(A sermon originally published in Birdsall's book "Sermons in Summer, Delivered at Christ Church, Cooperstown." 1912)
As Jesus prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. — Luke 9:29
That Jesus Christ is human — that He is Man — has never been so fully realized, since the days of His first disciples, as at the present time. Whatever unbelief in His divinity may be mingled with the modern emphasis upon His humanity, there is a gain, on the whole, in the apprehension of the old faith of Christendom, whenever the Founder of our religion is described as Perfect Man. The modern humanitarian can never conceive of a more splendid ideal than that of the Christian faith, which, if it asserts that God became Man and walked the fields of Galilee and the streets of Oriental cities nineteen hundred years ago, also proclaims, since the Man Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, as one who has experienced human sorrow and love and toil, that a Human Heart now beats at the very centre of the Universe.
The primitive disciples, lacking our theological prepossessions, were the companions of an intensely human Christ. He was their intimate personal friend. If they witnessed His mighty deeds, they shared with Him also the drab commonplace of everyday discomfort. Gracious words of divine blessing fell from His lips, and utterances that burned like flame, but the disciples could remember that He was rejected with contempt by His own town of Nazareth, where were the carpenter's bench, and the hammers, and hatchets, and saws, and gimlets, with which His hands had wrought a common trade.
Then there came a crisis of experience in which all this crude realism was penetrated by the vision of a deeper reality. They climbed one evening to a mountain-top — Jesus and His three most intimate disciples, Peter, and James, and John. They looked down upon the sunset view which a later tourist describes, and perhaps with the same impressions, for two thousand years have left the scene unchanged: "The Sea of Galilee was lit up with a delicate greenish-yellow hue, between its dim walls of hill. The flush died out, and a pale, steel-colored shade succeeded. A long pyramidal shadow slid down to the eastern foot of Hermon, and crept across the great plain; Damascus was swallowed up by it; and finally the pointed end of the shadow stood out distinctly against the sky — a dusky cone of dull color against the flush of the afterglow. It was the shadow of the mountain itself, stretching away for seventy miles across the plain — the most marvelous shadow perhaps anywhere to be seen in the world. The sun slid into the sea. Overhead shone out in the blue summer sky, one by one, the Oriental brilliancy of stars.”
As the night deepened, the three disciples lay stretched upon the earth in slumber, while our Lord kept lonely vigil, absorbed in prayer. All at once the sleeping men were startled by a sense of strangeness, and a glow of dazzling light. They looked upon the Master, and were amazed to behold Him glorified by a mysterious effulgence that, emanated from His person, and wrapped Him in white- flaming splendor. His countenance blazed with an unearthly light of supreme exaltation. His whole figure became luminous. His garments gleamed and glittered with the shimmering of radiant energy. The fire of divinity shone through the vase of humanity. This Galilean peasant, this carpenter of Nazareth, was a glare with the glory of God, and His coarse garments were resplendent with the awful majesty of the King of kings.
The Transfiguration is the one incident in the Gospel story which seems designedly de scribed as spectacular — an event in the life of Christ held up not for imitation, but for admiration. Other events stand for His pity, His power, His sinlessness. The Transfiguration presents Him as an object of contemplation. Here alone He is represented as a Being of terrible and blazing beauty. Here alone the Christian religion seems to offer the Beautiful as an attainment, quite apart from the utilities. For no doctrine has ever been based upon the Transfiguration, and no Christian practice has ever been evolved from it — almost it may be said that no lesson can be drawn from the incident as it stands alone. It is a spectacle of Beauty.
That which is true in the sphere of grace is true in the realm of Nature. One of the most mysterious attributes of Nature, if one reflects upon it, is Beauty. A materialistic philosophy has no explanation of Beauty in Nature. It will not do to say that the sense of beauty is caused by the adjustment of the eye to reactions of the outer world. For then the most accustomed view would seem most beautiful, because the eye would be best adjusted to reactions that are frequent. But, in fact, the most supreme beauty is exceptional and rare. There is always some marvelous view, or exquisitely lovely face, once beheld, that stands out beyond all others in the memory.
Nor can Beauty be accounted for on the basis of utility. It may be that the plumage of the peacock is designed for the attraction of a mate. It may be that the flowers of the field are gorgeous in color in order to attract insects for pollination. But in most of these beauties of Nature there is no utility whatever; none in the rainbow; none in the flaming colors of sunset; none in the glory of autumnal foliage. Beauty refuses to be discovered by a detective, or measured in foot pounds and horse-power. Beauty exists in and for itself, without any reason whatsoever. There is no explanation of beauty except you see in Nature an intelligent Creator who loves Beauty, and lavishes it upon created things.
When we turn from Nature to art, we find the same law, which refuses to measure beauty in terms of utility. There are, indeed, certain canons of structural art, by which ornament is made subordinate to utility, so that that is most beautiful which is best designed to fulfill its purpose. But the critic of art who judges paintings is less likely to choose a picture useful to tell a story — which the uneducated eye prefers — than to hit upon some canvas that tells no story, but, because of some inner harmony, succeeds in being merely beautiful. In music, the untrained listener desires compositions that are useful to represent concrete images or events — the roll of thunder, the caroling of birds, the trickling of water, a woman singing at her spinning-wheel. Saul believed that music was useful to drive away his madness, and ended by hurling his javelin at the musician. Your true musician denies that music has any ultimate purpose or function, except as a form of beauty. It is not concerned in the representation either of thunder or moon shine. The musician's delight is a Bach fugue, having form without color, which none but the trained ear can appreciate, and whose beauty lies in an internal harmony of construction.
The highest possible form of beauty is moral beauty, the inner harmony of spiritual qualities in the soul of man and the Universe of God. Much as we stress the practical bearing of morals, moral beauty, too, holds aloof from the utilities. Virtue does not al ways find happiness. Honesty does not always triumph. Generosity is often abused. Nothing is more deadly, in fact, than a bargain-counter morality that insists upon having something in exchange for being good. But moral beauty is indifferent to practical consequences. It insists upon being made an end in itself. And there is a yearning in every human soul, if we give it room that reaches everlastingly toward the attainment of moral beauty.
The perception of the beauty that streamed from the majestic figure of Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration was a revelation to His disciples. The perception of a beautiful ideal is always a revelation. It belongs to the serene mountain-top. It is not drawn from the actual life of the world in the turmoil of the valley below. The ideal is drawn from above. It is independent of the reality. It exists for itself, as a form of moral beauty.
The passion of the heart for the attainment of moral beauty gives a superb quality to human effort, in its high disdain of consequences, and its independence of sordid utilities. It shuns an ignoble deed, not so much from fear of being found out as from a determination to keep the ideal unsullied, and to retain the true self-respect that falls short of pride. Nothing, perhaps, needs more emphasis in this age than the cultivation of a supreme contempt for practical consequences in the pursuit of a worthy ideal.
If the real Christians of the First century were slain with the sword, sawn asunder, flung to the lions, then we should expect to find, among the real Christians of the Twentieth century, professional men who turn their backs upon fame rather than stoop to devious arts, merchants who choose poverty with honor before affluence with crookedness, politicians who would rather lose an office than win it, or hold it, by corruption. And some such, thank God, there are!
There comes into the mind of everyone, at some time, a vision of ideal beauty in terms of his own life — the ideal of possibility within his own range. In the actual contact with life in the valley this vision of the mountain-top too often becomes blurred, and fades away. We wish that we might make the vision permanent, that it may never cease to guide us, and to inspire us. So S. Peter, not knowing what he said, desired to make the Transfiguration permanent, to build a tabernacle for his glorified Lord, and keep Him there upon the mountain, and worship Him ever. But we are not equal to the permanence of such high visions.
Duty calls us back to the level of the valley. The test of our vision lies in the power to work on in the light of it when appearances seem to be against it, and when the dull commonplace of duty shows no reflected gleam of it. Nothing is more pitiful than the gradual blotting out of fine idealisms by the slow rubbing of contacts with the world. For one actually begins then sometimes to believe that the beautiful ideal was mistaken, and that the ugly afterthought is true. But it is the cynical afterthought that is ever false. It comes from the world.
The idealism comes from above, and is a vision of permanent beauty. Browning sounds the depth of a great truth when he declares that "tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man would do!"
Much as one may fail, if the ideal be kept in sight, he shall reach at last the goal of eternal beauty. No man's performance is good enough to reveal the full measure of his soul. "His reach exceeds his grasp."
Yet it would leave the thought incomplete to suggest that the ideal is independent of the reality, in the sense that one may think on a high plane, and live at a low level, with consistency. The ideal is independent of circumstances only in the sense that it comes from above, and not from below; it does not arise out of circumstances. The relation of the ideal to life arises out of the fact that the ideal, once revealed, transfigures life. Every great ideal is a Transfiguration. As the Galilean carpenter was seen to glitter with the glory of the Son of God on the Mount of the Transfiguration, so all life reveals inner splendors in the light of idealism. Startling magnificences appear in common life that is touched with the flame of great ideals.
Raphael revealed this truth when he painted his last great work — the picture of the Transfiguration that hangs in the Vatican gallery. Into this picture he put all his experience of art and life. And the strange thing is that he seems deliberately and intentionally to have violated a canon of art in order to convey his final message to the world. For he divided the interest of his composition by introducing two different spheres of action upon a single canvas. In painting the Transfiguration, he added the view of what succeeded the Transfiguration.
He remembered that the mystic idealism of the scene upon the mountain was immediately followed, when Jesus and His disciples descended, by the appeal of practical life in the valley, where the demonized boy, jostled by the throng, appealed for help. And so this great picture represents not merely the Transfiguration, the beauty of the ideal, but the transfiguration of common life in the valley by the light of the splendor revealed upon the mountain. We are trying too much to interpret life from below, in terms of economic and material problems. For, without underrating the importance of such concerns, the true interpretation of life must be from above. Jesus Christ did more than to divert attention from this world to another. He interpreted the life of this world by viewing it from above, and showing it transfigured in the light of His revelation.
God has put into your soul the vision of an ideal. It is for you to keep it unsullied. And because the contacts of the world would mar it, He has given you at His altar an eternal tabernacle, in which the Most Holy dwells in Sacramental Mystery. Here you are to come continually to renew the ideal, and to carry out into life the vision of the King in His beauty.