Transfiguration – June 10, 2018
A dispersive prism is a ubiquitous part of every Northern California childhood. I grew up on the foggy coastline of the Monterey Bay, which in the 80’s, still retained a lot of that Birkenstock-Volvo-station-wagon-patchouli-oil vibe. The various homes that I frequented throughout my adolescence all featured some variation of a small, multi-faceted teardrop prism, strung onto fishing wire, and hung to dangle over the kitchen sink window. I remember as a child watching with total fascination as the prisms would slowly rotate, jostled by breeze or heat or my own small fingers, and project a rainbow disco ball splatter that would glide across the entire room.
It wasn’t until years later, in my middle school science class, when I learned about the physics of light. I learned that every color has its own wavelength and that a prism breaks up light into the colors of the rainbow. The light that our eyes perceive as “white” enters glass and is bent, or refracted, into a differentiated spectrum of colors. And so it was a dispersive prism that helped in my own discovery that white was not actually a color on its own, but was a mixture of all colors. That was a piece of childhood trivia that I absolutely delighted in. I was a snarky smarty-pants, and there was nothing I loved more than being asked my favorite color so I could pretentiously respond with, “White, because white is all the colors.” *Sassy hair flip*
So you might imagine my inner child delighting at the image that today’s text from the Gospel of Luke presents, which is that of Jesus Christ radiating bright white light. This is a theological moment known as the “Transfiguration,” a significant spiritual event that takes place on top of a mountain and is witnessed by several stunned disciples. As Jesus is praying, we are told that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The Gospel of Matthew tells us that “his face shone like the sun.” Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of Israel, are both present and conferring with Jesus. And the disciples’ reaction to this whole scene becomes one of funniest moments in the entire bible, when Peter offers to build tents for these three glowing, spiritual powerhouses. As if! And then the moment concludes when the whole party is engulfed by the thundercloud presence of God and they hear the words: “This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
Even though the life story of Jesus of Nazareth is scattered with momentary glimpses into his divine nature, the Transfiguration is a very major turning point. It is here when we truly and without a doubt come to see Jesus in a new way. Everything has changed. And it’s not expected or logical or easy to understand. The Gospel accounts only ever give us a sliver of the detail we’d like.
But Transfiguration defies our need to know. It is a spiritual and theological moment that is enigmatic, esoteric, and deeply mystical. It is a significant departure from a fairly straightforward narrative; it’s a veering off course that takes us tumbling through a prismatic, mountainside wild-ride, and lands us in a wholly new reality. A transformed reality. A definitively queer reality.
Yes, the Transfiguration is inherently queer. An identity which was once presumed to be defined and fixed suddenly becomes fluid and unstable. Jesus the human, the rabbi, the beloved, is transfigured into a new person; a hybrid being. This text has even been referred to “Jesus’ coming out story.” And it is an incredibly powerful statement on identity, and on the multidimensionality and dynamism of creation. For many of us on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this story feels incredibly familiar.
But, like most of scripture, it can be read in infinitely different ways. And this text in particular has a history, a decidedly un-queer interpretation, one perpetuated in the undeniably imperialist corners of our tradition. This text, along with the many other biblical references to light and brightness, have contributed to a narrative that has sought to equate goodness and godliness with whiteness. Yes, a particular interpretation of the Transfiguration has functioned as a divine endorsement of white supremacy and anti-blackness. So I want to name this and to acknowledge it. And I want to lament it. I wish this was not part of our collective story.
And I stand here today to reclaim it. I want to reclaim that light, that brightness, armed with a middle school science textbook and a dispersive prism. Because I learned as a kid that whiteness isn’t even a color, and I learned as an adult that whiteness is a construct. And from a queer perspective, the equation of lightness with whiteness is deeply, deeply ironic. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so insidious.
Because the Transfiguration pure rainbow. It is theological refraction. What we perceive as one, solid, static force is being broken, bent, transfigured into a spectrum of beautiful and different parts. Jesus is human flesh and blood and he’s divine light and energy. This is a moment that flings the rainbow glitter of salvation and liberation into the dull sepia corners of sin and oppression.
The Transfiguration is God inviting us into the sacred power and process of diversity.
In this moment, Jesus occupies a hybrid space, a spectrum-of-light space. As the Son of God, the Chosen one, the Light of the World, he is functioning as a prism for God’s radiant power. And by virtue of the incarnation, that means that we also function that way. As Children of God, we too operate as spiritual prisms, refracting the life-changing power of God’s light. We are conduits of that sacred rainbow that cannot be contained or controlled or regulated. The multicolored glory of God does not fit in a dwelling on the side of a mountain. It is not contained by the ugly, haphazard tents of white supremacy or patriarchy or homophobia.
God’s light is meant to be refracted far and wide, and we must commit to dismantling those systems and ideologies that seek to engage in reverse-refraction that would have us force that rainbow back through the prism in a toxic and futile attempt to create a homogenous beam.
Look at the rainbow, and praise God who made it;
it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 43:9-12
As disciples of Christ, we are in the business of refraction. We are each of us continuing to be created in the radiant, shape-shifting image of the divine. Our countless facets and our beautifully fluid identities are reflections of holiness.
Beloveds in Christ, let us serve as dispersive prisms for God. Let the droplets of our Baptismal waters shimmer out the kaleidoscopic promise of love and justice to all whom we encounter. Let us go forth from this place in the power of our diversity, to refract the great rainbow of God’s glory out into the world.