Transfigured Eyes

Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2016 || Last Epiphany C || Luke 9:28-36

transfiguredeyesEvery year on the Sunday before Lent begins, we read this Gospel lesson. We call it the story of the Transfiguration, which is a fancy way of saying “something turning into something else, usually a more beautiful something else.” And if we stopped there with the label we apply to the story, we would get something out of it to strengthen our faith. We would see some evidence that Jesus was really whom he said he was, since his face changed and his clothes dazzled and two famous dead prophets came round for a chat. But I don’t think this evidence is really what Luke means for us to get out of this story. I don’t even think the term “Transfiguration” applies to Jesus. Rather, since the whole story is told from the disciples’ perspective, I think they are the ones who are “transfigured.” I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you about my fifth grade science fare project.

While many of my friends were slapping papier-mâché over chicken wire frames to make baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, I was enamored by the properties of light. So for my project, I procured a small triangular prism, glued it inside a shoebox, and positioned a penlight to shine at the prism. Then I cut a slit in the box so the judges could see the subtle rainbow made when the white light broke apart into every child’s mnemonic friend, ROY G. BIV. (That’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet for those of you who never met Roy in school.) I remember feeling so proud of that science project, like I had done magic by shining light through a prism. My mother hung prisms in the most sun-drenched windows of our house, so we always had rainbows dancing on the walls, and now I had captured one in a shoebox!

In the end, however, the explosive grandeur of the baking soda and vinegar volcanoes ruled the day, and I did not take home a blue ribbon. But because of my research I did find a way to rationalize my loss. “That blue ribbon is no better than my yellow ‘honorable mention’ ribbon,” I told myself. “It only appears blue because it reflects a certain wavelength of the visible spectrum.” See, I learned something!

I also learned that we humans see because light breaks open in predictable ways. Objects absorb, reflect, and refract light in particular patterns, which allow our brains to catalog them. The first Genesis creation story begins with God saying, “Fiat Lux!” (God speaks in Latin, didn’t you know?) “Let there be light!” Why? Well, because from the human perspective, we need light to give everything else definition and vibrancy. And yet, the light we see is a teeny, tiny part of the spectrum – just a 300 nanometer band, in fact.

Of course, we often labor under the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists, despite all evidence to the contrary. We listen to the radio. We microwave leftovers. We sunburn. All these things happen due to parts of the (electromagnetic) spectrum that we can’t see. But they are just as real as our friend, ROY G. BIV.

Now, the jump from science to theology is a short one here. When he takes the three disciples up the mountain, Jesus also negates the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists. “And while he was praying,” Luke tells us, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The appearance of his face changed. Peter, James, and John see Jesus in a different and more glorious way than they had seen him before. In this moment on the mountaintop, Jesus gives his friends the gift of seeing him with transfigured eyes. They are used to seeing a dusty traveler with ruddy skin weathered by so many nights out of doors. But now they see him as God sees him: a luminous being shimmering in the light of God’s glory and favor. Their transfigured eyes see him for once unfettered by any notion of the usual expectation of humanity. Their transfigured eyes see into their collective memory, see connection to the prophets of old. And their transfigured senses continue to expand when their ears hear a voice that commands them to listen to Jesus.

I’m sure the experience overwhelmed Peter, James, and John. It certainly left them speechless. Just imagine if suddenly you could see the rest of the spectrum: the gamma and x-rays speeding by, the ultraviolet and infrared light expanding your vision, all the other waves crowding your visual cortex. I think I might last about half a second before my brain just stopped working, overloaded by the torrent of stimulation. If the disciples felt anything like that when they saw the true and radiant reality of Jesus on the mountaintop, then it’s no wonder Peter just started rambling incoherently.

The point of this whole thought exercise is to focus us on the following questions. As we approach Lent, a season of rededication to spiritual practice and realignment of skewed priorities, what encompasses the limited spectrum through which each of us views our possibilities? What blinders have we affixed to our eyes that keep us from seeing all the possibilities that God’s grace illuminates around us? And how can we receive the same gift Jesus gave his friends, the gift of transfigured eyes?

Too often we shackle ourselves to the tyranny of the currently possible. The spectrum we see is the one we were taught or the one we are used to or the one we are comfortable with. But there is so much more than the currently possible. Who could have predicted a hundred years ago the technology we have today? And who can predict where your faith might lead you tomorrow if you decide to take a risk today, to trust God today, to say “yes” to something today?

Too often we affix blinders to our eyes so that we see only one path. It’s just so much easier to keep our heads down and trudge along. But the truth of the matter is that our path is not a single road, but a person. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he never meant for us to separate the three. Our path is a dynamic one, full of choices and consequences, and it takes a lifetime, but we never walk the path alone.

Too often we see only what we expect to see. And so we pray for transfigured eyes so we might catch glimpses of how God sees. This Lent, I invite you to join me in praying for such eyes. Each day for practice, make a point to notice something you’ve never, ever seen before. Today’s something might be bird in flight at sunset. Tomorrow’s might be the shape of your child’s face, so different now than it was a year ago. The next day’s might be the lettering on the cardboard sign of a silent and bundled figure at the traffic light. Whatever you see, engage it with appreciation or concern or thanksgiving. Practice noticing. Train your eyes to see past the surface to God’s dazzling reality underneath. That’s what transfigured eyes are for: to discover God’s glorious presence at the heart of all things, and to be thankful.

The Inlet

(I wrote the following piece in the Spring of 2008, and happened upon it when I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. Some of the temporal language is now dated, but I left the piece as is to preserve its integrity.)

Theologian Sallie McFague identifies the earth as “the new poor.”* The planet, once bursting with bounty and hiding secrets in great swaths of unexplored terrain, now groans under the weight of post-industrial consumption and post-common sense insatiability. The earth has become poor (and a victim of exploitation, rape, and mutilation) in much the same way people become poor: the rich deny access to resources and opportunities. The sense of entitlement over the earth’s riches has grown over the last several hundred years (along with our gluttonous appetites). The Western Christian view of the earth—which, during the medieval period, was full of awe, respect, and fear—has morphed into one of utility, ambition, and domination. We have made the earth poor because we see it simply as an object, argues McFague.

There is another way. Rather than objectifying the earth, rather than possessing the earth as a thing to be used, abused, and discarded, McFague pleads with us to see the world as we see our loved ones—as subjects. Seeing the earth as another subject just as we ourselves are subjects gives us the opportunity to enter into mutual, sustainable relationships with the earth based on love and respect. McFague calls this model “the loving eye.”

Last autumn, I changed the route I take when I drive to church and discovered what she means by this loving eye. A left at the Belle Haven Golf Course sends me a Par Five’s distance down a residential street toward the George Washington Parkway, where I turn right and follow the Potomac River for about five minutes until I reach my parish. Sun-polished leaves of every green hue dance on the branches of trees, which arch toward one another above the parkway, making a dappled, living tunnel. On my left, the river peek-a-boos every now and again when the trees thin, and groves of white masts, rooted in anchored sailboats, mingle with the tree trunks. I sit up a little straighter in my seat. My eyes drift to the trees and the river beyond. And then, for the briefest of moments, I see my spot.

A small inlet in the river reaches to the road. The water tiptoes in and out of the little cove, treading softly around the three or four dead trunks that still stand in the shallows. On cloudless mornings, dawn gilds the somersaulting waves with new light, and the overhanging trees reflect swaying twins in the water. These deep green reflections merge with the morning light, mixing the color of sparkling possibility. All the energy of the dawn and the river and the swaying trees infuses me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such potent imagination. That is spring.

In winter, the water still treads lightly in and out of the cove, but, on certain January Sundays, ice reaches out from the bank, halting the tumbling waves. The dead trunks hide behind a low fog, which crawls along the surface of the water. When the cold sun penetrates the clouds, it shines through the winter scaffolding and silhouettes the bare trunks and branches. All the deliberateness of the ice and the fog and the sleeping branches deepens me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such quiet solemnity.

In autumn, the trees shed their uniformity. The water exults to mirror the new apparel in swirling reflections of amber and crimson. Dropping leaves spiral down, catching the morning light. They float on the water and cluster at the bases of the dead trunks. Dawn ignites the trees, making their leaves shimmer and blaze. The wind ruffles the surface of the water—no tiptoeing this time, only cartwheels. The light glances off each wave’s crest and each yellow leaf, doubling the morning’s fervent brightness. All the elation of the wind and the light and the flaming leaves elevates me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such riotous innovation.

I have never driven past my spot in the summer, but I imagine the inlet displaying a worn, comfortable version of the sparkling possibility of spring. Soon, I will no longer be driving that way on Sundays. At times, I have contemplated pulling my car over to snap a picture of the spot. But each time I travel down the living tunnel, I decide to keep driving by. Deep down, I discover that I have no desire to capture the image of that blessed spot. How can I hope to tell the story of such a place in a photograph? Capturing its image truly would be a confinement. I would preserve one instant of two-dimensional facsimile when the original has such light and movement and possibility. The depth of reflection would flatten. The waves would no longer tumble. The wind would disappear. If I took that picture, I would cease to remember that spot in my imagination. I would lose what I had sought to preserve. In a sense, I would take the life from a place that has infused my life with such energy, such ardent joy.

So I leave my camera at home. I prefer to keep the ever-changing image of that spot in my heart. It continues to kindle within me the spontaneous thanks of a creature for all the potent imagination, quiet solemnity, and riotous innovation with which the Creator has blessed creation.

The spot brings out McFague’s loving eye in me, and I find myself asking the water and wind and trees for forgiveness—for myself and for our entire post-common sense establishment. During the same lecture in which we discussed McFague’s work, my seminary theology professor reached back to the medieval era and borrowed the idea of Haecceitas from thinker Duns Scotus. He was not content to know a forest or a species of tree or flower. He wanted to know each particular white oak, each individual daffodil. And in so knowing, rejoice that God also knows those trees and flowers for God created them. And in so rejoicing, praise God for the craft, detail, and unsurpassed beauty seen in the particularity of creation. I pray for these Haecceitas eyes. I pray that soon we will all see the earth as a subject, a poor subject in need of enriching relationships. And I pray that the inlet remains in my heart, urging me to look with love on God’s creation.


* Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians