Friday, February 12, 2010


Today is one of the most popular and universally celebrated festivals of the ancient Church.  I’m speaking of course, not of the Feast of the Transfiguration but the feast of St Valentine, one of two possible third century martyrs with no obvious connection to flowers and chocolates, whose festival has set the pulses of young women and men racing ever since.  Possibly the original St Valentine simply had the misfortune to meet his end on a day whose aphrodisiac qualities had already been celebrated since pagan times, but in any case, today we celebrate the heady and wonderful experience of falling in love.

We live in a supposedly rational and scientific age in which, it seems to me, we often make the mistake of believing that knowing a lot of facts about something is the same thing as knowing what it means.  Back, for example, in 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar landing module touched down and human beings ventured out to take their first tentative steps on the moon a radio broadcaster in New York paused in the general excitement to wonder whether the moon would still have enough magic left for lovers to kiss beneath it.  Luckily it hasn’t come to that, but I take his point.  We know more and more facts about more and more stuff, and we’ve become very good at debunking, explaining and demystifying the world around us.  To call something a myth has come mean the same thing as dismissing it as superstitious nonsense, as a muddleheaded story that science has or soon will explain to everybody’s satisfaction.  And so unfortunately the world is made to seem flat and functional and uninteresting.  We need mystery, because we are a mystery to ourselves; we need mythology because deep down we know that truth is not one-dimensional, and we need stories that resonate with our own deep intuition that things are like that, that reality is open-ended, wonderful, tragic and surprising.

It seems to me that to make sense of our human existence we need both light and shadow.  Science, for example, can tell us easily enough why it is that the future of our species depends on young men and women falling in love – part of the myth about Cupid tells of how after accidentally scratching himself with one of his own arrows the god fell in love with a mortal girl.  Forbidden by his mother to have anything to do with the young lady – now there’s another story! – Cupid goes on strike and refuses to shoot anybody any more.  For months and months neither humans nor animals feel romantic, and the Earth begins to die, until Cupid’s mum relents.  It’s mythology, not science, that tells us more about why love is necessary to human existence, why love invites us in to the mystery of ourselves and one another, and ultimately into the mystery of who we are in relation to God.  And so it is, for example, in our Gospel story this morning, that the brief revelation of the glory of God that the disciples see shining through the figure of Jesus is immediately followed by a cloud of unknowing.  We experience our relationship to the divine within and around us as necessary and live-giving, but unfathomable, and that, I suspect, is as it needs to be.

When Cupid finally gets his mum’s permission he courts his human girlfriend, Psyche, with all the unfair advantages of his divine status, placing her in an enchanted garden surrounded by invisible attendants and coming to her only under the darkness of night.  ‘You can’t look at my face in the light of day’, he tells her.  ‘It would overwhelm you’.  All goes well until Psyche’s three sisters, staying over for a few days, whisper to her that Cupid may well be spectacularly ugly.  She obviously needs to find out - so that night she smuggles a candle into the bedroom and lights it once the god has fallen asleep.  In fact it’s the opposite of what her sisters had suggested, Cupid is so overwhelmingly beautiful with his snowy white wings and golden curls that Psyche gaps in surprise, spilling a few drops of candlewax on him and waking him up.  Cupid flies out the window, the castle and the garden disappear and Psyche is overcome with grief.

For St Paul, reflecting on the story of Moses coming down the mountain with his face shining from the nearness of God, the point is that the glory of God is reflected, never seen directly.  He seems to have in mind that the shine fades slowly, like a dose of sunburn, but that Moses needs to be veiled while it fades so the people can’t see its ending – actually it’s not the vanishing that they need to be protected from but its true end, in Greek, its telos, that to which the reflected glory of God draws us.  The ancient world of Greek philosophy held that to gaze on something is to absorb something of its essence.  To gaze on the face of God is to be changed or conformed into the image of God, and that, of course, is tough for mere mortals.  So Paul reflects that under the old covenant we needed veils – veils of misunderstanding, veils of necessary limitation, the veils of creeds that fence in our understanding, the veils of mystery and mercy without which human experience is overwhelmed by the limitlessness of God.

And yet, says Paul, in the new covenant of Jesus the veils are removed.  Not even Moses could look at God directly up on the mountain, in Exodus we read that God hides Moses in a hole in the ground and covers him over as he passes, allowing Moses just to catch a glimpse of his passing.  With Jesus, Paul tells us, we are able to look at the mirror of God’s glory, the true reflection, and we are able to gaze with unveiled faces and be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Here, I wonder if Paul and Luke are quite in agreement with one another.  The cloud of unknowing that Luke describes is closer to our experience.  Blinded by the light Peter proposes to build a mountain-top monastery – following the impulse of church-builders everywhere to set up permanent structures around the uncontrollable moments of God’s blessing.  It can’t be done, because lightening flashes of revelation are by nature unexpected and surprising.  We can’t manufacture epiphanies of light, we can only practice in the dark for when they happen, so that we can increase our own chances of being present, of recognising them when they do.  Part of the task of worship is to practice seeing the reflections of God’s glory that happen around us every day.  As St Paul correctly notes, our experiences of God’s light are indirect, reflected in the faces of those who love us or who challenge us to be reflections of God’s mercy and goodness ourselves.  But the flashes of brilliance are also surrounded by the compassionate darkness of God that blankets us in a fog of glorious unknowing in which all our structures and all our theories are put on hold.

Psyche, on coming to herself without her divine lover, is bereft.  Cupid also, in the empyrean realm, is beside himself with grief.  Mortals can’t live in the full glare of the divine.  Juno, Cupid’s mum, is typically less than helpful.  Psyche never was good enough for her boy, she reckons, even if by human standards Psyche was a bit of a stunner herself.  And so Juno sets the love-sick Psyche a list of impossible demands which both get her out of the way and very nearly destroy her.  Meanwhile Cupid searches the earth until he tracks down his bride and protects her from his mum’s dangerous tasks by enlisting the aid of an army of ants while he goes to plead her case before the great sky-god, Jupiter.  Getting the boss’s approval, Cupid whisks Psyche up into the heavenly realm and transforms her into a goddess.  They live happily ever after, and in due course Psyche gives birth to a daughter named, appropriately enough, Pleasure.

The point is, once we get an eyeful of the radiance of God, we are hooked.  It’s the light that blinds and overwhelms us but that also transforms us.  We can’t see the face of God and just stay where we are but, like Psyche, ultimately must be transformed into the likeness of the one we fall in love with.  Paul is really big on this.  To be Christian is not just to see the light, not just a change of status from ‘lost’ to ‘saved’, but to be a work in progress.  To be Christian, for Paul, is to be on the move, in terms of his double metaphor, both to be changed into the likeness of Christ and to be translated from one degree of glory into another.  Notice the passive voice here.  In St Paul’s logic we have the choice which way to look – into the face of Jesus Christ which mirrors the glory of God, or at some lesser good.  But we will be transformed into what we look at and what we fall in love with.