When I was eight, my third-grade teacher suspected that I had something wrong with my vision, and she was right. When I would read out loud, I would skip lines, and sometimes at the end of a long school day, the chalk board would get blurrier, like a gauzy veil was drawn over it. Come to find out, one of my eyes had weaker muscles than the other. So, for a year I went to eye therapy.
I remember sitting in the waiting room for my appointments, reading old Highlights magazines. After reading all the stories with my new, extra-fragile glass bifocals, I would enjoy the pages filled with visual puzzles, like where you find lists of hidden images in a picture, or a line drawing where you saw a young woman looking over her shoulder, but if you turned the picture upside down suddenly you were looking at an old hag. Or if you looked at the positive space of a drawing you saw one image, but if you concentrated on the negative space you saw something else. Years later I marveled at how that doctor made sure we were working to strengthen our eyes and our perception even in the waiting room.
The eyes work by collecting and focusing light so that it can be interpreted by the brain.
But, unless we have some idea what we are looking for, we will seldom find it, because our brains filter out a majority of the images our eyes take in so that we can make sense of what is in front of our eyes. Our brains perceive what is seen by interpreting, based on context, and by filtering out a great amount of input. We find this in people who have had their sight restored either by surgery or by correction, or in studies of what newborns see. When asked what they see, these people have no way of making sense of the light flooding their eyes. Of those who have the ability to talk, they describe brightness, and later flashes of color. Eventually, their minds learn to interpret the input coming through their eyes. There is even scriptural testimony to this phenomenon: in Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man from Bethsaida, but only after Jesus attempts the healing a first time and asks what the man sees, he says, “I see people, but they look like trees walking.”
In the reading from 2 Corinthians that we will hear this Sunday, we will hear Paul talk about the things that keep us from seeing the gospel as it really is. Paul points out that if we focus on the “god of this world,” we are unable to perceive to see God in unexpected places, or to see the gospel with clarity. Instead, our perception is “veiled.” Perhaps Paul is too generous to make the “god of this world” singular. Power, status, self-righteousness, money, material possessions, fame, greed, entertainment—all of these things we may worship, as we offer them the priority for our attention, our time, and our striving. There are so many gods we focus upon and elevate that we think will take the place in our hearts that belongs to God.
As we prepare to enter into Lent, we are encouraged to expand our perception. We end the season after Epiphany each year with stories of transfiguration to give us the courage to allow our eyes to adjust to the seeing of who Jesus REALLY is in our lives, much like those disciples who witness his transfiguration in our gospel. Too often we seem to expect a bearded man, wearing a loose linen tunic, sandals, gorgeously-tressed hair. We fail to perceive him in other guises: the frazzled dad working three jobs to help put food on the table; the teenager hungry for someone to take her under their wing and counter the story she hears at home about being ugly inside and out; the neighbor with whom we have been feuding for so long we no longer remember why; the panhandler on the corner we sneer at for having a cell phone.
The point of the transfiguration is not to focus on how Jesus has been changed. Rather, what if we looked upon him and realize that the veil has been pulled back: Jesus reveals just a tiny bit of who he really is, and once we perceive that, it is we who have been changed. In a year when even the everyday and commonplace has sometimes become a struggle, we may not perceive the ways in which the Christ-light has been revealed to us, much less within us.
The season of Epiphany is about drawing back the veil and joyfully encouraging us to see God’s presence everywhere and for everyone. Jesus’s transfiguration reminds us to embrace our own, so that we ourselves may perceive that that same glory and light resides within each of us. As Jesus transfigures us, he urges us to leave behind the gods of this world. “Come, follow me. Be the light you need to see within the world.”