Toorak Uniting Church

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Holding on to the Light

Psalm 50: 1 – 6 and Mark 9: 2 – 9
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
19 February 2012

Falls of Light

His whole appearance changed before their eyes, while his clothes became white, dazzling white - whiter than any earthly bleaching could make them.

~ Mark 9:4

My brother Stephen suffered from a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. Sadly in 2007 at the age 51 Stephen died, not from that condition, but from a heart attack. Retinitis Pigmentosa is a disease of the eye where a person loses their sight often over there life time. It begins with the loss of peripheral vision and then over the years, moves toward the centre of the eye until all vision is gone. When Stephen was a child he would walk into objects at night that were quite visible to the rest of us. We said he had night blindness and in the usual way children play we would try to trip him up and then laugh at the results. Brothers can be very cruel. Stephen’s night blindness was because there was not enough light for his eyes to form the necessary images because the cones in his eyes were dying off. I think it made us all in my family conscious of the importance of sight and its vulnerability to light and darkness.

That sense of light and sight is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures. When matched against darkness it is perhaps the most significant spiritual metaphor we have. The Apostle Paul was struck blind after his encounter on the Damascus Road. And of course that image is used to convey not just physical blindness, but also spiritual blindness. What’s the old adage? "there are none so blind as those who will not see." It’s this seeing of the heart that has captured the imaginations of the Christians and others throughout the centuries.

In fact, there was a whole wing of Christianity called the Gnostic or Gnosticism that based their theology on a "secret inner seeing," or "secret knowing." γνωσις Gnosis is the Greek word "to know" and those early Christian drew their inspiration from the idea that Jesus had brought an inner illumination into the world and potentially into the human heart. It was inner knowing as distinct from knowledge about something. There are even gospels that were written from this Gnostic point of view; the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the gospel of Truth and the strangely named, Gospel of Judas, all draw from the philosophy of Gnosticism.

I mention this just to illustrate that the image of light and darkness has always been a significant theme in the religious experience of Christian faith. Much of the Gospel of John as we know revolves around this notion of light and darkness:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

~ John 1:6ff

This passage and many others, picture the person of Jesus as bringing light, inner light, into the world. His teaching and message would illuminate the lives of the people who embraced it and dispel the darkness of ignorance. So for those ancient believers the very presence of Jesus was like shining a light into the darkness of confusion and rule bound religion.

The passage read earlier which is referred to as the story of the transfiguration, has at it centre this image of light.

His whole appearance changed before their eyes, while his clothes became white, dazzling white - whiter than any earthly bleaching could make them.

~ Mark 9:4

This story pictures this light as surrounding Jesus and those who appear with him. William Blake in his painting of the Transfiguration has Jesus at the centre bathed in light but also light being emitted from Jesus and illuminating those around him. The Gospel of Mark and the early Christians did not see Jesus as just a very special person; they saw him as the expression of God, the Shekinah Glory - the dwelling place of God. And therefore the light of God had come into the world in a particular way through this man, Jesus of Nazareth.

While the story of the Transfiguration places Jesus at the centre of the story, the other characters, Moses and Elijah are very significant. Jesus was the new leader coming to set his people free. The tradition was honoured by drawing these central characters into the Jesus story. Although, it would have annoyed the Jewish populace that Jesus was in fact taking over the reins and his disciples were to become the new "elders" in the new Israel.

Often quite a lot is made of Peter’s desire to build a "booth" or a tent to honour this place and mark its significance. It was a kind of tabernacle, a dwelling place of God’s presence. I suppose like all of us, Peter didn’t want to lose the power of the moment. This illumination – this shower of light was unexpected and as the text says, "frightening." It was a vision, a lucid dream, an encounter with the Holy and because words would not suffice, a monument needed to be built, or so thought Peter.

My trip to the Holy Land four years ago reminded me of how building orientated we Christian are. It’s not just Christians; most religions want to translate the ethereal and the spiritual into physical objects with a physical presence. I mentioned before that in Jerusalem every event in the life of Jesus is marked by either a church built on the sacred site, or by some relic that gives tangible proof to a spiritual experience. In fact, in one of the Arabic gospels written five hundred years after Jesus, there is a story the Jesus’ nappy could cure leprosy.

Peter’s desire to mark the spot to hold on to the experience is a very human trait. But it is not always the most helpful. Holding on to the light of an encounter can only ever be held in the heart or in the memory and not easily translated into the physical. And really it cannot be held for ever. The purpose I think of those glimpses of insight and illumination that come into our lives from time to time is that they are to be windows that allow us to grow larger and deeper in our spiritual lives.

I recall a story I heard in my teenage years. It was the story of a man who had a remarkable and dramatic conversion to Christian faith. It was so dramatic that people would come and ask him to tell the story. After sometime the man’s wife convinced him to write it down and put in a special jar on the mantel piece which he did. When people asked him about his conversion he would go to the jar retrieve the story and read it to them. Well the years past and fewer and fewer people asked for his remarkable story. Then many years later he was asked by someone who had heard of the story to tell it to him. The man went to the Mantel piece opened the jar and peered inside to see only a few scapes of paper a nothing but dust. Time and the natural world had done its work on his experience.

Such experiences of "the light" are not static but rather, dynamic. They should propel us toward new growth and even a new vision in our lives and not just building sacred sites so that we will never forget what has happened to us in our past. Holding on the light is really impossible; it is in fact the light that holds us. Thomas Rockwell writing on one of the Quaker websites said that:

One name that early Quakers chose for themselves was the "Children of Light," and a common admonition to those seeking divine guidance was to "Stand still in the Light." Quakers often talk about being led by this "Inward Light," or request in prayer that a concern be "held up in the Light.".

Of all the Christian traditions the Quakers are the ones who have the most positive view of inner guidance. They believe that the seed of God’s life is planted within every human being and therefore there is an inner light, an illumination that can lead and guide us in our deliberations. But they believe we must, "stand" in the light as well as seek the inner light. That is we place ourselves usually within a community and allow the insight and guiding light of those around us to influence us.

There’s a line in the Christian song Brother let me be your servant let me be as Christ to you, which says, Let me hold the Christ light for you in the night time of your fear. When we are in dark times it is of great value for someone to hold the light for us. Particularly when we can’t hold it for ourselves.

I gather from the story that Peter didn’t get to build the memorial to Moses and Elijah and so the spot didn’t get marked. (But I do know that in Israel there are several churches built on the supposed Mounts of Transfiguration. So it just took a few hundred years to get the monuments built!)

However, as quickly as the great moment appeared, it was gone and they were back to everyday life. And I think the value of the experience in and of itself, as dramatic as it may have been it really is about what you do with it in your everyday life. As a minister I am often asked the question, "Do you believe in the resurrection." It is usually asked as a bit of a trick question to see if I’m in or out of a particular group. So when you want to avoid giving an answer the best thing to do is to ask another question. So I have said, "Umm interesting question, but let me ask you a question first, how have you lived the resurrection today?" Let me say, it doesn’t necessarily get me out of hot water, but it shifts the focus from the head and what we believe about something, to daily life and what we do about something.

So to with holding on to the light, or holding on to the other worldly experience as Peter, James and John did. It’s what it does in your life that is important and strangely, not just the remarkable experience in and of itself. And I think there are times when a dramatic experience is necessary to wake us up and give us an insight that does not come through the usual steady from of learning we are accustomed to. The crisis of faith can catapult us into a new world of being and believing. And as I mentioned in the Update, even having to walk down the church aisle and publicly profess by one’s actions that I am committed to Jesus and the Christian faith, can as difficult as it may be, be an experience of being in the light. Now maybe we should introduce the public confession of faith in to TUC!

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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