Transfiguration Sunday (Last after Epiphany)
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
(Matthew 17:1-9, Year A)
Here we are, finally, at the last Sunday after Epiphany, the season that began with the story of the Magi paying a social call to Jesus, Mary, & Joseph in an out of the way obscure village, and now ends with a moment of mountaintop revelation. And in between those two events have been other moments of profound insight that have added layers of colour and texture to the word portrait gradually being painted in this season about Jesus and who he is….leading us to the conclusion that Jesus isn’t just some average fellow on the street, but rather someone with friends in high places, as the saying goes. And today, we’re invited along on the trip up the mountain where some of the finishing touches are being applied to the portrait we’ve been adding to bit by bit.
If we pay any attention to it at all, life provides innumerable mountaintop experiences – experiences that change us, or at least change the way we look at things. Off the top of my head, beyond the obvious highlights of marriage and childbirth, I can think of several that have impacted me (and many of us) in my lifetime – Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon is the primary one that comes to mind, an event which changed forever the way we thought about the confines of earth and made us look to possibilities light years above and beyond ourselves; but closer to the present day, as Canadians specifically we’ve basked in the Olympic glory of our men’s and women’s hockey teams; perhaps felt a bit of nationalistic pride when last year a vaccine was developed in a Winnipeg lab to combat the Ebola virus and stem a major source of human suffering; and we’ve perhaps felt something similar at witnessing Canada’s political representatives assert humanitarian values in a world that seems to be increasingly distrustful of the stranger among us. These events and trends have all brought something to us in different ways – they’ve shone a light of hope, or excitement, or glory, or achievement on the human family – they lifted us above the unremarkable routines of our lives and changed us somehow – and mostly, I think, for the better – and even though these experiences aren’t what we would call spiritual per se, nonetheless they stick to our ribs and become a part of our identity as human beings, as Canadians, and as citizens of the world.
We like to hang onto our mountaintop experiences…. stretch them out, make them last. We like that feeling of being up in the clouds, high above the rest, basking in the light of simply being on top for a while. And wonderful though the view from the mountaintop may be, the real nuts and bolts of it, as we all know, is not in the fleeting experience on the mountain itself, but rather in how we were changed by it. Ultimately we have to come down off the mountain and into the flow of real life again. Neil Armstrong came back to earth and re-entered normal life; the members of the Olympic hockey teams all went back to their own respective teams for the rest of the regular season; the lab in Winnipeg is, I’m sure, trying to solve other medical conundrums; and the work of government rolls (often capriciously) along. The glow may still be there, but life does have a way of resuming its normal flow.
Transfiguration is a similar kind of story. And to understand it, we have to take a look at Peter. There he is, up on the mountain with Jesus and James and John. Lo and behold, exciting things start to happen…. a vision unfolds, a moment of great illumination. Peter is nobody’s fool – he knows who those important people are with Jesus – Elijah the prophet who exposed Israel’s sell-out to false gods some 800 years previously; and Moses who led his people out of oppression in Egypt, long before that – both of them legendary prophets of incomparable stature – and Peter knows instinctively that this is a once-in-a lifetime experience he’s in the middle of – a proverbial Kodak moment. What’s his first thought? To freeze-frame it – he wants to make it permanent – so he offers to construct three dwellings for the three luminaries in front of him – offering an inducement for them to stick around for a while. Understandably, he wants to hang onto the moment, stretch it out, do what he can to sustain it and make it last. At the very moment of his deepest revelation and clearest call, in other words, Peter decides that the spiritual life has something to do with holding onto things, keeping things the same, putting the important aspects into permanent little boxes, and living safely in a nice secure religious cloud.
But you will notice that God will have none of that – the suggestion isn’t even out of Peter’s mouth before he’s cut off by the heavenly voice – “listen to Jesus” it says, and then things change in a hurry. Suddenly, everyone is flat on their faces, overcome by fear, and responsive only to Jesus’ touch and comforting words. And before they know it, back down the mountain and into the flow of everyday life they go. The vision was for their benefit, but it wasn’t to be held onto as an end in itself. It was simply an affirmative event that would make sense in the fullness of time. And in the meantime, their place and focus was back in the real world, listening to the prophetic words of Jesus, wading into the endless throngs of hurting people, exposing the ills of society and healing whoever they touched.
And I think that this is still the message for us today. We are called to prophetic Christianity – called to ascend our own unique mountain of illumination to find our own faith, certainly – but equally, to gather all the insights into the life of Christ that we’re able to collect, and then to take them into the world with a commitment to work for justice, freedom, and peace. It’s one thing to be devout – relatively easy, in fact, to enclose ourselves in a few pious practices; but it’s another thing entirely to follow Jesus the prophet and revolutionary. To follow him is to be aware of the root causes of suffering in this world, and to have the courage to try to work a few miracles of our own. It is, in the wisdom of the world, the road less travelled – but we’re called to follow it, with the touch of Jesus on our shoulder, and his words of comfort and encouragement echoing in our ear, “Do not be afraid.” For fearlessness, vision and grace we pray as together we say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams