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A Terrible Beauty

March 7, 2011

“A Terrible Beauty” Matthew 17:1-9 © 3/6/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

We have become accustomed in our day to thinking of terror as a bad thing. No doubt that’s because it’s become associated almost exclusively with the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists or homegrown whackos whose goal is to undermine our confidence in our safety and make us afraid every moment, to disrupt the normal rhythms of society and, in their vivid imaginations, bring us to our knees.

But we should not allow such theft of a good religious word. We have gotten too used to being buddy-buddy with God, to thinking of Jesus as our friend, and the Holy Spirit as our comforter that we can cuddle up close with on a dark night. And indeed, God is close to us, our companion and keeper, merciful and kind. But that is not the whole story of God, and reassurance and calm are not the emotions normally associated in Scripture with a close encounter with the divine. Sometimes the terror comes because God is moving against his enemies in judgment. But his own people are also terrified, not because of God’s judgment, but because of his holiness and majesty, as Isaiah said. According to the writer of Hebrews, Moses was so terrified in the presence of God he admitted to trembling with fear (see Hebrews 12:18-29). The women at the empty tomb ran away, because terror and amazement had seized them and made them speechless (Mark 16:8). Cornelius the centurion, on being visited by an angelic messenger, stared in terror (Acts 10:4).

Annie Dillard, the poet and novelist, reminds us that we ought to be more aware of exactly who it is we deal with in worship. She writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (Teaching a Stone to Talk).

It was just such a terrifying, majestic, glorious God that the disciples encountered as they were engulfed in no ordinary cloud, but the Shekinah, the mist of God’s presence. They were with their Lord, so why were they so afraid? Why were they overcome? Because in the presence of perfect holiness, we cannot help but be gripped by a sense of ourselves. But also because there is a beauty so rare that we cannot bear to look upon it. It is the beauty of the transfigured Christ. It is the loveliness of the glorious Sovereign of all.

How can beauty terrify? The guitarist and singer John Brocato has a wonderful song he wrote when he was in college that’s still popular with his fans. It’s called “UVA,” short for “Unrequited Visual Affection.” The tune is about a guy who gets sick and weak every time he looks at the girl he longs to get to know. He laments: “If beauty is your blessing, then I guess the fear of it is my curse.”

If John was terrified in the presence of a lovely college girl, Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet, reflects on what it’s like to be around another kind of angel, and thus the holy: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying” (“First Elegy”).

The terror we experience in the presence of the holy is first of all because we are seeing something that is totally incomprehensible, totally foreign to our experience, beyond and above and outside time and space and every dimension of reality. Paul Tillich called it “completely other.” Our fight or flight response is triggered, yet we can do neither. We are rooted to the spot, too afraid to move or even to look, knowing that God’s glory will blind us, his power could destroy us. It’s the experience of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans, the terms scholars use to describe a reality so above and beyond us that we are frightened out of our wits, but yet strangely drawn to it as well. We cannot endure the sight of God. But as the line from the classic Star Trek has it, is that because he is too horrible to bear or too beautiful to bear?

Second, we come face to face with the reality about ourselves. To use a common phrase: We ain’t all that. We are mortal. We are sinful. We disappoint and grieve our God. We make ourselves the center of the universe and complain that our problems are worse than anyone else’s. And we steadfastly refuse to change, to move from the spot we have staked out as our comfort zone.

Finally, our terror arises from our being drawn beyond ourselves. Transcendence bids us reach into the beyond, to imagine, to change. Tom Ehrich has observed about the intent of this story: “It would draw us outside ourselves, beyond our conventional wisdom, away from our expectations. It says that God isn’t a projection of what we want and consider true. It suggests that we can’t just baptize our preferences and call them ‘holy.’ We must enter into a cloud of radical listening (“On a Journey,” January 30, 2008).

A blog entry I read recently sums up all this. The writer gave her name only as “Kari.” She was commenting on the observation by Annie Dillard we heard earlier. She says she marked the passage in her copy of Dillard’s book: “The other reason I marked it is that I think I am more afraid of being drawn out to where I can never return than I am willing to admit. I have problems, yes, but they are familiar. I’m used to them. We live together comfortably. If you take them away from me, if I grow beyond them, I might not be so comfortable. It sounds ridiculous, right? But it’s true. I might not be happy with how things are, but neither do I really want them to change.

“So I continue on in my blithe way, standing and sitting and passing the plate, because admitting to myself what it all means might mean I’d have to actually face what’s wrong and do something about it. And letting TNT loose in my life? TNT that I can’t control? That sounds a little too scary” (

We need the fear of God to shake us loose from our lethargy and spiritual laziness. When we become frozen in place, white hot terror thaws us. When we have been singing the same songs, sometimes the harsh and jarring tones of a horror theme must interrupt our sweet reverie to keep us awake. We have to be shaken and shaken up sometimes to remind us we are not in control.

Yet in all this dissonance, turmoil, and uncertainty something wonderful happens. Perhaps Yeats says it best. We are “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” (“Easter 1916”). The experience of something utterly new and different may lead us to imagine new possibilities, dream fresh dreams, ask better questions. Jesus lifts us up and bids us no longer to be afraid. We hear only his voice, and it reassures us along our journeys, on the mountaintop of glory or in the valley of despair and trouble. We know now who he is, for we have seen him as he is, transfigured before us. He is the glory of God in flesh, the Shekinah with skin. This one who is fully human is also fully divine, able to heal, able to help, able to calm our fears. He is God’s ultimate word to us, the authoritative, challenging, questioning, open-ended, enigmatic word that in over 2000 years no one has yet completely comprehended. He is the one in whom the beautiful reality of God’s glory is made known to us and for us.

“Jesus on the mountain peak stands alone in glory blazing; let us, if we dare to speak, join the saints and angels praising. Alleluia! Trembling at his feet we saw Moses and Elijah speaking. All the prophets and the law shout through them their joyful greeting: Alleluia! Swift the cloud of glory came, God proclaiming in its thunder, Jesus is the Son by name! Nations, cry aloud in wonder: Alleluia! This is God’s beloved Son! Law and prophets sing before him, first and last and only One. All creation shall adore him! Alleluia!” (Brian Wren).


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