It happened back in the 90s, but the video only went viral a few years ago. The pianist Maria João Pires is onstage in Vienna. Some sources describe it as a lunchtime concert, others as a public dress rehearsal, but at any rate the place looks full, and the performance is being filmed for a documentary. The camera is on her as the orchestra plays the opening notes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.
If you’ve seen it, you know: That’s not the piece she was expecting. Pires has prepared a different Mozart concerto, No. 9 in E flat. A look of panic crosses her face, and then her head drops into her hand in the ultimate example of a facepalm. She sits frozen in horror for a few moments, and then in the remaining moments before the piano is to enter, she argues quietly with the conductor Ricardo Chailly, saying this piece wasn’t in her schedule, she hasn’t rehearsed it. And all he says is “You played it last season, I’m sure you can do it, you know it so well.”
Everything about her body language communicates despair, but about 20 seconds later when the moment comes, what does she do? She puts her fingers to the keys and plays the concerto. With all the subtlety and heartfulness and intentionality you expect from an artist like Pires. The documentary footage moves on to another topic soon afterwards, but not before Chailly comments, “The miracle is that she could within a minute switch to a new concerto without making one mistake.” It’s impressive as a feat of memory, but to me almost the greater miracle is that someone could be so fully present to the music under those circumstances as to get the luminous, committed sound we hear. It’s a moment of glory, a moment when we viewers are left close to awe.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, a day that is all about awe. It’s one of the few feast days that, like Christmas and All Saints, is so important that if it falls on a Sunday we cancel Sunday and observe the feast day instead. Peter and James and John have gone up a mountain with Jesus, and in a carefully crafted narrative designed to echo key moments in the Old Testament, we hear how Jesus’ face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and in him those three human beings saw something the writer, Luke, calls “glory.” Luke actually says they saw “his glory,” a glory that wasn’t borrowed from God or pointing away from self to God, but that intrinsically belonged to Jesus. We’ll get back to that in a second.
Well, this experience leaves Peter and James and John completely undone. Peter babbles; all of them are terrified; by the time it’s over they are so stunned by the experience that they don’t even talk about it. They kept silent, the text tells us, and in those days told no one. What would you say? Who would believe you? Surely they could barely believe it themselves. They’d seen plenty of things about Jesus that made him compelling - his laser intellect, his effortless sense of authority, his unexpected mercy, but now they perceived him for his true self, as God made flesh. All those characteristics they’d seen, you could take those as just good examples -- or all right, very good examples -- of humanity. But this this was more than only humanity. This wasn’t something good or even very good; this was glory.
The writer on culture Andy Crouch, in his book Playing God, talks about these three categories – good, very good, and glory – in a way I find thought-provoking. He describes the goodness of nature, the very-goodness of culture, and then the privilege of some moments that actually point towards glory itself. Let me read a passage from the book (p. 104-5) to you.
“Grain is good. It grows by the grace of God laid down over eons of evolution, the accumulation of nutrients in the soil and the cycle of water from ocean to cloud to ground to river. Grains were growing long before human beings were here. But then human beings arrive and begin to cultivate the grain. They harvest and thresh it, separating the nutritious germ from the tough chaff. They grind it and mix it with water, yeast and a bit of salt, and bake it, and the result is bread. Grain is good, but bread is very good.
This is the essential pattern of all culture… Eggs are good, omelets are very good. Trees are good, a beautifully wrought wooden chair is very good. Sound is good, music is very good. When human beings do what they were created to do, the latent possibilities in creation come to fruition, a flourishing reality that would never exist without the application of human intelligence and intentionality... And from time to time human culture is so carefully tended and developed that the artifacts that emerge are something even more than very good. They approach something we could call glory. …The best of culture has this quality of transcendent excellence, the ability to be utterly itself and to speak of something far greater than itself [so that] … it leaves us in awe and close to worship.”
You see the pattern, as Andy Crouch puts it: “from good, to very good, to approaching glory.” That initial natural goodness comes from God; there is nothing in the natural world that was not made as good by a God who is good. But there is more; we humans who are in God’s image can use the skill and creativity God gave us to draw that natural goodness into greater fruition. In God’s design, we get to take sound and make music, take grain and make bread, take rocks and make sculpture, take grapes and make wine. We who bear God’s image can take what’s good and help it realize its potential to be very good.
So there’s that movement from good, to very good. And in rare moments we’re vouchsafed a further movement, says Crouch, where a cultural artifact speaks so powerfully of something greater than itself that it brings us close to worship. Sound is good, music is very good, Maria Joao Pires playing live from memory a Mozart concerto she hasn’t practiced is approaching glory. But note that Crouch carefully calls it an “approach,” because it’s by definition incomplete. C.S. Lewis writes about this all the time, how the most glorious moments of life are all about our being pointed to something more, experiencing a longing that he describes as “an unsatisfied desire which itself is more desirable than any other satisfaction.” In moments like that, we get close to something beyond what we are capable of on our own.
And this is why – you remember I said we’d get back to this – this is why the point that in the Transfiguration Peter and James and John saw Jesus’ glory is so important. They didn’t see something that approached glory, something that pointed beyond itself. They saw God’s glory as the intrinsic reality of who Jesus is. Before, maybe they thought he also was an approach, pointing to something beyond. But in reality, he was the something beyond. They saw not the approach to glory of which all human beings in our finest moments are capable, but the final and full glory of God himself in Jesus.
And that is where, as a sacramentally oriented Christian, I would want to add something to Andy Crouch’s paradigm that creation moves from good, to very good, to the kind of apex of human flourishing that suggests the divine so strongly that it is approaching glory. There’s one more step. There’s incarnation. Not just humanity approaching God, but God in a human. That’s what was revealed on the mount of Transfiguration, and it’s what God generously gives you and me access to here every single Sunday as his Incarnation continues itself in the Blessed Sacrament.
Grain is good, bread is very good, says Crouch, and presumably the finest brioche crafted by a world class baker might approach glory. Grapes are good, wine is very good, says Crouch, and presumably a rare bottle of perfectly aged Cabernet might approach glory. But for all their magnificence, they are still an approach. In the Blessed Sacrament we don’t have to stop at the approach. We get to go all the way in. Grain is good, bread is very good, sublimely crafted bread approaches glory, the Eucharist is glory. Grapes are good, wine is very good, sublimely crafted wine approaches glory, the Eucharist is glory.
God has come in his very essence to dwell in Jesus Christ, and offers that essence to us week by week via the bread and the wine. For us the Eucharist isn’t just an awe-inspiring example of human culture at its finest, approaching something beyond. It is the beyond. It is God, himself, in Jesus, the very same Jesus from the mount of Transfiguration, come to show us his own glory. Not just "to show us" – he’s even more generous than that! -- come to make us partakers of it. When we meet Christ in the Blessed Sacrament here on Sundays, we ought to be like Peter and James and John at the Transfiguration. We ought to be so bowled over we’re babbling. We ought to be terrified. We ought to be immobilized in amazement at the fact that God actually lets ordinary people like you and me participate in something like this!
He proactively thought of it, he made the way for us to come, he chose us to receive not something good, not something very good, not something approaching glory, but the glory of God itself in the risen body of Jesus Christ. Unto him, our generous God, be praise, might, majesty, and dominion now and to the ages of ages. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Maynard, Rector