When Mark and I have the chance to go to New York City, one of the things we try to get on the agenda is to visit the Frick Collection on the upper East Side. The Frick is a former private mansion, and it houses artworks 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.
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 over partway. St. Francis is looking right at whatever that invisible force outside the frame is, and his arms have stretched out at his sides in a mixture of surrender and awe. And you can just see the prints of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus, beginning to form in Francis’ palms. Bellini’s painting, like many passages in Scripture, 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 than that. “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” Matthew tells us, “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 …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!’”
Like Bellini, there’s a dazzling light. But here, it's coming from inside the frame. Part of the point of the Bellini 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, however, 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, coming from inside him, the divine nature that was intrinsically and uniquely his, revealed and manifest in his flesh.
This story of St. Francis in ecstasy, or Moses on the mountain, or Paul struck down on the road to Damascus, or many others in Scripture and in our own lives, all of those examples are a revelation of what God can do. But the story of the transfiguration is a revelation of who Jesus is. The correct thing to say about Moses or Francis or Paul is, “He’s had an encounter with God.” The correct thing to say about Jesus is, “He is God!”
Now I say that’s the correct thing to say about Jesus, and from the Christian point of view of course it is. It’s just a shatteringly important truth – a truth many people do not know and need to hear. There are lots of people who look at Jesus as one of many good teachers, or as an instance of somebody attaining spiritual self-realization, or as an especially devout person whom God chose as a representative. There are people who conceive of a generic cosmic spirit that was manifest in Jesus, but is also manifest elsewhere (in nature, say) in more or less the same way. And of course there are lots of people who don’t know very much about the whole issue and have no idea who Jesus is supposed to be.
My freshman year in college, I was in a large introductory religion class and at one point the professor said, “Just out of curiosity, how many of you are aware that in normative Christian teaching Jesus is both fully God and fully man?” and I, a Christian for all of about 15 months, was the only one who raised my hand. And that was 30 plus years ago! Whether you call them post-Christian, pre-Christian, apathetic, agnostic, or any other word, there are many people who haven’t ever looked head on at the revelation that Peter, James and John received that day on the mountain: 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 explore belief, and if you’re ready 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 also some of you here who have resolved that question to your own satisfaction, who can 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. But 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 Jesus was human; what they still lacked was the revelation that he was also 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. We hear it in the Prayer Book all the time. When we were little children, in fact, we 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, perhaps 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.” The human mind can barely wrap itself around both these things being true, which is why it’s so common to hear people devolve into ways of describing Christianity that skirt one or the other truth, descriptions that come more naturally to us and are easier to imagine. But the effectiveness of Christianity depends on our taking the harder and more adult path: Jesus is God. And 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.
You know, part of what makes that Bellini picture of St. Francis so unforgettable is not just the light, but the way the light lives in the world, in a human setting. You could depict divine light by just putting gold leaf all over the place and hiding everything natural; that’s what some painters do. You could depict divine light by blocking the landscape with magic neon rays piercing Francis’ palms. But Bellini didn’t. He gave us a saint who lives right here in the physical world; who meets God in the flesh, in reality.
So in the painting, 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’ 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 or some generic wave of cosmic energy that it’s up to you to be aware of. If you know Jesus in the flesh, seek him as God today. If you know him as God today, 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.