Is there room in our lives for visions we cannot explain? Have we closed our minds to truth that doesn't fit our rational categories? In her book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Annie Dillard shares stories of doctors who performed early cataract surgery in Europe. When a doctor removed bandages from one girl's eyes, she saw "the tree with the lights in it." Those words sent Dillard on her own journey:
"It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured ... I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance ... The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it." (Annie Dillard, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," p.33-34)
We could give explanations for what happened to her. Or we could remember a time when we sensed the presence of the Holy in our own lives. Perhaps we've never told anybody about it -- "it was less like seeing than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance."
The transfiguration story from Mark 9 is a story we often try to explain. What happened on that mountain when Jesus went to pray with Peter, James and John? Why did Jesus' clothing become dazzling white? How could Moses and Elijah be there when they lived so long ago? Was this a dream? How could all three disciples have the same dream? If you go to church, you hear this story every year on Transfiguration Sunday. This year it happens to fall on President's weekend, the political and the visionary coming together. (Hopefully the two might come together more often.)
Transfiguration literally means to change figure or form. Jesus' appearance was changed. To his terrified disciples, Jesus must have looked like an angel. Some scholars say this is Mark's resurrection story, the only resurrection picture we have in this Gospel because the risen Jesus doesn't appear at the end of Mark's story. But here on the mountain, Jesus appears in blazing light in a dream-like space talking with those who lived centuries before. Transfiguration Sunday marks an in-between space -- between Epiphany, which began with the journey of the magi, and Lent, which begins Jesus' journey to the cross. Some call this in-between state a liminal space, from a word meaning "threshold." A liminal state is characterized by ambiguity and openness.
There's often a sense of disorientation. Where am I? Perhaps you've had that sense after waking suddenly from a dream where you've been talking with loved ones who have died. Where am I? No wonder Peter didn't know what to do! He wanted to build three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He wanted to hold this moment forever, to capture Jesus' dazzling brightness, to make sure Moses and Elijah didn't get away.
But before Peter could finish talking, a cloud overshadowed the disciples. They remembered stories from their ancestors -- the cloud resting on the mountain as a sign God's presence in the wilderness. Then a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." As suddenly as the vision came, Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus stood alone, looking as he had when these three fishermen saw him for the first time.
Was the sun shining at a certain angle on the mountain -- like the sun turning office windows to gold along the Hudson River at sunset? We can look at this story from several different angles. From one angle some claim that Jesus replaced Moses and Elijah. When the disciples looked up, the Old Testament heroes were gone and the disciples saw only Jesus. But look from a different angle: Moses and Elijah were confirming that Jesus was on the right path. Jesus didn't replace them. He incarnated the mission of Moses the law-giver and Elijah, first of the prophets.
Could we see from yet another angle that moves us from the past into the present? On the night before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood with Moses on the mountaintop. God had allowed Moses to see the promised land from the top of Mt. Nebo even though Moses would never enter that land. That stormy night in Memphis, Dr. King entered the cloud with Moses: "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop ... And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land ... Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." (James Washington, ed., "A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr," p.286)
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Do we dare to see from this angle? This doesn't mean that Dr. King is Jesus. Dr. King is very much himself, a prophet in our own time who heard the voice say, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." Five years before that night in Memphis, Dr. King shared a dream with thousands gathered on the mall in Washington. He tossed aside his printed text and spoke as though he saw a vision of things no one else could see -- a day when his children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Yet today many people still cannot stand the sight of a black man in the White House, even denying the president's birthright as an American. Today more African American men are in prison than were enslaved in 1850. They don't commit more crimes, but they suffer far more arrests and convictions. (Michelle Alexander, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness")
Dr. King's vision comes and goes -- sometimes, it mostly goes. Yet we must live for it. We must live into that vision so that the racism which disfigures us all will be transfigured. This is the hard work that must be done when we follow Jesus down from the mountain. Otherwise he walks alone still.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.