Commentary on the Transfiguration
The event we know as the Transfiguration – recalls Jesus’ ascent of Mount Tabor to commune with Moses and Elijah, with Peter, James, and John in tow. This event concludes the season of Epiphany – a season of making manifest, things otherwise hidden.
On the 6th January, the feast of the Epiphany itself, I likened Epiphany to that internal ah hah moment we have when at least for a spilt second we glimpse the larger meaning, or the larger picture forming the deep background against which our lives, are lived out http://relationalrealities.com/2013/01/05/significance-glimpsed/ .
Today it is quite common to refer to the term mountain-top experiences. In psychology we refer to these as peak experiences. As a society we are somewhat addicted to them and this addiction finds no more potent a focus than in the area of our spiritual lives. We read the story of the Transfiguration with a conscious nostalgia for that Biblical world of enchantment, when such things happened. In contrast, the world we live in is one in which we feel profoundly disenchanted, alienated from, yet longing for those moments in which we are transported beyond the narrow confines of our limited imaginations.
The season of Epiphany begins with a glimpsing into the truth that this infant Jesus is none other than the Messiah, the Christ. It ends with another glimpsing of Jesus’ divine identity as he is transfigured in the presence of Moses, Elijah, and three of the disciples. In this experience of Jesus’ transfiguration the significance of Tradition buts hard up against the experience of contemporary life.
At Trinity Cathedral, another version of our tag line where traditional worship encounters contemporary ideas, is, where tradition encounters contemporary life. This is often a hard place to sit, yet it is the place where Anglican Christians insist on sitting. Our Celtic ancestors referred to this hard place also as a thin place. Thin places are those points of experience where the boundaries between tradition as an expression of that which is greater than, and experience become very permeable allowing a deeper insight into the true nature of things to emerge.
A conventional reading of the Transfiguration tends to focus on Jesus, brilliantly illuminated and God’s voice, shrouded in cloud declaring you are my Son. This is usually seen as the central focus of the event, and in one sense it is. However, here I want to emphasize two points.
- It’s the way the Tradition, embodied in Moses and Elijah, and contemporary human experience embodied in the Disciples, encounter one another, that draws my attention. It seems necessary that Tradition and contemporary human experience both witness the glory of God in Christ.
- Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain into the hard reality of every day events. Not only are the disciples disappointed by this, but can we not also hear a tinge of disenchantment when Jesus himself despairs of having to endure life at the level of human experience limited by the imaginative poverty of what he calls perverse and faithless generation?
While we long for an enchanted glimpse of God on the mountain-top, I invite us to realize that the descent from the mountain is more significant for us, living as we are -within the confines of our human experience of the here and now! While the mountain top experience is never quite forgotten, its meaning only becomes clear through the lens of a convergence of the Tradition with the issues faced in life, as we are actually living it!
Exploration of a Point of Convergence
Some weeks ago Rob Smith who is the coordinator for Trinity Outreach Ministries asked if I would address the theme of environmental degradation on February 10th to coincide with the release by the Arizona Interfaith Power & Light of a statement by religious leaders on global climate change. My first response to his request was to want to say no. My intention was to preach a sermon on the psychodynamics of the Transfiguration. Fortunately, one of the things I have learned in those moments such as the one that followed Rob’s request is to allow the no to sound in my head but not come out of my mouth. I smiled and looked meaningfully at Rob as I said – ‘an interesting idea Rob let me think about it.’
The more I thought about it the more intrigued I became with the idea of exploring a possible link between transfiguration and global climate change. For it has become clear to me that there cannot be any more urgent need for convergence between tradition and contemporary life than that presented by the task Rob inadvertently set me. Convergence takes me into a hard place where I am uncomfortable sitting. As a preacher I would be devastated if any of you thought I was being political from the pulpit.
Exploring my discomfort a little more deeply I came upon my desire to avoid thinking about environmental degradation, which is a probable cause of global climate change. My unease is not because I’m a global warming naysayer. For me the discomfort is that the link between environmental degradation and climate change is such a frightening prospect, over which I feel I have no control. I don’t like being confronted by my helplessness in the face of such a terror.
I am not alone in feeling this way and the question is what are we to do? Alone we feel impotent, yet joining our voices to the chorus that increasingly comes to be heard on issues of crucial importance to the future of the human race, confronts our sense of impotency.
At the Heart of Convergence
Oikos is the Greek word for house. In English we have a number of words that share the root meaning of oikos. Ecumenism is the obvious one – meaning all under one roof. I was somewhat surprised to also realize that economics –good management of the house, and ecology – study of the health of the environment provided by the house, are all related. Environmental degradation is an ecumenical, an economic, as well as an ecological issue.
Ecumenism confronts us with the urgency that we are all on this planet together. The human race lives under one roof in a more profound state of interdependency than we like to admit. As other parts of humanity are affected by environmental degradation and climate instability we in the US are not immune to the devastating effects caused by climate change. Trinity Cathedral, through our Millennium Development Goals Group (MDG) is deeply committed to addressing global inequalities. Yet, our energy and financial resources expended in furtherance of the MDG’s will be jeopardized by climate change. We can love and praise God as much as we like, but God will not take us seriously if this is decoupled from Jesus’ second commandment to love our neighbor as our selves.
Ecologically, we are impacted in numerous ways as climate change puts the environment under stress and restricts the range of the human habitat, not to mention the habitat of other species with whom we share, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, this fragile earth our island home (Eucharistic Prayer C). You don’t need me to point out the obvious signs for concern about climate volatility in our own back yard let alone in other parts of the world.
Economically, we note the debates about sharing resources more equitably through a more just global economic system. We automatically fear such developments for our fear is that what we enjoy will be taken from us. Yet, for the first time Americans are being given a taste of the inequalities inbuilt into the global economic order as whole industrial and manufacturing sectors disappear with the outsourcing of jobs and skills.
There is an even more profound discussion to be had concerning philosophies of growth and sustainability. We can all go a little wonky in this area, with some of us advocating more and more growth through business as usual while others seem to preach the only alternative being a back-to-the-future regression to a pre-industrial economy. Sustainability does not mean no to any development.
A Theology of Right Action
It’s fashionable to decry Western Civilization because of its legacy of industrialized exploitation of the earth. This exploitation has been, and continues to be justified by misinterpreting God’s command to subdue the Earth in Genesis 1:28. Yet, the more profound character of Western Civilization is its mastery of technology to provide solutions to the problems of environmental limitation. I refer readers to Langdon Winner’s (1992) Autonomous Technology esp. chapter 3 for an in-depth discussion of this theme which lends itself to the view that sustainability and technological progress go hand in hand.
Ecumenical, ecological and economic solutions to the current issue of environmental degradation and global climate change as one of its inevitable consequences, require two complementary actions:
- We must recommit ourselves to a robust theology of stewardship first enjoined upon us by God in Genesis 1:28. Here, God commands us not only to subdue, but also to replenish the Earth. God commands us to exercise dominion over the Earth, but dominion means to take responsibility for the resources of the Earth entrusted to our care – in short exercise good stewardship defined as tender care.
Stewardship is further defined within the Biblical Tradition in the theology of Jubilee, first set out in Leviticus 25. Here is a recognition that injustice and inequality inevitably come to mark human social and economic relations. The function of the Hebrew Prophets was to provide the social critique that articulated God’s view of how human society should operate.
2.We urgently need to adopt in all our social and economic planning a philosophy of sustainability. A contemporary definition of sustainability is set out in the Brundtland Report as:
… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Micah Challenge page 10 http://www.micahchallenge.org.au/assets/pdf/Theology-of-climate-change.pdf )
A Moment in Time
The encounter between the lives we are living and the Tradition we receive, although a place of tension is necessarily a place of convergence, a moment in time that gives birth to something new. It is now imperative that we glimpse and grasp this moment in time to displace the theology of subjugation and exploitation with a renewed theology of stewardship supported in the secular world by a philosophy of sustainability.
It seems to me that we have reached a tipping point, that moment in time, where future development and prosperity is no longer supportable through the practice of subjugation of the Earth. Our future as a species and as a planet now requires that we replenish the Earth, and where we encounter limitation of supply we resist further plundering the Earth and rely on the ingenuity of our technological cunning to provide sustainable solutions.
All of this relies on a serious changing of our hearts. The Christian Tradition informs us about who we now are through showing us who we have always been. Convergence is a moment in time when who we have been and who we now are mutually inform each another in order that we might discover who we need to become.