The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Last year the Cathedral of St. Paul in London, England installed this moving picture installation as part of its artwork. It was the work of Bill Viola, who is an artist of some renown, and his work is in moving images. The piece was called Martyrdom. It was a series of panels in which there were videos side by side of different figures bound by ropes, suspended, and under assault by the different traditional elements in the universe—wind, fire, water, and earth.
Now, people didn’t all like this installation. Some found fault with Bill Viola as an artist, some found his work kind of overly sentimental, and some found fault with the fact that these images of martyrs did not represent a particular martyrdom in the Christian tradition. But Michael Oakley, who was the Canon for the Cathedral of St. Paul, defended the piece by saying that its power was that it asked people to think about what it was that they were willing to die for—and thereby to identify what they’re willing to live for.
And he acknowledged that the piece was not specifically Christian, but he thought that if you had a Christian framework, you would read the piece through a Christian lens. And he said, “That is the glory of art that we could read these events through the lens of faith.” In 2007, Bill Viola did another piece, another video installation that I have a figure from for you today. I’ve put each one in your bulletins personally. Pull it out and take a look.
The title of this piece is Transfiguration. And in it Viola depicted his son being showered by light. And like the later piece, there are ropes involved. But there’s a sense in which this young man has broken free. So you see the ropes here on his left arm, but he is standing and entering into the light. And the light is pouring down upon him like water and he’s emerging from the darkness.
It’s a powerful film. You can find it on YouTube. When Jesus’ transfiguration is depicted in Christian iconography, Jesus is often seen as being lifted high off the mountain and dancing in the air with Elijah and Moses. And so you have on our cover today a wonderful depiction that’s actually from an icon that I think is Russian. In it you have Jesus on the mountain practically lifted off of his feet.
But I want to suggest to you that the proper interpretation of this gospel is that the light does not cause Jesus to ascend. The light descends upon Jesus where he is standing. Moses and Elijah are with him in the midst of where he is in his life and the light shines from him as he is. The light descends. It pours down upon him. And for that moment, Jesus is radiant.
Everything we have in this gospel points towards a moment not of worship, not of being pulled up out of the different things that we’re immersed in in life. But rather, a moment of witness when God becomes present through a person in the midst of their daily struggles. Today’s gospel is an example of witness. This is why when Peter is arguing with the whirlwind and saying, “It’s good that you’re here, Lord. Let us construct three booths.” Peter is trying to create an opportunity for worship, and the voice from heaven says to him, “This is my son. Listen to him. It’s a moment of witness, a moment in which we have to testify to a truth in which we have to be bold.” The Greek for it is parrhesia, boldness of speech.
And what I like about this piece is there’s this deep resonance. Bill Viola uses his son to create this moving image of transfiguration, and that resonates with the fact that in today’s gospel we have this moment in which God’s son is transfigured. And Bill Viola creates this moment in which his son is emerging out of darkness and into light. And that resonates with the movement that Jesus is about to begin when he leaves that mountain and goes on his way to Jerusalem where he will be crucified and die and be raised again.
So Jesus in today’s gospel is beginning this movement from light to darkness and back to light. And that emergence from darkness resonates with what Bill Viola does in this piece, and he shows his son breaking free from bondage and standing straight and being showered, drenched with light. And that, of course, resonates with everything Jesus is going to do as a result of this gospel where he is going to release us from the bondage of sin and death and liberate us into life. All of this pivots around the practice of witness.
Just before today’s gospel, there is a moment in which Jesus speaks freely to his disciples and it teaches us something about the nature of witness. Because no matter what we do, no matter when we do it, any witness to truth is going to experience resentment and opposition and resistance. And so just before today’s gospel, Jesus is with his disciples and Mark uses the term parrhesia. Jesus tells them plainly that he will be crucified and died and raised from the dead. And Peter rebukes him.
This whole gospel for us today is a testimony to God’s witness about Jesus, about his own witness to his death and resurrection. About his own walk to the cross for our redemption, for our release, for our liberation. And this raises two or three things about witness that are important for us to note. Witness has a long tradition in western history, in western civilization.
Socrates bore witness. And when he was told that he could not––he was experiencing opposition. The first opposition that Socrates experienced was people wanting him to run for office, to be a politician. And Socrates refused because his calling was for parrhesia, the same Greek word. It was to bear witness.
But Christians have a different understanding of witness. For us, when we engage in witness, it’s always with reference to another world. Christian witness bears testimony to the fact that another world is possible. And secondly, in Christian witness, we see the promise that even if our truth is resisted and even if that truth is attacked, God is listening. God listens to our witness; God confirms our witness.
We live in a world in which we are constantly facing opposition to people who are bearing witness. Think about what’s going on in Europe, in which this moment of witness by journalists is under attack. This is the time for us as Christians to think about what it means for us to bear witness to God in our own lives. The gospel is not a static belief; it’s a lived reality. And it’s a reality you and I inhabit and live every day when we choose to bear witness to Jesus.
What is preventing you from stepping into the light? What is holding you back? What are the ropes around you? What is the truth you’re being called to testify to in your life? God is listening. God will never abandon us in the midst of these moments of witness, as challenging as they may be, because in them we bear witness to God’s own walk from death to life in Jesus.