February 18, 2012
Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany and always on this Sunday, we hear a version of this story, the Transfiguration. It serves as the final gospel reading in a season when we explore ways in which God is manifest in our world, especially ways in which we experience Jesus Christ. The season begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism, and this year we have heard stories that demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ, his healing of a possessed man, of a leper, and of Simon’s mother. Epiphany is a season when we look for and encounter Jesus Christ in the world around us, sometimes in surprising ways.
Among those ways in which we encounter Christ is in our worship. I don’t know how many of you come to church on Sunday seeking some kind of spiritual high, hoping that through our liturgy, the music and the Eucharist, you will come into God’s presence and your life will be transformed. This Sunday, the last Sunday after the Epiphany, should be a Sunday when you can expect some sort of religious experience. All of our readings point in that direction.
The season of Epiphany begins and ends with theophanies, encounters with the divine. The first Sunday after the Epiphany is always focused on the Baptism of Jesus which includes the wonderful story of the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This season always ends here, with the story of the transfiguration, when Jesus, accompanied by some of his disciples, goes up a mountain, his appearance is transformed in some way, and heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah, appear with him.
Jesus is revealed in all of his glory I’m not going to speculate on what actually happened, I haven’t a clue, I wasn’t there, but it’s pretty clear from the text that they experienced threw the disciples for a loop. They couldn’t fit into their world, it was earth-shattering. We get a clue to how earth-shattering it was in Peter’s response, “Lord, let us make booths…” It’s probably an allusion to the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, Tabernacles, which commemorated the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness but also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah.
Our contemporary minds, full of curiosity, tend to ask the wrong questions about the Transfiguration. What happened, we want to know? Did Moses and Elijah appear in flesh and blood? a How was Jesus’ appearance transformed? These questions, while perfectly legitimate, send us looking in the wrong direction. We need to ask instead, what does it mean?
Biblical stories of extraordinary, supernatural events fascinate and beguile us. The story of Elijah’s passing is one such tale. It fascinates us both for its detail, and for its spectacular end. In fact, we only hear a portion of the progress of Elijah and Elisha. Each town they visit sees the same events. As they arrive, the company of prophets in that place comes out to welcome them. Each time, the company knows what is going to happen and ask whether they’re sure it should. Finally, they come to the Jordan River, and Elijah is taken up by a whirlwind in chariots of fire. This is a story of the passing of prophetic office and authority. But the fact that Elijah vanishes mysteriously into the heavens meant that later Israelites, and then Jews, would continue to speculate on his fate and on what precisely happened.
While few of us, outside of the movie theatre, have ever seen chariots of fire, many of us can bear witness to spectacular, puzzling things that have happened to us. We read about or may know of people who have a vision of Jesus, they hear God speaking to them. Many of us can recall less spectacular, but equally transforming events, times when we were certain of God’s presence in our lives, times when, for whatever reason, we encountered God in profound and deeply moving ways. Such events are little epiphanies, life transforming experiences that reassure us.
But such experiences can be misleading. They can lead us to believe that life should always be that way; we should always be in direct communication with God, fully aware of God’s presence. And we want those moments to stay with us; we yearn for them, we miss them when they’re gone.
In today’s gospel Peter expresses a very human response to extraordinary events. We want such events to change everything. Our world is turned upside down and nothing seems to be the same. Peter wanted that moment of transfiguration, the eerie encounter with the divine, with Moses and Elijah, he wanted that to go on, indefinitely. Of course, the reality is quite different. No matter how wonderful the experience, it always comes to an end. No matter how transformative, a time will come when we can barely remember what we felt, when the lingering effects of that experience are little more than faint memories. There will be a time after we have come down from the mountain, when we are again enmeshed in the cares and concerns of daily life, and that spiritual high sustains our spirit or our lives.
In fact, the most important thing about this story of Transfiguration may not be what happened but when in the Gospel it occurs. It comes almost exactly halfway through the gospel of Mark. It’s a kind of turning point of enormous significance. That significance is highlighted by the fact that Jesus is, for the second time in Mark, identified as the Son of God; the first time came at Jesus’ baptism. The third time will come at the foot of the cross, when the centurion confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, as well.
This week, the mood in our church will change dramatically. On Ash Wednesday, we too, will begin our pilgrimage toward the cross, toward Holy Week. We will remove the festive color of green for the somber, penitential color of purple. On Wednesday, we will have ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our death and our need for repentance and self-reflection. Most of us would probably like to remain with Peter, James, and John, with Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, on the mount of Transfiguration, basking in the divine glory and divine presence.
But our faith is forged not just in the heights of religious ecstasy. It is also lived out in our daily lives, in times of crisis and doubt as well as times of transcendence. We must be attentive to God’s presence in those times as well. There is one element in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration that we might overlook. When the voice from heaven comes, it tells the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But another sentence is added, “Listen to him!”
Listen to him. This command comes to the disciples in the context of a glorious experience. It also comes after another important event in the gospel. Immediately preceding this story, Peter has made his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah. But that’s not how the story ends. Jesus went on to predict his crucifixion, and Peter refuses to believe it. After rebuking him, Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples what it means to follow him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
On Wednesday, we begin the pilgrimage of Lent, through desert and wilderness. We will walk with Jesus and his disciples as he makes his way toward Jerusalem and Calvary. Lent is a time of reflection and penitence. It is also an opportunity for us to focus intentionally on our spiritual lives. Many of us follow traditional patterns of devotional practice and give up something for the season, chocolate, for example. That’s well and good. But it’s appropriate for us to take on spiritual disciplines, to read a spiritual work, or to explore the daily office. The internet makes such things easier than ever. I’ve posted on my blog links to various Lenten resources I’ve come across, daily devotionals or meditations, as well as a link to the daily office. Some of these one can subscribe to, so that each day, a message will arrive in your inbox. I hope some of you find such things of spiritual benefit, or that you will take on some other spiritual practice in this season.
As we prepare for the pilgrim way of Lent, I encourage all of us to listen to those words, to search our hearts and commit ourselves to deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ, to follow him as he leads us on to the cross and Calvary.