A friend told me the story of picking her grade one-er up at the end of his first full day of school – the teacher had set the kids the task of making posters about what they wanted to learn in school that year so all around the room she saw the usual crayon drawings with “learn to sit up straight” and “listen to the teacher” ... “be good” ... and underneath one particularly abstract drawing “why does the sea shine like it’s on fire?”
Painters get it, and poets get it. Homer writes about the wine-dark sea, leaving the literal-minded to wonder whether he was colour-blind. Most of us, most of the time, look at the world we live in and see a list of jobs to be finished, rules to be followed, problems to be solved, we divide the world into stuff we have to do before we can knock off and watch TV, and stuff that could go wrong. This grade one-er looks at the ocean at the end of the day and sees a sheet of liquid gold.
Well we all do, sometimes – at the end of a long day, when our defences are down, when we are not feeling totally in control or when we find ourselves in a place of exceptional natural beauty - and suddenly realise we never noticed the world looked like that. And we find ourselves transfixed by the deep down freshness of what is, and perhaps reflect that the world does, after all, reveal its Creator.
That’s part, I suspect, of what transfiguration is about, the unlearning of old habits of selective vision, the setting aside of old habits of what we notice and what we leave out of our comprehension of reality that perhaps needs to happen before we can learn to live in ways that parallel the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What comes first is learning to see, to pay attention to what really is, instead of just seeing what we expect.
So the disciples go with Jesus up the mountain – away from their everyday routine – where for a short time they see Jesus as he really is, an experience that both illuminates and terrifies them, a vision that at the same time seems to lie outside and beyond their ordinary reality and yet at the same time makes this world clearer and deeper and more mysterious. Writer Annie Dillard describes the similar experience of people blind since birth who receive the gift of sight following surgery. She tells us that even to begin to see, the newly sighted need to learn to reconcile their pre-existing ideas of the world with the new sensations of colour and distance and shape. The radical new gift is often experienced at first not as a blessing but as a confusing, troubling contradiction – and the newly sighted person often goes through a phase of wishing they had never received it.
Both the Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus, and Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration, have got to do with marvellously mythic experiences on mountains – mythic, that is, not in the sense of being less than true but in the sense of being deeply, powerfully and un-pin-downably true. Writer Madeleine L’Engel complains about the inability of late-modern men and women to comprehend myth, seeing a parallel between the Western world’s literal loss of vocabulary in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the loss of depth by which we take seriously the claims of television commercials but no longer remember how to inhabit the truly transformative narratives of our own culture. The category of myth is of course related to the ability to suddenly see the depth dimension of human experience, and so today’s readings invite us to pay attention in a different way, to prepare ourselves to perceive our reality in a new and transformed way.
Both of our stories today involve mountains, both have something to do with revelation and Torah, the law that gives life, and both have something to do with Moses, the archetypal mediator between God and God’s people. Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, but not in some sort of private mystical experience. God’s revelation, and the human response to it, are experienced in community and in and through God’s creation, both human and non-human.
The 24th chapter of Exodus, part of the ancient Holiness Code that spans anything up to 1,000 years, attempts in part to answer the question, ‘how can unholy human beings approach the holiness of God’? God is not safe, the holiness of God is volatile, and mostly in the Book of Exodus the clear answer is that sinful human beings had better keep their distance. Moses alone is able to act as a go-between. Except in the few verses that come just before today’s reading, verses 9 to 11 that record a different tradition - Moses goes up the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders. The same Aaron who a few chapters later will collude with the people in making an idol of gold, the same Nadab and Abihu who, in the Book of Leviticus (chapter 10) offer unholy sacrifices and are consumed by fire from God - elsewhere in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible to see God is to die, and yet in these verses Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders see God, even noticing that the pavement under God’s feet is made of clear blue sapphire, and Exodus records ‘God did not lay a hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; yet they beheld God, and they ate and drank.’ Up there on the mountain, casually and unworthily, they meet God and sit down to a picnic.
The bit we read this morning, starting from verse 12, seems to be an alternative memory of the same scene in which Moses alone is invited to climb the mountain and he leaves Aaron and the others behind while he goes up alone receive the tablets of the Torah. The mountain is obscured by a cloud in which God’s glory settles on the mountain, and for six days there is silence. On day seven God calls to Moses out of the cloud – in this version Moses doesn’t see God directly, just the glory of God like a devouring fire on top of the mountain. Down below, the trembling people see the fire, while on the mountain Moses enters the cloud alone and remains there for 40 days and nights.
What are we to make of these strange pyrotechnic stories, and what do they mean for us? Clouds and fire and divine voices, or just the distant recollection of a volcano and the primitive attempt to make sense of it? We late moderns, who believe in Brandpower but are blasé about the birth of solar systems, who go to sleep out of sheer boredom on supersonic aircraft and who have seen enough mushroom clouds that they no longer have the power to haunt even our dreams – how excited can we get about mountains spewing flames and clouds and stones miles into the sky? Living in a culture that reduces the experience of coming face to face with the living God to a three-letter text message – OMG – have we lost the ability to hear the voice of God in the groaning of the earth? Has the story of Jesus' chat with Moses and Elijah on a later mountain simply become over-familiar and quaint?
On the feast of the Transfiguration, it seems to me, we are invited to reflect on what is actually at stake for us, on whether our investment and our expectations are large enough and on whether we are even paying enough attention. Maybe we can even hear the voice of Jesus asking us: ‘what did you come here for? To be entertained? To be soothed? Or are you prepared to be over-whelmed and changed?’
We are about to enter the season of Lent, another over-familiar story rendered banal by generations of questions about whether we should give up eating chocolate or drinking alcohol. This year, try something risky, instead. This year, try seeing. Try forty days of living inside the cloud that obscures your vision of everything that distracts you from the clear quiddity of what is. Step into the season of Lent with the commitment to keeping your eyes and ears open for the presence of God, for the priorities and purposes of God in the world and for your own place in God’s purposes. Enter the season of Lent aware of the ways in which you need to be transformed, aware of the distance that has crept in between you and God, between you and those Jesus tells you are your neighbours, aware of how disconnected you have become from God’s creation and the communities of care within which you are called to live.
This year, disconcert yourself.