God's nature is revealed through sight, sound and touch.
As many of you know, I really enjoy movies. I like dramas, comedies, independent films, documentaries, and action films. But what I rarely admit is that I also enjoy my share of cheesy romantic comedies. One of those romantic comedies, Notting Hill, tells the story of a famous American actress who is filming in England. She stumbles into the shop of a normal Englishman and the two of them begin an awkward, but sweet romance. Unfortunately, the actress’ fame keeps interrupting their relationship – whether with the surprise appearance of paparazzi, a planned date foiled by a press junket, or the confusing boundaries between the public version of the actress and the private version of the actress. After a hiatus, the actress returns to England to see if the couple can make a go of things one more time. The Englishman is extremely reluctant, but in her final plea, the actress reminds him that although everyone knows her as this famous actress, she is also just a girl who would like to have the love and companionship of a boy.
In some ways, I read today’s gospel with that same sense of tension between the extraordinary and the ordinary. Today, on this final Sunday of Epiphany, we find one more manifestation of the identity of Christ. On this Transfiguration Sunday, we hear the incredible story of Jesus’ transfiguration. All the drama is there. Peter, James, and John are up on a mountain – our first clue that something powerful is about to happen. While they are there, Jesus transforms into an array of light: his face shining like the sun, and his clothes shimmering in dazzling white. And as if that were not shocking enough, the great prophets, Moses and Elijah appear, and begin talking to Jesus. Finally, a thundering voice comes from a blinding cloud with new revelation, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Now Jesus had heard these words at his baptism, but this is the first time the disciples are actually hearing them. Jesus is not a prophet just like Moses or Elijah. Jesus is the divine son of God. If the disciples had in any way questioned the identity of Jesus, those questions are put to rest. In response, the disciples fall to the ground, overcome with fear.
When I was a parishioner at the Cathedral in Delaware, I helped teach Rite 13, a class for middle school students. In one of the sessions we talked about our images of God. The prevailing images among the young people were of a distant God, one who is Lord over us, perhaps one who sits in a throne, and who is a bit inaccessible. One even admitted that God was a bit scary. I do not think those young people’s images of God are that far off from our own images of God. We often see God as distant, transcendent, full of mystery, and far from our reality. God is that not-so-relatable father who we may love, but also feel a certain sense of being so different from that we could never fully connect. God is that famous movie star we have even met, but because of our differences, cannot fully connect with.
Into this reality comes Jesus, whose transfiguration today reveals the fullness and the incredible nature of Christ. When we say that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, today’s gospel lesson gives us a picture of that dual nature. Jesus is all those things that we know about God – mysterious, transcendent, and “other.” As the Son of God, he can be nothing other than fully divine. And yet, when the disciples are cowering in fear on the ground, overwhelmed by their brush with celebrity, Jesus comes, in his full humanity and touches them. He gently touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” That distant, “other” God we know could never do that. That distant God had never taken on human form in order to physically touch us. And yet, that distant God is present in Jesus Christ, doing just that – gently touching overwhelmed disciples and allaying fears. God in Jesus is that everyday person, simply wanting to love us.
This week I read a reflection by a priest friend of mine. He was at his Diocesan Convention recently, an event at which he rarely speaks. But an important issue arose, and he felt as though he could not avoid speaking. He stood up, argued his case, and faced a heated confrontation. In the end, the assembly agreed with him and his opinion won over. As he sat back at his table, a friend quietly whispered in his ear, “You’re shaking. I’m going to touch you for a little bit.” As the friend laid his hand upon his shoulder, my friend could feel his blood pressure lowering and the tension releasing from his body.[i] In a world that has become extremely and wisely cautious about touch, we sometimes forget the power of touch. We all have had powerful experiences with touch: whether we received a similar hand on the shoulder as reassurance that all would be well; whether we received a hug that was just slightly longer than normal, but much needed, after confessing some bad news; or whether someone just held our hand for a while, as a silent, encouraging gesture.
Our liturgies understand the power of touch. When someone lays their hands on us – in ordination, in confirmation, or in healing – something about the weight of those hands stays with us. Maybe the sensation of that touch stays with us as a reminder of a powerful experience; maybe the weight of the touch becomes a release of something held inside for a long time; or maybe something holy passes between the person laying on hands and the person who has hands laid on them. For those of us who have gone to Ash Wednesday services, we know the powerful experience of the gritty feel of ashes being rubbed across our foreheads. That combination of touch and grit has a power to evoke all kinds of images – from the dust of creation, to the coarseness of this life, to the inevitability of our dirt-filled grave. Or perhaps your most familiar experience with touch comes in the Eucharistic meal – the weight of the wafer as the priest presses the wafer into your hand, or the feel of the weighty chalice as you direct the chalice to your mouth.
Both our experiences with touch and the disciples’ experience with touch point us to the magnificence of what happens on Transfiguration Sunday. As God takes on flesh in the person of Jesus, God is both that transcendent, mysterious, “other” God, and God is that earthy, fleshy, gentle God who can place a comforting hand on our shoulders, tell us to get up, and not be afraid. That is what we have been celebrating in these weeks since Christmas – the miracle of what God accomplishes in the incarnation and the impact of what God made flesh means in our lives. As one scholar writes, “This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid.”[ii] God is both the untouchable, but revered celebrity and the very real person through whom we are touched, comforted, and emboldened to get up and not be afraid. For that reality, we celebrate our God with our final alleluias of this season, with the touch of healing, the embrace of the peace, and the weight of Christ’s body and blood in our hands. Amen.
[i] Steve Pankey, “The Power of Touch,” as found at http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-power-of-touch/ on February 27, 2014.
[ii] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 457.