In honor of tomorrow’s Feast, I’ve dug out a 2005 speculation on the Transfiguration. It starts with a metaphor and ends with “What if” and meanders through time, literature, heaven and earth, and the Communion of the Saints to arrive at the meeting of Christ, Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor. It’s quite long, and if it’s not comprehensible, I’ll give you your money back. Here goes.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man reading a book.
Time in the book marches according to its own inexorable rhythm, and the reader may experience it sequentially, page by page, in his imagination coming to the events one by one as the characters do. But when he closes the book, all of the book time is contained between the two covers. The reader exists on the same plane as the Author of the book, but the reader is not the author, and the author knows the book and the characters and the backstory and the motivations in ways that the reader can only begin to appreciate.
Within the book, the characters experience their own day-to-day reality. In post-modern novels, characters may speculate about the author, and even about readers, but even in those explorations of the boundary between the book world and the reader’s world, the protagonist can never turn and look the reader in the eye.
That’s the book as we know it, in our feeble and childish attempts to imitate the work of our own Author.
The cosmos is an unimaginably enormous book, and time exists within the book, from the big bang to black holes. (I almost said the “universe is an unimaginably enormous book,” but I changed it to “the cosmos,” because I think the universe is the raw material, and the cosmos is the story, but that’s a diversion.)
Our reality, as characters, is as limited and insubstantial as is the reality of David Copperfield compared to the living, breathing, suffering, learning human being reading about him. The difference is that, unlike Dickens, our Author was able to give us free will and complexity far beyond what writers can give their characters (although novelists will insist that their characters frequently surprise them), and our Author was able to make the boundary between the reader and the book crossable.
The Bible tells many stories of those boundary crossings. Enoch, Moses and Elijah are among those of the Old Testament who disappeared from the earth after a lifetime of “walking with God.” They left the book.
Other prophets received communication from God, messages from the Author to His characters, telling them what was required to survive the book. What it takes, basically, is that we act in the knowledge that the book is not all there is. “Character is what you do when nobody’s looking,” goes the old saw; but the reader knows the protagonist’s agonizing decision, and it matters whether the protagonist chooses right or wrong. Someone is always watching.
And then (“then” in book time), the Author did an extraordinary thing. He became subject to the rules of his own book. Not as king and commander — “Hmm, I think I’ll write in a couple of legions of angels to get me out of this mess” — but subject to the conditions his characters face. In the Garden of Gesthemene, we see a divine crisis and what a lovely irony, what a dazzling nested narrative that 2,000 years later (in book time) we “watch” Christ’s agony in the garden, preserved in a book. Another rabbit trail. I’ll go on.
The Communion of the Saints, the “great cloud of witnesses,” is made up of those who have survived the book — past, present and future in book time. I don’t know how or even if time operates outside the book, but I’m quite sure that it’s not the same. They pray for us, within the book, because they experience our agonizing crises with us. We pray for them — that is for those within the book — because even though we are within the book, we understand that there is a reality outside the book, and so we can agonize in the crisis of our grandparents 80 years ago. And of course, the Author generates the book, and the characters experience it, but don’t know how many drafts it has gone through — or is going through now — to arrive at the proper form.
OK, I think I’ve arrived at the Feast of Transfiguration. The story is that Jesus took his disciples Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor, where they saw him clothed in light, and they saw Elijah and Moses talking with him. Luke says they were talking about his death, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Now at the vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration, there are three appointed Old Testament readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Exodus 33:11-23, 34:4-6, 8; and 1 Kings 19:3-9, 11-13, 15-16. They are accounts of Moses’ and Elijah’s face-to-face encounters with God. In the first reading, God calls Moses to Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law. There’s a huge brightness on the mountain, like a devouring fire, and Moses is in the midst of it. In the second reading, Moses asks to see God’s face, and God hides him in the cleft of a rock and shows him his back, because no one can see God’s face and live. In the third reading, Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, and there’s a wind and an earthquake and a fire and a still small voice, and the Lord was in the still, small voice.
At last I’m arriving at my speculation: What if the disciples were witnessing the conversations between God and Moses and between God and Elijah that were recorded in the Old Testament. What if, in both of those events, the prophets went outside time, outside the book and met Christ, who had also crossed the boundary of the book.
The Lord was about to lead the Israelites into their new land, and Moses wonders if they should go on. It was a time of crisis. God responds by saying “I will make all My goodness pass before thee.”
Elijah has just destroyed the prophets of Baal, and Jezebel has him in the crosshairs. He wonders if he should go on. We’re not told what the still, small voice said, but it was enough to strengthen Elijah.
Luke says they talked about Christ’s death that “he was to accomplish,” which means they talked about it not as a defeat but as a victory. What better way to encourage the faint-hearted prophets than to show them how their struggle fits into the grand scale of things?
It could have happened that way. It’s certainly recorded that God breached the barrier between the cosmos and the greater world beyond the book. So what if the accounts could be three views of the same encounter?