Of Threshing Floors and Thunderheads
I was going to title this "Of Halos and Nimbi" but the latter would throw you off, and the title I used gives a picture of what I'm talking about. "Halo" is Greek for threshing floor.' Think of seeing light beaming through the dust in a hay barn. Nimbus' is Latin for bright cloud.' Think of a thunderhead fully illuminated by the sun (Church Vestments, 146). Look at the bulletin cover. That cross pattern above Jesus was originally only used for Deity, but both could be referred to as halos or nimbi. I say threshing floors and thunderheads.
The function of them in Christian art is the same as the veil on the Communion elements. We don't place a veil over the elements during the service except during the Communion liturgy proper to hide them from sight, but to confess there is more here than meets the eye. To some extent that is how clergy gowns function too. As with the robes of a secular judge, they confess that the man before you is not acting based on his own person or authority. The communion linens and the clergy robes have this in common. When the various linens are placed on the Communion chalice is it referred to as "vesting the chalice" even as a pastor puts on his vestments.
The veil over the Communion elements highlights that something special, something beyond this reality lies beneath it. The Communion veil functions the opposite of the veils you'll see over the crosses on Wednesday. They are meant to hide them. They are a physical sign of what we are doing today: Burying the Alleluias. Neither they nor the crosses go away for good or completely but for a time we mute our Easter joy to focus on what it took for and from Jesus to give us that joy.
So, does a halo or nimbus belong on Moses and Elijah? The saints in heaven are usually depicted that way. In Catholic art, any saint officially declared so by Rome is and Mary is. However, prior to the 5th century the image of Mary in mosaics and frescos is without a nimbus or halo of any kind (Ibid., 148). Confessional Lutheran theology sees glowing rings round all those in Christ. That's because Hebrews 10:10 says "We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all." And several of Paul's epistles address us as "saints by calling."
The function of halos and nimbi is to confess a reality Scripture says is there but we can only see by faith, but don't let them obscure what is really going on. At Christmas, you see a halo on Baby Jesus in the manger, when He's in Mary's arms, and as the Magi crowd around Him. It is true; Jesus even after conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary remains true God begotten from the Father in eternity. But don't see the birth of Jesus like the apocryphal gospels depict it. Mary disappears over a hill, goes into a cave, a blinding flash of light comes out, and there is Jesus born without the trauma, drama, pain or the blood, sweat, and tears of a human birth. No like Harry Chapin sung, Jesus "came to the world in the usual way." Why? Because He comes "for us men and for our salvation." So, He came like we do.
Likewise, it is not denying a Scriptural truth to depict Jesus teaching His disciples, walking the shores of Galilee, or as the Good Shepherd with a halo around His head. Because even when Jesus didn't always use all His Divine Powers as a Man, He still had them. But don't let those nimbi obscure a comforting truth. Don't be like the 1950s movies where whenever Jesus takes a step an angelic chorus breaks forth in a melodic, sacred tune. Nor was it how Karen Carpenter sang about her lover. The birds didn't suddenly appear every time Jesus was near; no, the stars didn't fall from the sky every time Jesus walked by. No, Jesus' halo was so hidden, so veiled in the sense of our crosses during Lent that the Creator could be missed by His creation.
If the nimbus about Jesus grows thunderhead big, you'll miss the fact that we can't ever shout alleluias apart from the Holy Jesus getting ashes and judgment. In the threshing floor of judgment, He is judged guilty of our sins and cast off as chaff. The dust that hangs in the air is the result of what the prophet Isaiah says. The Lord was pleased to crush Him.
How do you get from the Father joyfully, proudly bellowing from heaven, "This is My Son, whom I love, with Him I am well pleased" to Him being pleased to crush Him? Don't you know that's a crazy parent; that's a "The Mommy Dearest" parent, that's the awful parent who swings violently from deep love to yelling, spanking, and judgment? But the holy Father isn't crazy, Joan Crawford, or awful. He's righteous and holy. Having promised that your sins, even that secret one you don't think you'll ever be called to answer for, will be judged, God kept His Word. And on the cross the only nimbus present is the cloud of God's wrath and the only light is the lightening striking the beaten, bloody, forsaken body of Jesus.
Notice, it is not the soldiers who crucified Him, the thieves that stole, the disciples that cowered, or the church leaders that ridiculed Him, that are struck with judgment, that are forsaken by God, that die the death of a damned sinner. It is Jesus, and Jesus only. So, on Wednesday when we come down from this mountain top experience, don't see a halo of light around Jesus' head. See the thresher ready to roll over Him. Don't see a bright cloud of light gathering about His head. See the storm clouds of the judgment you deserve today and in eternity rolling in.
But not yet! Don't dim the lights today. You can go all the way through Mardi Gras, Tuesday, seeing a radiant nimbus or glowing halo about the head of Jesus. Let nimbi, halos, and hallelujahs rule these days. In Confirmation, I illustrate the difference between Jesus humbling Himself by not fulling using His Divine Power as a Man in order to save us and His being exalted to fulling using His Divine Power as a Man in order to prove that flesh and blood have been redeemed. I illustrate the difference by modulating the light coming from the projector. When Jesus was born in manger, a little light breaks through because angels announce His birth. When Jesus heals, walks on water, raises the dead, flashes of bright light break out because Jesus is using His Divine Power as a Man. But on the cross, it gets darker, and when Jesus gives up the Spirit, it's only black.
But that isn't today. When I get to the Transfiguration in Confirmation all the pieces of paper obscuring the light are taken away and blinding light is revealed. This is Transfiguration. These chosen disciples, and you and I, get to see the Man Jesus in His unveiled glory as God. Our text simply says "His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as light." Revelation 1 gives you a better picture. Jesus is "dressed in a robe reaching down to His feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of rushing watersHis face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance."
That's what the disciples saw on the mountain and what John in Revelation 1 says happened to him happened to them: "When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead." Only in Scripture can we see this. Right now, we see God hidden under the Waters of Baptism. Concealed in ordinary sounding human words. His Body is veiled in Bread and His Blood veiled in Wine. It's so easy to treat these as we confess we never should. Treat Baptism as plain water only. Treat Communion as eating and drinking ordinary bread and wine. Treat the Absolution as hearing only what a human says and not the voice of God on earth.
By faith we see these plain things for the treasures they are, but we won't break forth again in unrestrained halleluiahs till Easter. Then we'll shout in the words of the plain sounding Introit "Praise the Lord." But that's just too mundane, too pedestrian, too of this world. What it literally says is "Hallelujah Yahweh!" Yes, Yahweh who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening; Yahweh who met in person with Elijah and Moses on mountaintops the only two people He did Yahweh resurrected from the earth is on earth in Jesus' flesh and blood and He is here to save.
To get us to the Alleluias again Jesus is going to slog through sloughs of sin that stink of fallen human filth, guilt, hatred, greed, unbelief. Jesus is going to go up against legions of devils questioning His very godhead and a devil right in His midst, Judas, His best friend. To bring the alleluias to our lips Jesus is going to cast aside His halo and choke to death on the dust billowing from the threshing floor of judgment. To enable us to shout halleluiah at Easter, the black cloud of judgment is going to strike with lightening again and again till the holy Body of Jesus is black as ashes.
So why are we disciples taken to this mountain to see the Man Jesus bursting the boundaries of any halo or nimbus? To show that no one takes Jesus' life from Him. No one makes Jesus suffer. Jesus willing lays down His life. He willingly embraces the cross so that the nails go in deep. He is the Lamb of God led to slaughter, but no one could have dragged Him there had He not been willing. And Isaiah is right, even though Jesus was led not to shearing but to slaughtering, He didn't open His mouth to stop it. But He sure did when He got to the point of paying the full price for the salvation of sinners. Then He cried, He wailed, He begged asking the question that He alone has a right to ask: Why?
But that is for Lent not for today. Today the Father tells us to listen to Jesus and when the halo fades and the nimbus of God withdraws what's the first thing Jesus says? "You can get up and you can stop being afraid." Those words are true whether Jesus speaks haloed by a nimbus, veiled under water, hidden in human words, or wrapped by Bread and Wine. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Transfiguration of our Lord (20170226); Matthew 17:1-9