The Reverend Phil Tierney
March 2, 2014
Our lives have highs and lows, but most of us are blessed to live in between.
That’s as true for us spiritually as it is physically and emotionally.
You may wonder why I say that we’re blessed to live mostly in between.
Consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Since her death, we now know from her journals that she lived the better part of the last 50 years of her life in what some call the dark night of the soul. Surrounded by thousands, she felt lonely. Showered with accolades, she felt unworthy. Acclaimed as a modern-day channel of God’s light and love, she felt bereft of both. She wrote, “When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul …. How painful is this unknown pain….”
Given that, she certainly would have felt blessed to live in between the highs and lows of life, don’t you think? And yet, when I think it over, it may have been just that excruciating inner pain, which gave her the motivation to immerse herself in the excruciating pains of others—the loneliest and most destitute untouchables in the streets of Calcutta. It may only have been by giving care to those even more miserable than herself that she was, in some way, able vicariously to give care to the inner parts of herself that she found otherwise unreachable. Her own emptiness may well have inspired her unrelenting outreach to those even emptier than herself, and that, in turn, transformed their inner lives and the consciousness of an on-looking world.
Now you may well wonder why, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, a glorious occasion, I’ve chosen to mention this real-life Christian story, which frankly may seem not all that uplifting. It’s because I find the concept of Jesus’ transfiguration, while perhaps accommodating to artists and makers of stained glass windows, just a bit illusive to our routine lives.
Each of the writers of the synoptic gospels describes exactly the same sequence of events. Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter speaks up, in characteristically impulsive fashion, and tells the group that Jesus isn’t just a great teacher or even a prophet, but the Messiah. Jesus replies that God revealed that to him. That’s a highpoint. Then Jesus goes on to say that he’s going to be rejected and killed. Peter contradicts Jesus. Jesus condemns Peter’s attitude. That’s a downer. Then Jesus takes Peter, James, and John for a hike up a hill. In the process, Jesus is transfigured in their presence. He glows with the amazing presence and power of God. A voice from above identifies Jesus as God’s Son. Apparitions of Moses and the prophet Elijah join Jesus for a strategy session. The three disciples are utterly awe-inspired. (A definite highpoint) They return to the other disciples, who are embroiled in an argument over their inability to heal a child (another downer). Jesus heals the boy (an upper) and scolds the disciples for their weak faith (a downer). Then Jesus talks about his upcoming death again (a downer).
As I say, life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s true for us—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was true for Jesus and for the apostles, too. And the story of the transfiguration is definitely one of the great highs.
But what was the point of it? The more skeptical might just see it as a fabricated story—just too pat—a pious fraud. And while I can respect that, it doesn’t do much for our spiritual journeys. Sci-fi buffs might see as a biblical story of another alien encounter—to see Jesus as an extraterrestrial. But that’s a bit outlandish for me. Theologians might find in it a marvelous tableau for Christological reflection, proving that Jesus is divine. And while that’s all well and good, doctrine isn’t usually where the rubber meets the road in our day to day lives.
The way I see it, the transfiguration was an experience intended by God to be a bedrock source of encouragement amidst the demanding routines and lows of life. It was meant by God to be an encouragement, first, to Jesus. After all, Jesus’ daily life was filled with all sorts of demands and challenges. People, often large groups of them, continuously made demands for his attention and to meet their personal needs. His apprentices, the apostles, were not particularly quick studies, and often demanded training, direction and intervention. There was incessant controversy, with self-appointed watchdogs continuously criticizing, debating and trying to trap him in his words. All of that stuff was time-consuming and personally draining. On top of that, there was Jesus’ deep-seated conviction that he’d eventually be rejected by the masses, arrested by the establishment, and tortured, then ultimately executed by the authorities. The experience of transfiguration was intended by God, I think, to encourage Jesus. It was an experience from which he would derive strength for the path ahead. Likewise, the transfiguration encouraged those three apostles. It was a confirmation of the wisdom of their personal investment of their lives in following Jesus. And it would also give them something to hold onto later.
We all need encouragement along the way; and, in my opinion, Jesus’ transfiguration was most certainly that—for him and for his three followers.
I hope it’s a source of encouragement to you, as well. It’s meant to be. That’s why we hear this story every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany. As you recall, the season of Epiphany, taken from the Greek word epifanaw, is all about uncovering or exposing or revealing, Jesus’ real identity—the altogether human manifestation of the Supreme Being. The transfiguration has been seen as the single-most definitive event during Jesus’ life of that reality. It was meant to show that He really is the altogether human, complete manifestation of our Creator. And so, the point is that there’s no one better to follow, no one better to trust, and no one better to help us along the way—through all the ups and downs, all the highs and lows of life. I hope that conviction gives you strength for your daily life journey. I really do!
But suppose it doesn’t. Suppose, like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, you spend 50 years or so of your life never experiencing the presence of God or the power of the transfigured and risen Christ. You may want to; like her, you may yearn to, or not; but suppose you don’t. How can one receive encouragement from Christ’s transfiguration, then? Is it possible? I believe it is.
I’ll let you in on a little, albeit somewhat painful, secret. It might give you a sense of divine irony, and that may not be all that pleasant, but it can be helpful. As I’ve already mentioned, Teresa divulged in her personal writings that she never whatsoever experienced the presence of God or the transfigured Christ. That strikes me as a very sad thing, and yet also somehow marvelous, as I think you’ll see.
This is what happened. In 1967, former London Punch editor, Malcolm Muggeridge, then a special reporter for the BBC, got wind of an obscure nun in Calcutta, who had organized a ministry to untouchables. So he decided to follow what might be a compelling story. At the time Muggeridge was pretty much an agnostic. Anyway, he took a film crew to Calcutta to do a documentary. They were there for several weeks. The keynote segment of the documentary was to be an interview with Teresa in her office. It was a tiny room, which had only one small window and very little light. The camera crew filmed it, but were convinced that there had been insufficient light and when they returned to BBC resisted showing it. Muggeridge insisted, though. In the interview Muggeridge asked Teresa how she had the energy to keep pouring out her life to care for so many thousand hopeless cases. She said, “In their faces I see the face of Christ.” Now, when the BBC staff in London viewed the tape of the interview they found that the segment was perfectly visible. The light came neither from the small window nor from any bulbs. “The light seemed to radiate from the nun,” they said. She glowed. Muggeridge claimed that the light seen during that interview was the first miracle recorded on film, and he underwent conversion during that time. He was the one who popularized Teresa’s ministry.
Serial transfigurations…. You see, Teresa was bereft of the inner sensation of God’s presence and that of Christ. She felt miserable because of it. Vicariously, she cared for the misery in herself by caring for those even more miserable than herself. In the process, she came to see the face of Christ, the presence of God, in them. They were transfigured in her sight, and she saw Jesus. Those recipients of her care, destitute and diseased untouchables, in turn, saw themselves differently and saw Christ in her. The cynical British newscaster saw God’s presence in a nun who couldn’t experience it herself. She was transfigured in his sight, and he passed all that on to the world—making Teresa world-famous. In the eyes of a largely disinterested world, that transfigured Christ; that transfigured God, into someone who actually cares for people—no matter how unimportant they may seem. It’s a story of serial transfigurations.
Like Teresa of Calcutta, you don’t have to see a transfiguration of Christ to be one. It is possible for Christ’s presence to glow to others through us and to us through others.