A sermon on the Transfiguration first preached at Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Relevant lectionary texts here.
“…and his clothes became dazzling white”
We are coming into the season of Lent. In Lenten services we watch and wait, holding vigil, preparing for the resurrecting Christ. In this period of watching and waiting and in much of our Christian tradition there is this imagery of light and darkness that goes along with it. The light in the darkness; the light of the world (that stepped down into darkness), The light of life to all the world; And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness; The light of the Christ. Light and Darkness.
When we speak about about light and darkness, we usually end up conflating light as white and dark as black. Symbolically in our culture, and even in our churches, we often end up equating Light/white with good or Godliness and Darkness/black as evil or Sin. When we talk about things in such a binary sort of way, we limit our possibilities of understanding, and more importantly, hurt people with darker skin our congregations and communities.
So what then, do we do with this imagery of whiteness in the transfiguration; “…his clothes became dazzling white.” Are we made to understand this moment as incredibly holy? That the holiness of God was revealed in the radiance of whiteness…shining light skin, dazzling bright cloth? How can we look past our limited binary understandings of light and darkness to reveal deep, richer, and might I even say “darker” theological understandings.
The transfiguration of our Lord is quite remarkable. Jesus on the mountain with his close friends experiences a moment of Transfiguration – a moment of in-breaking, a moment of liminal space,
where the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin, the spiritual is embodied in the physical. A incarnational moment. A moment where we are able to glimpse the future, to see what is to come. A moment that recalls baptism, “This is my chosen!” A sacramental moment. How do we describe a moment like this? How do you depict it?
Each of the synoptic gospel writers use different words to try and convey the gravitas of the transfiguration. Our text today from Luke tells us Jesus’s “…clothes became dazzling white.”
In the gospel of Matthew, “His face shone like the sun” and in Mark, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” These words have inspired artists across the ages. The transfiguration has been painted over and over. Artists challenge themselves to try to capture this heavily, bright, shining, quality of a transfigured Jesus. One such technique is to paint the area closest to Jesus the brightest white available to the artist. No background show through, just white, white blotting out everything. And then the farther and farther away from Christ, the more and more diluted the white light becomes. That’s one way.
But there is another ancient way the transfiguration is traditionally depicted.
At St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of Mt. Siani, centered the middle of the Egyptian Peninsula, I first came across the image on the cover of your bulletins. This is a 1400 year old mosaic covering the Apse of the Church of the Transfiguration. The chapel was dedicated to the transfiguration because Moses was also transfigured in a similar way when he was in the presence of God atop the mountain. Mt. Siani is also thought to have been the place where Elijah heard the voice is in the quiet. These two same titans of the Law and the Prophets appear with Jesus during the transfiguration and are pictured standing on his left and right.
What stands out about this picture is the Mandorla. Mandorla is an Italian term that means “almond”. The Mandorla is the almond shaped body halo around Jesus. What is curious about it the halo is that it does not operate in the way some artists depict the Transfiguration with the whitest parts nearest to Jesus. This artist’s depiction flips that idea. The Whitest portions of the halo are the farthest from the Christ and the halo becomes progressively darker and darker the nearer it gets to Christ. The Apophatic theology behind this depiction is that…“as holiness increases, there is no way to depict its brightness except by darkness.” The mandorla, near its center, is the deepest, richest, experiential knowledge of the Blackness of God.
The saints and mystics have used various names to describe the experiential knowledge of God, “They speak of contemplation, ecstasy, rapture, liquefaction, transformation, union, exultation. They talk of a jubilation beyond the spirit,” and “of being taken into a divine darkness…” Closer to our own tradition, I like to think that Luther would call this darkness “the Hidden God.”
The Good news is that God does not remain hidden! In moments of Transfiguration, moments of sacrament, we briefly get to go beyond the veil. For those fleeting moments can experience the darkness of God. In our text, the darkness of Christ made known to his disciples. Christ, on this mountain, at the pinnacle of his ministry, baptized by God, having Organized his disciples to resist oppression of Empire which are the forces of physical and spiritual death, is resurrected in Glory, surround in light so bright is can only be described at holy Black. That is the picture of the world to come.
As Ash Wednesday approaches, we prepare to remember our connection with Christ and the earth from which we are made. When we impose black ashes in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, I invite you to be taken into the divine darkness of Christ. Challenge yourself to go deeper into a richer experience of Christ. Lean in to the darkness of Lent as away to draw near to to God’s mysteries and holiness.