If I made a list of ten films guaranteed to make me cry, Billy Elliot would probably be in the top four. This 1990s movie about an English lad who wants and needs to be a dancer is really all about God-given identity and vocation, and innocence and sustained endurance - the good kind that comes like Auden’s idea of poetry from “raw towns” and “busy griefs, is “a way of happening” that has the passion to lift hometown and neighborhood up into a praiseful parade, redeeming them all as it goes along. Billy Elliot’s passion for dancing does that with his family and his community, and the movie always makes me cry. I never saw the musical theatre version when it was around (tickets were way too expensive), but I bought the CD last year. It’s a little bit “Sir Elton John meets Social Realism,” and there’s no great overture, but there is a wonderful song that comes in the scene when Billy sees the local dancing teacher telling her not-terribly talented troupe: “Girls,All you really have to do is shine!” And that’s good advice in light of the scripture for the Eve of the Transfiguration. “All you really have to do is shine!” Moses shines when he talks with God on the Mount Sinai, Jesus shines when he’s talking with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration. But I want to focus on how it is for Peter and Paul, how they reflect the light of Christ, and how it transforms their lives and ministry over time. And I want to talk about the Virgin Mary as well. Three kinds of witness, responses, that shine.
In the Gospel of Luke, Peter sees Jesus shining dazzling white on the mountaintop and, even though he’d like to build a structure, to stay with the glory, he follows Jesus down to Jerusalem. And on the way he begins to learns how very much he needs to know and how much he needs to change.
In following that light, he ends up seeing all the places where he is dark, shadowed, in need of discernment, wisdom, more light. Two quotes: Years ago a gifted and intuitive healer told me, “If you ask God to make you whole, God might show you all the places where you’re broken! And Simeon Stylites, a saint of the Eastern church, said that often the first gift of the holy spirit is tears. Putting those together, you can see where Peter’s path will take him, down the mountain into the messy middle of his life, to do all the work he needs to do to get it right. To quote a poem:
Simon, to be called Rock;
You start out like a sandstorm on a winter day
All your aspirations blown so far from home,
Currenting between firm understanding and vague denial
All before the dusty hope that you might apprehend it all
What you might learn is your own failure;
Humility, contingency and the need to start again.
Only then the presence of faith
combusts all your grainy ways into
Something you never could have known.
But it takes time, numerous failures, with more and more good and public reasons for humility. Poor St Peter! If he had a theme song it would be that great Gerry Lafferty song from the 70s, “And If you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time.” Peter just keeps getting it wrong ‘til he gets it right, and finally he gets it just right.
For Paul, Christ comes as a blinding insight. Different from Peter, much of Paul’s task seems to be focussing on unlearning all those clear cut laws and commandments that kept him on the straight and narrow for so long, seeing their value anew in the graceful light of Christ. In the letters to the Corinthians particularly, Paul sees two things: first, that life in Christ calls for boldness, gracecalls for new freedom and faith in a bright and growing assurance; in the hope that if you call out, in all your insufficiency, in all your need, God will answer. It might take time, it might leave you in the dark for awhile, but by grace you will find you are changing, from following dead laws to living new life, from outer and inner darkness to renewed and inspired insight, from glory to glory, to finally see face to face, to know as we are known, to come home.
But the second thing for Paul is that this homecoming parade bring us together to be members of the body of Christ; leaves us linked by love with people of different viewpoints, traditions and trajectories, histories and hopes: all on their way to wholeness, to healing, to homecoming in Christ as well. So the balance of Paul’s ministry is to respect the differences and find the harmony that we all get home in the end.: blending the clarity of the personal experience of grace with the vivid complexity of the church, the community of we who are called in Christ! It’s the oil and vinegar in the salad of the spiritual life! So those are the ways of Peter and Paul.
As I remember, the 14th century book the “Cloud of Unknowing” has a threefold formula on how you might meet God in prayer. The first would fit Peter: you push upward, beyond what you think you know, beyond who you think you are, into the cloud of unknowing where God waits to surprise you. The second mode is more for the Paulists amongst us: you press down, leaving behind what you’ve done and who you were, pushing down on the cloud of forgetting, letting the history go so God can meet you anew.
Either of those models for a prayerful pilgrimage might work for us sometimes, and there is a third way as well. The author of the “Cloud” says, and I paraphrase mightily here, “If all else fails, just say, “Here I am, as I am, right, now. Please help!”
The Virgin Mary might be a model for that simpler way. Asked to say, “Yes” to the deepest creativity coming into the world, through her, opening her to be and to bear a blessing and a gift to the world. She replies first with a quick question, “How can this be?” Then with an elegant response, “Let it be to me according to your word.” You can phrase it differently, “Yes, I am your servant, helpmate, handmaid, I am here for you! Yes”
But that third way is the prolepsis, really the overture to the Luke’s Good News, making up the major themes, giving you the music, foreshadowing what will come. It’s the new creation’s opening act as the parade of faith picks up momentum with room for everybody in all their varieties of response: faith as process, faith as freedom to let God be God, faith to take part in the great adventure, and faith to let God take part in you!
Three Saints, holy people of God, and together their styles of response over time turn out to be a kind of three part harmony. Yet there is a greater music to listen for, over and under and within every note. Sometimes we can hear it clearly. First, the great cadences of the creator: “light and dark, wet and dry, mineral, vegetable, animal, humankind.Yes, it is very good!” Then a wholly human voice in the very middle (the most real one, the one that defines everyone) full of clarity and charity: “Yes! light of the world, daily bread, forgive us as we forgive, you are my friends, this is my body given” and in the midst of the music a breathing, silence and containing all silence and sound, all connection, all media of meeting. The breath of our breath, the relation of love. Yes.
But we’re not there yet, for there is more room, room just for us. For there is a place, a need, a calling for you, for me, for everyone of us to step up and tell out with all our heart and mind and soul the story of our life with God, with all the particularities and poetry, with all the pain and passion, need, nature and nurture we can muster, to stretch out like Peter Paul and Mary, and sing along with everybody else, with all the graceful music of the full symphony of the Trinity and all the choirs of heavens; to stand up, dance if you like, and sing out your life as best you can. And even if we don’t sing that well, even if we’re clumsy dancers, by the grace of God, it really doesn’t matter much, all we really have to do is shine!