Friday, February 5, 2010

Last Sunday after the Epiphany Year C

Last Sunday after the Epiphany C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36(37-43a)

Moses descends from Mt Sinai and returns to the flat plane of everyday life carrying "the two tablets of the covenant."     When Aaron and "all the Israelites" saw him they "were afraid to come near him" because his face was glowing.  Unaware of his appearance, Moses called out to Aaron and the other leaders and "gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai."  When he finished, Moses put a veil over his face, but took it off when "he went in before the Lord to speak with the Lord."

The psalmist experiences the greatness and holiness of the Lord and the earth "trembles." The God of Jacob "loves justice" and establishes righteousness.  God spoke to Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the priests shrouded in clouds.  The psalmist summons all to praise the Lord and to "bow" toward the holy mountain where God spoke, when the earth shifted.

Paul recalls that strange detail of Moses and the use of a veil, which is our reading this Sunday from the Hebrew Scriptures, to characterize the resistance of his own people to Christ.  With Christ, Paul writes, our faces are "unveiled" so we see "the glory of the Lord" and are "transformed." Paul goes on to describe his ministry as a refusal to "falsify God's word", commending "ourselves to the conscience  of everyone in the sight of God."

Luke begins his version of this amazing experience with as if it were just another occasion when Jesus took some disciples with him-- Peter, James and John-- "up the mountain to pray."  But on this time, as he prayed, the countenance of Jesus was "altered" and his clothing "became dazzling white."  In this "glory" two figures appear, Moses and Elijah.  The three discuss the "departure" of Jesus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem."  Peter, James and John were aroused from a deep sleep to witness the three talking amongst themselves.  Peter speaks first ("not knowing what he said"), suggesting they construct three "booths" for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.   As Peter was speaking, a cloud shrouded the mountain and a "voice came out of the cloud, saying 'This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.'" (Luke insists that the three witnesses kept silent about their experience "in those days.")  The next day, another large crowd gathers and around Jesus.  A man in the crowd shouts at Jesus to help his only child, his son.  He continues by describing to Jesus how the young boy is seized by "a spirit" and shrieks, foams at the mouth and is "mauled" by it.  He says he asked the disciples of Jesus for help but they were unable.  Jesus is exasperated with this "faithless and perverse generation."  In Luke's account, Jesus "rebukes the unclean spirit," heals the boy and returns him to his father.  Only Luke concludes his version this way: "and all were astonished at the majesty of God."

God is experienced as God in Hebrew scriptures as holiness, justice, judgment and mercyAlthough these are traits which humans can know and even mimic after a fashion, they are so purely seen in God that they are bathed in "glory" and instill awe and even intimidation.  They are the consistent manifestations of "the majesty of God." For Paul and Luke, these same traits -- holiness, justice, judgment and mercy-- can be seen in Jesus, the Christ, and will be most fully revealed "in Jerusalem."  

On these two occasions from Exodus and Luke, when God's "glory" is revealed so clearly, persons speak to each other across time barriers, coming and going into and out of focus for their human witnesses.  A "Voice" speaks out of a cloud.  Even the narratives themselves, which describe these strange events, are oblivious to  'normal' conventions of time and space.  They stubbornly deny human 'explanation'.  They are what they are.  They are declarations of facts about God and, in Luke's case, God's "Son, my chosen."  They interrupt our usual, normal, flat, busy-body conversations -- or arouse us out out of "sleep" (like Peter, James and John who do not know what to say!)--with outlandish statements about unimaginable love.  

Trained in Aquinas and Augustine and inspired by Levinas and Derrida, John (Jack) Caputo, Professor of Religion and Humanities at Syracuse University, spelled out in a 1993 work, Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction, what he called his "'logic' of the impossible."  He wrote:  "what comes about when the kingdom comes looks and sounds like what contemporary French philosophers call an 'event' (evenement).  We could say what Deluze says of  Alice [in Wonderland]; to understand it requires a 'category of very special things: events, pure events.'*  The coming of the kingdom is an out-coming, from envire, (Lat.) the coming-out, bursting -out of something we did not see coming, something unforeseen, singular, irregular.  Alternatively, the event is what Derrida calls l'ivention de l'autre, the in-coming (invenire) of something 'wholly other'  the breaking into our familiar world of something completly amazing, which shatters our horizon of expectations.  In the military, when someone shouts 'incoming' the sensible thing to do is head for cover lest we be blown to kingdom come.  This outburst or out-coming shatters our horizons of expectation.  Otherwise, nothing is happening, nothing much, nothing new; creation is grinding to a stop, and yes is losing the strength to repeat itself, to come again."  (Excerpted from Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Ward, ed, p. 477) *Gilles Deluze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. Constatin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 1)

In the current issue, (January 2010), of the magazine, The Believer, which always delivers small, and sometimes big, delights, the (American) novelist Chris Bachelder describes the persistence of surprise which, in his life, is supplied  by reading and by the endless questions of his pre-school age daughter in the course of their daily rituals and conversations.  First, he notes, "A surprise lifts aliveness toward consciousness, where it does not (and cannot) permanently reside."  [We do not "reside" on the mountain top.]  Then he observes, "A surprise  is surprising, in part, because  it pierces inattention."  [Luke says the three companions of Jesus were in  deep sleep.]  " It is the opposite of boredom and mindlessness, and for this reason it is nearly always a gift."  (p. 26)

These bizarre events from this Sunday's excepts from Exodus and Luke and the psalmist's encounter with God with their strange details told in quixotic narratives are anything but 'normal' conversation.  They are about as out of the ordinary as we can handle.  Although delivered in language-- written on tablets or said from clouds-- we can undertand they say things we cannot undertand, which is, of course, the true extent of God's love.  No matter how many times we hear about it, it never ceases to amaze!  A surprise, by definition, comes out of nowhere, interrupts daily obsessions, shake us out of something like sleepwalking through life, can come from the least expected events or people and has some kind of impact on us. And, "it is always nearly a gift."