Transfigurations Great and Small – February 11, 2018
In the name of our dazzling, amazing, all-loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, as we stand on the brink of Lent, the lectionary gives us the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. I think that the reason we get it at this point is to strengthen us through our Lenten journey, and to remind us that the end of this journey is Resurrection. In fact, there are some scholars who link this event directly to the Resurrection.
The readings from Second Kings and the Gospel of Mark are dazzling, two of the most beautiful stories in scripture: Elijah’s ascent to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration. These are mystical stories where heaven and earth meet in an extraordinary human being. At the same time, these stories are profoundly human, speaking of love, loss and transformation.
The Transfiguration describes a theophany, a revelation of God’s divine glory and always near- to-us presence. Mark tells the story with simply. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, the disciples Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah. The disciples are terrified, and so shaken up that Peter suggests, “Hey, let’s pitch some tents and stay for a while so we can process what just happened here.”
In the climax of the scene, Jesus is called by God, who confirms his identity as God’s Son. “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” This experience is a turning point for Jesus as well as his disciples. And the call is for us, too, to “listen to him.”
While the text doesn’t give us the background, the Transfiguration event took place shortly after Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to suffer and die, noted in the previous chapter. Of course, the disciples didn’t want to hear it. Peter protested so vehemently that Jesus scolds him and calls him Satan. We probably would react similarly if we heard someone we love tell us that his/her death was on the horizon.
“Listen to him,” says the voice affirming Jesus. Listen and understand that rejection, transformation, suffering, death are integral to Jesus’ life’s work. And part of ours as disciples. This is the way of the cross. Not easy words to hear. Like the Collect says, that we may be strengthened to bear our cross. The Gospels are clear that there is only one way to be changed and transformed. And that is to die. To take up our cross and follow Jesus. To die daily to self and then to allow Jesus to raise us to new life in him. The life which we and Jesus chose at our baptisms is a life where day by day we must choose to love and not to hate, to be friends and not enemies, to forgive and not to hold grudges, to heal and help and hold and not to injure, wound and scar. It is the choice to live such a life that eventually cost Jesus his own. I think this is valuable to remember at the eve of our Lenten journey.
Jesus chose the cross. He chose to go to Jerusalem and he accepted the suffering that he received. He could have refused. Likewise, we too are called to choose our cross, to choose to follow Jesus in ways that are not popular, to identify with and serve the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, to speak truth to power.
Bible scholar Rodney Hunter reminds us that it is important, when speaking of the way of the cross, to be clear about what it does not mean. It does not mean that we should seek or regard suffering as a spiritual good in itself or as inherently saving and redemptive—as centuries of misguided Christian theology and piety have often maintained. Jesus did not die because his suffering as such could purge the world of sin and evil. He died because the powers of evil sought to destroy his witness to nonviolent love, justice, and truth. His passion revealed the transforming power of divine love, a powerful, assertive love that does not dominate and defeat evil so much as challenge, expose, and seek to transform it. Such love alone ultimately carries the day; it alone is truly redemptive and saving.
Christians are therefore not called to exhibit a passive love that simply tries to be good and avoid evil. Nor is the way of the cross a private bearing of personal woes for the sake of Jesus. It is rather a vigorous, active pursuit of social and personal justice through a love that refuses to play the world’s power game of domination, exploitation, greed, and deception. The transfiguration story is a call to affirm the ultimate truth of God’s way of salvation, and to begin living it with all our heart, soul, and strength in the confidence that Jesus’ nonviolent way is truly the way of salvation, healing, and eternal life.
The word “transfiguration” comes from a Greek word from which we also get the word “metamorphosis,” both having to do with being changed or transformed. When I hear “metamorphosis,” I think of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. That kind of transfiguration involves the same being, permanently changed in body and appearance. Mark’s transfiguration scene is different. It is temporary, giving a momentary glimpse into a deep reality, a deep truth—a deep truth about who Jesus really is.
Have you ever witnessed a transfiguration, an experience of God so filled with holiness and beauty and awe that you didn’t want it to end? So powerful and precious that you knew it was God acting, and not your imagination? Was it in a church, out in nature in a breathtaking sunset, in a conversation with another human being or in holding a new baby?
I recently heard such a transfiguration story, a story of love and loss and transformation. A couple, high school sweethearts, married 60 years, was struggling with life’s challenges. The wife had serious physical ailments, while the husband was grappling with memory loss and cognitive issues. Between their illnesses, it became apparent that the husband could no longer be cared for at home, so he was moved to a care facility. His condition worsened to the point where he seemed to no longer know family. His family would visit him regularly and he seemed not to recognize them. It was heartbreaking.
Then shortly after Christmas when his wife and children had gone to the facility to visit him, they were walking toward him in the corridor when suddenly there was the light of recognition in his eyes. He opened his arms in embrace and as his wife walked toward him, he hugged her, told her that he was sorry for his illness, and that he loved her.
In that moment he was transfigured, and so were his wife and children. In that moment, the sadness of his illness was overcome by the beauty of his transfiguration back to the person he had been.
In that moment, earth and heaven came together in that hospital corridor. In that moment God’s love and goodness filled the space.
I wholeheartedly believe God wants to give us such experiences, wants to reveal God’s self to us. I also am certain it doesn’t require a holy mountain or a desert island experience. I believe God wants to show God’s self to us in the ordinary of life, in the day to day we all undergo. I think what God asks of us is an openness and willingness to trust that God will show up and reveal God’s self.
As Jesus’ disciples we are called to follow his example of meeting the needs of those whom society has ignored. To do justice, to advocate for the voiceless, to feed the hungry and champion the sick and isolated. To love and not to hate, to be friends not enemies, to forgive and not hold grudges. This is the cross we’re invited to take up, as Jesus did. This is the road that Peter James and John, and all disciples in every generation are invited to follow. And to walk this road, we need the transforming beautiful experiences such as they had with Jesus. Perhaps God is asking us to pay attention and they will find us.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, Kindle locations 16262-16310.