February 10, 2013

Rev. David Boyd


What should we make of this story of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop? Were the disciples short of oxygen as they made their way to the top of the mountain of the transfiguration such that they were seeing hallucinations? Is this a resurrection story of Luke's that has become displaced from the end of the gospel to nearer the beginning? Is this a story to wag a finger at us for wanting to preserve sublime spiritual moments? Or is this Luke's way of telling us something about Jesus' awe-inspiring identity?

It may be a bit of all of these things, but I think the primary reason for the gospel writers to include this story is that it says something about the identity of Jesus and the awe-inspiring nature of life. The story comes mid-way in Jesus' ministry and maybe it serves as a reminder to the disciples and the followers of Jesus, and really to us, the reader of this gospel, of just who Jesus is. Jesus is God's beloved, God's chosen one, who has authority. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, a la Moses, and the prophets, a la Elijah. Jesus has come to renew the Law of Love and to prophetically proclaim God's Commonwealth, where love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace will be radically shared in the world as Shalom.

What this story has always instilled in me is a sense of awe. I identify with this story because I like to get to the tops of mountains. I'm always disappointed if we arrive at the top in cloud or if we decide that we're not going to make a peak because we've run out of steam. Now, I'm not a mountain climber; I'm a hiker, but I've climbed most of the peaks around Nelson and am left every time with a profound sense of awe. Perhaps we need a greater sense of awe as we identify Jesus as the embodiment of God's love and as we live our lives.

While I was away in Victoria, Alanna, Faser and I went to a movie. We had a bit of difficulty deciding on what movie to see. I wanted to see an IMAX movie, but there was nothing showing that we all 3 could agree on. One of the movies playing was The Life of Pi. I'd read the book and said I wouldn't mind seeing it; but I also said that if there was something else that they'd like to see, I'm game. Well again, there was nothing that the three of us could agree on so we went to The Life of Pi. And was it worth it!!!

I found the movie a brilliant visual masterpiece. I was simply awe-struck. There were so many scenes that were absolutely stunning; did I mention that it was also in 3D? How many of you saw it? I was entertained, but more importantly, I was moved. We left the movie theatre quite quietly — no raucous release after the movie ends. We were thoughtful and literally awe-struck. It was a beautiful and moving movie. I've raved about it with many people since I've seen it and I don't often rave about things. I was glad I saw it on the big screen to see the dazzling stars reflected on a still ocean. To see whales swimming below the ocean was simply stunning.

Also while I was away I picked up a book of the essential writings of a Jewish scholar of the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel. This book was edited by his daughter Susannah, who herself is a Jewish scholar. It is in a series of Orbis books known as Modern Spiritual Masters. In the first chapter of this book, Susannah quotes her father's writing from the book, God in Search of Man: "As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind (sic) will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder." 1

Heschel goes on to suggest that the line we often read in the psalms, "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom," should be translated, "awe in God is the beginning of wisdom." Heschel is quite clear that one of the prophetic messages of the western world, whether Jewish, Buddhist, Christian or whatever needs to be that of awe. When we are in awe of life, it is hard to create division and emphasise our differences. Heschel took this theology of awe into his support of Martin Luther King and as he marched in support of the end of racism and segregation, as well as protesting the Viet Nam War.

Perhaps Luke was trying to instill a sense of awe in us when we read the gospel account of Jesus' transfiguration. It reminds us of Jesus' baptism when the same voice spoke. It is an open question as to who exactly heard the voice at Jesus' baptism, but there is no question about who heard the voice at the Transfiguration. All heard it; and all were in awe. We are invited to live life with this kind of awe.

I think that Luke was inviting his disciples to remember that moment of awe as they went down the mountain. Live this awe of life in your daily living; it will transform you... it will transfigure us! Share this awe with others and invite them to look into the mystery and rediscover awe-some wonder of life. It will change us. Roosevelt, it is said, during the Second World War, invited the leaders of the allies to go out into the garden of the White House at night to observe the stars. After a moment of silent reflection, he said something like, "I trust that we are humble enough to continue our discussions."

Awe is a fundamental tool of peace, Heschel would say. And I believe it to be true. It requires trust to share something that gives us meaning and a deep sense of perspective. What if we were to get leaders of say the Palestinians and the Israelis together to rediscover awe and begin their conversations of peace from that perspective? What if the new leaders in Egypt rediscovered awe at life? How would that change things? What if, instead of the economy always being the bottom line of political discussions, we started from a place of awe, that life is wondrous and beautiful—perhaps in our discussions with 1st Nations? How would that change things for women in India who live in fear of attack and sexual abuse? We start from a place that life is awe-some, awe-ful and wondrous. We start from a place that life is beautiful and that problems can be solved and peace achieved because we affirm the sacredness of life—all life! How that would change the world and our fear of environmental collapse!

While I was away I also purchased a CD of Henryk Górecki, a Polish composer who died 2½ years ago. In response to the murder of Polish Solidarity members during the lead-up to the collapse of Communism, Górecki wrote an unaccompanied choral piece called Miserere, which means "have mercy on us, O God." It is a 35 minute peace that begins with the basses repeating a line, Domine Deus Noster, which means "God our God." This is repeated over and over; the Tenors come in and the altos, and then the sopranos. It is a sublime piece of music; layer upon layer of music expresses the pathos of murder and oppression. It isn't until the end of the piece that we hear the words, "God, have mercy." It is a piece that leaves me in awe every time I hear it, and it reaffirms for me that life is sacred, and full of awe.

The Transfiguration story is an invitation for us to rediscover awe in our lives and to cultivate a sense of awe in all we do. And from this place of awe, we are led to engage life fully from the perspective that life is beautiful and wondrous. And that in turn, leads us to proclaim in the valleys what we experience on the mountaintops, that life is good, and that we together, from this place of awe, can transform the world. The world can be transfigured because at a basic level, awe is about love!


1   Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, page 51.   return