The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
March 3, 2019
Put the Paper Sack Over His Face
We Don’t Know What to Do
The Dynamic of Subtle Energies in the Transfiguration
How, in our heart and souls, do we imagine God as being Light? Our texts, sages, mystics, and saints describe an Uncreated Light that infuses all of existence, a current of energy that sparks life around us and within us.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There is beauty and power in the Prologue to John’s Gospel.
When it comes to how we understand this Light, this energy, there are two sides to the coin: on one side, our Tradition has yearned to understand the reality that we call God. While we cannot fully comprehend the inexhaustible mystery of the essence of God, God comes so close to us that it is imagined as the Spirit that helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).
On the other side of the coin is how we understand ourselves, how we wrestle with our own human condition. We struggle to engage with this reality, rest in this reality—and we resist yielding to it in favor of asserting our own power. We recognize our own human frailty, our own tendency to draw back from an encounter out of fear and a desire to control.
This reality that we call “God” is a dynamic force, and there is tension in the texts themselves as to how capable we even are to encounter it. On one hand, we have God’s own caution that “humans shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), and on the other hand, we hear the provocative beauty of Jesus’ teaching “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). So, as we discussed a couple weeks ago, with our tendency to grasp on to certain texts to assert our own power, we are called to realize the tension in our Tradition itself.
It turns out that God is more complex than perhaps we want to admit—as are we humans.
On this day, our eyes focus on these remarkable encounters that Moses and Peter, James, and John had with this Uncreated Light. We see Moses and how, when he came down off the mountain from his engagement with God’s presence, he wore a veil to address the hesitancy of the Israelites.
When Moses came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with God. (Exodus 34)
The story suggests that the people wanted to keep a bit of distance between themselves and the Creator of existence, so Moses accommodated their ambivalence and fear by toning down the Light a bit.
In the story from Luke we see Jesus taking the three disciples up on a mountain to pray. While there, Jesus is transfigured before them, and they have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of this Uncreated Light, this energetic current that is manifested before their eyes.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men who stood with him. (Luke 9)
So we see both sides of the coin here: the desire of God to manifest, to be made manifest, and the resistance, hesitancy, fear, and ambivalence of human beings to remain in/consent to that manifestation.
These really are remarkable texts that challenge us to explore the subtle energies of the transfiguration. We learn a lot about God, and we learn a lot about ourselves—if we’re willing to engage.
One question I continue to ask about my own life is this: why am I hesitant or outright resistant to a fuller encounter with God? What is it about me that reacts in a way to cover up, to conceal, to diminish the Light that desires to flow through me?
Here’s a weird story from my childhood. Every part of this is true, I’m afraid.
When I was in the third grade, my teacher told me to plug one of those big orange extension cords into the wall. When I did, my little fingers were actually holding the metal prongs. Before I knew it, I was frozen in place there at the back of the class. I remember feeling a strange feeling rushing through my fingers, up my arm, and into my body. My entire body hummed. My teacher said she looked up and saw me frozen there holding the cord with the hair standing up all over my head. She rushed over, pulled me away, and took me into the hallway where she yelled at the other teachers to come out of their rooms.
I heard them say to one another, “what do we do?” “Is he alright?” Then one of them said, “someone get a paper sack.”
As I stood there in the middle of these teachers, someone suddenly appeared with a large brown paper grocery sack and put the entire thing over my head, cinching it at my neck. As I stood there, one teacher told me “just take deep breaths, Stuart. We’ll figure out what to do.”
The weird thing is that I felt fine. I just stood there in the hallway breathing with the paper sack over my head while my teachers fretted away around me. Even though my head was completely covered, I could still hear them anxiously talking to each other and to the principal who had now been brought into the situation. They asked each other: “What do we do now?” “Do you think he’s ok?”
After a while, they took the sack off my head, and we returned to class, settling back into our normal routine. I don’t remember talking with my parents about it at all when we got home. I just remember things going back to the way they were—although Lisa and I wonder if my slight stutter isn’t a remnant of this strange encounter with this electric current. 😊
What was it about my teacher’s anxiety with this encounter that led them to put a paper sack over my entire head? I understand breathing in a sack if someone is hyperventilating, but I wasn’t. I was just standing there. They never actually looked me in the face to ask how I was feeling, or what I thought about it, to actually see if and how I had been affected by my exposure to the current as it were. Rather, there was an impulse to put this sack on my head—while they continued their nervous chatter about what to do with the situation.
A key part of our practice of faith is to become more aware of these subtle energies within us that get triggered or provoked in moments of encountering this current of Divine Love that pulses through life. On one hand, perhaps we deny the awesomeness of it all, wanting to cover it up, to stifle it, suppress it enough that we maintain our comfort. For our sake, Moses, put a veil on so we can be a little more comfortable. We don’t know what to do with you now that you’ve been exposed to this.
As well, perhaps we find other ways to assert our own power by creating structures in which we can restrain or contain it. If not under a veil then within comfortable and predictable walls. How are we aware of this impulse to build walls? Are we willing to pause and discern how we are motivated by fear and anxiety? We are like Peter, whose apparent desire to worship and build a dwelling was actually—if we’re honest—rooted in his own fear of feeling out of control. Even St. Luke says Peter didn’t know what he was saying.
And, notice what happened at that moment with Peter: in the moment when Peter sought to grasp and control, While he was saying this the text says, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Fascinating. At the moment when Peter wanted to grasp and control, he was reminded of who really does the grasping and controlling, to put it one way. That’s worth paying attention to.
Perhaps our Creed shows us how to more deeply reflect on this encounter with God’s own creative being. God from God, Light from Light…
What if those words aren’t only about God’s being, God’s nature, but also about our own destiny and vocation. We are called to share in what God is, to rest in—to be reconciled in—God’s own heart. Images like Moses’ encounter and the Transfiguration offer us glimpses of what—and what would it be like if we really meditated on this!—the trajectory of our own lives.
As St. Paul sought to describe in today’s Epistle reading: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians).
So, I think it’s the wrong question to say “can we even begin to understand this.” I think the better question is “can we pause long enough, be silent long enough, so that our hearts can begin to rest in this truth and be transformed by it.”
Here’s something to ponder: when we veil ourselves to the truth, it doesn’t keep the truth from being the truth. It only strengthens our own pride and fearful urge to control with a willful ignorance. And I think we’ve had enough of willful ignorance these days.
We are called to be people who participate in glory, people who recognize the Light—who seek it out!—and gently carry it into the world as we recognize it is already there. That’s worth pondering as well. And in that process, that practice of Light-bearing, of feeling that current pulse through our bodies, we ourselves are transfigured. At least we start the journey anew, and we hold as our prayer the hymn we sang together this morning.
Finish then thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see they great salvation
perfectly restored in thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise (Hymnal 657)