By Beth Maynard
Last weekend my husband, Mark, and I were in New York for a concert. We went down a little early to enjoy the city, and one of the things we had on the agenda was to visit the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side. The Frick is a former private mansion, sort of along the lines of the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, and it houses works that the 19th-century steel magnate Henry Clay Frick acquired over his life. Though there’s been some remodeling, the rooms still resemble the way they looked when Frick lived there. And in his living room, across from the fireplace, over a rug that picks up its colors to make it stand out even more dramatically, hangs one of the most important works in the collection: Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”
Bellini puts Francis in an outdoor scene, standing beside a cliff which contains a small shelter; there are some animals and a town in the background, but the thing that draws your attention is Francis himself. He’s gazing awestruck off to the left, outside the frame, so we can’t actually see what he’s looking at. But whatever it may be, it is bathing both him and the landscape behind him in indescribable light. I’ve looked at maybe 10 reproductions of the painting this week and none of them is able to capture the intensity and the feel of that light. You just have to see it.
This glow reflects off the rocks, and a laurel tree nearby is not only sparkling, but also inclined, as if the light source from outside the frame is radiating with such force that it’s become a physical weight, bending this tree partway over. Francis looks right at whatever that invisible force is, and his arms have stretched out at his sides in a mixture of surrender and awe. If you look closely, you can just see the prints of the stigmata beginning to form in his palms.
Now people paint Francis receiving the stigmata a fair amount, but I haven’t seen very many artistic depictions of the somewhat similar story in our Old Testament reading today. Both of these moments involve someone who is physically changed by an encounter with God — and both of them describe light as being at the heart of it. A glow floods Bellini’s painting, and Exodus tells us, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”
The effect that encountering God has on Moses is so striking that it frightens the crowd. He actually has to take to veiling his face, so that people can cope with seeing him. Both Bellini’s painting and this Exodus passage give amazing testimony to what the presence of God can do when it is manifest to a human being.
Our Gospel reading today, though, is recounting something slightly different. “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray,” Luke tells us, “and while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. … a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”
It is fairly evident why this story of the Transfiguration is paired with that Exodus reading: both show us a religious leader, on a mountain, who is shining with a light we understand to be divine. Both tell us that bystanders were frightened by that manifestation. So they’re very similar stories. But there’s one crucial difference. In the Exodus passage about Moses, the point of the image is for us to marvel at what God can do in a human life — how the glory of God can come onto and over a person. In the Gospel today, the point is not that God, over there out of the frame, displayed a power that was external to Jesus by imposing glory on him. It’s that the disciples saw a revelation of what was already inside Jesus. They saw the divine glory that was intrinsically his, revealed and manifest in his flesh.
This story of Moses is a revelation of what God can do; the story of the Transfiguration is a revelation of who Jesus is. The correct thing to say about Moses was, “Look! He’s been talking with God.” The correct thing to say about Jesus is, “Listen! He is God!”
I say that’s the correct thing to say about Jesus, and of course it is. It’s just a shatteringly important truth — a truth many people do not know and need to hear. People who look at Jesus as a good teacher, or some sort of symbol of spiritual realization, or who frankly haven’t given the matter of who he is any serious consideration since they were 10 or 11 years old and don’t really know what they think. Whether you call them post-Christian, pre-Christian, apathetic, agnostic, or any other word, there are many people who need the revelation that Peter, James and John received that day on the mountain (not, probably, that they grasped it in its fullness at that point, but it was there waiting for them to grasp): This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!
So it is absolutely the correct thing to say about Jesus, that Jesus is God. And if you’re here today trying to figure out whether you agree that this is a true statement, welcome, and my hat is off to you, because you’ve focused your question well. If you’re going to wrestle with God, start your wrestling right there: Who is Jesus? Wrestle with that and don’t give up until you get an answer.
I would expect, however, that there are others of you here who have resolved that question to your own satisfaction, who can gladly affirm what Peter and James and John saw on the mountain. And so I want to talk to you guys for a minute. The Transfiguration, I said, was a shining forth of the divine glory that was in Christ. Before they went up on Mount Tabor, the disciples who were with him — though they’d seen him do and say some amazing things — knew him as a human being. They took that for granted. He ate, he slept, if you cut him he bled, if he stubbed his toe on a rock he said “ouch,” or whatever the equivalent was in Aramaic. They went up on that mountain with no question in their minds that their Rabbi was human; what they needed was the revelation that he was divine.
Some of us church people — and I wonder if this is true for any of you? — some of us might be in the opposite situation. Some of us have taken for granted for almost as long as we can remember that Jesus is God. Maybe you’ve moved in circles where this was an unquestioned fact. When you were little children, in fact, you might even have gotten the noun “Jesus” and the noun “God” a bit confused. (It’s all kind of the same thing, isn’t it?)
Jesus had always been human in the minds of Peter, James, and John. But if Jesus has always been God in your mind, you might need to do some wrestling of your own in search of a sort of reverse Transfiguration: A revelation that underneath this dazzling divine glory there is a guy. A person, “being of one substance with” you, with a body and a mind like yours, with human flesh, a human heart.
Which one are you more likely to take for granted as a given — Jesus’ humanity? Or his divinity? Which aspect of God incarnate do you need brought home to you? “Jesus is God” is, indeed, a crucial earthshaking truth of Christianity, but just as crucial and just as earthshaking is the parallel truth “Jesus is human.” To stay the course as his followers we need each end of that polarity, and not some idealized mushy middle either — we need both sides, all the way over. Human. And. Divine.
You know, part of what makes that Bellini picture of Francis so unforgettable is not just the light, but the way the light lives in the world, in a physical setting. You could do divine light by just putting gold leaf all over the place and hiding everything natural; that’s what some painters do. You could do divine light by blocking the landscape with magic rays piercing Francis’s palms. But Bellini didn’t. He gave us a saint who lives right here in the physical world; who meets God in reality.
So … Over beside that laurel tree that’s inclined before the Lord, Bellini put a drainpipe sticking out of the wall because, you know, muck accumulates, and sometimes you’ve just got to let it run off. Back in the field near the cave, a grey donkey stands, because it’s hoping to get fed or it’s tired from work. Down in the rocks by Francis’s feet, a bunny is peeking out of its hole. Not a sacred bunny, not an angel bunny; just a bunny.
There’s even a little scrap of trash that’s blown up against a branch, some kind of rumpled paper, except when you look closely at it you realize that on that trash the artist has signed his name in Latin: Johannes Bellinus.
This is the world, and it is the world in which God reveals himself. As Christians we find God in flesh, in place, in our own transfigured and not-so-transfigured bodies, not in some rarefied gold-leaf spiritual Shangri-La. If you know Jesus in the flesh, seek him as God today. If you know him as God, seek him in the flesh. And if you know Jesus as both, blessed are you if you do what the voice from the cloud said: Listen to him.
The Rev. Beth Maynard is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Champaign, Illinois.