United Church of Jaffrey
There had, first, been an airplane, a small one of the period, narrow, with a narrow aisle, and flying low. This had given me my first revelation: the landscape of my childhood seen from the air, and from not too high up. Ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby backyards: views from the roadside. From the air though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern; the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpetlike texture of the sugar cane fields, so extensive from up there, leaving so little room for people… the forested peaks and dips and valleys of the mountain range; a landscape of clear patterns and contours… like a landscape in a book, like the landscape of a real country. So that at the moment of takeoff almost, the moment of departure, the landscape of my childhood was like something which I had missed, something I had never seen.
from The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul
Have you ever seen a “Moose Crossing” sign.
Of course you have – you live in New Hampshire!
Moose crossing signs exist because of a problem.
Moose comes to a road.
Moose are well suited to their ecosystem.
With their long, stilt-like legs, they can walk through snowy terrain, strewn with deadfall – places we humans would instinctively avoid.
Moose know all about bogs and lakes and snowy woods, but they have no context to understand a road.
To a Moose, a road is nothing but a long, bad smelling black clearing.
You and I know – on the other hand – we know about roads.
Being human you and I know about transportation and about the delivery of goods and services – these ideas of social and economic infrastructure that are second nature to us – so much so that we don’t even have to think about it.
But what is completely obvious to us, is an absolute mystery to moose.
From our perspective, Moose meeting road is simply, a big animal on a road.
But from the point of view of a Moose, sauntering up to the shoulder of the road, is the moment when the finite meets the infinite.
Have you ever heard today’s gospel reading before?
Of course you have! You come to church.
If you have been coming to church for fifty years, I’ll bet you’ve heard it fifty times.
Today’s passage is the liturgical equivalent of those movies that used to play on TV every year: The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca.
And like those movies, these scripture passages have their own special names.
The name of today’s story is the “Transfiguration.”
Today is “Transfiguration Sunday.”
Jesus takes three of his disciples – Peter, John and James, up to the mountain with him to pray. And while Jesus was praying…
the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Two other figures show up – Moses and Elijah. Jesus talks with these great prophets. Just as they prepare to take their leave, Peter says:
“…let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”
But before he is done speaking, Peter is interrupted:
a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Mona Lisa Noun
Of course you have – you live in the world!
The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings of all time. It is by the great fifteenth century master of the Rennaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci.
In the foreground, there is a woman – Lisa del Giocondo an Italian noblewoman from Florence
With her hands are folded casually in front of her, she smiles knowingly, gazing directly out of the canvas at the viewer.
Her face, and body, from the waist up, occupy the center foreground of the painting, and on either side of her image, the viewer can see a landscape, receding into the distance.
Mountains and lakes, roads and bridges.
At about the level of the Mona Lisa’s eyes, the landscape peaks to a jagged mountainous horizon.
This painting is a painting of a person.
The immense world, does not provide a context for the person – the landscape is a kind of window dressing.
Mona Lisa Verb
The Transfiguration is a crucial moment in Christ’s story.
This is the moment – according to many interpreters of the Bible – when the human and the divine come together in Jesus.
This is the Moose meets road moment – when the finite meets the infinite.
Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic saint and theologian, considered the Transfiguration to be the “greatest miracle”
He pointed out that all the other miracles described in the gospels, were done by Jesus, whereas, this miracle was done to Jesus.
High up on the mountaintop – where the eternal and the temporal meet, Jesus, the mortal man, is filled with the Divine, eternal light.
God speaks from a cloud, using language that humans understand, singling out Jesus.
The mountain is there. The clouds. But Jesus is up front. The center of this drama is the human figure, transformed – filled with mysterious light.
There is something very “Mona Lisa” about this moment.
In this way of thinking, you could use “Mona Lisa” as a verb, instead of a noun.
If you “Mona Lisa” something – you put the known in the foreground and let it block out the larger, more mysterious context.
To “Mona Lisa” something is to try to understand it by using what it is possible to know.
But there is a danger in “Mona Lisa-ing” something.
If you Mona Lisa something, you run the risk of mixing up the mystery you are trying to describe, with the thing you are using to describe the mystery.
The explanation of the mystery takes the place of the mystery.
Remember the moose, wandering up to the shoulder of the road?
If you think about a moose trying to figure out what a road is, you begin to get a sense of what we must look like to God.
If God created the universe, then God must know and God must love it all – everything from the twitch of a cat’s whisker, to the exhalations at the farthest edge of the universe.
Before we look down on Moose for not building the Empire State Building, let’s compare the Empire State Building to the Milky Way, and see who comes up wanting.
From God’s perspective, we’re not that different from Moose.
Just like the moose, we’re mammals moving from place to place trying to get our next meal.
Just like the moose, we are wandering around in the midst of a interconnected web of reality that surpasses our vain attempts to understand it.
So we tell the story.
The great story
The story that puts eternity into words and images we can begin to try to understand.
But this story points beyond itself.
That’s what religion does.
It gets our attention, and leads it to mystery.
Chinese Landscape Painting
In China, there is a tradition of painting landscapes.
In Chinese landscape paintings, you might occasionally see a human, or the hint of human presence – but the human is always a speck – a tiny insignificant brushstroke in the midst of a vast panorama of clouds and mountains.
If we make this into a verb and “Chinese Landscape Painting” ourselves, we place ourselves into a vast and daunting unknown, and we find ourselves insignificant.
Sometimes it is necessary to Mona Lisa ourselves, so that eventually, we can “Chinese Landscape Painting” ourselves.
That is, perhaps, what happened to Jesus.
And that, perhaps, is the ultimate challenge of our lives.
Our tendency is to think that when we die, we will move back into the infinite.
But this story about Jesus offers us the possibility of moving into infinity while we are still alive.
Catch glimpses of a vast reality beyond our understanding, while we are still alive.
Mona Lisa within the landscape
The Landscape within Mona Lisa.
The finite within the infinite
The infinite within the finite.
The sea inside the seashell.