This winter, I’ve been taking a digital photography class at the Fleischer Art Memorial here in town. This past week, our instructor was talking to us about how difficult it is to shoot white. Don’t leave a lot of plain white in your shots, she said. First of all, while it might look great on the LCD screen on the back of your camera, when you go to make a print, all of that white will just look like the photo paper showing through. White doesn’t really work, she said, without a little bit of tone, a little shadow, and contrast. She then asked to see an example of a photo one of us had taken with lots and lots of white. And I had the perfect picture. My husband and I had recently been on vacation, and one of the shots I had taken was of a particularly bright scene of brilliant sunlight shining in a pale sky with just a little contrast down at ground level. Perfect! she said, it’s not a bad shot, but if you had just adjusted your exposure compensation (which I now know how to do, thank you very much), all of that washed-out color in the sky would appear richer, more peach – and, she said, you’d be able to more depth and contour in this snow down here.
Now this was a problem. Because the vacation my husband and I had taken was to San Diego. And the photo I had shown her was of Laguna Beach. Now maybe my teacher’s mistakenly seeing the white in my photo as snow banks instead of crashing waves means that I am some kind of prodigy of uniquely horrible nature photography, like the anti-Ansel Adams. If that’s true, thank God I’m taking her class. But I don’t think this is the case. I think my teacher’s mistake simply proved her point in a way even she couldn’t have imagined. With that much white, and that much sunlight, there was no way to see what I had been shooting. The stuff of my shot was fundamentally obscured, and we couldn’t see what was actually there in the photograph. We were left squinting, turning the monitor from side to side, trying to see what was behind all of that light. We were left dazzled and definitely confused.
Dazzling white. This is the phrase that’s used in every one of the synoptic Gospels to describe the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that the clothes Jesus was wearing that day became dazzling white – so white, Mark says, that they were like no fuller could ever bleach them. In the Gospel we heard today, Luke chooses to leave out Mark’s little OxiClean commercial, but he still gives us this evocative phrase – dazzling white. And then Luke adds an important detail - that this bright, blinding light was a sign of Jesus’ glory – the glory perhaps of the Son of Man, who at the end of time will come down from heaven clothed in a white robe to judge the world. Or the glory of a human being who is also fully divine. Or perhaps this moment is foreshadowing – forelightening? – the glory of the day of resurrection.
Whatever the glory is that Luke is referring to – really any and all of these things – we do know for sure that this glory hurt to look at. The white of Jesus’ robes was brilliantly, blindingly, eye-squintingly bright. It was a color that made your eyes run, a color that made you snap your hand up and turn your face to the side. It was dazzling white – and not dazzling as a synonym for stunningly super-fabulous, but dazzling as a word that comes from the word “daze.” The sight of Jesus’ transfiguration was daze-inducing, and each of the Gospels wants to be sure that we know that.
But the disciples, God bless them, they just keep right on looking. They’re dazed and sleepy, to be sure, but the glare of the bright white is too powerful to be ignored. They look at the shining glory of Jesus and Moses and Elijah through the shield of their fingers, squinting and blinking, probably seeing a rainbow of neon every time they close their eyes. It’s no wonder poor Peter wants to build a booth – a booth, he thinks! – some shade, a tiny bit of shadow to save my wrecked retinas. But Jesus knows that this scene won’t work well in a booth. It just won’t be a good photo. There is no exposure compensation, no ISO setting, no F stop that will capture this scene without so many spectral highlights that you might think you’re looking at an Alpine ski resort instead of a Mediterranean mountaintop. This is not a scene that can be captured. But Peter doesn’t know that. He hardly knows what he’s saying – he’s a complete novice at seeing light like this, he’s just a student, and he has been completely dazzled.
But God knows. God knows what to say, and God knows what to do. God sends the disciples a shadow in the shape of a cloud from heaven, so that they can finally put down their hands and fully open their eyes. For God understands light; God made it, after all. And God knows that the best light is light alongside shadow, light that has tone and context, light that isn’t just white. God knows that an overcast sky is the best sky for camerawork – that images seen on a cloudy day show the substance of the object being shot, not just the light shining off of that object. And it’s the object, the person, that beloved Son and Chosen One, that God wants the disciples to see. So God sends a cloud to descend upon the bright mountaintop, and God speaks to them in the close hush of the misty fog, and the disciples listen, and the disciples see.
Whether we know it or not, we worship in a place where that same cloud descends all the time. The presence of Almighty God moves over this place all the time, is moving over it right now. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, blows in within a cloud of holiness that at this low altitude reaches a particular condensation point right there, on that altar. And in the midst of this cloud, under that shadow of the Most High, we can look up, open our eyes, and see – bread held out for you to hold, wine shimmering in the soft light of the chalice, hands lifted in absolution or lowered onto bent heads in blessing. The cloud is all around us, casting its shadows in all the right places so that we can see our salvation and hear his name – this is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.
But on this day when we remember the light of the transfiguration, on this last Sunday after the Epiphany when we gather together the light that led the wise men to the manger, the light that shone upon Christ in his baptism and gave Simeon and Anna eyes to see, we remember that there is more than just what we can see here under this cloud of God’s presence. There is more light here. Here is the brilliant glory that shines at the heart of God and is revealed in his only Son. Here is the light that breaks into this world and turns the shadow of death into morning. Here is the light poured out upon us through cracks opened up by our prayer, our longing, our need, even our sin. Here is more light, more glory, than our eyes can take in.
And we are promised that one day we will stand in the presence of God and see that light face to face. But for now, we, like the disciples, cannot bear that light. We still need this cloud of stillness to help us see holy things – bread and wine, ash and oil, altar and tabernacle. For now we may see dimly, but we can still see. And so we give thanks for the cloud that swirls all around us, for the texture and tone that it gives to our faith. We give thanks for the cloud that transforms us into pictures of love, mercy, truth, and justice. We give thanks for the cloud that allows us to be a witness, to be a disciple, to be here, to listen and to look at the Son. Alleluia.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
7 February - Last Epiphany
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia