Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Long, Loving Look at What's Real

Matthew 17:1-9
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras Jazz Communion
William G. Carter 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

On my one and only trip to New Orleans, I wandered down Bourbon Street, took a left on St. Peter, and made my way to Preservation Hall. Some of you have been there. It is the revered home of traditional jazz, the home base of four or five traveling versions of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. From the outside, it’s not much to look at. Even after Hurricane Katrina gave it a good hosing down, Preservation Hall looks like a dump.

But on the inside, there is night after night of musical magic. The wooden benches are loaded with people First time I was there, it was a Tuesday night. Shannon Powell, a good friend of Wynton Marsalis, was the drummer, and he was holding forth. The music started bubbling like a Cajun gumbo. One of the Neville Brothers sat in, with drumsticks tapping on a wood block. Everybody began to the sway, moving to the rhythms. If you weren’t moving to the music, you were dead.

At the height of ecstasy, the guy in front of me spun around on his wooden bench. He says, “Whoo-whee! This is . . .” and he couldn’t find the third word. “This is . . .” and he paused again. Then the word came to him: “This is real!” This is real.

I don’t know if he was expecting something artificial, or something watered down, or something offered only for the tourists. But he was straining to describe an emotionally moving experience. He didn’t have the words. The description was beyond his speech. All he knew: it was real.

I remember that vignette, not only because of the music for today, but because of the scripture story we heard. In every version of that story, the storyteller strains for words. After taking three friends up a mountain, Jesus suddenly glows like the sun. His dirty tunic becomes whiter than white. The Bible writers even used a strange word: Jesus was transfigured. They never define what this means. They just point and say, “This is real.”

Real what? Real holy? If so, it was buried in the skin and garb of an ordinary peasant. Jesus never stood out in a crowd. There is no evidence that he stood out like that sexy model in the new “Son of God” movie, nor that his mother looked like Roma Downey. Jesus was an ordinary looking guy. Then on the mountain, he glows like the sun.

Not only that, the two holiest men in Israel’s memory – Moses the lawgiver, Elijah the prophet – suddenly appear and converse with him, as if they were there all along. The Law and the Prophets are in conversation with Jesus.

Peter doesn’t know what to say. He stammers out something about enshrining the holy moment. But then God engulfs the mountain top in a cloud, quotes a psalm about the royal Son, and declares in an earth-making Voice, “Listen to him!” It drove those fishermen to their knees. And then Jesus came and touched them, and said “Don’t be afraid,” and it was over.

These moments come. Real moments. They come on mountain tops or shabby music halls. They might even come in a church. We don’t have the words to describe them. We can only point. In the words of one poet,

   . . . Each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. .” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

Or to translate: we don’t know what to say, but it’s real.

It was Madeleine L'Engle, the great author and holy Christian, who points us to the Transfiguration of Jesus and says it is a moment that we best approach through the creative arts. By this, she means poetry, paintings, music, drama, and storytelling, among other things. “As a child,” she said, “it did not seem strange to me that Jesus was able to talk face to face with Moses and Elijah, the centuries between them making no difference.” In the depths of imagination, it all fits. But by the time she grew up, the world had instructed her to parcel out life in different compartments: true and false, past and present, sacred and secular.

So: what if God comes to break down those barriers? What if eternity smashes all the clocks so that past and future are in this moment? What if God finds us in the places we would never expect God to make an appearance – like the mountain tops, the shabby music halls, even the churches? What if holiness just happened here, in a moment beyond words? It could be frightening.

So Madeleine writes: “We are afraid of the Transfiguration for much the same reason that people are afraid that theater is a "lie," that a story isn't "true," that art is somehow immoral, carnal, and not spiritual . . . We are not taught much about the wilder aspects of Christianity. But these are what artists have wrestled with throughout the years.”[1]

I don’t know if you’ve had such a moment. I’m talking about a real moment, a moment where you perceive heaven is touching upon earth. My contention is these moments come all the time, but the world trains us to dismiss them, shrug them off, or explain them away. Yet they come. And we need not be afraid. Maybe it is the musicians, the artists, and the poets who can teach us that.

I think of three brief artistic quotes:

  • The novelist Frederick Buechner was asked, “Where do your novels come from? He replied, “Novels, for me, start – as Robert Frost said his poems did – with a lump in the throat.”
  • Or the poet Maya Angelou: “Sometimes the poem wants you to write it.”
  • Or the Jesuit theologian Walter Burkhardt, in writing about the spiritual practice of contemplation. What is contemplation? How does he describe it? “A long, loving look at the real.”
The man in Preservation Hall, stirred by the syncopation, exclaims, “This is real!” Or Peter, James, and John, accustomed to talking to the Carpenter with splinters in his hands, suddenly see him ignited by heaven; then he puts his hands on their shoulders and says, “Don’t be afraid.” And if that doesn’t do it, he adds, “Wait until I’m dead and raised before you tell anybody about this.”  

We’re talking about Reality – the Reality of God who can become real to us at any moment. And when it happens, it lifts us beyond the grit and gloom of daily life into light, into eternity, into joy that stays with us for a good long while. Next time it happens, take “a long, loving look at the real.”

A couple of years ago at Christmas, I decided I wasn’t going to buy more stuff for our four kids. Instead I was going to provide each of them with an experience. The youngest is Meg; she likes to sing. She’s singing a Mozart mass this semester. I said, “I’m going to take you to hear a singer.” She said, “Who’s that?”

I said, “His name is Bobby McFerrin. He’s singing at Lehigh University.” She said, “Who’s that?” 

Well, I took her and she stopped asking who he was. Ever hear him? The man is a force of nature, he’s a one man orchestra. He comes on stage barefoot, picks up a microphone, and an hour and a half later, you’re not the same person anymore. 

At one point in the show, Bobby invited a couple of dozen people to get out of their seats and come up on stage. He improvises an alto part, gets it going, invites the altos to sing along. He does the same for sopranos and baritones. The song may go on for fifteen minutes of pure joy, and nobody goes anywhere. They take a long, loving look . . . and they sing.

One of those songs was winding up, and Bobby said, “How are you doing?” This lady exclaims, “I feel so good!”

That’s what Real is like. Like sweet honey. Like hot jazz. Like bread and wine. Like a generous share of heaven right here on earth.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980) 80-81.

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