Happy Valentine’s Day! And Happy Transfiguration Sunday! What do these two ideas have to do with one another? You may think I can’t see you out there wondering. But let’s walk along together to see what we can see.
Some of you may have received — or given — a Valentine this morning, or plan to later in the day. And even if you didn’t, most of you know the most common emblem of Valentine’s Day: A heart shot through with an arrow. The heart is not an anatomically correct representation of a human heart, and it doesn’t directly refer to the powerful human muscle that controls our blood flow. Rambling around through the wiki-thickets, we learn that the symbol of a heart that we know comes from peepal leaves that are shaped that way. The shape came to represent the heart as a metaphorical center of human emotion, and particularly romantic love, as early as the Middle Ages.
Enter Cupid, the god of desire, attraction and affection in classical mythology. As early as Ancient Greece, Cupid’s super power was represented by a bow and arrow. A person, or even a deity, who is shot by Cupid’s arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire. The wiki-thickets also tell us that Cupids are a frequent motif of both Roman art and later classical Western art. By the 15th century, the iconography of Cupid starts to become indistinguishable from the cherub, and under Christian influence, Cupid the Cherub begins to represent both heavenly and earthly love.
Here’s the transfiguration part: those struck by Cupid’s arrow are suddenly filled with love for the next person they see. Cupid’s bow and arrow are a metaphor for something that it’s really hard to describe or explain, but when a person’s heart is pierced by Cupid’s arrow, that person suddenly sees another person as beloved. It may be someone familiar, or someone never seen before, but Cupid’s bow and arrow symbolize the transformation of how we see another human being. That person is transfigured, and becomes the center of your world.
Our lectionary today gives us two great moments of transfiguration, when we can see and feel God’s love. Theologians call these moments theophanies — those moments of clarity when God shows up, and there’s no doubt about it.
In our first reading, from the Book of Kings, we catch up with the Prophet Elijah, and his protege and successor, Elisha. Elijah knows he’s close to death, and God has told him to go to Bethel. Elisha is loyal, dutiful, and probably more than a little scared. He continues to follow Elijah, even walking through the River Jordan after Elijah parts the river so that they can walk across on dry land. And then — we all know the hymn Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. And that’s what we see next! A chariot of fire and horses of fire rush between Elisha and Elijah, and Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven.
North Carolina Methodist preacher James Howell writes, We sing “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home,” although in all the annals of history we know of only one chariot that accompanied a homecoming. This chariot is beyond explanation—as the writer of 2 Kings surely meant it to be. Often preachers can be too confident about explaining things, when we try to make what is really mysterious clear. I’m going to follow Elisha’s example here, and just point to his experience as we have it: God came very close, swinging down low and sweet into our lives.
That experience transfigured Elijah, and ushered his protege Elisha — and us, looking on — into the presence of the holy and living God. It shouldn’t surprise us that Elijah shows up in Jesus’ transfiguration experience, just to make God’s presence clear to Peter, James, and John — good Jews who knew the holy stories of the Prophets Elijah and Elisha well. The church remembers the site of Jesus’ transfiguration as Mount Tabor, a mountain in the middle of the lowlands near the Sea of Galilee. From the top, you can see for miles on a clear day, out over fields and vineyards and fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. And as homiletics professor Tom Long tells us, things are supposed to look different from the mountaintop. That’s the whole point. One of the things we see is on the mountaintop is that Jesus is beloved by God.
We could never have seen that in the vineyards or synagogues below. We wouldn’t have guessed Jesus was beloved by anybody. His disciples misunderstood him, he was rejected by his hometown, and the authorities were out to get him. And things are about to get worse. Jesus knows that he “must undergo great suffering and be rejected.” Jesus beloved? Nope.
Seeing for Real
But if we see Jesus for real on that mountain, we see ourselves for real too. Aren’t there parallels between our pandemic life in all its inequities and divisions — political, economic, racial, and healthcare — and Jesus’ ministry before the transfiguration? Jesus’ ministry experienced rejection, failure and violence, and our lives have too. Down in our own valley, sometimes we see hope slipping away. But up on that mountain we can see ourselves in Jesus’ light. We can see our own baptismal garments dazzling like the sun, see the cloud of God’s care hovering over over our heads, hear God calling us “beloved.”
Last Saturday, under Liz McCarthy’s direction, and with loads of help from your wardens and their families, we finished cleaning out the parish auditorium, formerly our beloved EDS. And we have really felt our hopes bruised and battered through this past year, not only from the loss of the school, the teachers, and the families, but also in our fears about finding ways to support our beautiful building, and to make the church sing with life again.
And the EDS classroom has been a valley, where our worries and fears and failures were piled up for us to see in the unused children’s books and furniture. But in this big effort over the fall, and this past week, God swung down low and sweet. And our parish auditorium has been transfigured. It’s not a mountaintop, but it is a new terrain. And that beautiful room, with the sun glancing and glowing across the wooden floor, has been transfigured.
God has come near, and our lives and spaces are hopeful and filled with new possibility. Amen