The Edge of Innocence


(Spectrumbot) #1

To choose what is difficult all one’s days

As if it were easy, that is faith. —W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

I have been thinking about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. It features in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it is a story that somehow connects heaven and earth, faith and doubt, God visible and God hidden, the past, the future, and the present — and so it is a subject for a New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day we come the closest to innocence that we are capable of as adults during the cycle of seasons in the year. We are done with the old year and its failures. We’ve shed that year like a snake sheds its skin, and we look to the new year with a touching naiveté, believing that if we want to fly, we can make it so. We will make new beginnings, we’ll have a breakthrough, all our false starts will fade away. Never mind all the home gym equipment that was set up in the basement with such resoluteness the day after Christmas, only to appear on the curb in March with the rest of the trash.

And so, we keep at it, this starting again and making promises to ourselves, because we absolutely must have a way to break up the surge of time and divert it at intervals. If December 31 is the lowest trough of the year, then New Year’s Day is the wave crest. End and beginning curve back to touch each other like one of Einstein’s sinkholes in time.

At the bottom of the worn-out year, scraping the barrel as it were, all the social norms for many ancient civilizations could be reversed or at least suspended for one night. Kings could be dissed without fear, peasants could don kingly robes. For a few hours, in a bacchanal celebration, all the fears and anxieties of the year could be discarded like old rags. It was a time for the expulsion of sins, for starting afresh, for the regeneration of time itself.

Recently, I read a news article about a dairy farmer who was finally selling off his cows after four decades of running the family farm. “It is said that farmers get forty chances,” he wrote in conclusion. “I’ve had my forty and I’m getting out.” Forces beyond his control had made it impossible to carry on, despite the efforts of him and his family. The plight of small family farms only highlights how important it is to us that we have a chance to start over.

Our lives are played out in an arena of paradoxical claims, as we try to unite opposing elements. “Be ye therefore perfect” sniffs at “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” “Why has thou cast us off, O God? Is it for ever? Why art thou so stern, so angry with the sheep of thy flock?” gapes in disbelief at “The Lord’s love never fails those who fear him.” For those who search for God with all their hearts, the wry observation of R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, rings true:

…He is such a fast

God, always before us and

leaving as we arrive. —R. S. Thomas, Pilgrimages

We may be breathless to keep the back of God within sight, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s offers a chance to catch one’s breath. It is a fertile field of both regret and promise, of challenge and joy, of surrender to the Incarnation and determination for the year ahead. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reveals the poles-apart thinking of the disciples; we see his glory revealed even as his compassion drives him deep into the common suffering of the world, and he is shadowed by the ordeal to come.

He had taken three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of what might have been Mount Tabor or maybe Mount Herman, leaving the other disciples at the foot of the mountain where they soon attracted a crowd. The three accounts in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are substantially the same, with Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark’s core story, but adding significant details of their own.

Maybe Jesus anticipated what was in store for him on the mountain, or maybe he just needed to get away for a bit with his three good friends. In any case, there is an eerie resemblance to his night of sorrow in Gethsemane. The same three disciples are close to him while Jesus has a divine encounter; in Luke’s gospel account the disciples grow heavy with weariness and fall asleep, and Peter — bless him — speaks and acts in ways that Jesus must reject or risk losing his focus.

The outlines of the story are simple enough. Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain, when Jesus is suddenly radiant with light, his robe so white that it is almost blinding. Two resplendent figures appear and the three of them speak together.

The symmetry is arresting: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bookend Jesus with support just as he is growing into the conviction that he will die violently at the hands of authorities, religious and political, in Jerusalem. (An aside: how did the disciples know who they were? Were there introductions all round?) The disciples are both awed and terrified, so much so that Peter is babbling giddily about constructing three shelters when a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground, overcome, and the apparitions vanish, leaving Jesus to touch the disciples: “Stand up,” he says, “do not be afraid.” And when they raise their heads, they are alone with Jesus.

What were they talking about? Luke tells us they “spoke of his departure, the destiny he was to fulfill in Jerusalem.” On the way down the mountain Jesus tells the three not to talk of what they have seen until he has been raised from the dead. Ah, they say, apparently unfazed by talk of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. In Matthew’s account the disciples raise a question on a technicality. Wasn’t Elijah’s appearance supposed to precede all this? Yes, responds Jesus, Elijah has already come, but nobody recognized him. “Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.” What remains unremarked upon by the disciples is that this future event, Elijah preceding the Messiah, is already in motion. John the Baptist is dead, the Messiah is Jesus, and he is going to die.

When they reach the bottom of the mountain, they see a commotion in the crowd gathered there. A man has brought his epileptic son to the disciples to be healed — and they can’t do it. The father implores Jesus to heal his son and Jesus explodes: “What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you all? Bring your son here.” There is a final convulsion as the boy writhes on the ground, the demon departs, and Jesus hands the boy back to his father. Mark up another victory against the forces of darkness. All’s well that ends well, right?

If we were filming this episode, we would have used tight shots on the contorted face of the boy, closeups on Jesus as he casts out the demon, and then a slow zoom out to encompass the crowd, ecstatic at the miraculous healing, filled with admiration and awe for the power of Jesus. Luke says that after this Jesus went indoors and the disciples, those who had remained at the foot of the mountain, had a private word. Why couldn't we cast out the demon? they ask. Well, says, Jesus, this kind takes prayer.

***

Pull the cameras back into a high, wide shot stretching to the horizon, high and behind a group of tiny figures making their way south on the Jerusalem road. We know that Jesus has set his face like flint toward the holy city and that ahead of him lies the final conflict and his approaching death. Nothing is scripted here, no one’s hand is being forced; each actor in this drama sets his own lines and actions, according to his will. The events jerk and tilt toward their bureaucratic finality in a way that seems, in retrospect, foreordained, but for those caught up in it the outcome is realized too late.

***

For us, poised on the cusp of the new year, the transfiguration offers us a way into the times ahead. The Incarnation has been our transcendental experience on the mountain top, our unexpected blessing coming out of the darkness; we would like to remain there — if only for a few more days. It’s a time when people seem to set aside their egos and think of others. If they — we — can do that consciously for several days, why can’t we continue? Perhaps we can keep that going for a week and then New Years’ can act like a slingshot to keep us in orbit above the Earth.

“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey. “But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves, ‘This is it… everything fits… all I ever hoped for is here.’” This is what Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountain with Jesus. “This is the experience of the fullness of time,” writes Nouwen. “These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away, and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”

But we can’t remain on the mountain top, up there in the glorious light with revered figures from our past. Down below, back in the world, there are the constant reminders that suffering continues and that we are not complete. This kind takes prayer, says Jesus.

Up ahead are trials, but also moments of transcendent joy, communion, beauty. We are blessed by the Spirit, by the epiphanies granted to us that open us to a steadfast courage. There are crosses up ahead, no doubt, but Spring is coming and there is a resurrection.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: Stephen Pedersen / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9317

(Bill Garber) #2

What an inspiring vision for 2019, Barry!

Timely not only by the launch of another circle of the sun, but the more so as Seventh-day Adventists are being hounded to unify.

This is it … everything fits … alll I ever hoped for is here is always an awareness, never an achievement. Unity is discovered, never dictated.

The first Seventh-day Adventists before they discovered the Sabbath, realized just this. Reflecting from the perspective of years later, they testify that ‘the most sublime sense of God’s presence of our lifetime’ was first realized in anticipation of the momentary return of Jesus the evening of October 22, 1844. And then realized much more memorably as the sun sliced through the cracks of their sheltering barn the morning of October 23, 1844. In the morning light they realized that by the whole of their Millerite understanding having just been ‘blasted’ --their word, in the midnight darkness just past, God’s presence was sensed independently of scriptural rationalization.

How else to explain the determined response to credal inquiries of Seventh-day Adventists as nothing more specific than, ‘The Bible is our creed.’ Faith precedes all theology, does it not? Still?

Was it this reality that resonated with Seventh-day Adventists through their experience of Ellen White’s life as an incarnation of God’s affirmation of them, warts and all until her death in 1915? Indeed still does? It seems so, considering that she never initiated a single common belief among Seventh-day Adventists nor did she ever traffic in her esteemed position as a commonly sensed incarnation of God’s presence to take sides in theological debates and pick a winner, according to historian George Knight.

So we launch into 2019, like former and founding Seventh-day Adventists unified by the sense that our sense of God is and remains preeminent to mere theology.

Truly inspiring here on the edge of innocence, January 1, 2019.


(Robert Lindbeck) #3

I know this is such an incidental point but I have often wondered the same thing. Perhaps there were portaits hanging in the national gallery in Jerusalem?

What is not an incidental point is the confidence demonstrated by the transfiguration. Even before then, the raising of Moses is a huge act of self confidence by God. Before the crucifixion, no human had a “right” to eternal life - not by their own works and neither by redemption. Three people are recorded as being granted eternal life prior to the crucifixion. In each case God is saying to the Universe, in essence “Trust Me. I will do what I am planning.”

Moses and Elijah would have been known by Christ. They would have been able to provide a huge comfort and boost to Him “This is what you are fighting for.”

Honour, comfort, confidence…a simple story that has so many aspects wrapped up in it.


(James Peterson) #4

I will show you, Robert, how is it the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah. I know you’re quoting Barry here; and Bil, a little while ago, did not address the issue in his post.


See? If you had read ONLY that of all the things on Spectrum, how could you have determined that there were at least four people posting on the site and who they were?

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(James Peterson) #5

The thing that bothered Jesus Christ was the perception the disciples harboured of His ministry. They anticipated something glorious of it. So, “from that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things …” Mat. 16:21.

  • More than that was that one of them, one of his very own, was going to betray Him. That is why He took the three with Him up on the mountain; and left Judas with the rest down below. Now you can understand the strange emotion conveyed in His words towards them when they could not cast out the demon from the boy, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Mat. 17:17

  • The transfiguration was a miracle meant for Peter, James and John to show them that the glory at the end was through the shame of the cross.“And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Luke 9:31-31. And to reinforce the idea that, indeed, there was glory to come: Moses and Elijah were living proof; but the cross was going to come first.

  • It is from that point in His ministry, that Jesus was going to begin drawing the line between Himself and Judas and to reveal more and more the difference in expectation and character. He warned, “Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men. But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.” Luke 9:44-45


Jesus’ transfiguration before Peter, James and John was like an inoculation against the dreadful sickness of overwhelming disappointment to come, like boards and canned food against the pommeling of a hurricane rapidly approaching, like the topics on a test at the end of the semester that a teacher gives his favourite students in advance.

YES, 2019 WILL NOT BE GOOD, BUT BE OF GOOD CHEER. GOD WILL NEVER FORSAKE US.

2 Peter 1:13-19

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