When I was young and growing up here in Seattle, my parents would always tell us about what it had been like to see fireflies when they were kids in the Midwest.
These magical creatures took on an almost mythic proportion in my imagination. They sounded like magical fairies, something you would find in a book by Tolkein or C.S. Lewis but not in real life.
Then, one summer, when I was 10 or 11, we went on a family vacation to Illinois and Ohio.
Contrary to what I had often been told as a child, the Midwest is decidedly not Narnia or the Shire. Just a whole lot of long, flat cornfields that seemed to stretch on for miles. I remember that our flight landed in the middle of the day, and we spent most of the evening driving to my cousin's house in Ohio.
But as the evening turned to night and the sun set over those corn fields, we started seeing these flashes of light along the roadside. Small, brief flashes, flickering for just a moment, through the night sky.
We eventually pulled off the freeway and drove through the sidestreets to my cousin’s house. I remember stepping out of the car and being immediately mesmerized by the dancing of these tiny, shimmering lights all around me. What my parents had always told us about fireflies came to life before my eyes on a small patch of grass in the front yard.
In the stories they told us, my parents always described catching the fireflies in glass mason jars. Not long after arriving at my cousin’s house, I was handed my own jar and was soon running around the front yard, chasing after fireflies. By the end of the night, I had captured my own little firefly in the jar, poked holes in the lid, and sealed it tight.
I remember taking the jar inside, and turning off the lights in my cousin's room, and then falling asleep to the flashes of that firefly in the jar. It was as if I had captured a small part of that mesmerizing moment out on the lawn, and could open my eyes and look at it at any moment.
At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up, and the firefly wasn't flashing its light anymore. I got up out of bed and turned on the light to see what had happened. The fly was lying there are the bottom of the jar, hardly moving. Of course, we had taken precautions by poking the holes in the lid of the jar, putting a tree branch in there with it. But somehow it wasn't enough. It was as if this little being had lost its will to be. By the morning, it wasn't moving at all. The light had gone out. My attempt to capture that magic of the night before had come up short.
This Sunday marks the day on the liturgical calendar when we celebrate the transfiguration, which is a story that is also about magic and light and wonder. And may also tell us something about the danger, about the fallacy of mason jars.
The text tells us the story of the three disciples going up to the top of the mountain with Jesus. They climbed with him to the summit of the mountain and when they got up there, they saw something that amazed them. The text describes the moment with poetic eloquence. “His face shone like the sun,” it says, “and his clothes were a dazzling white."
It is a moment when the lofty and transcendent mystery of the divine makes its presence imminently known in the presence of these disciples.
It is a moment when the mysterious relationship between the human and the divine qualities in Christ – he who is both man and God – is shown in all of its wonderful and confusing glory.
It is a wonderful moment. Quite literally full of wonder and awe. We can almost picture the disciples standing there, eyes wide, jaws dropped. Mesmerized
Into this moment of wonder, Peter speaks. He suggests building dwelling places. The Greek word that is translated here as “dwelling places” is skeenee, This word, skeenee can also be translated as “tent,” and also as “tabernacle.” Skeenee is the word that the Greek translators also used when referring to the tabernacle of the Old Testament.
For the Israelites, the tabernacle, and then later the temple in Jerusalem, were believed to be the resting place of YHWH, the dwelling place of God.
So we can imagine that Peter is intending to build dwelling places, physical buildings, to house Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Houses for people to come and worship them.
As he envisioned these dwelling places, Peter’s mind may have already started to think about the architecture and the construction of these dwelling places.
Then the next step would be to think of the path people would take to get up the mountain to visit them. There would probably have to be toll booths, in order to pay for the maintenance, and rules about who could come. Maybe a childcare center nearby so that the children wouldn't disrupt things. And of course a structure for worship - rituals, and set times, and specific words of liturgy.
Peter’s reaction - the instinct to build dwelling places - has echoed throughout Christian history. We find that same reaction in our theology and in our churches.
We tried to confine God to the walls of our churches and cathedrals, as if to say that only in these places might we experience God. We developed specific liturgy, and prayers, and rituals. And the church leadership told us that only by saying these words and doing these things could we properly worship God.
The echoes of Peter’s dwelling places also reverberate in our theology. Theologians have long tried to assert exactly who God is, and how God operates in the world. Much of theology has been an attempt to "know" God in the most possessive sense of the word.
To domesticate the divine mystery as the property of human language.
These projects have dangerous consequences. At best, they monopolize the conversation. They don’t leave much room for any other way of thinking about God.
I remember a conversation with my sister many years ago, around the time when I was applying for seminary. She noted to me that it must be a special thing to have a religion to believe in and a community to share it with.
When I asked about her own religious identity, my sister – who was raised in the same family, the same church, with the same traditions – said that she could never see herself identifying as a Christian. She said that the way Christianity describes God did not make sense for her. And then my sister – who as a small child had declared to our parents that “God is a woman and her name is Africa” - went on to describe her own beautiful spirituality, her sense that people are connected to one another through the flowing of a divine spirit. As poignant as her personal theology was, my sister didn’t feel like there was room in Christianity for that vision of theology.
Over the years, my sister’s view of Christianity had been slowly eroded by the glass mason jars of an exclusionary and proprietary faith. By the billboards that say with absolute confidence who God hates and who God loves. By church doctrines claiming a single, correct way of talking about God. By evangelists claiming that salvation will only come through the utterance of a very specific phrase, accepting Jesus Christ as lord and savior.
To be sure, these messages predominate in the more evangelical branches of the Christian church. But I wonder if there is also something of that instinct present for all of us who have experienced moments of spiritual wonder and love and awe. Experiences when the mystery of the transcendent becomes momentarily and imminently present. I recognize in myself an instinct to capture these moments, to codify them.
I have the urge to put those moments in a jar and to put that jar on a shelf so that I can access it at will. It is the urge to make a private museum of my faith, and from that museum, to claim that I know exactly who and what God is.
There has long been an oppositional voice to this instinct within our own Christian history. They call it apophatic theology, or more simply, the "via negativa" -- the negative way.
The Via Negativa warns against claiming true knowledge of God. Instead, the best way to comprehend God is to recognize that the divine is ultimately incomprehensible. That we can do more by saying what God is not - not a rock, not a man, not a molecule of air - than by trying to determine exactly what God is.
It is the voice that encourages us to embrace the mystery.
St. Augustine, that otherwise font of orthodoxy, takes on this voice when he suggests that: "God is imagined more complexly than we can describe in words, and God exists more truly than we can imagine."
This via negativa resists the impulse to possess God as something or someone who we can know fully. A set of descriptions we can articulate with precision.
Our modern sense of knowledge has been forged by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Knowledge, as we understand it, is factual, truthful, concrete. We own our knowledge, and store it in our heads, in our books. So when we think about knowing God, we think about concrete, absolute, factual knowledge. Knowledge that is captured, contained, controlled.
The ancient Hebrews had a very different way of thinking about knowledge. The word used time and time again in the Hebrew bible is YADA. Although we translate YADA as the verb “to know,” its meaning is more elusive. YADA is also translated in other places as the verb "to make love." That is why it says in Genesis that Adam knew Eve, and that Abraham knew Sarah.
So what this word YADA tells us is that for Hebrews, the instruction to "know" God was not about precisely articulating who or what exactly God is, but about encountering God. About coming face to face with the divine. About making love to God, in the most intimate sense.
The transfiguration is truly a YADA moment. In its wonder and majesty and its mystery, the transfiguration is an invitation for the disciples and, by extension to all of us, to encounter the bright, shining light of the divine. To intimately experience the mystery of Christ.
The challenge for us, like for Peter, is to experience the divine mystery without trying to capture or confine it. To let it be unbounded. To let fireflies fly free simply enjoying the light that shines in the night.