Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as Quinquagesima: the Sunday that occurs immediately before Ash Wednesday, fifty days before Easter. This is the Sunday when the Transfiguration occurs in the appointed Gospels and, in Year B, we hear the account of Elijah being taken up into heaven by flaming horses in a chariot of fire. What this means is that today’s Sermon is going to be a little “woo-woo.” And in spite of Merriam-Webster’s definition of woo-woo as “dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific,” if there’s one Sunday to get in touch with our inner mystic, it’s today. And we have three excellent guides for this morning’s journey into the mystical Propers appointed for Quinquagesima. We have Mole from The Wind in the Willows, the no-nonsense German religious philosopher Rudolf Otto, and Cyprian Smith, a Benedictine monk who helps us to understand the wisdom of that most woo-woo of all woo-woos, Meister Eckhart. With their help, the help of the Apostle Peter, and my all-time favorite prophet and fellow follicaly-challenged brother in faith, Elisha, I pray that by God’s Grace, the Transfigured Christ shall reveal God’s Glory in today’s Scriptures and in the living human documents of our own sacred lives. So, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be mystical ride into the Holy woo-woo in you!
Nine years ago, when I told my parents that I’d discerned a call to the Priesthood, my mother said, “Yes, son, you’ve always been fascinated with ‘the heavenlies’.” Thinking about what Mum meant by “the heavenlies,” I remembered three particular instances when I believe I came close to experiencing some small semblance of what Peter, James, and John encountered at the Transfiguration of Christ. As a small boy, I saw an African Paradise Flycatcher, his lapis-lazuli face, rust-red coat and long pair of streaming baroque tail feathers danced over a water fountain, before he caught a crunchy green dragonfly in his beak, then perched for an exquisite moment in our guava tree, and vanished. Next, as a teenager, sitting at the piano on a Saturday afternoon while my grandmother lovingly arranged the flowers at the altar of Saint Andrew’s Anglican Church in Arcadia, a shaft of stained-glass sunlight illuminated the smile on her serene face as Ma whispered joyfully in prayerful conversation with someone I could not see. And lastly, sitting in silence as my Spiritual Director prayed for me a few days before my priestly ordination, I felt that same warm light, like electricity, enter through the top of my head, flow into the center of my body, through my feet and circle back up through my head again, in a terrifying, fascinating, uncontrollable, fiery cycle of energy, just as it did at that old guava tree in my boyhood and at St. Andrew’s in my adolescence. I have no proof of these experiences. And yet, they happened.
This is when Mole in The Wind in the Willows helps:
“But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.”1
Peter the Apostle’s impetuous desire to capture and enshrine the Transfiguration is so very human. It’s the same impulse behind my growing collections of CDs and books which affirm Susan Sontag’s confession that “My library is an archive of longings.” We long to avoid the hard, cold penalties of being robbed of sublime transfigurations ended too soon, because tragically, the unprovable, unrepeatable beauty of our encounters with God’s Glory can never ever truly be recaptured.
This is why we need a concrete, no-nonsense, German religious philosopher to help us connect the esoteric woo-woo with lived realness. I believe what Peter, James, and John experienced at the Transfiguration, are what Rudolf Otto illuminates in his book, The Idea of the Holy2. Rudolf Otto is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He called this experience “numinous” and discovered that this numinous experience of the Holy has three interconnected components. He designated them with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other” – entirely foreign to anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a response of silence. The numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because the Holy presents itself in the form of overwhelming power. And the numinous also presents itself as fascinans: an all-consuming fascination with the Holy One who is merciful, beautiful, and gracious.3 The Apostles’ encounter with the Holy mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration is entirely outside of their ordinary life experience. The only adequate response to this terrifying mystery is silence, for we read that “[they] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”4 And the mysterium fascinans – Peter’s all-consuming fascination with the Holy is entirely believable when his immediate desire is to build three dwelling places or shrines for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.5
We see this same desire to cling to the Holy in Elisha’s devoted attachment to Elijah. Elisha declines Elijah’s repeated invitations to gracefully part ways, saying three times, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And even though Elisha does inherit a double share of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, Elisha tears his own clothes in two as he grieves the loss of his ascended predecessor, the one he attended in ministry for years, the one who anointed him as a Prophet, vanished after the fiery whirlwind transported Elijah into eternity.
With the guidance of Cyprian Smith, Meister Eckhart helps us to resist our fear-of-loss-based impulses to cling to people or to capture and preserve our Holy encounters as externalized, objectified idols. We learn from Eckhart that,
“The only things which are truly relevant to us, which touch our lives at the center, are things which are internal, part of our very being, and are therefore always with us, incapable of being lost through any kind of external accident. Christ is, or should be, that which is most central and internal in us. [Christ] is first and foremost a real and powerful force and agent within ourselves, rather than something external to ourselves…” Cyprian Smith goes on to say that, “[Carl] Jung saw Christ as a force within the human mind, and therefore real, potent and entirely ‘relevant’ … if Jesus, the Christ, is to be ‘relevant’ to us in the truest and most permanent sense, it is in this deepest and most inward part of ourselves that we must try to find him… Christ who dwells [in the inner core of ourselves] really is a treasure which no thief can steal, an unshakable rock on which to build our lives… In the Person of God the Son, as Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, God entered the Ground of the Soul – the inner sanctum common to all human beings in all periods of history – and has remained there ever since.”6
And lest we think Meister Eckhart has nothing to say about our bitterly divisive world and broken systems of flawed powers and principalities today, Smith says,
“… it is very important that we enter the depths of ourselves, discover God in the Soul’s Ground, and learn to act from that centre… since it is in this Ground that we discover the ‘universal human nature’ which is common to us all, whatever our character, race, class, or religion. It is the Ground, or basis, for human solidarity as the Godhead is the Ground, or basis, for the communion of Persons within the Trinity… loss of self and surrender to God in the Soul’s Ground… is that, and that alone, which can produce real change, because in the last analysis the world can only be changed by changing the people who live in it. If we try to work exclusively on the external level, on the plane of action, our change will be merely cosmetic, and fundamentally nothing will be altered… Once you have surrendered to God in the Soul’s Ground, and entered the inner kingdom, then the outer kingdom will also be opened to you.”7
This is why here at St. John’s this Lent, there’s a both/and: we will be focused on Prayer and Worship in following The Way of Love and our Faith in Action ministries in the neighborhood and in the world. Without the Contemplative Howard Thurman, there would never have been the Active Martin Luther King, Jr. A both/and transfigured life begins within. So, as we enter the Season of Lent this Wednesday, let’s take some time every day to be still and silent and know that the Transfigured Christ dwells within us. In the words of my favorite mystic, Howard Thurman, we can become at home, within, by locating in our own spirit the trysting place where we and our God meet.8 We need only let Christ, in whose love the Law and the Prophets intersect,9 shine freely in the very depths of our hearts.
Hear God’s Word to us in today’s Gospel again: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” Suddenly they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” Smith and Eckhart teach that “once we become rooted and grounded in that Word echoing within us, then, to the extent that we do this, we ‘become’ that Word, and its life is our life.”10 You, yes YOU are beloved. You and I, each of us, is a living, human document of God’s sacred love. When our love-centered lives concretely love God and love our neighbors as the beloved Christ in us, that’s when God’s Word Incarnate, Transfigured in each of us, reveals God’s Glory in all the world. May these words be more than words in Christ’s Holy Name. Amen.
1 Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (United Kingdom: Methuen, 1935), 165.
2 Rudolf Otto, Idea of the Holy (Oxford England: Oxford University Press, 1958).
3 This summary of Rudolf Otto’s explication of the numinous is adapted from this source:
4 Mark 9:6.
5 Mark 9:5.
6 Cyprian Smith, OSB, The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as taught by Meister Eckhart’ (London: Darton, Longman
and Todd, 1978), 81.
7 Smith, 116-117.
8 Howard Thurman, Walter E. Fluker, and Catherine Tumber, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman On
Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 22.
9 Matthew 22:40.
10 Smith, 64.