The following is a reflection given by the Chaplain, the Rev. Luther Zeigler, at Morning Prayers on November 6, 2013, in Appleton Chapel in Memorial Church on Harvard Yard.
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. . . . Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!’”
Mark 9:2-4, 7-8.
In our Episcopal chaplaincy, our students have embarked upon a bold experiment this semester. We’ve been inviting Episcopal faculty from across the University to join us every other week to study the Bible together.
Naturally, we meet secretly in the basement of our Chaplaincy offices, under the cloak of the evening, lest anyone in the broadly secular culture of Harvard discover this quaint little community of folk who still read the Bible with the hope of hearing God’s voice in it.
It is rather thrilling, to be honest. We feel a little bit like the early Church before Constantine, seeking out a safe and inconspicuous place to practice our faith, not quite fearful of martyrdom, but nevertheless slightly anxious about how our more ‘enlightened’ friends on campus might perceive us.
I say this half-jokingly, of course; but only half-jokingly. It can be challenging to be a religious person at Harvard because the prevailing intellectual culture is so skeptical of what the German scholar, Rudolf Otto, called the numinous – the non-material, extraordinary, dimensions of reality that some of us cherish and regard as mysteriously sacred, but that others have a hard time seeing, much less believing in. Never mind that no less legendary and hardheaded a Harvard philosopher as William James spent much of his scholarly life assessing the bona fides of what he famously called the “varieties of religious experience.”
As it happens, our Bible group’s text for our meeting tonight is the reading I offered at the outset of my talk – the Transfiguration story – which seems serendipitously apt to this discussion of faith in a skeptical world.
According to Mark, Jesus takes his inner group of disciples up to the mountaintop, where they experience a strange and wondrous transfiguration of his person, a divine explosion of radiance. Then, a voice from the heavens announces that this young rabbi, Jesus, is himself the beloved Son of God.
The skeptical, of course, dismiss the story a priori on the grounds that the regularities of the natural world do not allow for such miraculous appearances and voices, so contrary are they to our ordinary experience of the world. Myself, I’m not so cynical as to foreclose the possibility that the “something more” that lurks at the heart of the universe might, from time to time, burst forth in surprising and compelling ways. Indeed, I think something quite remarkable happened on that mountaintop that day to Jesus and his friends, although we’ll never know exactly what.
But the power of the Transfiguration story lies less in the accuracy of its historical detail than it does in its theological insistence that the world we live in has many layers, many dimensions, and that sometimes these dimensions, normally hidden, suddenly explode out of nowhere, challenging our conventional perception of the order of things. In such moments, the veil of ordinariness that usually prevents us from seeing the inside of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller, unbidden reality is disclosed.
Two quick stories to illuminate my point: The first is from my seminary days when we had the privilege of hosting Desmond Tutu for a day. Tutu told us about one of the darker moments during South Africa’s struggles against apartheid in the 1970s. Mandela was in jail, the resistance movement was losing steam, and the white South African government was firmly in power.
In that moment, Tutu said, he felt hopeless. Seeking relief from the despair, he wandered into the garden of a nearby theological college. The date was August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, and in that garden where Tutu sat down to pray he came upon a simple wooden cross. And as he gazed at the Cross, Tutu said it suddenly dawned on him how this wooden cross, once a ghastly instrument of death used by the most powerful empire on earth to crucify those who opposed its power, had been transfigured by Christ’s resurrection into its polar opposite, a symbol of enduring life and hope for billions of people around the globe.
That moment in the garden, Tutu told us, renewed his faith in what he calls the principle of transfiguration: that nothing, no one, and no situation, is ‘untransfigurable,’ and that the whole of creation eagerly awaits its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty that God intends for all persons and all things. And, of course, South Africa’s subsequent history testifies to this faith.
My second transfiguration story is rather different. The first time in human history that a nuclear weapon was used by one nation against another also occurred on the sixth of August, the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima and decimated its people. At the first testing of the bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of its inventors, upon seeing the explosion, quoted the moment in the Bhagavad Gita, when the god Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna in his full, terrible glory: “I have become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer saw in that atomic explosion a transfiguration of scientific achievement into horror and death, just as Tutu saw in the cross a transfiguration of horror and death into a new hope for humanity.
These two transfiguration stories bracket for us a very real and urgent decision – a decision of faith. We can, on the one hand, open our eyes to the glory of God’s radiant self-giving nature, and allow ourselves to be transfigured by the purity of that love into agents for the renewal of this broken world. Or, on the other, we can remain captive to the gods of this world and allow ourselves to be disfigured by a vain preoccupation with our own power, one that too often has been used to destroy.
This little story from the gospels presents us, then, not with some idle miracle tale; but rather with a moment of existential choice about who we are and what we want our world to become. And, I dare say, it also may be why at least some Harvard students and faculty take a moment out of their week to listen for God’s voice in these sacred stories.
Let us pray: “O God of light and life, lead us all up to the mountaintop, pull back the veil of pride that blinds us to your glory, transfigure us with the power of your radiant presence, and then send us back out into the world to be your agents of transfiguring love so that, through us, you might heal all who are hurting, make whole all that is broken, restore all that is lost, and renew the spirits of all who despair. We pray these things in your holy name. Amen.”
Together, let us pray with the words Jesus gave his disciples:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”