This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday in my part of the church. In one of the weirder stories from the gospels, Jesus goes up a mountain to get away from it all, taking a few disciples with him. While he’s up there, he undergoes a radical transformation, in which his clothes become dazzling white and his face begins to glow like the sun. Then the long-departed Moses and Elijah appear and the disciples observe the three of them having a confab.
Eventually Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus, now restored to his normal self, remains. We, along with those disciples, might ask, “What the???”
Those who have trouble believing any of the biblical accounts that go beyond the laws of rationality and science will have trouble with this one for sure. That would be true for many progressive Christians. John Shelby Spong calls it “a narrative attempting to describe both this growing understanding (of Jesus as unique, not one of three gigantic figures) and a dawning awareness of what the Jesus experience really was.” Even some classical biblical scholars want to call this a “misplaced resurrection account,” the theory, no doubt, being that such a thing could have happened after Jesus rose from the dead but not before.
I want to leave open the possibility, however, that someone (Jesus or perhaps one of the disciples who were there) had a mystical encounter. Maybe it came in a dream, maybe in a waking state. In either case, the experience was so powerful that whoever had it talked about it long afterward, until finally the gospel writers wrote it down and incorporated it into their ways of telling the Jesus story.
I love and respect the scholars of who study the historical Jesus. But at some seminars I’ve attended, there’s not much interest when a question of spirituality or mysticism comes up. It seems that if one does not believe in a supernatural, interventionist God, then one cannot believe in mystical encounters.
I don’t agree. There is more in this universe that we don’t know than we do. Believing as I do that the universe is the body of God, then there is infinite possibility for transfigurations – glorious, overwhelming, stupendous, cosmic revelations of Divine Presence. And not just for Jesus, but for anyone.
So yes, I think progressive Christians can be mystics. In fact I know they can. And I’m glad that there is this weird and wonderful day on the church calendar to celebrate that fact.
Armando Alemdar Ara
James B. Janknegt