experiences of Jesus be so difficult to embrace as possible, if not authentic?  Are we so sure we have plumbed the depths of God so that there is no more to discover?  defined the limits of human compassion, empathy, forgiveness?


Let the light of Jesus hit the hard surface of your heart.  Some of that light will bounce off.  But some of it may penetrate at a different angle than when it began its journey.  Some of that light will actually get in.  Let us pray for that to happen.  Amen.

Luke 9:28-36

March 3, 2019

Rev. Dr. Carla J. Bailey

Comments are closed.