Corrie and I discovered streaming video last fall. We haven’t really watched network TV for fifteen years or so, but found ourselves needing something to help us unwind after stressful days. So we watched all of “Bing Bang Theory” over the fall. Then we turned to “How I met your Mother.” It got pretty lame but we stuck it out to the bitter end because we weren’t quite sure what else we might watch. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we came across “Mozart in the Jungle.” It’s a program produced by Amazon, available on streaming video. Set in the rarified environment of New York’s classical music scene, it chronicles the lives and world of the fictional New York Symphony, its hot-shot young conductor, the struggles of people trying to make careers in the fine arts, as well as the financial challenges of arts institutions in contemporary culture.
As I watched the first few episodes I found myself drawn back to my past. I was privileged to play in two college orchestras as an undergraduate, and then later, when Corrie and I were in Sewanee, I was roped into joining the University Orchestra with which I played for nearly five years. There’s a great deal I remember from those experiences, violinists’ jokes about violists, instrumentalists’ disdain for vocalists. By the way, in case you were wondering, I played the tuba. I remembered something else. The action in Mozart in the Jungle is enveloped in music; classical music is the soundtrack; we hear snippets of recordings, but I’ve been most affected by the minutes before the performance or rehearsal begin—as the musicians tune or work on particularly difficult passages. There’s a sense of expectation in those moments, which is heightened as the concertmaster directs the oboe to play an A to tune the orchestra. Then finally the conductor comes on stage, raises the baton, and all the other stuff, the petty bickering and rivalries, the concerns of rest of life, the individual notes and individual instruments combine into something much larger and beautiful as the orchestra comes together to play music.
After a while, anything can seem mundane, ordinary. I say this as a priest who comes before you each Sunday and Wednesday and say the powerful words of the liturgy, say to each of you as I place the bread in your outstretched hands, “This is the Body of Christ.” It’s easy to be distracted when I do that—to be wondering about the next person at the rail, or what’s going to happen next, or the adult forum, or my afternoon nap. It’s easy for something we do regularly to become ordinary. We’re going through the motions, doing what we’ve done so many times before. It’s easy not to notice, not to know, not to sense the power and transcendence that are all around us, and sometimes, whether we’re priests or musicians, we overlook the power and transcendence that we participate in making real.
Sometimes, though, something happens to remind us of what we’re doing and what it’s all about. Sometimes, we’re completely knocked over by the power, beauty, and transcendence that we encounter. Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as Transfiguration Sunday. Each year on this day of transition as we turn away from the Season of the Epiphany and our exploration of the ways God makes Godself present among us, and turn toward Lent, we read this story from the Gospels of the otherworldly encounter of Jesus Christ and his closest disciples with mystery and the divine.
But this year we also hear the even stranger story of Moses coming down from the mountain of Sinai. If you were paying attention to the reading, I’m sure you were puzzled, confused, even perhaps a bit put off. It’s really quite bizarre. This is actually the second time Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel. The first time as he brought the tablets of the law, he found them in a ritual frenzy worship a golden calf. He threw the tablets at the calf, broke them, and went back up the mountain to plead with God on behalf of the idolatrous people.
As part of his plea that God would continue to be present with the Israelites, Moses asked to see God’s glory. Yahweh refused, saying no human could see God’s glory and survive. Instead, he instructed Moses to hide in a cleft in the mountain, Yahweh would pass by, and Moses would catch sight of Yahweh’s receding glory. Having seen God’s glory, Moses’ face is transformed in such a way that the Israelites cannot bear to see it regularly. We don’t know what is intended by the text’s description of Moses. The Hebrew word can be translated as either radiant, or horned—which explains why artistic images of Moses such as the familiar statue carved by Michelangelo, often show Moses with horns. Whatever the case, Moses must keep his face veiled in some way. His transformed face is a confirmation to Moses of his unique relationship with God. It is also a sign to the Israelites of God’s continuing presence among them. This strange, story eludes our grasp. Whatever the text’s writers are attempting to convey in this passage is a reminder, in the end, that the glory of God eludes us; that God’s presence, however palpable at times, remains beyond our explanation and comprehension.
The eerie nature of our reading from the Hebrew Bible should prepare us to approach the gospel story with caution as well, allowing it to retain its otherness. Even so, Luke crafts the story in such a way as to make connections with both past and future. The presence of Moses and Elijah are a confirmation of the continuity of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, with the traditions of Judaism and with the ongoing revelation of God throughout history. Luke also points us back to the more recent past, to Jesus’ baptism as a voice comes out of the cloud to confirm to the disciples that Jesus is the Son of God, God’s chosen one. And Luke points us forward to the future to the resurrection as he uses the same language to describe the face and clothes of Jesus that he will use in describing the men who Mary Magdalene and the other women encounter at the empty tomb.
Like Peter and the other disciples, we may want to preserve moments of great religious intensity or beauty; we may want to find ways of preserving or prolonging the experience. Like the Israelites, when we encounter the divine, we may want to shield ourselves from its power and glory. Some of us may find ourselves so often in its presence that we no longer pay it much attention at all. But then something happens, a voice comes to us from inside ourselves or from heaven and says, “Listen. Pay attention.” And then the world becomes more vibrant, colorful, beautiful. We experience all of its dimensions. We see the universe in a grain of sand.
As we go through our lives, may we be open to the presence of God around us and in us. May we notice the beauty and transcendence that surrounds us. May our eyes and ears be open, our hearts full, and may we be not afraid to see God’s presence and glory in the strange and the beautiful.