And so we arrive at the intermission.
Any of you who attend live theater have experience with the intermission, and more specifically what happens right before it. All of the energy and momentum of the first act, gathered to a focal point; all of the unresolved tensions laid bare. The new bohemians take down the Wall Street stiffs by dancing on the dinner table while calling the roll of anarchists and revolutionaries living “La Vie Boheme” at the end of the first act of Rent; Effie confronts Curtis and the new and improved Dreamettes with “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls; Maria slips away from the Von Trapp family and returns to the abbey, but the Mother Superior realizes that she has fallen in love with the Captain and sends her back to confront her feelings and live the life that it waiting for her, singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in The Sound of Music. It’s part of the formula for good drama — you put the show-stopper right before the intermission.
And so here we are, at the end of the cycle of light that began with Zechariah’s prophecy that his infant son John would bring light to those sitting in shadows and deep darkness; and continued with the light that shone on Christmas Day, the light that could not be overcome, the life of all people; and has spread out throughout the season of Epiphany, the light to the nations that summons foreign powers and overflows every boundary built to contain it. The second act is coming, we can hear the low bass of storm clouds rolling in, but first Jesus, James and John and Peter will follow the Mother Superior’s advice and climb the mountain.
The other main ingredient to good drama (and, in particular, good musical theater) is picking strong source material. Rent reimagines Puccini’s La Boheme. Dreamgirls gives us a thinly veiled retelling of the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. The Sound of Music was based on the German film Die Trapp Family, which itself was based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” — which, frankly, no one cares about — so we’ll just say that Julie Andrews got to follow Mary Martin and leave it at that.
The Transfiguration clearly pulls from excellent source material: the story of Moses returning from his mountaintop encounter with the divine bearing the two tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly with the glory of God that he had to wear a veil to keep from terrifying the people of Israel. The apostle Paul remembers that story and repurposes it in his conversation with the church in Corinth, claiming that all of us who have come to know the Lord now turn to face God with unveiled faces, being transformed into the likeness of that on which we gaze, “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18) And Luke’s gospel presents Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop in the company of Moses and Elijah, the prophet who led them through the wilderness and the one that led them from the wilderness.
Jesus will be all of these. He is the light to the nations who liberates us all from Empire’s narrow definitions of life. He is the wisdom in the wilderness, feeding and healing foreigners and challenging the false religion of power and wealth. But most importantly, we are becoming like him, being “transformed into the same image.”
There is a strain of Lutheranism, even Christianity, that is very uncomfortable with that idea. Jesus is and must remain categorically different from humanity, must accomplish that which we cannot so that we might fully comprehend the heights and depths of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s gift. And we are standing at the precipice of that mystery. When we come back from the intermission we will rejoin Jesus in a forty day march toward the cross, at which we will have to come face to face with the meaning of that symbol and its centrality to Christian faith and life.
But Jesus himself is a symbol for Christian faith and life, which the gospel of Luke in particular understands. As Jesus is, so we are becoming — that is the symmetry of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Or, as Paul puts it elsewhere, in baptism we have “put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) We are not imitating Christ, which would too easily devolve into a kind of works-righteousness role-playing game; we have put on Christ, we have been robed in him, he has taken on flesh in us, we have become his hands and feet, he has become our heart and our breath. Or, as Paul says it here, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)
Sounds very trinitarian, doesn’t it? The idea that Christ the Lord, who is the visible face of the invisible God, is also the Holy Spirit. Not unlike that trinity up on the mountaintop, Jesus with Moses and Elijah. As if his life can’t be understood apart from the lives of those who surround him, who have gone before him, who he will send out afterwards. Rather than serving as a replacement for Moses, which unfortunately is very much how the first part of this passage from Paul’s letter sounds, Jesus is the focal point, the show-stopper, who draws together all the themes that have already been presented and sharpens them to a point, propelling us forward, past the mountaintop intermission and into the second act where the real drama resides and must be resolved.
Earlier this week I got a call from my alma mater, Macalester College. The alumni magazine is doing a piece on where we can look for signs of hope in the middle of crisis. I told them about you. They wanted to know the story of the redevelopment from the faithful remnant to the renewed church, but I wanted to tell them about you the actual people who are the body of this congregation.
I told the writer about Lorraine, and her story of discovering our common humanity while volunteering with young women in Afghanistan; and I told her about Laura, and the family trauma of being made a refugee by war. I told her about Jossy, and the ways that life’s tragedies can make immigrants of us all. I told her about stories of the times when we lost everything; stories of young adult missionaries — the ones from a hundred years ago and the ones we’re still commissioning today. I told her about the light and the darknesses that we embrace in diagnoses and transitions, in death and grief and loss, in each other. I told her that the place I am learning to look for hope when the 24-hour news cycle grinds me down is in the remarkable true stories of the real people with whom I share community.
This is what it’s like to hear your testimonies: “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.” (2 Cor. 3:18) Hearing my story in your story, seeing my face in your face, sensing my life wrapped up in your life. Not imitating each other, but putting one another on, being robed in one another.
And isn’t there something transfiguring about that moment when we give our testimony? Isn’t there something in you that wants to stand guard over those who bare their souls here? Isn’t there something in them that shines like the glory of God? Aren’t we all being transformed from one degree of glory into another as we discover our common humanity, our common divinity in one another? All our separate themes being drawn to a point.
If only there was a name for this experience of new life and ongoing re-creation …
But they’re flashing the lights now, and I think it’s time to return to our seats. The show is about to begin again, and there’s still so much to get through before it ends. How will those young bohemians claim life in the middle of the HIV/AIDS epidemic? How will Effie and the Dreamettes reconcile the harm they’ve done to one another? How will Maria and the Captain overcome the hurdle of class and the rising tide of fascism to save their family? How will we live on the other side of the intermission, where there are neighbors to meet, and housing to rebuild, and children to heal, and bellies to fill, and refugees to welcome?
Not by ourselves. Even Jesus gets Moses and Elijah to encourage and console him. Together, with all the wisdom of the past and all the people that surround us, we will face the second act.