Seeing the Light
When we look at the events of these scriptures through modern eyes, it is hard to know what to make of them: Elisha watching and seeing the prophet taken up to heaven; Jesus on the mountain with his friends suddenly glowing with an unearthly light.
The stories seem, well, like stories, something unreal, unbelievable. But maybe the best word to describe them is mysterious.
It is that thick veil of mystery that makes it difficult for us to see and understand, and at the same time the mystery is so much a part of what is happening that it is impossible to extract it. This is hard for us because we are not people who sit easily in the presence of mystery. We would rather be confronted with a problem that can be solved, a situation that can be fixed, a challenge that can be overcome. But the holy mystery that permeates these stories is not something that we can ever completely figure out. And take comfort, if you will: those who were there and saw it had a hard time with it, too.
The great prophet Elijah has come to the end. He is preparing to leave this life, but his companion and pupil in prophecy, Elisha, will not let him go without getting a blessing. When all the others have abandoned the dying Elijah, Elisha continues to follow him, keeping watch over him and making one last request – for a double share of the spirit that has been upon his mentor. Elijah tells him to keep watching because if he sees Elijah being taken up to heaven, what he has asked will be granted. Elisha does not turn away from the chariots of fire; he does not turn away from that which is beyond comprehension. And in the midst of wind and flame, he sees Elijah carried into heaven. It is an amazing transformation.
But just as amazing is the transformation that happens to Elisha. In his following, his focusing, and his faithfulness he receives a new identify. He takes up the mantle of his predecessor, and clothed like him, he becomes like him. It is a transformation no less powerful, no less mysterious, than Elijah being carried up to heaven. What Elisha sees gives him a whole new sense of his own calling, a new understanding of the power of the holy that is his to use in the world.
There is also a mystical transformation on the mountaintop with Jesus and his three friends. It was his practice to find a deserted place where he could be undisturbed by the crowds, where he could commune with God, where he could pray. And up there in the high thin air, the power of his praying wraps around all of them so that they are enfolded in his vision, and they see him as never before. All their defenses are stripped away; all the barriers that blind them to the presence of the holy are destroyed. They see him with the eyes of their hearts, as he really is, and it is overwhelming, so powerful and other that it is terrifying. They experience what the ancients called the fear of the Lord, fear that it is the beginning of wisdom. They begin to know him as he is; they begin to see him as he is.
But they don’t seem to know what to do with this new wisdom. Peter’s immediate reaction is to want to build three little shelters to house the holy men, to contain them on the mountain, but that is not to be. They have had a mountaintop experience, to be sure, but it will not be limited to a lofty, lonely place. Jesus, the one whom God claims as beloved, the one who now embodies both law and prophecy, does not stay on the mountain. He returns to the valley where there is suffering and sorrow, pain and sickness, exclusion and isolation, broken hearts and broken lives. And the disciples follow, focusing on him and who he is and beginning to see the light, starting to understand what it means to be faithful. Through some miracle, some mystery, on the mountain, they have seen him as he really is and it will change the way they see everything else.
And because he is one of them, they see how they, too, are made in the image of God, bearing in their lives somehow that same holy power. They see this power in him and in themselves, and they see how he uses it in the world ,and they understand perhaps for the first time their own calling: not to build monuments on the mountaintop but to pray and to preach and to practice healing, down in the valley where the people are. The disciples are called to follow, to stay focused on the source of their power, on God, and to act with radical faithfulness.
But there were only three disciples up on that mountain, only three who saw what happened to Jesus. What about the rest of them, the other nine? And what about all the others who have come after them? What about us? We haven’t seen him face to face either.
Or maybe we have and we just didn’t know it. Because we are made in the image of God, and that means that something of the presence of the holy is in us. And if the image of God is in us, then it is also in every other human being.
Part of the transformation that happens when we are enfolded in the power of Jesus is that we see ourselves as we really are, and not only that, but we see others as they are, too. Not altogether perfect, any of us, but not altogether imperfect either. Instead we are finite creatures, vessels of clay as the apostle Paul says, bearing the glory of God.
To see the light, to see ourselves and each other clearly and truly – warts and all -- is a necessary part of transformation. But it is not all that easy to do. We can put a lot of effort into trying to convince others -- and ourselves – that we are good and perfect and right. We often look for someone else to blame when we are at fault. We expend a great deal of energy denying our need for forgiveness. It is a paradox that we have to see our own brokenness in order to comprehend the potential of our own holiness.
The light that shines through Jesus on the mountaintop illuminates our own lives as they really are, and is somehow also reflected in them – in our lives and the lives of others – those like us and unlike us. The holy is present all around, if only we could see.
The writer Madeline L’Engle (in The Irrational Season) describes the mountaintop transformation this way:
Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before –
the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible.
This is how he was:
radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was, is,
from the beginning and we cannot bear it.
So he manned himself, became manifest to us,
and there on the mountain they saw him,
really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn’t that what is required of us?
Then perhaps we will see each other too.
And here is the heart of the mystery: when we see Christ, we will see each other – and we must see, really see, each other in order to see Christ. And then, when we see the light, we are changed, a transformation as irrevocable as death. We take a long loving look at the real. We see the world as it really is, and as God intends it to be, and we act in faithfulness to realize God’s vision. And the light of the world shines on us and in us and through us, and nothing looks quite the same ever again.
A story is told about two of the ancient desert fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Father, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “Why not become all flame?”
This is what it is to see the light. It is to know that the one who is the light of the world burns bright within us. It is to know Christ as Christ really is, and to find our own selves transformed by that wisdom. It is to bear the light into the world. It is to become all flame.
May it be so.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith