by Columba Stewart, OSB
“The Lord God took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.’ ‘Just so,’ the Lord added, ‘shall your descendants be.’”
Just before Christmas I spent a couple of nights in a place more than a hundred miles from artificial light. There are few such places left in developed countries like ours. The nights were cold, there was no wind to stir up the dust. Above us was the sky as Abraham would have seen it: a tissue of stars studded with brilliant planets. The silver filigree of the Milky Way stretched fully across the dome of the sky. The Orion nebula was visible with the naked eye; the Andromeda galaxy was in reach with my small pair of binoculars.
To understand what God’s promise meant to Abraham, you have to see a sky like that: not the dozens of stars we might be able to count here, but thousands and thousands–the approximately 9000 that are reckoned to be visible to the unaided eye in the place where I spent those brilliant nights.
Because of that and similar experiences, for me the starry sky works as a metaphor of God’s promise to Abraham. For longtime city-dwellers, and even around here most of the time, it does not speak as powerfully as it did in Abraham’s day. Sometimes we have to probe the imagery of the Bible more deeply, and transpose it to our own experience.
The point of that story is that God’s promise is as big as the biggest thing you can imagine. For an astronomer it might be the 170 billion galaxies in the visible universe (and an unknown number beyond); for a mathematician it might be a complex formula, for a geographer a vast and little-charted landscape, for a small child the vast sweep of Daddy’s arms.
For each of us it will be something keyed to our own experience and understanding. Scripture suggests to us symbols and analogies that we have to translate so that they make sense to us. All of those sheep and goats in the gospels, for example, don’t mean much to me personally though I get it intellectually. To a shepherd in first-century Palestine, or to a ranch hand in the western US, that analogy speaks plainly. To me, not so much.
This is why we Benedictines speak about reading the Bible as a process rather than an activity. It is something we have to ease into and stay with so that ancient metaphors have a chance to resonate with our necessarily modern, and highly personal, counterparts.
This theme of light – stars, sun – runs throughout the Bible as a privileged way of speaking about God’s presence and glory. We meet it again this morning in the gospel of the Transfiguration. Like Abraham’s starry blanket this too may need some pondering from us who are accustomed to living both night and day in spaces filled with light conjured instantly with the flick of a switch. It was not so in the pre-industrial world, where life was governed by the hours of daylight and things shut down with the sunset, with any remaining activity restricted to what could be done hunched over a sputtering oll lamp or candle, or around a fire kept going with scarce and costly fuel. Night could never be as day, and day was the brightest thing there was.
This is why Christmas was celebrated as a festival of light, building on pre-Christian winter festivals, for it coincided with that moment when we turn the corner from shortening days to longer ones. And this is why today’s Gospel, when Jesus appeared to his most intimate disciples in a brilliance beyond anything they had ever experienced, was the most intense statement the evangelist could make about who he really was, a Messiah who shone with a brilliance beyond compare.
In our world, where atomic bombs have exploded with the light of a thousand suns, where flash cameras are everyday, where we are constantly bathed in incandescent/fluorescent/LED light, this searing proof of divinity from the first century has perhaps lost some its power. Once again, as with Abraham, we may need to perform a thought experiment, a bit of imaginative translation, to make this story ours. If brilliant light cannot speak to us in the same way it did for those alternately sleepy and stunned disciples, let us not focus on the display of divine radiance, but on the mystery of the encounter itself. This was a moment when past (Moses and Elijah), present (the disciples), and future (the glorified Christ) came together, a grace-filled simultaneity that showed how the promise to Israel would be fulfilled. This convergence of past, present, and future sounds to the modern ear like a postulate of astrophysics, a “singularity” defying the ordinary norms of spacetime. And that is just right.
The message of this account is not the light of divine splendor: it is the power of salvation, which breaks down even the most fundamental divisions in human existence. In this story space and time collapse. Among the early followers of Jesus it was the distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Of course those divisions endured, and still do, but the promise stands that such divisions do not decide who is worthy of membership in the redemptive space made by Christ: “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” The new physics of redemption meant that although none is worthy, all are chosen.
After all of this I don’t want to suggest that the metaphor of light, of radiance, has entirely lost its meaning for us moderns. There is another aspect, a more personal one, for us to explore.
Many of the mystics of the Christian tradition of east and west have spoken about personal experiences of illumination, when things become suddenly clear and understood. Saint Benedict himself is said to have seen the whole of creation captured in a beam of light, and he tells us in his Rule “to open our eyes to the deifying light.” The transfigured Christ is not some kind of divine You Tube video but a mystery into which each of us can be drawn, as the light which shows things as they really are begins to push against the darkness of our fears or shames.
The goal of Lent is to follow the hint of nature around us, brightening every day in these later winter months, with more sunshine, more warmth, the promise that darkness and cold, especially the darkness and cold of death, are not the last word, but instead a turning point toward newness of life, toward trueness of life. In the Eucharist, as on that mountain where Christ shone before his disciples, past, present and future come together in a wondrous singularity. What he did at that Last Supper, what we do here and now, what is fulfilled in the heavenly banquet to which all are invited, come together at the zero point of this altar. All lines converge here, now.
Let us lay upon this altar our hopes and fears, our prayers for our beloveds living and dead, and let us receive from it the Lord’s promise, all the stars of the sky and more, in sharing his Son’s Body and Blood.
Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB is director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and professor in St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary