The Beauty that Sustains Us
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day places before us a remarkable spectacle. Jesus leads his three closest disciples up a mountain. He becomes transfigured before them. His face glows like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white. And no sooner than the three disciples can rub their eyes than there appear two more figures alongside Jesus, luminescent in the light in which Jesus appears. They are Moses and Elijah, the two most powerful figures in Israel’s history. But their power is subordinate to that of Jesus. Indeed, the two exercised their power in service of God’s unfolding plan, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. To underline this point, Luke adds in his account of this event that the two conferred with Jesus about what he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. About this we will be hearing more and more during the important season we are about to enter, beginning already this upcoming Wednesday, which we know as Lent.
For now, however, we want to shift our focus from the transfigured Jesus to the disciples. We want to ask about their reaction to what happened to them on that mountain. There is nothing in this account to suggest that Jesus prepared them for what they were about to witness. But how could he have prepared them? For there is nothing in their previous experience to compare with what they’re about to see. They can only have been overpowered by it. They can only have clapped their hands over their mouths, standing there dumbstruck.
Except one, that is. The disciple whom we know to be impetuous, the one who speaks before he thinks, the one who is rash—Peter—speaks. “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Does this sound strange to you? Is it a response that we expect? How are we to grasp it?
Before we venture an answer to this question, we need to acknowledge that the tradition of interpretation has not been kind to Peter. That is to say, the Bible students who have commented on this scene have criticized Peter for his reaction. They maintain that Peter’s plea to Jesus to remain on the mountain is an attempt to keep him from going to the cross. Let us recall that immediately preceding this episode Jesus explained to the disciples that must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter then spoke up: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” This is why the great church father Augustine exclaims in his sermon on this lesson: “Come down, Peter! You were desiring to rest on this mountain; come down, preach the word! God was reserving this life on the mountain with Christ for you, Peter, after death…. The Life came down, that he might be slain…and do you, Peter, refuse? Come down, Peter”
At first glance, this comment seems right on the mark. And in any case who dares to question so great an authority as St. Augustine, who by all accounts makes the short list of the greatest theologians who have ever lived? But on further reflection, it is right for us to ask: Is it really wrong for Peter to desire to rest up on that mountain?
It is common for us to make the observation that human beings have basic needs. The most basic among them are food, water, shelter and sleep. When these are not met, we die. But we ought also to acknowledge another need—the need for beauty. To be sure, one can contend that it is not a basic need. But then, can we imagine human life without beauty? Put otherwise, would we really want to live without beauty?
When we hear the word, “beauty” probably what immediately comes to mind for most of us is a human face, a human figure. The ancient Greeks depicted the human form in statues that we still admire to this day. But these two examples certainly do not exhaust the meaning of the word, “beauty.”
The author Dale C. Alison gives a vivid and poetic description of an experience that he had when he was twenty-four years old: One afternoon, he walked by his apartment window, which looked out onto a garden in the cemetery in the adjacent lot. He had looked often enough at the scene to pay no more attention to it. But this time was different. He was arrested by what appeared before him. He relates that “everything was shining…The trees and tulips were covered jewels, the air a clear crystal, the headstones as bright as fire. The whole multicolored bliss was a sea of glass, each object a stained-glass window. A preternatural brilliance, a slowly breathing radiance, intense yet painless, the essence of beauty, suffused everything.”
Nor is this experience a unique one. There are numerous parallels recorded in the archives of the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales, Lampeter. Consider the following experience of a child in a grassy field:
An indescribable peace…came flowing into (or indeed waking up within) me, and I realized that all around me everything was lit up with a kind of inner shining beauty—the rocks, bracken, bramble bushes, view, sky, and even the blackberry bushes—and also myself. And in that moment, sweeping in on that time of light, there came also knowledge. The knowledge that though disaster was moving slowly and unavoidably towards me (and all this I had known subconsciously for some time), yet in the end, “all would be well.”
Could it be that Peter, James and John were caught up in the supernatural beauty that opened up before them on that mountain? And if so, how could have Peter responded otherwise than: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
In the ancient world places of worship were atop mountains. Indeed, in the Old Testament, God’s dwelling place is Mount Zion a term used first for the city of David and later for the Temple Mount. The Psalmist exclaims: I rejoiced when I heard them say: Let us go up to the house of the Lord.” David himself exclaimed: “Oh, that I might dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.”
What else were Peter and his companions doing but gazing upon the beauty of their transfigured Lord? Peter’s desire to dwell there all the days of his life was far from wrong; on the contrary, it was good and right.
Peter then says: “if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” In her book On Beauty and Being Just, philosopher Elaine Scarry asks: “what is the felt experience at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy, or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” She’s right, even if her complicated language obscures her observation. Ludwig Wittgenstein is more to the point when he says: “when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.” (Or as our resident photographer Linda might say: “when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to photograph it.)
When we draw or photograph a beautiful face or figure or flower or bird, we are attempting to replicate it, to reproduce it. We cannot capture it. A moment’s reflection will tell us that that is not possible. But we can extend it in time. When we later return to enjoy the drawing or the photograph, we realize that it is a mere copy, but the copy nevertheless serves to conjure up for us the original.
Peter suggests building three shelters or booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He cannot capture the original, but he wants to extend it in time. That lies behind the impulse here. In this perspective, they appear less to us as actual dwelling places for the three than as monuments to them. The booths or shelters memorialize the experience.
The experience comes to abrupt end. Even while Peter was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them. And from the cloud there came a voice. It is God’s voice.
In the Hebrew Bible to hear God’s voice is terrifying. In our Old Testament lesson, it is only Moses and Joshua that go up the mountain to bring back the tablets of stone, on which the finger of God would inscribe the law and the commandments. When God spoke these words earlier from Mount Sinai, the people then also saw the cloud. They saw the lightning and heard the thunder; they heard the trumpet and saw the smoke, and were terrified. They pleaded with Moses, “speak to us yourself, and we will listen. But do not have God speak with us or we will die.”
When they heard God speak from the cloud over the mountain, the disciples fell to the ground in fear. In a condition of extreme fear, the knees buckle. Human beings cannot help but fall to the ground. But as God then was merciful to the people of Israel, so God here is merciful to the disciples. As God then appointed Moses to speaks his words to his people, so God here appoints Jesus to speak to his disciples. “Listen to him!” These are the last words that Peter and the disciples hear from the cloud.
We are told that no prophet in Israel has ever arisen like Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as with a friend. But Jesus is God’s own word. When God speaks his word, it is Jesus Christ himself, who is none other than God’s eternal Word.
The disciples then felt a gentle hand. They looked up and saw only Jesus. There is no one else who can calm our fears like Jesus. What more did they need? They can go down from the mountain. But they don’t go down alone. Jesus goes with them.
What is in this lesson for us today? How are we to apply it to our lives? Most of you will know the name Mother Teresa. Founder of the religious order, Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa spent the majority of her life in the slums of Calcutta, India, to live among the poorest of the poor. It was the aim of her order, as she put it, to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” What she and the sisters of charity saw everyday was heartbreaking. Once a reporter asked her how it was that she and her fellow missionaries could endure the spectacle of human misery they had to behold each day. She responded that apart from daily worship, that would be impossible.
In her answer, Mother Teresa points up the very human need for beauty. To dwell in the house of the Lord, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to seek him in his holy dwelling place. That is what she and her companions were doing. That is what the disciples on that holy mountain were doing. And that is what we are doing when we come to this sanctuary to worship God. It meets our need. It fortifies us for our work in the world. For just as the Missionaries of Charity, just as Peter, James and John, so too we leave this place to go there where all is not beautiful, where there is in fact real ugliness. But Jesus leads us. Let us then go down with him. Amen.