Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is a medieval aphorism that has become seen as a truism in modern times. Non gustibus non est disputandum. “There is no disputing about tastes,” morphed, sometime in the nineteenth century to “there’s no accounting for tastes.” A philosopher of aesthetics may disagree that this is either obvious or true, and so would I. This places me firmly in the crank camp, but there you have it. Perhaps there are cases in which the quality of one’s preference is purely subjective–whether one prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, say–but I can’t bring myself to say that the relative value of Joyce’s Ulysses to a paperback romance novel with Fabio on the cover, or that Titian’s Assunta altarpiece and a Bored Ape NFT, is entirely a matter of subjective taste.

One of the many things that worries me about contemporary school curricula (an odd thing for me to worry about, since I don’t have children of my own, but it does) is that English classes have increasingly replaced set reading lists with an allowance for students to read and write reports on whatever they want, under the assumption that it is more important for children to read something rather than nothing, whether that be Dostoevsky or a comic book. Now, I’ve got nothing against comic books, but Dostoevsky is more important. I love what Flannery O’Conner (who should be on the required reading list, now I think about it) said about the High School English teacher’s responsibility in her essay “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade”:

And if the student finds this not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

I couldn’t agree more. Like I said, I realize this makes me sound like a crank.

I say all that, because I might be about to contradict myself. I’m drawn to a particular aesthetic, both in art and in real physical spaces, which many would understandably find off-putting, and I couldn’t blame anybody for saying “that is not to my taste.” I find what has been called “liminality” extremely compelling, particularly when it comes to spaces which evince that quality. A liminal space is one that is disconcertingly empty when one would expect the opposite, and it can evoke seemingly contradictory feelings of comfort and unease. You can see such spaces in some contemporary visual art and experimental film. One of my favorite filmmakers, David Lynch, does a lot with this. I follow an automated twitter account that posts photographs of liminal spaces at @spaceliminalbot (I selfishly hope Elon doesn’t get rid of all the bots). But I particularly like to inhabit these spaces in real life.

What am I talking about? Some examples. Nearly empty hallways in cheap hotels; streets in declining urban centers early in the morning with shuttered metal security gates over the storefront early in the morning; K-Marts with a third of the stock and none of the customers as one would have seen inside, say, thirty years ago. There is, no doubt, a level on which seeing and being in spaces like this appeal to my nostalgia and my melancholic bent. I think it’s also that they give one the sense of transition and impermanence, which is, I think, the nature of the material world and the human condition as opposed to the divine reality of the one God. The very word, liminal, from the Latin meaning threshold, suggests that the aesthetic is about these sort of transitions from unknown to unknown, and before the word was used to refer to creepy art, it was used by anthropologists to refer to the disorientation brought about in rituals which transitioned a subject from one state or way of life to the next.

So what does all this have to do with the Transfiguration? I think that Christ upon the mountain peak, and for that matter Moses entering into the cloud, can be seen as liminal events. They are, for the disciples in the former case and the children of Israel in the latter, these transitional, in some sense elegaic moments, in which confusion and perhaps dread cloud the present moment (literally and figuratively), making the future seem uncertain but certainly different.

And they have a choice. Push through that uncertainty to the unknown future or stay right there or feebly try to revert to some former, familiar way of being. This, I think, is why Peter wants to build huts on the mountain and stay forever. This, I think, is why the Israelites respond by almost immediately devolving into disobedience. Since the future is uncertain, it is scary.

But the future for Moses and the Israelites and for Jesus and the disciples is in one way quite unlike the mostly empty K-Mart or the blighted urban center, as much as they might have felt similar. They were different, because whatever came about on the other side of those mountaintop transitions was a matter of general providence, of God’s overall plan for salvation for those involved and for the whole world. If you believe, like me, that there is special providence in addition to general providence (to put it simply, if necessarily a bit inaccurately due to the simplification, that God chooses to exercise some level of control on the micro-level as well as the macro-) then there may be hope for the K-Mart and the urban center, too, but that is a larger discussion.

The point, here, is that the simultaneous comfort and unease, the tension between compulsion and revulsion, we feel on the cusp of any transition into an unknown future, is a natural response to our human desire for the familiar and the Spirit’s dragging us into the unfamiliar, and (should we seek it) giving us the courage and consolation to move through and forward, being reminded that we too are in God’s hands.

We come down the mountain this Wednesday and start the journey with our Lord to Calvary. We get all the alleluias and perhaps inordinate love of pancakes out of our systems and start a journey which is in one way familiar if we’ve been in the Christianity thing for a minute, but which can be both fraught with peril and full of new discoveries every year if we’re prayerful and paying attention. Lent thus serves as a microcosm for all those seasons of our lives in which we move through the unknown, hoping and praying and sometimes though not always knowing, that God’s hand is leading us to something greater if we walk that road with patience and humility.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.