+ in the name…
It’s been a weather-week. We’ve had Doris; she was a bit cross. It’s a bit flat and gloomy now. But earlier this week we had some of those days when the sun is shining and its warmth breaks through the crisp chill on our skin, we feel enlivened and encouraged. Slowly, (following such a cold and relentlessly grey few months), we get a message that spring may, just may, be emerging. These days give us hope, they warm the heart, remind us of the promise of summer, and the cycles of the seasons. They tell us that the laden clouds cannot extinguish the blue sky, the cloud cannot contain the sun forever.
What if we could keep days like these forever. Somehow capture their essence… ?
What if there was a way to put the colours, sounds and smells into a jar, a box, or onto a memory stick and refer to it whenever we needed to?
What if we could contain wonder?
These readings today, are full of rich imagery, bizarre happenings, and not a small amount of humour. This glorious moment, a moment of great revealing, is told as a remembered narrative – and is therefore difficult for us to comprehend. We know though, that the disciples who followed Jesus; Peter, James and John, suddenly understood something they had not realised before.. a most wonderful vision unfolding before them.. something that connected them to the history of their ancestors, to the cosmos and to the ‘Glory’ of God. The saw a bigger picture!
Whatever happened, it was clearly a moment of wonder and awe.
And what did the disciples try to do with such breathtaking moments? They try to build a tent around them! … To capture, contain and hold on.
We do the same today, of course, it’s natural in many ways… we photograph and record precious moments; try to preserve memories—to hold them as reminders.
Messages from the past sent into the future, “this was then, when everything was great! And we all got along so well”. We record the bits we want to know in the future… and we put behind us the darker edges.
It was understandable that the disciples wanted to do this…. They were awestruck…. * ‘How can we make this moment last forever?’.
But history tells us that this wonder would not last… and the story would get darker again… as the shadow of Jerusalem’s final call looms over the narrative. (A different glory was about to be revealed… but we’ll come to that later through Lent and Easter!)
What if we could contain wonder?
History evades us, life is fluid, God eludes our borders…
Let’s enter these magical stories, this wonder which cannot be contained, and experience the drama and the similarities in the OT & NT readings today, and think about God and Jesus and faith are described;
Moses went up Mount Sinai, and a cloud covered it. The dazzling light of the Lord’s presence came down on the mountain. To the Israelites the light looked like a fire burning on top of the mountain. The cloud covered the mountain for six days, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from the cloud. Moses went on up the mountain into the cloud.
Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. As they looked on, a change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun, and his clothes were dazzling white. Then the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.
In both stories there is a mountain ascent; Sinai, or Herob, or maybe our own mountain places offering ‘the solace of fierce landscapes’…. Why did the desert fathers and mothers, the first mystics of the early church, go to deserts or mountains, what was the silence and emptiness they sought, what did they think they would find in total emptiness? And going up requires a journey, struggle, breathlessness, fear maybe.. wild spaces beyond the norm.
Maybe you’ve had times in natural environments, wild places, where suddenly you feel a deeper awareness or presence to being alive? Wild places beyond safety, beyond the neat tidy lawns of our imagined worlds. Wild places where pain, suffering, ecstasy or joy break through. The wild places of people other than us, different to us, who can show us new worlds and fresh perspectives.
So Peter spoke up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how good it is that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was talking, a shining cloud came over them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
So Elijah and Moses who both had luminous experiences on mountains are suddenly here on a mountain with Jesus? The author is connecting the stories together, weaving the wonder that the disciples encountered in Jesus into the bigger picture of liberating Hebrew history…
And then a cloud; a dark, shining cloud… remember we are in a story-world (DavidRhoads 2004), we are not expected to believe this is a literal thing, we are in a realm of imagination which is even more powerful. The cloud is used to describe allude to God; it is how Moses and the disciples experience God; uncontainable, unknowable, mysterious…
You’ve heard me speak of the apophatic theology before—what God is not…
Well these are truly apophatic accounts; a bewildering mystery, ungraspable, evoking wonder, glory, terror and awe. What would Moses or the disciples have made of this? Imagine yourself there… the amazement, the delight, the fear
A God so beyond our crude simplistic niceties, beyond cliché, beyond anything we can imagine, beyond our own words… the best they can suggest is a shining light, a blinding light maybe, what the mystics called ‘a dazzling darkness’.
When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground. Jesus came to them and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid!” So they looked up and saw no one there but Jesus. As they came down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen”
Don’t tell, don’t speak, and don’t use words. Be silent in the presence of this wonder.. Words, images, doctrines & synods can so easily quell the elusive mystery, so limit our imaginations.
The danger of trying to contain the moments where we experience God, is revealed through the excesses of religion and particularly its intolerance. Sectarianism, exclusion and war all happen when we try to contain the very effervescent life that we yearn for. When we build borders around experience and when we try to define too closely what it means to be us, as a community or a nation. When we try to constrict the wild spirit of life, (the Wild Goose of celtic imagery), we end up numbing life. God slips through our fingers and escapes.
There is a danger we can do that even here today. When we say the Eucharist is a remembering we have to be sure what kind of remembering it is… Too often the church seems like it is looking backwards, holding on to something from the past, feeling threatened and uncertain about the shifting sands of culture.
But that is not our remembering at the altar, not a clinging after better days of church, glory, certainty and obedience.
No, this remembering, this memorial, (or anamnesis), is actually a rehearsal of what has been… in order to anticipate what is yet to come.
It is an enactment of a new world of love, vulnerability, and compassion which emerges in the mystery of the Eucharist and in the body; the body of the church, the body of the congregation, the body of humanity.
The remembering is all about now—this moment—be(com)ing within ourselves the memory of future hope …
Can we contain wonder?
One of the challenges we face as human beings is learning to live in the moment, to savour and enjoy the place where we are now. To breathe the air, to feel the warmth of sunlight upon the skin and to relish now. There are many suggestions for how we might ‘live in the moment’ from meditation, or art, or looking at nature.. each of us have our own ways.. it might be as simple as going for a walk, or taking time to share a coffee and conversation with a friend.
The spring is hinting at us, this week’s sunshine reminds us. But what if everyday were spring? If there were never any storms? If we did not experience the restlessness, the yearning, the unsettledness of life, then the magic of these days would be lost.
Can we contain wonder?
Just like those lucky disciples, we need days of glory, moments of awe and wonder. They inspire and enrich us and their memory lingers. But as much as we hold them we also need to let them go.
We need days of greyness and darkness too. For it’s in the collage of light and dark, in the warp and the weft, in the kaleidoscope of experience that we become human; and God – whose wonder always provokes love – is both hidden and revealed in a cloud of unknowing.