St Paul’s, Pekin—Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 27:5-11, II Peter 1:16-21
Some of you may have heard me relate the story of how I entered college in 1969 with the intention of majoring in Political Science, and then going on to law school, and perhaps a career in politics. Instead, as a result of a rather profound interior crisis during the first semester of my freshman year, I switched to music. I realized that music had a grip on my soul, and I may as well relax and go with the flow rather than try to fight it. That act of surrender enabled me to continue a series of encounters with particular composers and particular musical works, each of which touched me at their respective times in ways too deep to express in words. Later that freshmen year, I discovered the symphonies of Johannes Brahms—not just as superficially attractive, but as an experience of connecting with their profound beauty at the level of my innermost being. It was a truly spiritual connection. In time, over a period of years, this experience of falling in love with a particular piece of music replicated itself several times: the symphonies of Beethoven, each of the nine in their turn, the magnificent “Resurrection” symphony of Gustav Mahler, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s fugues. More recently, most anything by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams just gets me high.
Now, my point in telling you all this is not to impress you with my taste in music. In fact, you are perfectly welcome to think that I have horrible taste in music; it won’t offend me in the least. What I hope I am accomplishing, however, is to induce you to substitute your own taste for mine, and to reflect on how you have had that same sort of soul-stirring spiritual encounter with a song, or a painting, or a poem or a story, the experience of losing yourself in a work of art, and thereby coming to know yourself more deeply and more clearly. A moving encounter with profound beauty, more often than not, comes as a surprise, an unexpected delight. The first moments of looking out over the south rim of the Grand Canyon left me literally breathless; it was more spectacular than I ever could have imagined from seeing pictures. All of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of being struck by the overwhelming beauty of a person’s face at the moment we first see it. We treasure these moments of surprise, these moments of encounter with the transcendently beautiful. We treasure them precisely because they are sublimely unnecessary, completely optional, serving no evidently practical purpose. They don’t feed or clothe or house anyone. They make no contribution to the gross domestic product. Yet, we all know how impoverished our lives would be without beauty. Even amid the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, beautiful music got composed and performed, and in those brief moments, the light of heaven shone in the pits of hell.
We treasure beauty because, much of the time, it seems so rare. We feel inundated by the ugliness of sickness and decay, betrayal and violence, poverty and injustice, suffering caused by natural disasters. And if we are fortunate enough to not be surrounded by overt ugliness, then, in a way, we are not really so fortunate at all, because then we are just suffocated slowly by the repetitively dreary ongoing cycle of daily routine. We work, we eat, we sleep—we work, we eat, we sleep—over and over again, and then we die, and if we’re lucky, it never occurs to us that our lives are meaningless.
So, from inside our dull, if not always overtly ugly, existence, we will grasp at such glimmers of heavenly beauty as may be within our reach. The story of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of those glimmers; it’s something that our imaginations can easily grab hold of. The gospels, of course, only give us the barest outline. As a spiritual exercise, however, we are free to wonder about the details. What did the three disciples and Jesus talk about as they walked up the mountain? Or were they silent? Did the change in Jesus’ appearance occur suddenly or gradually? Did only his clothing glow, or did his skin and hair glow as well? How long did it last? How did the disciples recognize that it was Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus? As we ask ourselves questions like these, it’s difficult not to be envious of Peter and James and John. It was obviously an experience of immense importance to them in their path of discipleship—important enough, apparently, for Peter to mention it some decades later in his second epistle. The experience sustained these disciples through some particularly challenging times that lay ahead. It was an encounter with sheer beauty, which drove them to make some response—“Let’s build three monuments, Lord, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—the encounter drove them to make some response, but in fact, no response was adequate, so great was the transfigured splendor of Jesus on that mountaintop.
Among the other inherent attributes of his nature that he has revealed to us, God is beautiful. Yes, God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and present everywhere. Yes, as St John tells us, “God is love.” But God is also beautiful. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…” we read in the twenty-ninth Psalm. Today’s selection from Psalm 27 reinforces the theme:
One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. … You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.
God’s beauty is made accessible to us, broadly speaking, in the Incarnation, when God took human flesh and “pitched his tent” among us, “moved into the neighborhood,” as one translation puts it, living as one of us. In the face of Christ, we see the face of God. But God’s beauty is made available to us specifically and concretely on occasions such as this, when we come together to re-member, to re-assemble, to re-present, to put back together the Body of Christ—the body of the transfigured Christ—as we celebrate the Eucharist, as we take our places beside Peter and James and John and “behold the fair beauty of the Lord” and respond to that beauty, not by offering to build monuments, but by offering our lives in worship and devotion and service.
In the light of the transfigured Christ, we can take the ugliness of human experience, we can take the mere daily dreariness of human experience, and look at it from an angle that calls forth hope rather than despair, a perspective that call forth health and life rather than decay and death. This is why it is so vitally important that we come back to the Mass, back to the altar, Sunday by Sunday, as often as we are able, to seek the face of God, to behold his fair beauty in his house, his temple. I know it’s my job, and Fr Matthew’s job, to tell you that it’s important to be in church every Sunday, and you know it’s our job to tell you it’s important to be in church every Sunday. But we don’t do that because it’s our job, or because we get an ego boost out of seeing filled pews inside St Paul’s. We do it because it’s the vision of God’s beauty—God’s beauty touching us in the innermost parts of our souls, God’s beauty made available to us in Word and Sacrament, in the liturgy of the church—it’s the vision of God’s beauty that enables all of us to keep on keeping on in the face of the ugliness and blandness that surrounds us. “One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.”
Alleluia and Amen.