Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that's slipped quietly passed many of our churches. Judging from the Zeitgeist in mainline churches these days, that may be cause for some to breathe a sigh of relief that they don't have to deal with another one of Jesus' miracle stories.
My friend Derek has written an excellent meditation on the Creeds, and the tension we 21st century Christians experience as we try to reconcile our own contemporary ideas about how the world works with the affirmations of the ancient Church. I agree with his conclusion: that it's possible, viewing the story of Christianity through a faith lens, to simultaneously understand it in light of several, sometimes seemingly contradictory, worldviews; that that is a tension we can and do live with as people of faith.
That is how I tend to read Scripture these days. I don't have a need to read every story of the Bible as an historical, factual account to make it a true, reliable account of God's engagement with humanity; on the other hand, I don't have a need to deconstruct the Bible into a series of quaint, engaging campfire stories with little or no basis in historicity. To me that's a false dichotomy, and I'm just not going there.
So what do I think about the Transfiguration? I think that something happened to Jesus' close associates with him there on that mountain; whether the something was exactly as described in the Gospels or not is not of particular concern to me. I believe that Theophany Happens. (Wouldn't that be a great bumper sticker?) Heck -- I know it happens, because it's happened to me.
Which brings me to my point. I've had skeptical people ask me, if all these remarkable things were happening around Jesus all the time, as the Gospels record, then why were the disciples so damned stupid? If Jesus' friends experienced this particularly dramatic and amazing numinous event, which practically spelled out "Hey -- here's your Messiah!"...why didn't they get it? Why did they let Jesus down in the end? How on earth could they lose their grip on their personal experience of Jesus' special connection to Divinity over and over and over again?
To which I'd reply: Because they were people. People like me.
It's amazing how soon you can forget large chunks of the most formative, dramatic events of your life. I was thinking about this the other day, during one of my evening walks. The day that, as a small child, I almost fell to my death after climbing to the top of a farm elevator and tumbling into our corn crib...the day I arrived at college, after a bitter several-year battle with my father, who was not a proponent of higher education -- a day I'd longed for since I was a child, and a day upon which I knew my future hinged...the day my father died...the day I came out to myself...the day I decided I was through with Christianity...the day I gave up, and told Jesus, "You win" -- you'd think these experiences would be permanently seared into my memory. But I just remember flashes of them -- an image here, a feeling there. Even my recent dramatic encounter with the Divine, the night it became clear to me that I was being called to do something with my faith...at the time it felt more real to me than my sitting here typing at this moment, but now my recollection of the event is fuzzy; I actually had to reread what I'd written about my experience at the time to refresh my memory. And that was true even shortly after these things happened. A week after my peri-midlife metanoia experience...pretty much business as usual.
So to me it's entirely believable that the disciples experienced event after event that pointed to Jesus as someone and something other than just a particularly charismatic reformist rabbi, but then...life happened, and things got blurry. I've lived this; I continue to live it. One day God seems so close to me that I have almost a tactile impression of God's presence; the next day I'm in a bout of existential despair, the previous day a dim memory at best. This is just how it goes with us.
So why doesn't God fix this sad state of affairs, so that we live in a constant state of theophany, instead of a haze of half-rememberings? I don't know. Maybe it's because our minds can only process so much, whether an event of everyday life or an event when God breaks through to us in a special way. But once upon a time, in the now-defunct magazine Daughters of Sarah, I saw a most evocative drawing; it showed a woman, walking along a path, caught by the artist in the moment of half-turning to respond to...well, we don't know what. But the woman's expression of surprise and expectation and hope -- I think that, for whatever reason, we need that. We need that sense that there's a next chapter in the story. The forgetting "makes all things new," over and over again.
"Transfiguration," batik, Solomon Raj