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In 1949, Joseph Campbell published a well-researched book on the power of myth. Myth – which he defined as a construct of meaning equipping children and adults with guidance through life’s stages from birth through death. The title of his book is The Hero with 1000 Faces. The book outlines what Campbell believed to be a universal model of a special kind of myth – one in which the hero is separated from society, initiated through various means and becomes changed, and then returns to society to share this change, improving the lives of all, and their life together. This heroic model of Campbell’s thought likely influenced George Lucas and the Star Wars movies, Richard Adams in his novel Watership Down and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Campbell’s work has a profound influence upon how we have come to understand the role of hero in any society, in any culture.
But then there is this Scripture – when the veil of Jesus’ humanity thins and the glory of the Christ shines through. Campbell’s model of a mythic hero is helpful in understanding Jesus, but limiting in unhelpful ways. Jesus is different, I believe. He does not leave society to be changed, but takes his society, his disciples, with him. He is not changed but revealed. We remember how the angels sang of his difference at his birth – a Savior is born, Christ the Lord. When he comes off the mountain, his disciples are no different until Pentecost when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. I am struck with how this story of the transfiguration ends: at the end of the passage, there is silence. To be in the presence of the Holy Other we call God is to be silent. From Revelation of John, 8:1 “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”. None of our human efforts at understanding and controlling are proper. (Shrines, gatherings, etc). No words need to be spoken; indeed, no words can be spoken. No booths to commemorate and capture the moment. James, John and Peter are simply hushed by the glorious Christ: the indescribable, uncontrollable beauty of the Lord.
To help me understand the response of these disciples to this incredible moment in history, I thought of a favorite game for some small children – Peek-a-boo. Playing Peek-a-boo, the child covers his/her eyes with their hands. For the child, it is as if the world as they know it disappears. It hasn’t as we know, but for the child they are surrounded by darkness, and yet not alone because someone else is there. Then, dropping their hands quickly, they say Peek-a-boo to squeals of delight and all is right with their world. How do children learn this game? An adult, or older sibling, will teach it to them by first covering their eyes. And so the playful game is transmitted from one generation to the next.
If you have done this with a child, you know that the sudden revelations can be frightening. To quickly drop your hands revealing your face- eyes and smile and words of Peek-a-boo can startle a child. When your hands cover your eyes and you no longer have eye contact with the child, the child is not seen; is alone, and children know this. Studies on infants in Romanian orphanages who are ignored, not touched, not held, no eye contact, are damaged children. When a child loses eye contact they literally cannot see you, nor be seen by you. The adult who is the source of love, protection, safety is “gone” and that can be scary. Very scary. But lowering your hands reveals your eyes and as if by magic, the grown-up, the adult is visible! Was the transfiguration of Jesus such a time for the disciples? A time when Jesus dropped his hands from his eyes and the disciples saw him for real? What does a child say when a grown-up suddenly appears? Nothing very much from my experience. Perhaps a shriek of delight! Perhaps a big, big smile. And sometimes the child wants to play the game again . . . to repeat the mountaintop experience, like building a booth to commemorate the moment.
But maybe it wasn’t Jesus with eyes covered, living as the Word made flesh in the darkness of our humanity. Maybe it was the disciples. There is another game I ask you to remember – the game where you huddle under a blanket as someone danced and pranced around you trying to get in. There you were, underneath it all, in the dark, full of anticipation and incipient delight, all ears and eyes straining in anticipation of movement just beyond the edge of the blanket, which formed the edge of your vision. At the same time, the someone outside the blanket is also excited in anticipation of lifting the blanket’s edge to peek inside – a different type of peek-a-boo. Imagine living each day in child-like anticipation that this next moment the corner of the blanket of reality may lift, and the light from the edge of the universe streams into the uncovered darkness, and you see the face of Holy God with whom you have been at play for all these years. Say what you will about the games, the essence of such play is anticipation of surprise, listening in the silence, and knowing the delight of wonder.
Anticipation, listening, wonder – these are key elements in our life of faith with Jesus Christ. I am a reflective, more quiet individual than, let’s say, the more exuberant expressions of the faith – whether it be my mother’s Christian Missionary Alliance quasi Pentecostal worship or my father’s heavy, traditional Presbyterianism with roots in Scottish Intellectualism. I tend to be quiet. (yet, here I am by God’s calling to be a preacher! Go figure!) But there are times when quietness is not called for. There are times when we are not to be silent when confronted by the mysteries of life. Silence is an appropriate response when in the presence of the glory of the transfigured Christ. But we are not to be silent in the face of the evil and wickedness of the world. We teach our children through games; how important it is to know right from wrong, to enjoy victory and accept defeat, and to make the right choices not only for their own benefit but for the welfare of neighbors and friends.
Sisters and brothers, the evil of war is revealed once again; not the terror of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, not the war in South Sudan where more than 4 million people have fled their homes, nor Nigeria where girls are kidnapped by rebels and often become child brides (which is a euphemism isn’t it?), nor Peru where Bryan Russell a human rights activist was recognized internationally for his work on disability rights, nor the fraying of the fragile peace between North Ireland and Ireland, between Protestant and Catholic forged 23 years ago. Now war in Ukraine, and a strong man despot cut from the same fabric as Hitler offers lies and hate with missiles and bullets and for what purpose? Here may be a distinction to make: in this imperfect world – in this imperfect life – our decisions will always be a blend of good motives and less than good results – like removing a diseased finger, let’s say, in order to save a life. If however the motivation itself is not good, if the purpose is wicked and the results terrible – then evil is very much present. As one of the staff said this week at our meeting: every generation has its Hitler.
Joseph Campbell did not write a book entitled, Evil Has 1000 Faces, but he could have written such a book, couldn’t he? Evil is no myth offering guidance through life’s stages. Evil is terror, fear, death. Evil has 1000 faces, but there is only 1 face for us to see, the face of the transfigured Jesus. His is the glory that shines across heaves and earth, but aren’t we to reflect his glory in our faces as we respond to the terror of war, hatred, and lies? He is the living Word made flesh who saves us and redeems broken lives and heals torn bodies, but aren’t we to speak up and share Him in our words when we witness to the brokenness of creation? I will ask the elders to craft our church response to the war in Ukraine. Pray for your elders as they grapple with the reality that Evil has 1000 faces, but we are to look only upon the 1 face of God in Christ. Amen.