Learning to Behold

Author’s Note: This post originated with a sermon that I preached at Christ Church, Bronxville, New York, on February 14 of this year. The Revised Common Lectionary places the gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus (this year, from Luke 9:28-36) on the Last Sunday after Epiphany each year, just before Ash Wednesday. As the Lectionary of the revised Roman Missal always locates that narrative on the Second Sunday of Lent, I’ve chosen to post this reflection today, for the convenience of the majority of our readers.

I have a confession to make. In the two years that I lived in New York City, I did not once visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I went to The Cloisters multiple times, made use of the Morgan Library, and even stopped in at the MoMA a couple of times on my way home from St Thomas Fifth Avenue. But not the Metropolitan Museum. . . I just didn’t.

On my last visit to the city (mid-February 2010), though — and on a total Saturday-morning whim — I went. I had in mind especially to see the chalices of the Attarouthi Tresure and the “Antioch Chalice” in the Byzantine collection (which contains some of the most important artifacts of early Christian liturgy), as well as a number of medieval liturgical items. The visit had its desired effect: my understanding of the development and use of chalices, reliquaries and tabernacles was increased.

But one thing led to another — it being an unusually- and utterly- unscheduled Saturday — and I ended up seeing a good chunk of the permanent collections on display. I delighted in almost everything I saw, and was moved by the beauty of it all — fashioned, hammered, woven, stitched, painted, trimmed, sculpted, carved, and detailed in myriad other ways.

Now, beauty is a contentious subject, both philosophically and theologically. Is it “real”? Can it be identified? Verified? Or does it exist only in the eye of the beholder, as the old aphorism tells us? Perhaps it’s really somewhere in-between? I make no claims here today: the nature of aesthetics isn’t what I’m getting at.

Beauty stretches toward, points to, declares and reveals something other than itself. When seen, admired, understood, beauty reaches toward glory — something more than just what is seen, something that is truly other. So while we might speak about seeing beauty, with glory we speak about more than just seeing. We speak of an engagement: a looking with our eyes, but also with our hearts and minds. We behold glory, and are brought as whole selves into a new relationship in which something wondrous is made known.

Glory isn’t always immediate; it isn’t something we always readily recognize. We learn to behold glory — and we find awe and wonder welling up within us in response to its appearing. We learn to harness these emotional responses as we find ourselves totally engaged.

Recognizing glory, responding to glory, engaging with glory requires practice. As I let myself wonder and wander about the museum, I was undertaking just such practice. . . as were Peter, James and John in today’s gospel.

Though it wasn’t their idea, and it caught them totally off-guard, the disciples were put into a situation of high-intensity training — an immersion experience — to hone their skills at recognizing, engaging with, beholding glory.

In the Old Testament, the chabod or “Glory of Adonai” rests upon the Ark of the Covenant, dwelling in the desert Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple. The departure of God’s glory from the Temple at the beginning of the Babylonian Exile is suggestive of just how elusive it really is — a presence that the people apparently had to learn again how to behold.

In today’s gospel, though, when the Glory of God is revealed to the disciples, it sort of slaps them in the face. “The appearance of [Jesus’] face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. . . . Peter and his companions. . . saw his glory. . .” Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, and they are “in glory.” The light, the radiance surrounds them all, but it seems as though it is shining through Jesus, something that has been there all along, though unrecognized, unbeheld. For this brief moment, Peter, James and John are given eyes to behold it freely.

Certainly, this is a training moment with a sharp learning curve. It is as if to say, “Look now, mark, learn and inwardly digest — get this lesson down now, boys, and do not forget it: you will need it later!” From here onward, the gospel narrative inexorably propels Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross.

In the mystery of the cross, God’s glory is fully concealed, but also fully revealed: to recognize it there, one must have learned before how to behold it. So look now, learn, and do not forget this lesson when sweat and grime, dust and blood make it less than immediately evident.

No artist can capture God’s glory in ivory or enamel, silver or gold, wood or stone, oil or acrylic. God’s glory is elusive; it requires practice to behold. While the beauty of the arts gestures toward it — and are useful for practicing how to behold it — they cannot capture or contain it, cannot hold it down. It cannot be sculpted, blown, chased, or framed.

God’s glory is now found where God’s image dwells: among God’s pilgrim people, within each one fashioned in the image of God. Gloria Dei vivens homo — “God’s glory is the living human person,” so St Irenaeus of Lyons reminds us. And that’s all of us, here and beyond, faithful and unfaithful, Christian and non-, for all are made in the image of their maker.

And all too often, that image is obscured by the sweat and grime, dust and blood that clouds the vision of our mostly-untrained eyes. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize God’s glory in others; sometimes it’s hard for others to recognize God’s glory in us. We all need practice in learning again and again how to behold glory where we don’t want to — in the grime and sweat and dust and blood of otherness; among the “them” that are not “us”. . . those who are marginalized by race, religion, material wealth, nationality, political commitments, gender or sexual orientation. We need practice in learning how to behold God’s glory in those we love, and those we struggle to love. Yet in all these God’s glory dwells, and we can and will behold it with practice, with a learning to look. . . and also to listen, to hear again the voice that is never far behind the vision: “This one is my own. This one is my chosen. This one is my beloved.”

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2 comments

  1. “We speak of an engagement: a looking with our eyes, but also with our hearts and minds. We behold glory, and are brought as whole selves into a new relationship in which something wondrous is made known.”

    Thanks for this reflection, Cody. I was reminded of that excellent film, “Glory,” about a black regiment in the Civil War, trained and led by a white commander who ultimately dies with them during an impossible charge, for which they volunteered. The circumstances are about as un-beautiful as it’s possible ever to get, but as a tale of human solidarity and spirit it is glorious. As you suggest here, one perceives glory not only with the eyes but with the heart and soul.

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