Feast of the Transfiguration: February 11, 2018
This Sunday marks the end of the season of Epiphany, which is all about coming to understand who Jesus is:
– a king, God’s beloved Son, a preacher of God’s kingdom, a healer.
And today is the grand finale – the Transfiguration, where Jesus’s glory is glimpsed by his three closest disciples, and again the words are spoken by God, “This is my beloved Son.”
The story of the Transfiguration in Mark’s gospel is paired with the story from the Old Testament of the great prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven, while his puzzled disciple Elisha watches. In both cases the message is, “Wow! This is someone amazing!”
And with Jesus, Elijah appears and is chatting with him, along with Moses. Incredible! Jesus is not only shining like the sun in this vision, but is also on chatty terms with the greatest leaders of Israel. No wonder the disciples were completely blown away.
There are three details of the Transfiguration story that I want to linger over, for us to think about. The first is the dazzling light that seemed to emanate from him. What does it mean?
When Moses went up a mountain to talk to God and get the commandments that the Israelites were to live by, he came down after that close encounter and his face was shining so brightly it bothered people and he had to veil it until it faded.
Have you ever seen someone who has a glow about them? A glow of joy? A light of love?
A kind of radiance that shines out? I’ve seen it sometimes when I perform a wedding, and the love that has brought the couple together seems to shine out of them. Thomas Merton, the monk and mystic, had an experience once when he was in downtown St Louis, Missouri, and suddenly he saw all the people, who were just going about their business on the streets, “shining like the sun.”
For most of us, it’s a momentary thing – to glimpse the glory and radiance of another human being. But maybe that’s when we’re seeing each other most truly: as these mysterious, incredible humans, filled with the glory of God. We’re made in the image of God! (Like solid silver coins, before they get tarnished and the face of the king no longer shines out.)
Jesus shining dazzling white wasn’t doing a theatrical trick with a hidden spotlight. He was being shown, on that one occasion, to be the brilliant image of God, the glory of God in human form. And we’re meant to walk and grow in that light.
But look what the disciples do (or Peter, at any rate): Peter says, “Let’s build shrines to put Jesus, Moses and Elijah in! Let’s keep them here, just like this, forever. Let’s freeze-frame this moment.” It’s such a temptation – to try to grab onto a holy moment and fix it in perpetuity.
Have you ever been on a trip and come to a stunning view, and tried to capture it with your camera? And been so focused on getting just the right light and angle and contrast that you stop seeing the beauty itself? David used to do that on holidays – always seeing the view through a camera lens, and stressing out about getting the perfect shot of it, until he realized he could enjoy it so much more if he just relaxed and looked at it with his eyes, and let it settle into his memory.
It’s a lesson about being in the present moment. You don’t have to try to grab onto your holy moments, because God is always wanting to show up and amaze you. You just have to pay attention and notice and have open eyes. (Sometimes you might have to slog up a mountain, though…)
When Peter blurts that out, a cloud comes down and they can’t see anything. They’re terrified.
But that’s when they hear God say, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Isn’t it interesting that it isn’t when they’re seeing the light and glory of Jesus that they hear those words, but when they’re in the darkness and blindness of the cloud? And they hear what they need to: “Listen to him.” Sometimes we come closest to God and God’s words to us when we’re in difficulties, not when things are going fantastically well.
For Jesus, this experience happened just after he’d begun to talk about his own death that he knew was coming. It must have been a hard time for him. He knew that powerful people were against him and his message. He knew he would be killed in Jerusalem. He’d begun to try to prepare his disciples. And this was when he received that absolute affirmation from God: “You’re my beloved Son.”
Someone once said, and I believe it’s true, that we learn most about ourselves and God through deep love and through deep suffering. Love and suffering get down to the core of us. They break our hearts open, so God can get in.
Love can make us glow with joy: suffering can bring us into terrible darkness. But God is there in both, and Jesus has been through everything before us, and goes through everything with us.
On Wednesday as a faith community we gather again to be marked with ashes as a sign of our mortality, and we start the six week journey through Lent to Holy Week. As a community we go down a dark path, ending with Jesus’ death. We contemplate suffering and sin and evil. And then we pass through it and come out into Easter, and new life. It’s our annual pilgrimage, and I hope you can be part of it. It’s the human journey, as well as Jesus’ journey.
Today is the hinge point: there’s light and a cloud; there’s foreboding and affirmation. But God is in it all, and Jesus leads us through our own darkness into his glorious light. Amen.