The Perils of Darkness

-A woman and her little boy were battling the crowds on the E train. They were on one of two working escalators with zillions of others. Moving along, the little boy looked up at his mother and asked: “Are we in line?” His mother said, “No, there is no line. This isn’t school. This is life.”

Recently, we have read the horrific tales of the day darkness descended on Interstate 4. The combination of intensifying fog and smoke from what was intended to be a controlled burn combining forces to create perilous conditions for drivers on one of the most highly traveled highways in Florida. The smoke and fog was so thick that vision was completely obscured, as if the lights had been turned out. Visibility zero. Cars rammed into each other constantly like the bumper car ride at a fair. Only there was not laughter. No funloving drivers whooping it up. The air was filled with the sound of crunching metal against metal, moans of agony, howls of disbelief and cries of suffering, pain, and death. There were drivers who exited their crashed vehicles only to be killed by oncoming traffic because there was no visibility and by the time people realized it, it was too late. Obscured vision and darkness created the chaos of death and destruction. People heading for another day on the job, or on vacation eager to taste Disney’s delights, were suddenly immersed in tragedy.

We know the perils of darkness. We know what is like to loose our way. We know the pain of unexpected disruption and intrusion. When the routine visit to the doctor leads to a series of tests, and an appointment with a specialist, and then surgery and radiation. And the end of what we thought was interminable day to day life as we knew it.

We know the darkness and disruption of a tragic, unexpected death. With hopes and dreams of years ahead suddenly erased with one blow. At the hands of a drunk driver. Or a freak accident. Or perilous conditions on the highway.

We know the deep darkness of discovering that a beloved son or daughter has become an addict. Living a life controlled by a substance that destroys. Living with risk that is perilously close to death. The child we knew gone, possessed by darkness.

We know the darkness of feeling utterly alone when our parents have died. And our siblings. We feel left alone, abandoned, orphaned. Part of us gone with them. Loss that requires a shift of identity that can be so painful.

We know the darkness of failure. Academic failure as our future dreams evaporate because of the test we failed, or the score on the exam, or the deadline we missed. Closing doors to our cherished plans. If only. . .

We know the deep pain of failed relationships. The darkness of emptiness and anger in the wake of divorce or a relationship breakup.
We know the pain and darkness of money issues. Facing bankruptcy. The shame. The indignity. We know the sense of inadequacy when we cannot provide for our families. We know the fear of being on the edge financially and not having needed resources for shelter or medical care. We know the insecurity when employment is unstable, and job loss looms.

We know the deep darkness and resignation when our country embarks on yet another war. Is there no other way? Is our greed so great? Has our hubris totally blinded us? When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

We know how it feels when darkness descends. To feel enveloped, swallowed by the weight of fear, helplessness, or failure. In the story we heard this morning of the transfiguration, the disciples and Jesus also know of darkness. They know of increasing threat. Already Matthew has shared Jesus’ warning to his followers that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves. Already Matthew has told us that John the Baptizer has been killed. Already Matthew has told us that the Pharisees are conspiring against Jesus, and plotting to destroy him. And in just the previous chapter, Matthew has Jesus reveal to the disciples that he will undergo great suffering and be killed. He has told his followers that they should expect a similar fate. The weight of darkness has become crushing.

So midway between Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion, in the middle of two teachings about his impending passion, in between the light of his birth and the light of the resurrection, we are told this story of Jesus and three disciples on the mountaintop. A moment of light amidst gathering gloom. With darkness past, and darkness ahead, there is a mountaintop moment of light.

Cast with what were familiar images from Hebrew scriptures we are told a story of a mountain top, which is where Moses found God, and which other religions also recognize as holy places and temples of the Gods. We are told of the appearance of Elijah and Moses, pillars of Jesus’ Jewish faith tradition. We are told of Jesus’ face radiating with light, as Moses face shown when he encountered God on the mountaintop. We are told of the cloud, again a parallel to Moses. The mountain, the shroud of clouds, the light, the voice, all call forth the Hebrew conception of the presence of God. The light bathes Jesus who appears transfigured, changed. The presence of God changes him as it does all of his followers including us.

This mysterious story with obscured images and veiled meaning, conveyed by the ignorance of Peter, God bless him, expresses God’s in-breaking presence. Never fully understood. Yet it is an assurance that God is with us as we face the darkness. We are given this story which is a reminder of Jesus’ need for reassurance, for affirmation of his mission, for validation of God’s presence. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

The artist Rafael’s last masterpiece was of the transfiguration. In the painting, the background is filled with ominous dark clouds that look like a storm brewing. The three disciples on the mountain top with Jesus are lying on the ground shielding their faces. But that is only the top half of the painting. The bottom half of the painting shows us the story of what we are told is going on at the bottom of the mountain. A desperate father has brought his son to the other 9 disciples to be healed of epilepsy. The father has heard that Jesus is known for healing and comes with great faith and hope. Yet the disciples do not heal the child. They do not seem to think that they can heal the boy. There is turbulence and fear and desperation in the dark bottom portion of the painting. Yet the canvas is dominated by a light bathed Jesus at the top center of the picture. He hovers above the ground eyes looking up and arms raised almost in a “hands up” position indicating submission, surrender, acceptance. In the midst of the darkness, the light of God shines. With looming darkness at the bottom of the mountain, with the way to another mountain, Calvary, ahead, the light shines. The starlight-drenched baby of Bethlehem is drenched in light once more. A foreshadowing of the resurrection.

The painting reminds us that the light of God does not banish the darkness. The surrounding continues cloudy and ominous. There is the necessary descent from the heights with conflict and despair awaiting at the foot of the peak. God does not eliminate fear, pain, violence, and struggle, but God’s light shines amidst the darkness. As the scripture tells us, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. God is present in the darkness. God sees Jesus and his followers through the darkness, but does not eliminate or prevent dark times.

This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical season of Epiphany, the season of light, of celebration of God’s presence revealed. This week with Ash Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, marked by the color purple. A time of penitence, repentance, recognition of separation from God and re-turning to God. It is a dark, somber season of reflection and germination as we prepare for the new life promised in the resurrection of Easter. As these seasons change, we need this celebration of the transfiguration reminding us that God is present, God’s light is shining for us, even in the deepest darkness. We go through the darkness of Lent with God, recognizing God’s grace and love. Renewing our dependence on God instead of ourselves which can only lead to a hopeless abyss.

The transfiguration assures us as it did Jesus that God is with us, regardless of what lies behind us or ahead of us. In fact, it is affirmation that God is with us precisely because some kind of darkness inevitably does lie ahead of us. God’s light is with us in the darkness. In fact, light is most clearly seen in the darkness. Maybe it is but a faint glimmer. Maybe it is a lightening bolt. Maybe it is a pinpoint like a star. Maybe it is the intense colored hue of sunset light. God’s light shines and assures us as we face the dark times of this life. And that light is our hope providing clarity, freeing us from fear. Giving us the courage for passionate engagement with life. Empowering us to face the unknown. Strengthening us when the way ahead looks perilous. Sustaining us in the face of despair. Equipping us to be agents of reconciliation, peace, and compassion in the spirit of Christ. We are not left to our own devices. God knows we need the light.

The story of the transfiguration not only shows us God’s light sustaining Jesus and his friends on their difficult journey, but helps us to know how to recognize the light. We notice that Jesus and his three companions show up. They are present. They have left something behind to go up on the mountain. We see that they have separated themselves from the demands of everyday life. They have created time and space in their lives to look for God’s light. If we are so busy and harried we may not see the light God is trying to show us, even if it appears as a blazing neon sign. We need to be paying attention. The story also shows us that the people involved had the knowledge of their faith tradition to help them recognize and identify God’s presence. They know of Moses and his encounters with God, on the mountain, his face shining. So they recognize how God is appearing in Jesus. They know of Moses and Elijah and so recognize their presence. Knowing our faith tradition, our scriptures, and our stories, helps us to see and recognize God’s presence and light. This gives us a language for interpreting our experience. It helps us recognize the light. Yes, God can find a way to communicate with us, to show us light, regardless of our background, heritage, knowledge, or religion, but being immersed in a tradition helps us to focus on the light, and recognize the presence of the Holy One, and trust the experience. Worship, prayer, church, scripture, Christian fellowship all help us to see God’s light and know it for what it is.

This Sunday we celebrate the light of God which transfigures in the midst of darkness and obscurity. The light which overcomes the domination of suffering, the paralysis of fear, the unrelenting rule of violence, the shroud of despair, the tyranny of self-centeredness and self destruction. God loves us so much, God does not leave us to face the darkness alone. God reaches out to us to empower us and transform us as we journey through the darkness. God is persistent, relentless really, in the quest to be our light, to illumine our path, so that we may know the fullness and joy of the living of our days. Look for the light. As those magi scanned the sky night after long night looking for a sign of God’s presence. Trust God. For when we try to make our way alone, we will find ourselves lost and failing. The light is there. Seeking to transfigure our lives. Amen.

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