Transfiguration, and really seeing one another

Today we’re celebrating a great feast of the church, and it’s one you may never had heard of before. I moved it to today from Thursday. The crowd that comes to the Wednesday Eucharists knows I’m prone to moving feast days, especially when the Gospel for Sunday would otherwise have been Jesus talking about bread for the third week in a row. You probably know the story of the Transfiguration. To us it may seem rather odd. Jesus has a glowing face? Huh. But did you know that Transfiguration is a feast? The Feast of the Transfiguration is a big deal in the Orthodox Church.

To be fair, in Greece, the cultural capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, there are a lot of church festivals. I don’t think this is a mistake. They know how to celebrate in the Eastern Church. Greece is still one of the most religious countries in the world, and I’d bet that Greeks partly hold onto religion because the church knows how to party. We could learn from the Greeks.

I once spent part of a summer on the Greek island of Sifnos. They like to say that there are 365 churches on this tiny island, because every day is some kind of feast day in the Greek church calendar. Almost any night of the week you can make your way to some church on one corner of the island or another, and after the service you will dance with your neighbors, eat some great lamb, and have some ouzo in memory of one saint or another.

Still there are big feasts and little feasts, and the Transfiguration is a Big Feast in the East. There’s a big parade, with colorful umbrellas, icons, and multiple incense-burners being swung. The priest wears extravagant vestments that are way way too heavy for the August heat. Here in the West, we’ve heard the story of the Transfiguration, but we’ve probably never danced through the streets to celebrate like they do in the Eastern church.

Christianity is an Eastern Religion, really. Our part of the tradition developed in Western Europe and America. But long before Constantine, Augustine of Canterbury, and Henry the VIII Christianity was shaped figures like Gregory of Nyssa and his Macrina from Turkey, Paul of Tarsus, and, oh, Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is an Eastern Religion. In the West, they jokingly refer to Episcopalians as the “frozen chosen.” You’d never use that name for the Eastern church. And to fully understand parts of our tradition, parts of our stories, we need to experience smells and bells, holy water, oil, and veils.

The image of a vail is key for understanding today’s feast. Veils are something we think of as distinctly “other.” In some European countries xenophobic legislatures have tried to make veils illegal. But veils are commonplace in the culture from which our faith tradition takes its origin. Veils cover human faces, and holy objects. In Islam, the prophet Muhammad is almost never depicted, unless there is a veil over his holy face.

We have a story about a veil from the Exodus today. Moses comes down from talking to God on Mount Sinai, and his face is shining. It was distracting. So Moses covers up. But the veil is not about hiding what is ugly, but keeping holy what is beautiful.

As I mentioned before, in the West, we are suspicious of veils. I do think that racism and ethnocentrism plays a role, but I also think that in the West we have our own cultural baggage around things that are covered up. Think of how many news stories are billed as “exposed” or “uncovered.” “The Obama Administration uncovered.” “The Trump Campaign brought to light.” How many news stories this past year were titled “Ferguson Exposed?”

We like to uncover things in the West. We are suspicious of the hidden. We want the truth brought to light. We’ve seen it this year in this city. We’ve been through federal investigations, criminal investigations, special reports by news-media. Everyone is trying to uncover what happened in Ferguson, what happened in St. Louis. I understand the desire.

A year ago today, Michael Brown, a young black man was killed by a police officer about eight miles from where we sit right now. His body lay in the street for four hours. Michael’s death set off a wave of protests and debates. Those are facts. But we’ve also faced a lot of questions. Were his hands up when he died? Did the officer have reason to fear him? I wish I knew the answers to some basic questions about Michael’s death.

But we’ve gone deeper with our questions as a culture this year as well. Why is there so much violence in our community? What is the role of the police? What can we do about economic inequality? How can we talk about race? We want to uncover the truth. We want to know why we are so divided. We want to know why so many people die at the hands of law enforcement. We want to know why so many police officers have to fear for their lives as they patrol our violent streets. We want to uncover the motivations and manipulations that continue to warp our social reality.

Questions are good. Looking for root causes is one of the reasons Western culture has succeeded in the sciences and has faced and made progress on some important systemic injustices. But that kind of uncovering can only get us so far. If you think about it, when we look to “uncover” and “expose” like we do in our culture, there is an underlying suspicion about that which is being investigated. We work to uncover something when we suspect we will find something evil. We try to expose the racism of a system. We work to uncover corruption. We bring evil to light. Behind all of this “uncovering” is a suspicion that what is covered is ugly.

That’s not the idea of the veil in the East. In our reading from Exodus, when Moses covers his face, it is to respect the sacredness of his encounter with God. If we were in the Eastern Church, and we were about to celebrate Holy Eucharist, there would be a huge wall between me and you. You’d hear me chant, and you’d hear sanctus bells. You’d see puffs of smoke rising over the top of the iconostasis, but you wouldn’t see me hold the bread or elevate the chalice. In the East, the holiest of moments are hidden. You protect the beautiful. You mark what is holy, by covering it up.

Today of all days we need the Feast of the Transfiguration. We need to know that all of our uncovering can only get us so far if we view one another with endless Western suspicion. These lessons invite us to see one another in a more Eastern way. Yes, we are divided by race, class, culture, and political party, but all of that is but a covering, following the tradition of the Eastern Church. All of our divisions are waiting for God to lift the veil, and show us the shining reality. We are made in God’s image, all of us. Every one of us is loved by God. Every. Single. One.

I want to share a poem by the late Madeleine L’Engle, the author and Episcopalian lay-theologian. Her poem is fittingly titled “Transfiguration”

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye
and so becomes invisible. This is how
He was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was – is – from the beginning,
and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn’t that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.

Perhaps we will see each other too. Today we lament the loss of a teenager. Today we give thanks for all of the work that continues in our nation to uncover injustice. And today we also celebrate the Transfiguration. We celebrate this feast that teaches us to look for the Holy. We throw holy water on backpacks and school supplies to remind us that God’s brilliance is shining through our everyday world. Sometimes we need ritual to give us ways to see the beauty when our world is looking to uncover ugliness.

Today we can celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, and we try to avoid the boxes that Peter wanted to build for God. We can let go of our suspicions and assumptions that keep us from seeing God’s glory shining in the face of a fellow human being. We can let go of our need only to uncover human brokenness, and instead try to lift the veil and see God’s goodness and love, showing up where we least expected it. Who knows, maybe you can follow a procession, and end up dancing in the streets with your neighbors. It could happen. Today how will you celebrate the great Feast of The Transfiguration?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Transfiguration, and really seeing one another

  1. Thanks, Mike, for this wonderful reminder of the “Metamorphosis”, as I learned it’s called in Greece. And for the poem by Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite authors; I had never read it.

    When we were in Greece a couple of years ago, our tour guide commented on the connection Greeks have with The Church. Even though someone might never attend a service, if s/he builds a new house, the local priest is called in to bless it.

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