TEXTS: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)
“And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And then Moses and Elijah—both of them dead (or at least, gone from this earth) for hundreds of years—appeared on the mountain to have a conversation with him.
Moses, you’ll remember, was the one who heard God speaking from a burning bush; who turned the Nile River into blood; who parted the Red Sea and got water out of a rock.
Elijah—you may also remember—raised the dead, called fire down from the sky, and ascended to heaven in a blazing chariot. The Bible says Elijah never died; he just rode up into the sky in a UFO (or something like that).
There are tons and tons of miracle stories in the Bible—mysterious, awe-inspiring, wondrous accounts. They’re hard to believe—because they’re impossible to explain.
We live in an age of science. Astronomy, biology, physics and the other natural sciences have been able to answer questions that were unanswerable just a few decades ago. After the James Webb Space Telescope was launched, astronomers announced that—once the project was completed—they hoped to see far enough out in space (and thus, far enough back in time) to witness the echo of the big bang and the beginning of the universe.
Just over 20 years ago, Francis Collins* and his associates produced a map of the entire human genome sequence. As a result, medical scientists have been able to discover the causes of certain diseases, and—more importantly—to predict a time in the not-too-distant future when cures will be brought about, not by drugs or by surgery, but by repairing or replacing malformed or damaged genes.
We live in an age of science. We look to science to answer our questions, to solve our problems, to explain our world. And I, for one, am glad that we have come to look to science—and not to magic or speculation—to answer our questions about the natural world. We have all benefited from advances in science—such as the COVID vaccines which have helped ameliorate the worst effects of our ongoing pandemic (at least in the developed world). Some of us wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for medical marvels like antibiotics, insulin, transplant surgery, and cardiac pacemakers (to name just a few).
Now, if you’ve ever taken any kind of science course, you’ll know something about the scientific method. Science is based on empirical evidence. It is skeptical of all hypotheses and claims of proof. Scientists want to see all the facts, and they caution us against drawing unjustified conclusions from insufficient evidence. That’s good advice. If you follow it, you’ll be much less likely to be taken in by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
The scientist’s job is to be skeptical of any theory until all the facts are in. Science measures things, and quantifies things, and shows us how they work. A rainbow, for instance, is not the result of gods painting the sky. It is the result of light being prismatically reflected through water droplets. Science can tell us that.
Unfortunately, our dependence on science comes with a cost. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that [our ancestors had], because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”
How sad it is (at least, I think it’s sad) that, in our day, religion and science seem to be at war. Like genome scientist Francis Collins, I lament this. I think it’s tragic. Science is the best method humanity has ever devised with regard to knowing things about the physical world. Still, it is important to remember both what science does and what science cannot do.
In a sense, the job of science is to remove the magic and the mystery from the world, to come to know what can be known about things through observation and testing and measurement. But as any good scientist will tell you, that’s about all science can do. It can tell us how, but not—in the ultimate sense—why.
For example, science can explain to a great degree how the world came to be and how you and I came to be part of it. It can uncover the early aftermath of the big bang and piece together eons of human evolutionary development until we get to you and me today. But science cannot tell us why the world came to be, or why you and I are here, or why there should be something instead of nothing.
Here’s another example (though, of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone). Science can explain why most men are attracted to women and vice versa. It’s an evolutionary, biological, hard-wired need to preserve the species. It’s hormonally-based; and/or it’s a psychological predisposition; and/or it’s a result of social or cultural training.
Science can explain sexual attraction. It can explain why a handsome young man and an attractive, healthy woman of reproductive age seek each other out. Science can explain attraction—but science cannot explain love.
Science cannot explain why, 40 years later—not as healthy, not as good-looking and far beyond reproductive age—that same man sits by the hospital bed of that same woman night after night holding her hand, praying that she survives cancer. Science cannot explain why he would be willing—in the blink of an eye—to change places with her, to die himself if that would mean that she could live.
Science can measure and study and explain the need of a species to reproduce itself and survive. But science cannot explain love. Yet love is as real as reproduction. It is as real as it is unexplainable. Down through the centuries, human love has remained a mystery—a holy mystery—that lies beneath what we can evaluate and measure and see.
What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration in today’s Gospel reading was something like that, I think. Peter and James and John all knew Jesus very well. And since they had been willing to leave their livelihoods and follow Jesus, they obviously thought highly of him, and of his teaching. They considered him to be an extraordinary rabbi. They had even come to see Jesus as the promised Messiah—the one God had chosen to liberate Israel.
Even so, to Peter and James and John, Jesus was just a man. To be sure, he was a singularly inspiring teacher. He was a charismatic leader, healer, and exorcist. But still, to them, he was nothing more than a remarkable human being. Then—suddenly, on the mountain, for just a moment—they were able see beneath Jesus’ ordinary humanity. Suddenly—in this Jesus they thought they knew so well—they saw the very presence, the very holiness, the very glory of God.
This, my friends, is revelation. It is mystery. It can be neither explained nor debunked. Like true love, it is a reality that’s too deep to measure.
Again and again in the Bible—if we read it carefully—we encounter this truth: in ordinary things and ordinary people, there is a “hidden holiness.” It exists in ordinary things like water in the baptismal font or bread and wine upon the Communion table. God has chosen to make these ordinary things holy for us. Holiness is also hidden in ordinary people like us. As we gather together to sing and pray, to speak and listen, we become—through the grace of God—the very body of Christ.
The job of science is to remove the mystery from the world. The job of faith is to show us the holy mystery which is present everywhere.
How many of you have seen the movie, The Wizard of Oz? Remember the scene where Dorothy and her companions puled back the curtain to reveal the “Magnificent Oz”? He was revealed to be a very ordinary human being—not at all a powerful and terrible wizard, but just an old man with a lot of technology at his disposal. What you see at work in that scene is science, debunking the hoax of the “great wizard.”
And yet, you’ll also remember that this pretender was in fact able to give each of the seekers exactly what he or she needed—courage for one, a heart for another, a brain for another, a return home for Dorothy. That, my friends, is faith. Faith sees the possibilities that lie beneath what looks so ordinary.
As I’m sure you know, Lent begins a few days from now, on Ash Wednesday. Someone once said that prayer is about paying attention. Perhaps that’s the work that’s cut out for us during Lent this year: to learn to pay attention! Perhaps we are being called to a particular work of prayer: to pray that our eyes might be opened to the holiness that lies behind the ordinary things around us—that, indeed, lies within each of us, ordinary though we may be.
Perhaps this is the time for us to ask the Holy Spirit to show us—as he showed Peter and James and John—just who Jesus really is, and what he means to each one of us.
If we pay attention, we might come to see that our communities are holy. We might come to know that our world is holy, that God permeates every atom of it. We might come to realize that we are holy—that God dwells not in a tabernacle or a temple or a church, but in us. That really would be transfiguring knowledge, wouldn’t it?
* Francis Sellers Collins (1950-), M.D., Ph.D., is an American physician and geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.” He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Openly Christian, Collins wrote a book about his faith (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, 2006) which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. For a fascinating look at this man who is both scientist and believer, see his biography in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins