Friday, January 20, 2012

Last Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Last Sunday after the Epiphany  B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; II Corinthians 4: 3-6; Mark 9: 2-9

The time has come for God's spirit to pass from Elijah to Elisha. This story includes human emotions we can easily understand as well as an experience so spectacular it stretches description beyond words. On their trip from Gilgal, Elisha announces on three different occasions that he will never leave Elijah. Finally they come to the bank of the Jordan. Elijah takes his mantle, with its spectacular powers, strikes the river and it parts so the two men walk across on dry earth, recalling God's similar miraculous works through Moses and Joshua. On the other side, Elijah asks Elisha if he has a final request. "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit," he responds (boldly?). As the two continue walking, "a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two men of them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven."

Perhaps we have stanzas from a grand liturgical occasion in this psalm. The awesome ways in which God's glory has been revealed in the past, marked by fire and violent storms, are recalled and now requested by the choir to descend on "Zion, the zenith of beauty." Here let heaven and earth connect.

The appearance of Christ is, for Paul, comparable to a second creation, another display of God's extravagant love. "Let the light shine out of darkness."

This passage form Mark is rife with powerful allusions to God's past actions. "After six days," seems to be a direct evocation of Exodus 24:16 when God speaks after the sixth day. The mountain where Mark's narrative has taken Jesus with Peter, James and John is shrouded by a cloud and God speaks, as God did to Moses. Moses and Elijah, the only two people taken into heaven directly by God, appear with Jesus, who is "transfigured" before them and his clothes become dazzling white." Only Peter speaks with a remarkable non sequitor, "because he did not know what to say...."

Scriptural narratives oscillate between those in which natural human emotions and thoughts engage the divine and other narratives that overwhelm all prior human experience and description.

In an  essay from the January 2010 edition of the journal Modern Theology, (see link, below), John Panteleimon Manoussakis reviews the "typos" of mountaintop theophany in the Hebrew scriptures and its continuation in the gospels.  He writes"Between Mount Sinai [Moses] and Mount Horeb [Elijah], the evangelists of the New Covenant seem to claim, stands Mount Tabor.  Christ's Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is 'biblical' theolphany, a revelation within the revelation, so to speak, where Christ the revelaer, reveals Himself by revealing His Father and His Holy Spirit."  "...[T]his is the same God who appeared to the prophets and the Fathers [sic] of the Old Covenant."  (pp84-85)  Earlier in this essay, he has traced a line of thinking about biblical theophanies from de Saussure, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to von Balthasar and then concludes "God's self revelation neither scorns the physical world nor shatters the human senses; indeed, His [sic] revelation must involve the human body and its senses.  On the other hand, what the senses experience is by no means exhausted by them but it remains inexhaustible, excessive, saturated with intuition; thus man [sic] knows that he [sic] is in the presence of Him[ sic] who is beyond experience and comprehension and whose sole experience is precisely the one is not comprehending, but rather comprehended by what seeks to comprehend (cf. Philippians 3:12)." (p.81)

At one of John Caputo's productive conferences to explore the connections between postmodern thought and religion at Villanova University, Richard Kearney moderated a memorable conversation between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion. At one point Marion said, we sometimes have "an utmost experience without words, the significations, the concepts to utter it, to explain it and to articulate it. One of the best examples, for instance, and I do not refer to theology, may be found in the transfiguration of Christ. The disciples witness the transfiguration and they say nothing but 'Let us build three tabernacles. For he [Peter] knew not what to say.' (Mark 9: 5-6)" "If there could be any revelation, no mind, no word would be wide enough to host that revelation." (
God, The Gift and Postmodernism, p. 69) Further on Marion says, "To have an experience of the impossible means to have an experience of the impossibility prima facie, which I call 'counter-experience' of bedazzlement, of astonishment, of Bewunderung. This counter-experience has to do with the fact that we can see, but cannot designate as an object or a being an event that we cannot comprehend but nevertheless we have to see. This counter-experience is, in fact, the correct, consistent kind of experience appropriate to every decisive evidence in our life-- death, birth, love, poverty, illness, joy, pleasure and so on." "The incomprehensible, the excess, the impossible, are part and parcel of our experiences." (p. 75)

From the mountaintop to which Mark has brought us we look one way and see where we have been. In that direction we look back on Jesus' direct encounter with women and men and, through his empathy and caring in actions and words, the love of God can be seen in life-changing, miraculous ways. Mark also wants us to recognize that these events are directly connected to similar revelations of God's love in Israel's past, which became lore and then sacred texts. From this same mountaintop, Mark also wants us to look at the road just ahead, to another even more mesmerizing "transfiguration." It will lead to Jerusalem. There events will unfold and words will be said that will sear the human imagination. There the love of God will be revealed in the most spectacular revelation yet. As Paul says, in Jesus humanity can discover "the image of God." We will be deeply moved and, if we will it, changed. There will be times when the only possible response is silence. What is to be seen makes an impact beyond words, beyond explanation but not beyond profound significance and visceral meaning. It reaches us at the same place where we experience the most profound experiences of living-- "death, birth, love, poverty, illness, joy, pleasure...."  We experience it, but we lack any capacity to describe or contain it; rather, it defines us, if we let it.