A sermon preached at Manningham Uniting Church on the 5/8/18, on the Transfiguration – in dialogue with Raphael’s depiction of this story. The reading was: Mark 9.2-9.
God, may your Spirit help my words to show you, and may everyone else see through what doesn’t. Amen.
Tomorrow is the feast of the Transfiguration, and so our reading for today tells us that story; and this painting, by the great Renaissance master Raphael, depicts the scene.
In fact, if you listened closely to the reading, and look closely at how the painting is constructed, there are in fact two scenes.
First, the scene of the transfiguration itself – which we explored earlier with the kids.
And second, the scene of a young boy, possessed by a demon that the disciples fail to cast out.
Raphael depicts both of these scenes together.
My hope today is to use our reading, and Raphael’s painting of it, to try and answer the question:
What does the glory of God look like?
Our reading from Mark’s Gospel tries to overturn some of the easy answers we often give to this question – and I think Raphael’s painting does the same.
Before turning to look closely at our readings, I want to acknowledge that it can be somewhat difficult to listen to a sermon that draws heavily on images when your eyesight might not be the best. Or more generally, it can be difficult if you are hard of hearing to sit through sermons week after week and not hear everything that’s going on.
In order to address this I’ve tried to find the best quality version of this image I could. And I have some zoomed in shots of the key parts of the image that I’ll work through, and I’ll do my best to describe what I’m pointing out as well.
In addition to that, I should note that I always make the text of my sermons available online after I preach them. I understand that this can be helpful for some people, who may not have caught everything the first time round — or who might want to take me to task for something I say. Talk to me afterwards and I can point you to my blog where I put up my sermons – including ones I’ve preached here before.
With that acknowledgement in mind, let us turn our focus to the question at hand:
What does the glory of God look like?
The Transfiguration, I hope, helps us to answer this question.
The transfiguration is one of those Biblical stories that is fairly well known, but often fairly poorly understood. The transfiguration is also a difficult passage because it is the centrepiece of a very short, but very dense section of the Gospel narrative. It packs a lot into a very small amount of story.
Traditionally the transfiguration is seen as one of the great “Trinity” moments of the Gospel story, one of the key moments that identifies Jesus with God the Father. Speaking from a cloud, a voice – presumably God’s – names Jesus as the “Beloved Son.” (This recalls Jesus’ baptism where a heavenly voice also names Jesus as the beloved Son, and anticipates the crucifixion where Mark’s Gospel finally reveals Jesus divine Sonship in public.)
The transfiguration seems to let us peek behind the curtain, and see the divine Jesus that sits behind the human Jesus.
What we see in Raphael’s depiction of this scene, at the top of the mountain, is what we often think of as the full glory of God. In the transfiguration God’s glory is reflected in Jesus himself: glowing white robes, the miraculous appearance of the great figures of Jewish law (Moses) and Jewish prophecy (Elijah).
This story is retold in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and gets referred to in 2 Peter chapter 1; and in subtle ways in the opening to John’s Gospel, and in 2 Corinthians chapter 3. As a familiar touchstone for so many early Christian writers, the transfiguration seems to have been one of the more well-known stories about Jesus among early Christian communities. And in each of these stories the transfiguration is associated with glory.
Our overarching question, “what does the glory of God look like?” seems to be answered by the story of the transfiguration. God’s glory is glowing, and miraculous, and it invokes fear in the hearts of unwitting disciples — who try, foolishly, to contain God’s glory in dwellings. The glory of God in the transfiguration invokes images of angels, floating in the clouds, while Jesus hovers peacefully in radiant light, suggesting that all will be well. This is what we see on top of the mountain in Raphael’s depiction of this story.
And yet …
Mark connects this story about the glory of God to this other story, the story at the bottom of the mountain. A story that doesn’t seem to show the glory of God straightforwardly at all.
I actually think that it’s this story, of a demon possessed boy being brought to the disciples for healing, that truly unlocks an answer to our question. That truly gives us an insight into what the glory of God looks like.
Compared with the story from the top of the mountain, the story from the bottom of the mountain does not seem peaceful, but chaotic. The image and the story is darker at the bottom of the mountain. Things are much less clear. And yet it is here, in the messiness and mystery, that I think we truly find the glory of God.
It is the glory at the bottom of the mountain that the glory at the top of the mountain points to.
Raphael’s depiction of the story of the demon possessed boy draws out some of the key ideas in the story that we can easily miss when we simply read the text. I want to look very briefly at three of these ideas as they are captured by Raphael in three distinct sections of this story from the bottom of the mountain. The disciples and their confusion; the mysterious woman and her wisdom; and the possessed boy and his (perhaps) faithful parents.
The disciples in the bottom half of the painting appear confused. Like the disciples at the top of the mountain they’re not entirely sure how to respond to what’s going on. This reflects what happened just before today’s reading in the bit of the story from the previous chapter. There Peter had correctly identified that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, the great saviour and hero of Israel. And yet Peter remained confused about what that meant: he expected a fight, but Jesus predicted death.
The disciple in the foreground, holding a book, seems to capture much of the confusion of Peter. It feels as though he is trying to leap out of the painting, just as Peter tried to leap out of the inevitable end of the story of Jesus.
While it seems odd that Peter is at the top as well as the bottom of the mountain, the similar colours of blue and yellow suggest that Raphael is bending the rules of accurate representation. The confusion of the disciples isn’t just about the glory of God at the top of the mountain, it goes all the way down: what’s happening at the bottom is also confusing. And so it is tempting to try and get out of the story, to leap from the painting, to put aside the book — to avoid where the story goes.
As I said earlier, the story of the transfiguration, and Raphael’s depiction of it, both try to overturn many of the assumptions we have about what the glory of God looks like. It is tempting to be like the disciples that are seen pointing to the top of the mountain, as if to say to the possessed boy: “God is up there, that’s where you’ll find healing.” And yet the story tells us that Jesus comes down from the mountain to heal the boy.
It is tempting to answer hard questions from those that suffer by pointing to an answer about God’s glory that is far away, on top of a mountain, located in some future place. Or to be like Peter and seek to flee the difficulty. But there is a figure, among the disciples, leaning in towards the demon possessed boy, and the woman at the centre of the image. His hands are clasped against his chest, as if simply to listen and look. To receive the wisdom from the others have to offer.
The string woman in the centre of the bottom half of Raphael’s painting is utterly mysterious. She does not appear in the story as it is told in the Bible. No one who has studied Raphael’s masterpiece has provided a definitive answer of who she is. And yet she draws your eye, she is given prominent place within the painting, nad inhabits the largest clear space of anyone in the lower of half the image. She is, perhaps, the central figure in the entire painting – even more than Jesus himself.
Her body is strong. She kneels firmly in place. Light seems to radiate from her bright skin. And her body is twisted: turned towards the disciples, but pointing them towards the possessed boy. She catches your eye as you look at the painting, and turns your gaze towards the boy.
She reveals something that the original telling of the story in the Gospels doesn’t clearly get across: look at the suffering child, look at the suffering child.
After this story in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes on to say that it would be better to have a large stone hung around your neck, and be thrown into the sea, than to become a stumbling-block for children who believe in Jesus. In our reading a young boy is brought to Jesus, in the hopes that he might be healed and believe. These two things are connected, and it is this woman of wisdom that connects them in this painting. She reminds us to look at the faces of suffering children. To look at the vulnerable, and hear their cries.
This glowing woman, bathed in glory, points towards the possessed boy, suffering.
The possessed boy in today’s reading suffers from what seems like what today we might call epilepsy. I don’t think diagnosis is the problem here.
The demon, we are told, casts the child “into the fire and into the water, to destroy him.” We have here vague echoes of that other “Trinity” moment at the start of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus’ baptism, where Jesus’ is baptised in water, and it is said that Jesus will baptise with fire.
This boy, while demonic, seems to be pointing to something profound within this Gospel story. Raphael paints the young boy with his arms spread … spread, like a cross.
Fire and water invoke the refining fires of death and rebirth. Death and rebirth are played out in the very healing of this child: when Jesus casts out the demon the boy becomes “like a corpse,” seemingly dead. And yet he rises.
The significance of this child, suffering and vulnerable, is that in his very body he displays the hard road of baptism by water and by fire. In this possessed boy we see the way of Jesus own journey to the cross. This young boy is revealed, by the woman of wisdom, to be the point of our focus: the place we should see the glory of God.
Like the disciples it is tempting to point up to the sky and hope for the glory of God to provide us with shining, easy answers — or perhaps our confusion leads us to walk away from where the story goes. But if we listen, and lean in to look at the face of the vulnerable, we can see the very glory of God.
What does the glory of God look like?
The glory of God looks like the transformation and healing of a possessed boy. The glory of God looks like the transformation and healing of children left in indefinite detention on Manus Island. The glory of God looks like the transformation and healing of children who have been the victims of domestic, family, and institutional abuse – even within the church.
What the story of the transfiguration points us to is the bit of the story that comes after it. The bit of the story that tells us about Jesus’ long road to the cross, the road that leads to Jesus standing in the place of the vulnerable and suffering. The bit of the story that leads to Jesus himself being pronounced dead. The bit of the story that returns to shining hope — but only gets there through the cross.
What does the glory of God look like?
The vulnerable and suffering upheld by the solidarity and love of the cross. Amen.