Did you ever wonder what the world looks like through others’ eyes? How about if you extend the “other” to different sorts of living beings? What does the world look like to a dog? To a bird? To a horseshoe crab? That may seem an odd way to begin thinking about today’s Gospel (the “Transfiguration”), but bear with me.
We can never look directly through the eyes of another (person, or nonhuman animal): but what we know about the physiology of vision can give us some clues. We know, for instance, that we humans see in color because there are three special cell types within our eyes that respond to particular wavelengths of light. (People who are born with these cells not functioning properly are color-blind: they see only in black and white, or confuse certain colors.) But there’s more to light than what we have cells to notice.
Birds, for example, have four types of color receptors in their eyes instead of our three; they can see frequencies of light that are invisible to us (in the ultraviolet). (They can also “see” polarization in light, which we can’t.)
The lowly horseshoe crab has nine eyes (seven on top, two on the bottom), which have specialized functions (don’t ask). It’s probably beyond our imagining what such an animal “sees” with that setup… And that brings me to my point about today’s Gospel.
In short, “seeing” is more complicated that we often imagine. It goes on in our brains as much as in our eyes. It takes a mind – with all its possibilities and its limitations – to make sense out of the raw material the eye provides. (A doctor I knew when I was chaplain at the university in whose hospital he worked used to say about making a medical diagnosis, “As soon as I believe it, I’ll see it!”) And nothing less than that is going on with the disciples in today’s Gospel.
What information the outside world passed them about Jesus’ appearance is the minor part of the miracle. It’s what happened in their minds that made the difference. They saw – even before His passion – the Risen Christ whom they would only meet “in the flesh” some months later. You might say they were able to get beyond the limits of their present imaginations about Jesus (what they were “prepared to see in Him”) – and so “saw” (that is, understood) the truth about who He was in a new, and until then unimaginable, way.
And that’s the point for us. Jesus is far, far more than we now imagine Him to be – even if we can get all the words to the creed right. There are limits on our “seeing” that come from our upbringing, our culture, and (primarily) from our spiritual immaturity and sin. It is not so much by our own work but by God’s grace that we might occasionally be given the gift of seeing more of who Jesus truly is. So the church reads this story to us toward the beginning of Lent in order to whet our thirst for just such “seeing”: to appreciate more of Jesus than we can now imagine. Our disciplines are meant to create an opening for God to give us this gift, should God choose. Thus we fast, pray, and give alms. We can in no way force God to act through our disciplines – but we can make ourselves ready not to miss His gift if He does. More next week: Until then, peace.