The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Exodus 34:29-35; St. Luke 9:28-36
August 6, 2017
Intensity and Resistance
The birth of Dionysus in the Greek myths is intriguing to me. One of Zeus’s many trysts was with a mortal woman, Semele, who became pregnant. During her pregnancy, Zeus appeared to her, albeit in a guarded state that reserved or screened the full expression of his divinity—his “Zeus-ness,” if you will. Hera—ever the simultaneous faithful wife and scornful goddess—convinced Semele to beg Zeus to reveal himself to her. So, Semele did; she begged Zeus to fully show her who he was. After resisting and trying to explain that this was not a good idea for anyone, Zeus relented, dropped the guards, and let the full power of his divinity shine forth—burning Semele to cinders in an instant.
Zeus then took the developing child Dionysus—who had survived—and sewed him into his thigh until his term was due and he could be born.
This myth shows what human beings have known since we were conscious of our createdness and our connectedness to that Source which has created us: There is a degree of fear when we encounter the intensity of the Divine. In that great mystery of God, the transcendence of God, God’s sheer power and force, feels over-powering, and there is within us a fear that imagines a moth getting a tad too close to the bug zapper on a hot summer night.
This day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is a day on which we can ponder this dynamic intensity of the glory of God—encountered, reflected, embodied, and resisted.
First, we have Moses, the great prophet, who goes up the mountain and encounters God and receives the tablets. When he returns from this intense experience, the people were afraid to come near him because he had somehow soaked up too much of God’s presence—it was oozing out of his pores. He was radioactive.
Moses needed to share with them what God had laid out in the commandments, so he decided to put a veil over his face to guard or screen the reflection of God’s glory that seemed to pour forth from him.
When he called them close so he could teach them, he would remove the veil and let the reflection shine, and when he was finished, he would put the veil back on so they would be more comfortable around him.
We also have the great Transfigurative encounter with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up on the mountain. Even though they were sleepy, they managed to stay awake and encounter the intensity of Jesus praying—with “the appearance of his face changing” and his clothing appearing to glow. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah were there next to him, discussing what was to come.
“Since they were awake,” the text says, “they saw his glory.”
Peter’s impulse is to build the three dwellings to hold this experience in that area, to somehow regulate it. “Let us make three dwellings.”
It’s understandable, isn’t it? What were they to do when witnessing that? So, they struggle to comprehend it, and in their struggle, their impulse is to construct something that can hold it…contain it.
Yet, it is the great, mysterious cloud that suddenly pours forth and contains them. “And they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”
These are parallel accounts in so many ways. With both Moses’ divine reflection and Jesus’ transfiguration, there is a pattern that we can discern, isn’t there:
First, there is the raw discomfort and confusion experienced by those who witness this, those who have this encounter: Moses’ gleaming face and Jesus’ transfigured presence. There is a struggle to understand, a disorientation from the intensity and the immediate encounter with the Holy—with the reflection of God’s glory in Moses’ skin and the emanating light in Jesus’ being.
And, there is, in both experiences, a stepping back from this immediate encounter. There is an urge to somehow contain it: Moses decides to cover his face to filter the reflection, and the disciples decide to construct dwellings to contain the glory.
In both cases, those involved feel there must be some buffer between themselves and the enormity and immensity of God’s presence that has burst forth in front of their eyes like a shining sun.
As much as I would like to be critical of them and think to myself, “Why couldn’t they just stay in the space? Why couldn’t they just be there and not feel as though they had to do anything?” I get it. I really do get it.
Human beings are interesting creatures, to be sure. We seem to have this drive in us to seek out God’s presence—to yearn for the Holy—even as we draw back at those certain moments of intensity.
St. Augustine of Hippo famously said in his Confessions, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
That is so true of my life… Is it of yours?
Yet, there is another piece that—if I could be so bold—I would add:
“Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee, yet when it draws near to thee, something within me hesitates.”
George Herbert spoke of this spiritual phenomenon in much more eloquent words: “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back…” (Love, III)
It’s like we’re in this perpetual game of cat and mouse with God—and I’m not always sure who is the cat and who is the mouse.
I’ve been reading Peggy Noonan’s reflection on Pope John Paul II (John Paul the Great), and I sat up in bed when I got to this portion of her own life story, as she talks about this push and pull, this yearning and resisting in her own life:
I liked being there (at church, paying attention). And then I would step back, and stop, and become immersed again in the stupid and alluring world of No Belief. The French in another context call this “nostalgia for the mud.” They mean a bourgeois romanticization of impoverishment, which is to say they mean it to some degree in economic terms. But I mean it in spiritual terms. Every time I recognized the truth and lived it, I was happy, and when I did not, I was not. And yet I always returned to not happy, as if that were . . . warm and happy mud.”
Human beings are such complex creatures. We yearn for this encounter—for this union—and yet we are little mud creatures ourselves, aren’t we? Human. Connected to and made of the hummus. Earthiness.
We have a simultaneous existence that we experience in our liturgy: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Yet, we are also the Beloved of God: “Behold who you are, the Body of Christ. May we become what we receive.”
When we reflect on these texts—and on our spiritual lives—we learn (again and again) that we cannot contain and capture the Divine light of God in Christ. We cannot control it, no matter how hard we try. No matter how clever we believe that we are. We cannot do that.
Yet what we can do is both remarkable and humbling beyond measure: we can carry it. We can bear it within us, not as a possession to be hoarded or an object to be protected, but as a treasure to be shared.
And, in our bearing this light—in our reflecting this Presence—we are transformed from within. We are transfigured ourselves. A metamorphoses of our own existence takes place.
And it is in this transfigurative moment—that is so complex in human beings—that we experience the two poles of our existence, the two points around which our identity orbits and comes into being: we are called to bear this light into the world, even as we remember that we are, indeed, dust and to dust we shall return.
I want so share with you an exquisite poem that a few of my colleagues with the New Contemplatives Exchange were reflecting on these past few days: Matthew Wright, Gabrielle Stoner, and Mark Longhurst. Just let this soak in you….
“Mother Wisdom Speaks”
by Christine Lore Weber
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure
You are clean already.
You are pure already.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
People will find their way through you.
People will eat from you.
And their hunger will not weaken them to death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.
My daughter, do not cry.
Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.
Light will flow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you brilliant one.
I will call you daughter who is wide.
I will call you transformed.