The Physics of Scripture

Homily for Sunday February 11, 2018
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1–12
Mark 9:2–9

Newton-Principles of Physics page 123The text on which I want to preach this morning is not one of the texts that we just heard, but it is a text very close to one of the texts we just heard.  And in just a moment I want to get to that text, but first, a bit of introduction…

Newtonian physics holds that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  For example, a rocket engine thrusts downward, and its payload is lifted upward.  The baseball is pitched toward the plate at high velocity, and a powerful hit launches it away at an even higher velocity.  We sit down on a chair, and the chair is able to hold us because it pushes up with at least as much force as that with which we sat down.  “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  The same might be said of Scripture.  For example, we know that when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, of course he is going to come down.  Or in the opening chapters of Genesis, we know—we just know!—that when God places Adam and then Eve in the garden, at some point God is going kick them out of the garden.  Or we know that even though the Psalmist might pass through “the valley of the shadow of death,” he is then going to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  And we know that in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain, they are going to come down.  The Scriptures are filled with the rhythm of action and reaction: in then out, up then down, dark and light, death and resurrection.  Such is the “physics” of Scripture.

Elijah's_Fiery_Ascension_-Russian, Anon, 19th c tempera on panel_Walters_372748

Elijah’s Fiery Ascension — Anonymous Russian, 19th c., tempera on panel

Given these physics, something feels not quite right when Elijah goes up to heaven in the whirlwind.  Just up!…  The lack of descent is unsettling.  To find the descent, we need to look to the next line, in verse 13 (after today’s reading): “[Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him…”  This is the text I want to preach on! Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him…”

I want to preach on this text because, just as this story is about an ascent and descent, we, too, are ascending and descending.  For months in the lectionary and in the Church year we have been going up: In Advent we prepared for the coming of Jesus, and at Christmas we celebrated his birth.  Then we celebrated his Epiphany.  And over the past few weeks we heard Jesus call his first disciples, cast out his first demons and work his first miracles.  We have been climbing and climbing, recognizing more and more of Jesus’ divinity, until, in today’s gospel lesson, we reach the peak, the mountain of the Transfiguration.  For months we have been ascending and celebrating divinity, and now… we are hours away from descending.  This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, will remind us that, even though we have been made in the image of God and have the capacity for ascent into things divine, yet we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”  We have gone up—celebrating Jesus’ Incarnation and Epiphany—and now we are about to go down, remembering “that we are but dust,” and that “our days are like the grass,” as Wednesday’s Psalm will tell us.

Transfiguration_RaphaelRather than being an occasion for feeling down, I see in our “dusty-ness”—as it is in the context of the “physics” of our Scriptures and the liturgical year—an occasion for hope.  I see hope in our dusty-ness because the more we are able, on the one hand, to let God draw us into the “heights,” into our capacity for God, and the more we are able, on the other, to accept the fullness of our humanity—to be grounded in our “dusty-ness”—the more alive we can become.

Much like the earth has two magnetic poles that are held in tension, and when they are in tension everything more or less runs smoothly, so do we have within us two poles that, when we live into them, we become more fully alive.  We have the capacity for God—if Gregory of Nyssa is right, we humans have been created with the capacity for infinite growth in God!—and we are human—fallen—with much to be penitent for.  Holding these two poles in tension—living into these two truths about our nature—we can become more fully alive.

magnetic polesThe meeting point of these two tensions lies in that quintessential Lenten practice: penitence.  Penitence puts us in right relationship with ourselves—helping us to accept (as does the Psalmist) that “There is no soundness in my body, because of my sin.”  And penitence puts us in right relationship with God, who “forgives all [our] sins and heals all [our] infirmities.” A rhythm of regular penitence—like the general confession we make in the Sunday liturgy, plus perhaps taking advantage of the sacrament of Reconciliation—much like stroking a piece of iron until it magnetizes, aligns our interior “poles” such that we become more fully ourselves.

It is tempting, like Peter, to want to stay on the mountain, basking only in our capacity for the divine.  But staying in one place, either in our capacity for the divine or in our humanity, is not the rhythm of the Gospels; such is not our “physics.”  We Christians go up and then down, in then out, experience dark then light, and death then resurrection.  We experience being fully alive as we both live into our capacity for God and accept that we are fallen and stand in need forgiveness.

flower-desertI hope that this Lent we might reach down and pick up the mantle that is dropped before us.  Though today we are on the mountain, beholding his glory, next week we will be with him in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.  I hope that as today we have seen our capacity for the divine, to stand with Jesus on the heights, on Wednesday and throughout Lent we might pick up the mantle of our humanity—we might accept our fallen-ness—and to take our fallen-ness to him who alone has the power to “redeem [our] life from the grave.”  As we are faithful to penitence in Lent—“penitent” in the best way, a way that is part of a rhythm, of our capacity for both the divine and the human, a rhythm that completes us—we will pass through Lent and, come Easter, experience resurrection from what may still be dead within us.

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