Last Sunday After Epiphany (Year B) RCL
Not long ago my nephew was forcing me to find Waldo in page after page of busy scenes where somewhere there was a goofy guy in red and white stripes. “Where’s Waldo”, “Magic Eye”–we love seeing games where we must pick out an image from visual confusion. Perhaps this love comes from our history as hunters and gathers, when we had to unmask the camouflage of animals in order to gain our daily food. Whatever it is, we love seeing what was invisible made suddenly apparent.
The ability to see beyond the obvious is a skill and we have to develop it. I know people who have never been able to make a “magic eye” picture work for them, but most of us, after we see one “magic eye” image can see any “magic eye” image. Once we learn how to see, we are able to see everything and anything anew.
Seeing is the common thread of The Revised Common Lectionary readings for this last Sunday of Epiphany. Elisha must see Elijah taken up into heaven in order to have his double spirit, in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of “the god of this world” blinding “the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” and finally in the Gospel reading we have the recounting of the transfiguration where Peter, James and John see Christ glorified in an apocalyptic meeting with Moses and Elijah.
As we know from Church history, seeing has been a tricky business for Christians. Early on there were many debates about whether or not we should have images that allow us to “see” Christ. Many felt that Christianity must hold to the Jewish prohibition on images of God because of the risk of idolatry, but the position that mostly won out was one that argued that we could picture God because God was made incarnate–once God could actually be seen in and through a person, then God could be pictured as such. Christ himself, as we read in 2 Corinthians, was an “image of God.”
As this idea and discussion developed there came to be a division between two kinds of images and it is here that I think the critical point lies for us in the readings for this Sunday. The form of images the church came to accept came to be called icons rather than idols. The difference between an idol and an icon is that with an idol we take an experience of the divine and try to freeze it into a particular image whereas an icon is a means by which our vision is opened up to the divine beyond the image.
To utilize an icon, to have our vision opened up, we must be formed in such a way so that we can see. This was the last test for Elisha as his master was taken into heaven–”if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not”, Elijah tells Elisha. Elijah knew that if Elisha was not trained yet to see the reality of what was going to happen then he would not be able to handle the “double portion” of his spirit that Elisha had asked for as a final blessing.
In the same way Paul knows that in order to actually see the truth of the gospel one must be formed in such a way that we can see it–”even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.”
In the gospel reading we find Peter moving dangerously close to idolatry as he tries to preserve the experience of the divine, the experience of seeing Christ glorified into a permanent fixture–“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” God saves Peter, John and James from this by blocking out their vision–”Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” With vision taken away, the disciples are called to listen–to be taught, and in that teaching their ability to see will be reoriented so that they will be able to properly engage with icons–to see the divine beyond the image.
In philosopher Paul Churchland’s fascinating book Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind he argues that we should work to change our common sense perceptions of the world to better match our best theories of how the world really is in itself. For instance, most of us perceive the sun going around the earth, even though our best theories tell us the opposite is true. Churchland argues that the mind is actually very plastic and we can perform exercises that will help make our perceptions conform to what we believe is true about the world. For instance, if we wake up early and watch the sun rise while imagining we are on a down escalator, we will develop a proper perception of what is actually going on as the sun moves across the sky. It is in this way that we can begin to live into the truth, rather than the lies that helped us make sense of the world before we really understood it.
What if our churches were places where we learn to see rightly? Where our plastic minds were formed so that we can begin to see reality? This is what we must seek. But in doing so we must be careful not to make tents on mountaintops, static preservations of divine moments. Instead we must be formed so that we see the kingdom as it is–real and always around us. This formation for seeing comes by listening, by becoming disciples and immersing ourselves in the stories and teachings of Jesus. Let us listen so we can see, let our eyes be opened, let us see the incredible reality of the kingdom of God where we no longer have to live according to the lies we used to tell ourselves. This is the work we must turn ourselves to in the Lenten season.