The Last Sunday after the Epiphany | By the Rev. Dr. Rob MacSwain
Exodus 24:12-18 | 2 Peter 1:16-21 | Matthew 17:1-9 | Psalm 99
Yesterday the world woke up to some terrible news. Jean Vanier, the beloved French-Canadian founder of the L’Arche communities for the cognitively and physically disabled; who died last year at the age of 90; someone who was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and who was regularly described as a “living saint,” and perhaps even a candidate for official canonization; someone whose work and person has been an inspiration to many thousands of people around the whole world, including prominent philosophers, theologians, and activists; and someone who has indeed greatly improved the lives of vast numbers of the disabled—even Jean Vanier had a dark side. According to a report commissioned by L’Arche, Vanier—who was Roman Catholic but not a priest, and single rather than married—apparently had emotionally, spiritually, and sexually manipulative relationships with at least six women between 1970 and 2005, women who came to him for personal and spiritual guidance. Although the report specifies that the women were not minors, were not themselves among the disabled residents of L’Arche, and that no crimes may have been committed, it nevertheless rightly identifies Vanier’s behavior as abusive given his position of unique authority within the community, as well as the pastoral context of the relationships. Moreover, his behavior was of course incompatible with Christian morality, his own stated teachings, and the whole ethos of L’Arche—which after all means “the Ark” in French and so should therefore always be a place of safety and refuge for everyone.
This news sent shockwaves through the Roman Catholic Church, the broader Christian community, and those influenced by Vanier in academia and circles that provide care for the disabled. I don’t normally look at Twitter, but because the popular Jesuit James Martin posted the story I ended up reading various posts and comments about it. Martin said: “I am very sad to have to share this news. A devastating and lifelong tragedy for those who were abused. A time of heartbreak for L’Arche. A grave disappointment for all who admired him, and considered him a saint, as I once did.” And what I then read was a huge outpouring of incredulity, shock, horror, revulsion, despair, anger, and grief. Speaking personally, this news has affected my own research project into sainthood, as a recent book that I draw upon, Exemplarist Moral Theory by Linda Zagzebski, uses Vanier as her exemplar of saintly compassion; and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who will feature prominently in one of the chapters, depends heavily on Vanier as well. Not only that, I even had to hastily add a new footnote to a paper dealing in part with Vanier that I gave in September, because it will be published later this year. But by comparison with the suffering of the victims, these are trivial matters.
I begin with the fall from grace of Jean Vanier not just because it was only revealed yesterday, but because today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, commonly known as Transfiguration Sunday. On this day, the final Sunday before Ash Wednesday and Lent, we always read the account of Jesus taking Peter and James and John up the mountain where he is then transfigured by a radiant light, the bright cloud descends, and the Voice from Heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the three disciples briefly see Jesus in his heavenly glory rather than his earthly humility, and the experience is literally blinding for them. They could not look at him, because his face shone like the sun and his clothes were dazzling white.
In thinking about the Transfiguration, we tend to focus on the effect of that glorious torrent of light on Jesus himself, and the admonition of the heavenly voice—but God’s transfiguring light will ultimately shine on all of us as well. The question is, what will it reveal? In Matthew, the light reveals who Jesus really is, but in the Gospel of John, Jesus is himself the light of the world: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” So what happens when the light of Christ shines on us, and specifically on our darkness?
Well, it must be said that the effects of light are both positive and negative. Light from the sun is, of course, absolutely essential for all life on this planet: it is our primary source of warmth, the cause of photosynthesis, and necessary for sight. But sunlight can also cause skin cancer, burn, bleach, and dry out. There’s also what librarians and conservationists call “light damage.” According to a conservationist website:
Light is a common cause of damage to library and archival collections… Light damage manifests itself in many ways. Light can cause paper to bleach, yellow, or darken, and it can weaken and embrittle the cellulose fibers that make up paper. It can cause media and dyes used in documents, photographs, and art works to fade or change color. Most of us recognize fading as a form of light damage, but this is only a superficial indication of deterioration that extends to the physical and chemical structure of collections… While most people know that ultraviolet light is destructive, it is important to remember that all light causes damage. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible.
All light causes damage. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible. In a less literal way, light can also destroy simply through illumination. Light reveals the truth about things, shows them as they really are. This is destruction not of their very being, but of their self-deceptions and shadowy illusions. In C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, a group of ghosts take a bus ride from hell to heaven. Hell is dark and dreary, but as they get closer to heaven the light gets stronger and stronger, brighter and brighter. The ghosts hate it, and vainly try to stifle the light by covering the windows of the bus. Looking around, the narrator is appalled at what the light reveals:
It was cruel light. I shrank from the forms and faces by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger… And still the light grew.
So light, we might say, has a dark side when it comes to darkness and evil, to shadows and illusions, to self-deceptions and all attempts to avoid the truth. To all these things, light causes a damage that is cumulative and irreversible. But here’s my point: this dark side of light is necessary as well, because we all want to avoid the truth, at least in part. Rather than avoiding or resisting the light, the Christian faith is a sustained attempt to expose ourselves to the light, so that all that is evil and dark in us may be burned away. As John says, “those who do what is true come to the light”. The Christian life is like living in high-definition television, with all the flood lights turned on, the shutters open and the blinds raised.
How do Christians come to the light? Initially in Baptism, but regularly by coming to the Eucharist, where we listen to Scripture, confess our sins, and receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. This is why many Eucharists begin with the Collect for Purity, which says:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
In addition to Baptism and Eucharist, Christians also come to the light by attending a Bible study, or confessing their sins to a priest, or belonging to a 12-step group of some kind, or having an accountability circle or partner, or a spiritual director, or a therapist, or all of these things. And of course, in the coming season of Lent we make a special effort to come to the light by intensifying our practices of prayer and fasting and worship and other spiritual disciplines. We enter into all of these practices knowing the truth of the Collect for Purity—to God all hearts are open, all desires known, and no secrets are hid—and yet also knowing that God loves us anyway, even despite such deep and intimate knowledge. But God loves us too much to leave us the way we are, and so we come to God not just to be loved and accepted, but to be transformed, to have our darkness burned away, to be transfigured by divine light into the likeness of Christ, who is himself the very image of God.
When James Martin said on Twitter yesterday that he once considered Jean Vanier a saint, someone responded: “No one is a saint. We’re all just humans, like everyone who ever lived.” But I disagree: there are saints. The tragedy of Jean Vanier is not that he was an evil or even just an “ordinary” man: he was a good and, yes, a saintly man—who inexplicably still did evil things. As Stanley Hauerwas wrote in response to this news, Vanier “was supposed to be different and in many ways he was. But that difference makes his behavior all the more devastating. He should have known better.” That’s the paradox we face, and we can’t deny or explain away either one, neither his saintliness nor his evil acts. And the same is true for all of us, in whom coexist both holiness and sin.
So on this Transfiguration Sunday, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and on the brink of Lent, let us pray for all victims of emotional and sexual abuse, let us repent for systems of denial and enabling, let us grieve the loss of a moral exemplar, and yet let us also give thanks for the healing power of light to dispel darkness and lies and to reveal the truth. Let us recommit ourselves to come to the light so that our own darkness may be destroyed. And finally let us heed the Heavenly Voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Amen.