Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Space Between Epiphany & Lent


O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We stand in the space between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent in the liturgical year. During Advent/Christmas/Epiphany we’ve contemplated the human figure of Jesus: his coming and taking on our human condition, and his being manifested, revealed, to all the world. More recently the Sunday Gospels have begun to look at Jesus’ relationship, as a human being, with God, and through incidents from his life, to reflect on the meaning of call, of vocation. Kristen Glass, writing on this, says: “Vocation does not need to be ‘found’, vocation needs to be lived. By nature of being born, you have a vocation...Developing your vocation is about answering  the world’s specific call to action as the person you are...It’s a call for reflecting on yourself, on your role in the world, and on the gifts given to you that in turn you can return to the world...[it] is responding to the portion of reality that is claiming you...” 

From the time Jesus met his Apostles, this is exactly what he’d invited them to learn how to do. For Jesus, from his earliest years, it had taken the form of being led by God to proclaim a hands-on message of hope, love, and compassion by reaching out to the lowliest, poorest and neediest of God’s people. The Apostles wouldn’t have been strangers to the idea of God’s “glory” and “majesty” continually breaking into human lives. Jesus and they had, in their Jewish Scriptures and history, witnessed God’s holiness, justice, judgment, and mercy at work in the human lives of their forbears. God was always intruding through strange, awesome, even intimidating, events, often confusing and beyond human explanation: but always in behalf of the lowly and the poor. 

Jesus’ entire ministry was an attempt to get the Apostles and others to see that in his words and deeds, in his very person, this glorious, majestic God of hope, justice, love, and compassion was working, and bursting in, breaking into, our familiar world through unforeseen happenings, utterly amazing occurrences, shattering all human expectations. Think of the steward’s reaction in the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of the Second Sunday after Epiphany; or recall the Gospel incident of the unexpected, abundant, net-breaking catch of fish, and of Peter’s flash of understanding. Unfortunately, these occasions of insight for most of the Apostles were few and far between. Most of the time they simply didn’t “get it”. The Apostles seem to vacillate between insight, faith, and lack of insight, disbelief.

Which brings us to this Gospel passage in the space between Epiphany and Lent (Luke 9:28-43). Luke begins by situating us, saying, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray...” What are “these sayings”? They’re what Jesus spoke in the six preceding verses, and they’re “hard” sayings: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected... and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” I’m betting that the Apostles probably thought this “Son of Man” stuff referred to someone other than Jesus. Jesus says further that if anyone really comprehends what’s at stake here, they’ll willingly “deny themselves and take up their cross daily” and follow him. If all you can do is hang on to and cling to what you have, rather than give to those who need it most, then you’ll lose your life; but those willing to “lose their life for my sake will save it”. This talk about suffering, sacrificing and dying was distasteful to the Apostles. It didn’t “become” this Man who seemed to equate himself with God. But Jesus insisted: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father...” Shortly after this Peter, even after witnessing Jesus’ glory and the glory of God’s voice confirming Jesus as God’s Son, will make a lame comment about building permanent “dwellings” on the mountaintop, on which Luke wisely comments: “...not knowing what he said.” Peter missed the whole point.

To better understand Luke’s passage today, I want to urge you, at your leisure, to look up a copy of the great painter Raphael’s magnificent work called The Transfiguration. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, his full name, lived from 1483 to 1520. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned Raphael to do this painting in late 1516 or early 1517. It was intended to go to the Cathedral of Narbonne in France, but, in fact, it never left Rome. It was left uncompleted, except for the bottom right-hand area, and had to be finished by others because of Raphael’s premature death in 1520 at age 37. 

There are two main sections of the painting and they encompass today’s whole Gospel story. In the topmost section Raphael painted a resplendent Christ, clothed in snow-white raiment. It seems to float, as if suspended before the painting itself, Christ’s hands raised in an almost ecstatic gesture toward the unseen divinity of the Father and the Holy Spirit, united and concentrated in himself. Jesus is flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. Spectacular light effects blind the trio of Apostles: Peter, James and John, notably contrasting with the darkness of the painting’s lower scene.  

Off to the left, Raphael shows two kneeling figures, identified as SS. Justus and Pastor, two 4th century Spanish saints, who died under the governor, Dacian. They were schoolboys, Justus, age 13, and Pastor, age 9, who, according to pious legend, ran out of their school, loudly proclaiming their Christian faith, just as Dacian was torturing a group of Christians. This so enraged Dacian that he had them severely beaten, then beheaded. By including them in the painting Raphael sought to underscore the necessity of faith in understanding the vision of Christ. Justus and Pastor see and are illuminated by faith, and, evoking the role of the saints, kneel as intercessors for the beholders. 

The bottom half of Raphael’s painting of The Transfiguration is the second main section, and has three parts: 1) the nine other Apostles on the left; 2) a demon-possessed boy, his father, and others surrounding them on the right; 3) and then the figure of a kneeling woman, separating the two groups. Giorgio Vasari, describing the right-hand section says: “...There may be seen a young man possessed by a spirit, who has been brought thither in order that Christ, after descending from the mountain, may deliver him...”  Vasari describes the boy: “...in a distorted attitude, crying and rolling his eyes, and reveal[ing] his suffering in his flesh, his veins, and the beat of his pulse, all infected by that malignant spirit; and the color of his flesh, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures, is very pale.” Next to the boy, holding him, is a man, presumably his father, with furrowed brow and wide open eyes looking directly to the Apostles, as if alternating between hopefulness and fear.

The viewer’s eye, moving slightly toward the center, is drawn to the blonde-haired woman, kneeling in the middle. Vasari refers to her as “...the principal figure in that panel who, having knelt down before the Apostles, and turning her head towards them, stretches her arms in the direction of the maniac and points out his misery...” This figure differs from the others in several respects: 1) she’s not mentioned in the Scriptural passage; 2) she’s the only identifiable female figure amidst all male figures; 3) Raphael paints her skin and draped clothing in much cooler tones and illuminates her pink garment, such that it almost shines as white as the clothing of the transfigured Christ, Moses, and Elijah in the upper half of the painting; 4) she is spatially and tonally set apart from both the other groups; and 5) Raphael paints her kneeling in what artists call a contrapposto pose. Contrapposto is an Italian term used in visual art to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot or knee so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs, giving it either a more dynamic or relaxed appearance. 

In a way, the female figure appears as someone addressing the group of the Apostles. The gesture of her gaze and pointed arm and finger “speaks” directly to them, appealing to them to look at the demoniac boy. But, despite her striking presence, Raphael paints the Apostles as either looking down or looking past her, unresponsive to the boy’s need. Their inability to “see” the sick boy as a test of their faith, in effect, prevents them from being able to heal him: as the boy’s father tells Jesus later, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.” The beauty and white-shining skin of the woman suggests that she figures here on earth the divine manifestation of the radiant, compassionate Christ; she’s a bridge figure between the Apostles and the group around the boy who needs to be released from the demon.

Luke’s Jesus uses the words “faithless and perverse” in rebuking the Apostles later. In Matthew’s version of the story, when they privately ask why they couldn’t heal the boy, Jesus leaves no doubt, saying: “Because of your little faith.” And that’s what Raphael is trying to express in his use of the female figure. St. Augustine, commenting on today’s Gospel story, sees it as a parable for the need to have genuine faith in addressing the needs of others, and this female figure, ignored by the Apostles, highlights their failure of faith to care, to see, to understand, much less to do anything about the possessed boy’s problem. 

In this space between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of the Lenten season, both the Gospel reading and Raphael’s depiction of The Transfiguration invite us to reflect on the questions which both raise for us. We may feel somewhat overwhelmed, confused, uncertain as to what to make of them, as we try to uncover the meaning beneath the literal words. My own hunch, though I don’t know that this was Raphael’s intent, is that the female figure might represent Sophia = Wisdom. She reflects, in an earthly fashion, the fullness of God’s glory and splendor, expressed in God’s being as holiness, justice, judgment, mercy, love, and grace. She understands that each of us is called to be that for one another, through the power of the Holy Spirit, at the deepest places of our need. She asks each of us to identify what our true need is, and asks “To whom do you and I reach out, and how do we reach out?” Is it in hopefulness? in fear? in desperation? In our relationships with one another, Sophia/Wisdom calls us to task for our inattentiveness, our ignorance, our insensitivity, or even our willful overlooking of one another’s cries for help. She seeks to draw us into her vision, the glory and power of Godself, into faith, to help us realize that we, in Christ, are “the son/the daughter, the chosen”, every one of us, responsible for each another.

We need time to reflect on this Gospel story, to pray about it, to discern where its message might be guiding us. Luke says that “a cloud came and overshadowed them”. There are only two times in Scripture the Greek word epiki├ízo = to cast a shade on, to envelop, to overshadow is used: first, at the Annunciation to Mary [“the power of the Most High will overshadow you”], and secondly, in this Transfiguration story told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Artist Jan Richardson notes that “Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people...God makes architecture of our anatomy. God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.” After Mary is “overshadowed”, she silently carries Jesus in her womb. After the Transfiguration, Luke says, “they kept silent and...told no one any of the things they had seen”. 

And so, perhaps, must we. In our silence we might well think about a prayer to Jesus on the mountaintop, written by the noted biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann: 

You, majestic sovereign...move off the page!
Move off the page to the world,
move off the page to the trouble,
move out of your paged leisure to the turmoil of your creatures.
Move to the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses,
and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children.
Listen to the groans and moans, 
and see and hear and know and remember, and come down! 

But bear in mind, while praying thus, that it’s only in and through you and me, by the Spirit’s power, that the transcendent Christ can come down!    





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