Hocus Pocus

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/03-06-11.MP3] Hocus pocus. It’s a phrase we associate with magic. It’s not supernatural – we tend not to believe in the supernatural anymore. We expect that there’s some explanation, a slight of hand. We suspect that we’ve been distracted, that our attention has been led away from what’s really happening. Abra cadbra! Smoke and mirrors. Hocus pocus.

The origin of the phrase actually has a lot to do with this table. One of the theories for its origin goes back to Europe in the Middle Ages. The Catholic church was the only game in town. The Mass was recited in Latin, a language only known to the very elite. And the priest would often chant much of the Mass with his back to the congregation.

The phrase “This is my body”, translated “Hoc est corpus meam”, would be overheard incorrectly and thus repeated as hocus pocus. It was a 12th century version of “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” The priest stood over the altar, incanting magical spells, and hocus pocus, bread became body, wine became blood.

The Catholic church of today bears little resemblance, if any, with this ancient practice. And our own tradition, the Presbyterian tradition, the Reformed tradition, has its roots in reaction to this practice. For the Protestant reformers, the worship service was led in the vernacular, the language of the people. The minister stood behind the table, a place of a shared meal, not in front of the altar, a place of sacrifice.

Above all, it was most important that the people could hear and understand for themselves what was happening: “This is my body.” No hocus pocus anymore…

No matter; we seem to have given up on the supernatural anyway. We watch magicians on TV and marvel at what they’re able to do, but we’re also pretty sure that there’s some other explanation. The same goes for psychics, hypnotists, faith healers; but what about God?

Our lesson today from Matthew’s gospel seems to inhabit that realm of the supernatural. The time is coming for Jesus and the disciples to leave the relative safety and familiarity of the Galilee behind for the risk and danger of Jerusalem. And so, Jesus heads up the mountain with three of them to pray. When suddenly, hocus pocus, it is as though the mountain peak is lit up with bright light. Jesus is there, yes, but so are Moses, the great leader of the Hebrew Bible whose death remained shrouded in mystery, and Elijah, the prophet second only to Moses, whom tradition taught would return before the coming of the Messiah.

The three disciples are in awe – how did this happen? Did any of you get a look inside his sleeve? “Let’s build three tabernacles here,” says Peter, wanting to preserve the moment forever. A 21st century cynic would say that he wanted to do so in order to have time to examine the trick, find its source.

Then a voice booms from heaven: “This is my beloved.” And at that moment, the disciples’ mood changes from awe and wonder to fear and trembling. They cower, falling to the ground, covering their heads. It’s simply too much to bear. It is then that Jesus goes to them, touches them – very important – and tells them not to be afraid. By then, the fantastical scene has passed, and Jesus is, once again, alone with them.

What in the world is happening in this story? Is this the kind of thing that we should be able to understand as a slight of hand, if only we could figure out where the wires are? Or did this really happen, a true appearance of the long-gone Moses and Elijah, a divine voice thundering from heaven, light appearing that was lighter than light?

There are those that are inclined toward the first explanation, and find in every miracle story of Scripture some kind of plausible theory. “He didn’t turn water into wine; the partygoers were so drunk, they would’ve believed anything!” “Multiplying the loaves? Are you kidding? As the baskets got passed around, everybody felt bad and started sharing what they brought.” “Resurrection? More like reinterpretation. The whole ‘Christianity’ thing wouldn’t have sold well if he was just dead.”

I have to confession: my natural inclination is toward this kind of skepticism. I’m more likely to think of those described as “demon-possessed” as having some kind of mental illness, that Jesus had a better angle than the men in the boat to see where the fish really were, or that our understanding of what is “true” isn’t the same as it was for the people at the time of Jesus.

But then again, there are all of these details that, if you’re going to invent a story for a first century audience, you would leave out. In the book we have been reading on Thursday nights, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey has a whole section on Jesus and stories of women. At a time when women were considered far inferior and even untrustworthy, Jesus and the writers of the gospel makes some interesting choices. He alternates parables between genders – elevating the man who went after the sheep and the woman who found the coin. He has this band of men and women traveling together with him, a scandalous affair. And the first witnesses to the resurrection are women, not men. If you’re going to make up a story, why would you leave these details in? Perhaps faith ought to leave room for the possibility that God might be capable of the unexplainable.

So maybe what we’re reading about in this story of the Transfiguration is just that, a supernatural tear in the fabric between heaven and earth, a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is really like, something so spectacular that it would give the disciples a hope to cling to when the dark days of Jerusalem come.

But I think the key to this story is in the moment the disciples duck their heads in fear. It is then that Jesus touches them, and they see that he is standing alone. Jesus is no mere figment; his flesh touches their flesh. They can feel him. They know he is real.

The stories about Jesus are full of his touch – a touch of healing, a touch of compassion, a touch of righteous anger. It’s why Jesus invites Thomas to touch his hands and feet and side after the resurrection. He didn’t fake his death – it was real. It’s why he eats with the disciples, both before his crucifixion and after his resurrection. He’s not a ghost – he’s alive. The touch of Jesus is the very center of our faith. Jesus, the Christ, is God enfleshed. He is the divine embodiment. That momentary rip in the fabric has become permanent in Jesus. He is our real, living connection to a God who seems so vast and utterly other.

How real is God to you?

Anne Lamott, the writer-skeptic turned Christian convert, describes the moment when she knew that God was real, her own glimpse on the Mount of Transfiguration. She had struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse, and had attended church off and on for a while, never buying into anything they were selling. Then one Sunday morning, after a Saturday night binge, she went to worship. She writes,

I was so hungover that I couldn't stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling--and it washed over me.

And that’s the difference between hocus pocus and what we do at this table. In magic, there is always a trick; if we could just look behind the curtain, we’d know the truth. But in faith, the curtain is gone. There is no deception – God is revealed. God’s character is accessible. Some of us may know it regularly; others of us may have had a mere glimpse, like the disciples up on the mountain, which terrifies us to the core of our being. It is then that Jesus comes to us, putting a hand on our shoulders, letting us know that he is so very real.

Can you embrace that? Or, better yet, can you let down your guard long enough to let it embrace you?