There are two religious poles we regularly navigate between: the ordinary and the extraordinary. The women of Open Table will have a chance to visit the ordinary pole this Saturday in a half-day retreat focusing on experiencing God in the everydayness of life. Words of songwriter Carrie Newcomer come to mind when I think of ordinary sacredness. She sings:
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
Warm wool socks, and cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
. . .
Holy is the place I stand
to give whatever small good I can.
The empty page, the open book,
Redemption everywhere I look. . . . (from Holy as a Day is Spent)
Ah, redemption—God’s gracious and ongoing enterprise—everywhere I look! In warm wool sock and frying eggs? I first experienced God in the ordinary as a child on a swing set pointing toes beyond green treetops toward the clouds as the summer air shimmered. In my backyard sanctuary, I would sing and sing, pumping my swing higher and higher. I’d sing “Oh what a beautiful morning” from the musical Oklahoma because my heart was so full of—of what I didn’t know—of some limitless joy for the shade tree and the blue sky and the smell of freshly cut grass—of everyday holiness.
But there is the other religious pole: the extraordinary. It is, by definition, rarer. Some special events and times and places and people are lightning rods of God’s grace. They seem to conduct the sacred right to us in especially intense ways. I hope that—when you enter this space or sit amongst these friends or hear holy words or sing and sing—it is easier for you to point your soul toward the treetops, to put aside all that distracts you from God’s beauty and loving kindness. I hope it is easier in this setting to tune your ear to some sacred whisper that you need to hear in the core of your being, that speaks directly and declares YOU to be God’s beloved child. We declare this day and hour and place and people to be holy. But even holiness of the extraordinary kind is not always perceived, and what is a holy moment for you might not be for me.
Even before the Transfiguration, Jesus was himself a lightning rod for the Holy—just as, for the Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem had been the epicenter of God’s presence on earth. In fact, the Gospel of Mark compares the two, presenting Jesus as the new Temple, a new site of God’s holiness. Little wonder this comparison developed, since the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, about the same time Jesus’ followers started writing down the oral stories circulating about his luminous life. After the foundation of their religious life, the Temple, was demolished, Jesus’s followers claimed he was a replacement for the Temple—and a fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. So when stories of Jesus became crafted into the literary work we now call the Gospel of Mark, details were carefully chosen to make this very point, to intertwine the story of Jesus with the stories of the Hebrew holy scriptures. As John Shelby Spong writes, “Stories about events in the lives of Jewish heroes like Moses and Elijah . . . show up [in Mark’s gospel] vaguely disguised as stories about Jesus.” (Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World). In writing the story of the Transfiguration, for instance, Jews who’d been transformed by the life and ministry of Jesus—and who were beginning, after a couple of generations, to distinguish themselves from others Jews who were not Jesus followers—cast Jesus as the successor to Moses and Elijah.
The Transfiguration Story and other stories in Mark developed to show that Jesus was connected to the Jewish tradition that included Elijah and Moses. In Mark 9 both Elijah and Moses essentially pass the mantle on to Jesus, and the voice of God approves. Jesus is part of this religious trajectory, and the Jews following Jesus and developing an increasingly distinctive form of Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem were saying they thought of Jesus as the prophesied Messiah who was continuous with their traditions but who ushered in a new era of hope and a new path toward God. That is how they had experienced him: an extraordinary religious figure whose very self (like sacred scripture, like the holy Temple) revealed God. Their encounters with Jesus were extraordinary, unparalleled, mountaintop experiences that changed THEM.
But Jesus was not only the site of the extraordinary; he was also the image of the ordinary. The Jesus Story of Incarnation tells us that the Sacred One was born in a manger and lived among the poor and died on the ignoble cross—even though the Spirit of God was in him in a special way. Christian teachings interpret this story to mean that Jesus is, for Christians, the mediator between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between earth and heaven. Jesus is, in fact, the way Christians navigate back and forth between the poles of transcendence and immanence, between the God “out there” who is totally Other and unknowable and beyond us, and the God “in here” who dwells within us and walks with us and with whom we have a loving relationship.
What you and I may need to guard against is staying too long at one pole or the other. If we steer too far toward the religion of the ordinary, we create God in our own image and presume to be buddies with the Source of All and pretend to know the unknowable and fool ourselves into thinking we’re God. However, if we steer too far toward the religious pole of extraordinariness, we keep God so very far away that the sacred has little effect upon us, or we breathe in such a rarefied atmosphere that our spirituality prevents us from putting our faith into practice and doing God’s work in the real world and we never come down that mountain to heal and love and serve.
Let us look to Jesus. Jesus moves us from pole to pole. As he did with the disciples of old, Jesus walks us up the mountain to rare and lofty moments of transfiguration, and then he guides us back down again to real life. And God can be experienced in all of that. Thanks be to God!
Instructions for Guided Prayer
We’re now going to try to practice this spiritual movement up the Mount of Transfiguration. Spiritual mountain climbing sounds difficult, even dangerous. But it really requires discipline, which is an effort of a different sort. As Henri Nouwen said, “
1. Image what little you can see of your world from the “ground level” of your immediate time, location, and experience. Call to mind recent joys. Hold onto one of those images with a feeling of delight. . . . Call to mind immediate needs that are in the forefront of your daily vision; people and situations close to you in terms of relationship or physical proximity. Hold onto one or more these images with a sense of tenderness and care. . . .
2. Imagine yourself next moving to a higher vantage point. Image the world as you gain a “higher” perspective: look down and “see” from your store of memories the more distant joys of your past. Or imagine some future happiness and just smile inwardly. . . .That appreciation or anticipation welling up is a prayer of thanksgiving. From this same vantage, glimpse the needs of people you know about but with whom you’re not in close relationship. From this vantage you can take in whole groups of people with a single glance, so focus on a group of people who live different lives than you do. Now, with expanded compassion, hold onto that image. . . .
3. We move a third time. Now image the world from the peak of a mountain. See the world’s beauty and connectedness. Look down and find yourself, your own life, if you can. Do you feel differently about your own self from this vantage point? If you were really on the top of this mountain, would you feel less attached to things and schedules and other priorities that now dictate your movements? And look at the world below. What movements or patterns are you seeing in the overall social landscape, in the ecosystems below? Are you praying for different things in different ways from this distance where national boundaries disappear and even distinctions among species fade? . . . .
4. Image earth finally from a great distance in time and space. Rather than seeing yourself as small and insignificant, see yourself as part of something vast, ongoing, eternal. Can you feel love for that tiny planet and its creatures—and all beyond its gravitational pull? Can you imagine a Sacred Compassion embracing all that is throughout all Time? At this pinnacle of perspective, you might even glimpse--as did Peter, James and John--the Cosmic Christ, the Christ who is our all in all, the Spirit that pervades all things, the human Jesus united with Divine Love, the Light of Lights. To attain this perspective in a real and lasting way is what some call “enlightenment.” Of course Jesus shone on the Mount of Transfiguration! Of course the disciples noticed his change. Of course he was then ready to set his face toward Jerusalem and the requirements of pure LOVE.
As we move prayerfully back down the mountain with Jesus, we sing the "Kyrie Eleison" for each place along the way —our final prayer.