The news from Ukraine is disturbing. We pray it isn’t so, but it looks frighteningly like the beginning of an invasion. I’m sure many in our military are wondering how long it will be until they are called upon to represent Canada, and bring aid to the Ukrainian people in a genuine struggle for freedom against an actual tyrant. This life and death situation puts recent, more trivial use of these powerful words into chilling perspective.
In 1990, as a newly ordained minister, I served three villages in rural New Brunswick, where the biggest exports were trees cut for the paper mill, salmon from the Miramichi River, and young people who joined the reg forces. We watched the news with alarm as Iraq invaded Kuwait, and over 30 countries, including Canada, began sending military support, equipment and personnel to the war zone. Many families I knew had someone they worried about, who expected to be deployed.
This was before we had internet, but we did have television. This was the first time I remember an armed conflict being so immediately present. Sometimes the action we saw on the screen was live.
I also remember this as the first time I saw night battle scenes. Not just views from the distance of gun or rocket fire blazing across the night sky, but intense, on the ground scenes in that eerie green night vision monochrome. It was both fascinating and terrifying.
Night vision technology is now widely available and has greatly advanced. It’s often used in tv shows where they hunt ghosts, UFO’s, or shy creatures of the night, like Bigfoot.
With our regular eyes, unaided by special equipment, all the light we take in passes through our pupils, which are less than a millimeter wide in full daylight. When the light around us is dimmer, the pupils dilate a bit wider, but only so far.
Human vision is limited. Only about 10 percent of the light that enters a fully dilated pupil lands on photoreceptors in the back of the eye. It takes five to ten minutes for our eyes to build up enough sensitivity to just barely perceive objects in dim light.
The first night-vision equipment relied on large diameter lenses to magnify feeble sources of light. These days the lenses can be tiny because the images are electronically enhanced. There is even technology to allow us to see infrared radiation. We can follow the heat signatures of people or animals moving about at night.
Seeing is believing. We depend so much on what we see with our own eyes. But there is so more to reality than we are physically able to see.
Light and vision are often used as metaphors for spiritual awareness. Mystics speak poetically of God’s presence as light. We hear the phrase “enlightenment” or think of the moment the light bulb comes on, and we can see clearly what had been obscure or murky.
Last week I mentioned Thomas Merton, one of my favourite mystics. He wrote: “The thing that we have to face is that life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true.”
When I think of people who were born blind, or who’ve lost their sight, or whose vision is failing, I realize the limits of this metaphor. I want to acknowledge that, even as I explore our Gospel for today, which describes a moment when the disciples began to see Jesus in a new way.
Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the side of a mountain for some quiet time. This was early in his public ministry, but Jesus was gaining a following. Wherever he went people crowded in to meet him and hear him speak. People felt closer to God when they were in his presence.
That must have been exhilarating and exhausting for Jesus, and his crew. Is it possible they needed a break? Do you ever get to the point where you’re done with people, at least for a while?
It was near the end of a long day when they started up the mountain. In the twilight, as their eyes adjusted to the falling dark, they may have found the climb hard going.
Jesus was intensely awake, but weariness claimed his friends. They stopped climbing, ready for a rest, away from the throngs of people far below. Stars and planets were now their blessedly silent companions.
Jesus knelt to pray. This is was how he restored, after a long day. Who knows how long he prayed, or how long his friends rested? It may have been all night, from dusk to dawn.
Peter, James and John roused from their rest, and looked up to see Jesus, a little higher on the mountain, perhaps even at the top.
Jesus looked different. He seemed to glow bright white. Was it the morning sun just barely breaking over the top of the mountain, lighting him up like the full moon on the horizon?
Let there be light. That’s what it says in one of the Creation stories. The new day, the new world, the new thing, all seem to start with light. Is it actual light? Is it a metaphor for seeing in a new way?
Jesus looked different. Those first three disciples saw more than the charismatic teacher for whom they’d left their boats and nets on the lakeshore. He was leading them towards something altogether new.
On this mountain, where earth seemed to meet sky, and ordinary life reached new heights, they saw Jesus, and themselves in a new light.
The story says Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, leaders from Israel’s past. Their presence adds weight and power to the story, but I’ve always wondered, how would the disciples have recognized them, so long before photos, and without name tags?
They might have deduced who they were, by their conversation about Israel’s past, and hopes for the future. Exodus, fulfil, and Jerusalem were mentioned.
This was a spooky, ethereal, mystical moment, in a spectacular setting. As high as they could climb, and still have feet on the ground, with eyes looking heavenward, the disciples saw Jesus, and something more.
They saw that whoever, whatever Jesus was, was more than they thought. They said he glowed the way Moses did, when he came down a different mountain with the ten commandments.
We have left behind the season of Epiphany, with its theme of “see the light”, and be like the Magi who follow a star and find the baby Jesus. Next week it’s Lent, which is all about Jesus’ inevitable journey to Jerusalem, and the words and actions that brought him to another hilltop.
Right now, we are in-between. A good word for being in-between one thing and another is liminal. Liminal spaces are like twilight zones, where we have not finished leaving, and have not yet arrived, where we are somewhere, and kind of nowhere at the same time.
In the strange light of a liminal space, things might look different. Perhaps we see things in a new way, for the first time, or maybe we are seeing things as they really are, but we just aren’t able to perceive all the time.
The disciples, at least Peter, saw something he really liked, couldn’t get enough of. He told Jesus he wanted to capture the moment, build some memorials.
But that’s not what happened.
A radiant cloud enveloped the scene. The disciples felt they were in the presence of something extraordinary. When they later told the story, they described hearing the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”
When the voice faded, and the radiant cloud lifted, Jesus stood alone. They were speechless. Jesus led them back down the mountain, to begin a new day. I wonder how they saw the world, and the people they met.
I mentioned Thomas Merton earlier. If you are ever In Louisville, Kentucky, someone may point out a historical plaque that marks where Merton had an experience that changed how he saw, well everything.
Merton said: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God (Himself) became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.” Amen