Saturday, February 18, 2012

Transfiguration

I came across a little book a while ago – I hasten to add it was a fictional novel – about a young man named Albert Einstein.  Hopefully you've heard of him?  The theoretical physicist who at the beginning of the 20th century single-handedly came up with the theory of relativity.  So in the story it is 1905 and the young Albert Einstein is working as a clerk in the patent office in Berne, Switzerland, and in his spare time is working out his theory about how time and space fit together and about the relationship between matter and energy.  And as he works, Einstein has a series of dreams – 30 dreams altogether, each one with a different idea about how time might work.  And the dreams are the book – Einstein's Dreams.

Like all dreams, Einstein's have a certain elusive, whimsical quality, their own internal logic which is wildly out of whack with the everyday logic of the world but somehow connected to it.  In one dream, time runs differently at different altitudes – the higher you get the slower time runs, so people decide to get as high up as they can in order to live longer.  In another dream, time runs around in circles like a snake with its tail in its mouth, so the history of the universe is doomed to repeat itself over and over, with no hope of things ever turning out differently.  In another dream, there is no past, so people instantly forget each other – the person you have just argued with or made love to, the work you have been engaged in, the dreams of your childhood evaporate as soon as they are past.  There is only the present moment.  In another dream time stops running altogether, leaving people frozen in an infinitude of insignificant moments, the spoon halfway to the lips, mid-embrace, mid-argument – all meaningless without the context of past or future.  And perhaps the point is that in each one of Einstein's dreams there is something that is elusively true, a hint of how things might be, and something forgotten, a hint of what has yet to be remembered and understood.

One of the first things we notice about today's Gospel reading – and in case we don't Bible commentaries always point it out – is how dream-like and disconnected it is.  So Jesus takes his closest friends up a high mountain, and as they watch him his clothes suddenly turn dazzlingly, Nappisan white.  And then he is suddenly talking with Moses and Elijah (just as in all good dreams the disciples know instantly who these strange figures are, even without nametags or ever having seen a photograph of them).  And then Peter decides to pitch some tents so the three men deep in conversation can make themselves a bit more comfortable.  And then they all hear a voice speaking out of a cloud (like thunder?) telling them who Jesus is and that they had better listen to him.  And then they all traipse down from the mountain and Jesus says to them: 'shoosh! Don't tell anyone!' And they don't.  Is it just me or does this sound a bit like something out of Alice in Wonderland?

Have you ever noticed that Mark's Gospel – the earliest Gospel, written a whole generation before Matthew and Luke's more elaborate versions and maybe half a century before John – Mark's Gospel doesn't have a nativity scene, and in its earliest, authentic ending doesn't have a resurrection scene either, just a suggestive emptiness where Jesus' body should have been?  What is does have is three scenes – three moments - in which the veil of ignorance is lifted just for a moment, and the secret of Jesus identity is shared.  The first moment is at his baptism by John when the sky splits open and the Spirit flutters down on Jesus' head like a dove and a voice – that in Mark's version only Jesus can hear – tells him 'you are my Son.  I am pleased with you'.  It's a breakthrough moment, a moment of glory.  The third and final moment is the moment of Jesus death, when as he gives his last cry the veil of the Temple is split from top to bottom – that is to say, the veil that prevents ignorant human beings from seeing the glory of God is blasted away – and the Roman centurion who had supervised Jesus' execution utters the truth that up until now has evaded every human being in the Gospel: 'truly, this man was God's Son!'  This is the moment when time stands still, a moment in which the whole of creation shares in the suffering of God.

And the other moment is this one, halfway through the story, already on the road to Jerusalem and death, the dream sequence that shows the befuddled disciples seeing – but not quite seeing.  Being shown, but not understanding.  The disciples, of course, get a bad rap in Mark's Gospel.  They never quite get it.  In fact, in this section of Mark's Gospel the only one who sees clearly who Jesus is, is the blind man at Bethsaida who when Jesus lays hands on him, 'sees all things clearly'. The disciples in Mark's Gospel don't just represent themselves, they represent all Jesus' followers who – let's face it – continue to look without seeing and hear without really getting it.  Who would still rather get to the happy ending without having to sit through the hours of tedium and soul-searching in the Garden of Gethsemene.  This middle moment combines both glory and suffering.  Peter in his befuddled reaction wants to put up some memorials but we already know that the only memorial Jesus is going to get is an empty cross on another, smaller hillside.

Some Bible scholars have suggested that the story of the Transfiguration is in the wrong place in Mark's Gospel.  Surely, they argued, what the disciples are really seeing with the brighter than bright Jesus is a vision of the resurrection, the post-Easter glorified and risen Christ?  It's Mark's resurrection story, surely - it just got a bit muddled in all the oral telling and retelling and now it's out of place, before the crucifixion.  I don't think so, but it does have something to do with resurrection, doesn't it?  Because Jesus gives us the hint, saying to his disciples: 'don't tell.  Not until after I have been raised from the dead'.  This is actually not so hard for us modern men and women to understand, with our sophisticated understanding of flashbacks and glimpses of the future in Hollywood movies that play fast and loose with timelines.  A vision of the future that informs us of the present moment.  As a storyteller, Mark is light years ahead of his time.

And why don't I think the dream-sequence of the Transfiguration is out of place? Because it belongs right here, at the middle of the story, as the tide of events turns and Jesus is inexorably drawn toward that other hill outside Jerusalem on which he will die.  It certainly belongs, for us, at the threshold of Lent and the five week journey toward Holy Week.

Like Peter, who wants Jesus to be the promised one but doesn't like all this talk of suffering and death, many Christians would also like to flick the switch straight to resurrection without going through the ashes and introspection of Lent and Holy Week.  It often strikes me as ironic and telling that the services of Ash Wednesday and the great three days of Holy Week are so poorly attended.  The emphasis on solidarity and suffering are a turn-off, we prefer a bright, happy religion that informs us we get to live happily ever after.  The original disciples are not the only ones who close their eyes and go to sleep as Jesus struggles in the garden and on the cross to endure the logical outcome of his ministry of healing and forgiveness.  And yet, of course, what we turn aside from is not just the distant memory of the sticky end of Jesus of Nazareth, not just the violent flip-side of our 2,000 year old religious narrative, but our reluctant awareness of the suffering and failure and compromise that surrounds us in our own lives and in the life of the world.  The violent passage of Jesus' final week is in itself the tearing of the veil that separates our experience from the life of God.  What is at stake for us in the journey of Lent and Holy Week is not just being good card-carrying Anglicans but reconnecting our own spirituality, our own needs and the suffering of the world with the divine love that redeems our hurt precisely by sharing it.

The dream-story of the Transfiguration reminds us that resurrection is coming – and also reminds us that the only way to participate in the joy of resurrection is to be fully present to the suffering not only of Christ but of the world we live in.  It is of course the central paradox of our faith – that fullness of life can only be experienced on the other side of suffering and death.

In one of Einstein's dreams time flowed backwards.  In the dream he saw somebody take a brown rotting peach out of the garbage bin and put it in a fruit bowl, where it became pink and firm, and then the person took it out into the garden and placed it on a tree, where it was transformed into a glorious pink blossom.  This is the true nature of time, that the dream of the Transfiguration tells us about.  The dream that reminds us that the wounds and failures of the past are not fixed but healed and transformed in the miracle of resurrection, that our future is not fearful because it opens up to the mystery of divine love that is as old as time itself.