Mark 9:2-10 and Peter 1;16-19
What I realize sometimes when I read the gospel is exactly how much I need it.
Grumpy on the Transfiguration. Out of sorts.
On the feast of the one of the most glorious things that ever happened, a moment of dazzling beauty and life, I’m moody and irritable and low on energy.
The light that comes pouring down doesn’t come pouring down because these three particular men are really good meditators or theologians or in any way special. The world just suddenly opens up and all this dazzling beauty comes rushing in.
But that’s OK.
The problem with basing faith on feeling is that it puts responsibility in the wrong place. It assumes that faith is something that I can make happen, through discipline or hard work or purity of intention, as I’m some sort of spiritual athlete, when faith is a gift, given by God, unearned, unsought. The disciples don’t produce the transfiguration. They fall on their faces before it. They don’t plan it, don’t arrange it. The light that comes pouring down doesn’t come pouring down because these three particular men are really good meditators or theologians or in any way special. The world just suddenly opens up and all this dazzling beauty comes rushing in. The disciples hardly know what hit them, and that’s how prayer sometimes is, when it seems somehow to “work,” when something happens in it. What we realize then is that the joy or the insight have nothing to do with us—that the very condition of this sweetness is exactly that it exceeds us.
What I realize when I look at the gospel sometimes is my own finiteness, the slow, heavy drag of my creatureliness. What I realize sometimes when I read the gospel is exactly how much I need it.
And there’s an insight here into the Church. Every one of us had the experience of the “veil being lifted,” as Rabbi Joshua Heschel puts it. All of us, for a moment, have glimpsed the eternal. But for just a moment. Our glimpses are fleeting and rare and the rest of the time we have to get on with our lives. That’s where what Heschel calls “dogma” comes in, where church teaching and theology apply. What dogma does, what liturgy does, what the whole structure of a church does, is “save” those moments of personal revelation for “the long hours of functional living” when we no longer feel the intensity of the vision. In a very odd and striking image Heschel says that dogmas are like bees “embalmed” in amber—like bees frozen in fossilized honey—and now then they can “electrified,” brought back to life, when our faith suddenly surges again.
Or the image of a library. What the liturgical years does is store the many wonderful pieces of tradition. There are far too many to remember on our own, but when the lectionary lays them out, piece by piece, we are reminded of all that’s there. The weekly and Sunday readings are a whole set of yellow post it notes on the great refrigerator of our lives.
Or it’s this. It’s what the second letter of Peter says about the prophetic message of the gospel. “You will do well to be attentive to it,” the letter says, “as to a lamp shining in a great dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” That’s me, and maybe that’s you, too. We’re grumpy, we’re out of sorts, but the Church asks us each Sunday and each day to be attentive to certain moments in the story and certain aspects of the faith—say the Transfiguration—we’re supposed to think hard about that, to reflect on that, pray about that. And gradually of course it stars to get to us after all, at least a little. It sinks in. Because we’ve been forced to think about it, because we’ve had to attend to it, the morning star sometimes rises in our hearts, or starts to.
It’s what I feel sometimes when I force myself to Church. When I’m up at the altar, serving, and I look out at the congregation. Not always, God knows. I’m bored and grumpy and sometimes even desolate up on the altar, too—all the same ups and downs are going on—but I think of how St. Gregory the Great put it centuries ago, speaking as a preacher and teacher:
I know from experience that frequently in the company of my brothers and sisters I have understood many things about the Word of God that on my own I did not succeed in understanding. This is the truth: rather often I tell you that which I hear when I am with you.
I often feel that way as a preacher myself, that I can believe and understand only in the presence of the people, only in the Church, in the liturgy. I’m one way off the altar and one way on, and maybe that’s hypocrisy or maybe not. Maybe it’s the liturgy can accomplish. Maybe it’s the self that through mass we all can make contact with.
It’s why we keep coming back every Sunday, gathered around the table of the Lord: now and then really to be changed, really to be opened up. Transfigured.