Chiaroscuro

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Transfiguration Sunday.

Luke 9:28-43a

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”

Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

***

One of our assignments in a high school art class was to critique another student’s work. The drawing I received was quite realistic in many ways—a coffee cup, a pencil, and a small potted plant, all drawn clearly enough for me to know exactly what they were.

But it wasn’t very good. As art went, it was pretty blah. Even for a still life.

The reason was because it was all basically the same shade of gray. Step a few inches away from the drawing, and it all blurred together. The still life disappeared, and all you got was a light gray blob on a piece of paper.

With all the wisdom of a senior art student, I suggested my peer add more darkness to his drawing—more shading, more shadows. He did, and suddenly it came alive. Suddenly you wanted to stop and look, at these three very basic items.

There is something about the interplay of light and dark that draws us in. Something about the contrast that grabs us. There is even a fancy term for it in the study of art: chiaroscuro. The word comes from Italian for, literally, light-dark.

It is hard to believe, but there was a time in the history of art when contrast was rarely used. Paintings and drawings tended to be all in the same tonal range of colors. Shading was quite minimal, and never dramatic.

And then along came chiaroscuro. The term was coined in the renaissance, as more and more artists added both strong darks and strong lights to their drawings and paintings. What this allowed the artists to do was create pictures that were far more real, far more strong. Suddenly the people in them had weight and depth and shape. Form, even.

Not everyone was charmed by the new style. Some folks liked the old way, where subjects sat fully in light, with no shadows to be seen. Elizabeth I of England, for example, insisted upon being painted in full light, far away from any darkness. To show herself as a powerful queen, she felt she needed to be bathed in light.

And yet chiaroscuro won the day. It is almost impossible now to talk about art without talking about contrast, about how the light falls, about how the shadows work. We have come to know the power of chiaroscuro, of believing things are real because of how light and dark crisscross across them.

So why the art history lesson this morning? Because as I was reading this morning’s gospel passage, I could not help but see it as a kind of literary chiaroscuro.

There is the story we know best—Christ bathed in light upon the mountaintop. Christ glowing, with a radiant face and bleached white clothes. God’s bright, booming voice: this is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.

And then there is the story we don’t always tell, from the very next day—a boy suffering in darkness down in the valley. His face covered in spit and bruises from where he’s fallen. His father’s anguished, pleading cry: this is my son, my only child. Heal him!

It is, at first glance, a diptych story of light and dark. The light of God shining on the mountain, the darkness of human suffering down in the valley. It’s no wonder we prefer the transfiguration to the demons.

But as I kept reading this week, I noticed something I hadn’t before. This is not a simple story of light and dark, where the goodness dwells in the light and the evil in the dark.

If that were the case, if God was only found in the light, then those of us who live in the dark—worried for our children or parents, struggling with our own health, grieving over abuses of power, anxious over our life’s path, however the darkness has taken its hold of us—well then, the only thing for those of us who live in the dark to do would be to get out of the valley. Hoist ourselves up by our bootstraps and climb our way to God’s light upon the mountaintop.

But that’s not how Jesus’s story goes. He doesn’t demand that the father supplicating for his son come to him. He doesn’t sit, like Queen Elizabeth, where no shadow can touch him, eager to show off his best side, determined to be majestic and remote. He goes down into the darkness, into the valley. He comes to us, in our darkness, in our valleys.

Because here’s the really cool thing—did you notice, in that bright shiny story of transfiguration, how God showed up? It wasn’t as a ray of light. It wasn’t as a fireworks show.

It was as a voice in a cloud. As a shadow.

God showed up as the darkness in the light. A shadow that made it possible for those three disciples to see what was really going on. God came as darkness on that bright mountaintop.

And then did you notice, when Jesus goes into the valley, and casts out the demon, and heals the boy, that’s when the crowd sees the greatness of God? That’s when they see the light of God’s love? Not as the giant light, but as the tiny one. That’s when God comes as light into darkness.

Because here’s the thing about chiaroscuro—it’s not that the light is good or the darkness is bad. It’s that together, they create an image that has power.

This is a story about the power of God, shown in mirror opposite ways. There is the supernatural, nearly science fiction scene of the transfiguration, where the shadow of God’s presence lets the disciples know the power of what they are seeing: God’s own son, chosen and beloved. It’s the darkness of God’s voice that gives meaning to the brightness of Christ’s face.

And then there is the haunting scene in the valley, of a suffering child and an agonized father and the rest of the disciples standing in shame from their failure, and here it is the smallest ray of light that pierces the darkness: Jesus Christ, come to heal, come to save. Come with power. If there had been no sick child, no persistent father, would anyone have noticed Jesus? Would they have been astounded at the greatness of God?

We like to live our lives in the light. We like to think of God’s power as this transcendent, supernatural thing. We like to set up shop on mountaintops and when the darkness comes for us, as it will for all of us at some point or another, we run from it.

But there are gifts to both darkness and light. There is a strength to living life that has both joy and pain, both certainty and confusion. Because God is in it all. God is in our good times, in our sunny days, of course. But God is also in our darkness, seeking us out, sharing enough divine power with us to get us through.

Transfiguration moments are rare. I pray that you get a few in your life; moments where you see Christ’s glory, hear God’s voice, feel the warmth of the sun on your face.

But I know that most of life is lived in the valley. Most of life is lived in the shadows. Most of life is lived without that clear voice of God telling us exactly what to do, or that radiant face of Jesus filling us with awe. Mostly we just muddle through as best we can, and we call out for help when we need it, and we pray there is someone there who can heal us. Who can listen to us. Who can help us share the load. Who can stay with us until the dawn breaks again.

And if we have only learned how to see the face of Christ in the light, we might miss that Christ has been with us, as those companions in the darkness, all along.

The power of God can be seen in the light, but I have felt it most strongly in the darkness, when I have felt as lost and overwhelmed as that little boy must have, and yet someone comes along to care for me. To notice me in that darkness.

God is real to me because I have seen God in the darkness and in the light. That’s the power of chiaroscuro. It makes things real.

We are shifting now from the season of Epiphany into the season of Lent, which is traditionally a season of darkness, of lengthening shadows. And as we descend into the valley, and prepare to face head on our own fears, our own demons, our own worries, that we will remember this timeless truth:

God is with us.

Though we walk through the valley—even the valley of the shadow of death—God is with us.

To God be the glory, in the darkness and the light. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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