After the Light: A Sermon

Today is the last Sunday in the season of the Epiphany—a season that began in January with the Magi encountering the Christ child under the dim light of a secret star, and which now concludes this week as Peter, James, and John encounter the transfigured Christ in searing light atop a wild mountain. 

We actually come upon the Gospels’ transfiguration accounts twice in the Christian year—today, and again in August, on the official Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s worth the double-mention, too, because although we tend to spend a lot more time contemplating Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, it is in the Transfiguration that we find something essential about all those intervening years, when Jesus was the God who lived among us—it gives us an image of just what it looks like for fragile human flesh to be melded with heaven, burning with God’s incandescent glory. Through the eyes of the stunned disciples, we are given a momentary glimpse of the end of all things—time circled back upon itself in eternal communion; our reunion with the wise ancestors and beloved dead who have come before us; all of creation radiating the light of a thousand suns. 

But it is only a glimpse, only a taste, and a good thing, too, because it seems that Peter and James and John cannot bear much more than that. They are stupefied, trembling, stammering, and God quickly, mercifully, bathes them in the protective cover of unseeing, unknowing cloud. Truth is a beautiful, powerful thing, but it is also overwhelming. Then, as now, God deigns to give it to us in small bursts—in those rare, jewel-like moments we call epiphanies—and it is our task, in the cool, quiet interims to string them together, to fashion our epiphanies into whatever sense we can make of them. 

Such moments are so sharp and precious and enduring because much of our life can feel a bit confusing, a bit murky. Rather than receiving a series of brilliant insights, knowing exactly what we must do next, most days we’re just muddling our way through, half-guessing, half-hoping, praying to God that we’ve got it right. 

And on those sorts of days, at least for me, my relationship with Jesus is an unseeing one, untransfigured, a series of hesitant steps through the cloud and fog; in such times I am not quite sure who I am, or who he is, or what he wants of me, only that he is there, that he beckons, and that he is present, not because I see him, but because he has promised that he will be. 

As the monk, author and contemplative Thomas Merton once wrote in prayer, 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

So it is. For anyone—the monk, the mystic, the everyday seeker of God—epiphanies of God’s unambiguous intentions for us are rare. 

And that is why, if I am perfectly honest, I possess some ambivalence about fixating on dramatic epiphanies in this season, as important as they might be. Because for the most part we cannot spend our days chasing them; we have to construct our lives out of humbler things, everyday things. 

So I am resistant when, in reflecting upon the Transfiguration, commentators sometimes focus primarily on Jesus’ hidden glory, his dazzling brilliance, as the main event, the main point of interest in this passage, as if it is just sort of “sneak peek” into heavenly reality where the “true” Jesus is revealed.

Emphasizing a distinction between this transfigured, shiny Jesus and the “regular” old desert-wandering Jesus doesn’t help us much, because it suggests that this mountaintop version is the “real” one, and that seeing and knowing him fully is the stuff of private revelations and mystical visions, reserved for the few and the chosen, far removed from the dirty, hungry, conflict-ridden valleys where most people live and die. 

An exclusive focus on the Jesus of the transfiguration would have us always scrambling up our own proverbial mountaintops in search of ecstatic epiphanies, leaving behind the prosaic, humdrum prayerfulness of daily bread and messy relationships. This will not do.

Because as fashionable as it is these days to talk about and pursue mystical experiences of one kind or another, to strive for the extraordinary, the fact remains that most of our lives are quite ordinary. They are not spent in the blazing light of epiphany. There are dishes to wash. Bills to pay. Zoom meetings to get onto. Kids to get to school. Bodies that grow older, softer, more vulnerable. More questions to fill our days than answers.

As Merton says, we cannot see the road ahead of us, and we cannot know for certain where it will end.

And that is why there is something else that I choose to focus on in the Transfiguration. Something that does give me hope: that this momentary glimpse of the glorious, transfigured, impossibly radiant Jesus is in fact, in all the ways that matter, the exact same Jesus who remains after the vision is over, after the impressive lights and sounds are gone–after there is nothing left on the mountaintop but cold wind and damp rock. When “suddenly…they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” 

Only Jesus. Only the Jesus they already knew, the man, the one in plain, dusty peasant clothes, the one with a face like any other human face, the one who heals and feeds, not with beams of light, but with mud, and breath, and bread and blood and tears…only Jesus, yes, but for all his commoness, not one bit less the eternal Son of God. Not one bit less the Holy Incarnation of light inaccessible.

This is the good news of the transfiguration: that the brilliant, blazing Jesus, and the everyday Jesus—they are one and the same. He is so imbued with Divine love that He carries its power within himself, without spectacle or impressiveness, right back down off that mountaintop, back down into the villages, back down into the landscape of our discontent, back down to you and to me and to every average, confused, hoping, wondering heart. Back to where he is most needed. Back to where he most desires us to follow.

So yes, the Transfiguration is beautiful. Yes, epiphanies are special and ought to be treasured. But let us not obsess too much over hidden brilliance, lest we spend our entire lives chasing after the wrong type of wisdom, missing the obvious, simple beauty right in front of us. Jesus is here, now, consoling us in the middle of our fear and our loneliness and our sickness, and tenderly blessing our best, imperfect attempts to be kind, to be brave, to be true. 

He is satisfied to love you and to teach you here how to build the kingdom of God with the same earthy, everyday tools that he once used to begin it: your hands, your heart, your hope. 

That’s true whether we see clearly or whether we do not. Whether we are impressive or just ourselves. It is only us that Jesus requires. Only you and me, trying our best, in the world we have been given. 

This, in the end, is the only epiphany that we need. 

Love and Order: Rethinking Everything

I recently offered this reflection as part of an online retreat at Trinity, Fort Wayne, All Shall Be Well: Hope for Hard Times with Julian of Norwich. Julian’s text, Revelations of Divine Love, is one of the classics of Christian mysticism.

We are coming up on almost a year of a shared experience of disruption and disorder. In the past 10 months or so, we’ve had to adapt in major ways to the conditions around us—the pandemic, of course, being the factor that has altered our daily lives in the most obvious ways, though it is certainly not the only challenge we’ve had to face. 

I’ve had conversations with so many people over the past year, including some of you, about how hard these times feel for so many of us, and the sense of loss that many of us are experiencing. We even devoted a whole retreat last summer to the theme of Lament in Christian life, as we struggle to figure out how our shared sense of loss fits into our relationship with God.

But today we’re talking about hope, the kind of hope that survives hard times—not a vague type of hope, not the sort that ignores the bad stuff or glosses it over, but the kind of hope that acknowledges it, doesn’t try to candy-coat it, and yet persists in look for something deeper, more real, than whatever our present circumstances might be.

For Julian of Norwich, that hope was founded upon a vision of God’s enduring, undying, all-pervading LOVE, something that she witnessed and engaged with firsthand in her mystical visions of Christ. At the every end of her text, she writes,

“You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else—ever!”

Julian discovered that it is love, more than anything else, that characterizes WHO God is (identity), HOW God acts (methodology) and WHY God does so (purpose).  And from that, we might conclude that love is also OUR identity, our methodology, and our purpose for being–we who have been made in God’s image. It is, in the end, all that there is to know about being human. 

This isn’t something Julian pulled out of thin air, of course—Scripture attests to it in many ways. Consider 1 John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

But I will admit that we might talk about God’s love and God AS love so often that we’ve dulled the impact a bit. We might have lost a sense of what a radical statment this actually is, the claim that love—not political power, not personal control, not wealth, not ritual purity, nor anything else but LOVE—is the fundamental reality from which everything else grows and finds its significance. 

Because we might SAY that love matters a lot to us—at church, in our families, among friends—but do we actually relate to the circumstances of life in a way that acknowledges love’s primacy over all else? 

Do we center love in our perception of what is happening and what is required of us in any given moment, or do we view it as a derivative of other preconditions, like security or knowledge or success?

If you have ever said to yourself (as I certainly have): “If I can only get this one thing sorted out…if I can only get this one person in my life to agree that I am right…if I can just save enough money, or lose enough weight, or get the right job…and THEN I will have all the capacity in the world to love–to be patient and kind. THEN, I promise, Lord, I will never say another nasty thing, I’ll be compassionate and loving toward everyone I meet…after I get this one thing in order.”

Then we start to realize that perhaps something else in our lives is taking precedence over the mandate of love; the urgency of love. And that perhaps we have been conditioned to think that something else must come first, before love can flourish in our lives. 

And what is that “something else”? I would argue that it is the idea of order.

For a very long time, our culture has taught that God– the kingly ruler–desires order above all else, and that the primary work of Christ is repairing the DISorder that sin has wrought upon our lives. We have built insitutions and regulations and moral inventories to attest to this. And in this schema, we must first participate in God’s vision of order and only THEN we can experience the fullness of God’s love. 

And that might seem well and good and sensible when things are flowing smoothly, when the system functions.

But what about when things go wrong for us and for those around us, as they often tend to do?

Consider this example: a person lives a relatively “normal” and well-ordered life, doing all of the things expected in their cultural context, working hard, maybe raising a family, being a generally conscientous citizen. And then, the bottom drops out. They get sick. They lose their livelihood. Their family falls apart. Their life is in complete disarray. They might wonder why “God has abandoned them” or “how they have offended God” to be punished in such a way. The apparent disorder of their life suggests to them that God is far from them.

But is this true? Is God only present to those with well-ordered lives, or is there something more profound, something deeper even than this, that bonds us to the Divine Life? 

Lady Julian would tell us, yes, there is something deeper than God’s sense of order—and it is  his love. Her claim is that God’s love underlies everything, it sustains everything, and thus it cannot be taken away or made inaccessible, even and especially in those moments when the circumstances of life all seem to be going wrong. 

Her famous statement that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” which Jesus says to her in her vision, is not a platitude, but a bold assertion that God’s love will continue to find a way, even amid the most hopeless, disordered situations—and that nothing, not even death and suffering, not even the devil himself, can inhibit God’s love for us or frustrate God’s plan to reconcile all things in that love.

Julian looks at the world, and at herself, and she is under no illusion about the realities of brokenness. She is fully aware that there is disorder, disease, death, and sin. And yet, the fundamental thrust of her visions is that everything is going to be OK, becasue underneath all of that apparent disorder, there is God’s love, which WILL NOT FAIL. God’s love keeps coming up through the cracks, like a weed-flower that refuses to die.

And thus, for her, it is love, not order, which is the lens through which we should view and assess EVERYTHING and EVERYONE, including ourselves. Rather than wonder: how high do I rank, how well do I fit, how far have I fallen, we must ask, instead, how deeply have I loved? How freely have I forgiven? How gently, how heartfully have I trod the tender, ravaged places of the earth?

Those places are everywhere. We’re in a moment where we, like the person in our earlier example, might be feeling a great sense of loss, frustration, or isolation. All the plans we might have had are upended, suspended, or ruined. But rather than see this disorder as a punishment or even as an impediment to our relationship with God, we might instead hunt through the rubble of our great expectations and figure out where love is springing up like that hopeful weed and then tend to it, letting it carpet the bruised soil, growing a garden in the ruins.

Because the miraculous thing is that love can ALWAYS be found unfurling itself, can always be sown and nurtured, in even the most dire circumstances, even in the seasons of our deepest disappointment, even when order is fractured. For order, as we have seen of late, is a fragile thing, but love…love is tenacious. It cannot die, because it is the essence of life. It is God’s very self. And it is everywhere, always.

“The fullness of joy is to see God in all things,” Julian writes. Once we lay claim to love as the fundamental nature of who God is (and who we are) then we realize that such joy can never be taken away, because it is dependent on no outer circumstance. It is pure gift, given and received, in the ordered times and the messy ones—always present, always ours.

If you take nothing else away from this reflection, I hope you will hear this: God doesn’t need you to be fully in order, in order to love you. God doesn’t need your house to be fully in order before he comes to abide with you, to work with and in and through you. God is reaching out to you, an unfurling tendril, even at this very moment, even in these hard times, longing to love you, because love is the point of contact between all that He is and all that He has made.

Love is his meaning. And ours. And, as it was for Lady Julian, that is the cause for much joy, and for much hope.