The Feast of the Transfiguration
7 August 2016
O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.
2 Peter 1:13-21
Between the way the lectionary falls and our parish custom in the season after Pentecost of transferring major feasts that land on a Saturday to the Sunday, we are celebrating the Transfiguration of Our Lord today in the shadow of last week’s lessons. You will recall that last week we wrestled with the question of why we even bother with our work here on earth, why we bother to do the things we do with our lives, when it may seem hard or futile. In that rather grim passage from Ecclesiastes, our narrator, the “Preacher,” took rather a dim view of the whole enterprise: “it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.” He went on to conclude, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” I argued that our lives are not futile, our work does not have to be vanity, our lives and our actions no matter how great or small, have the power to be a part of God’s redeeming work of reconciliation and are themselves incarnations of God’s Love into the here and now.
Even though it may not seem so at first, today’s story of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter and James and John (and then coming back down) provides us with more evidence for the need to engage in the work we have been given to do, right here, in the city, in the midst of life. So how does that work? The Transfiguration is, along with Moses receiving the law on Sinai, the archetypical “mountaintop experience.” It is an event that takes place apart from the world. It is an experience of the transcendent, of the very presence of God far removed from daily life and the concerns of our occupations and relationships. Doesn’t it suggest to us that our most profound encounters with God are found away from the seemingly vain toil we have been given to do? Mightn't we be better off seeking these kind of experiences rather than getting our hands dirty in the midst of life? I want to suggest—and I know I have suggested it before—that the lesson is quite the opposite.
For a reason we aren’t told, Jesus and his friend go up onto the mountain to pray. They must have been up there a while because Peter, John, and James fell asleep while Jesus was praying, something the disciples seem to do on a regular basis. Clearly the men who had gone up the mountain with Jesus really didn’t expect anything spectacular to happen once they got up there. Although they went along with their leader, they really didn't understand everything Jesus had been saying and doing. They didn’t get just what a big deal this all was.
Just a week earlier, Jesus had made what must have seemed to the disciples to be the outrageous claim that he was going to die and on the third day be raised from the dead. He had talked about discipleship and about taking up the cross and following him, that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Before that they had seen some extraordinary things like the feeding of the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes. Yet even then, they continued not to understand. When Peter and James and John went up the mountain top to pray with Jesus, they were exhausted and, assuming they wouldn’t miss anything, they had fallen asleep.
But something extraordinary was happening, for while Jesus was praying, Moses and Elijah—both figures with their own transcendent experiences of the divine presence—appear and the three of them have a whole conversation about Jesus’ “departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem,” the very topic Jesus had been discussing with the disciples. At some point, however, the disciples woke up and “saw [Jesus’] glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’” Peter saw this amazing event, saw that “the appearance of [Jesus’] countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” He knew something different was happening before his eyes. He knew somehow what he had not understood just through Jesus words, or even through the other amazing signs Jesus had performed, and he wanted to hold onto the moment.
Peter suggests that they build those three booths to make it easier to extend this transcendent experience. He wants to hold on to this extraordinary sight because in that moment, he and the others knew who Jesus was and what he was to do. In that moment, they could fully comprehend (if not put into words) the magnitude of Jesus mission and ministry. If they could only stay on the mountaintop they would have clarity and, if it isn’t going too far, proof that all they have been doing was somehow worthwhile.
That’s what we go up the mountain for, isn’t it? We go up to seek a transcendent connexion with the divine, knowledge and experience of the sacred. And in those mountaintop moments we can feel comforted and held, secure and confident in our faith. But here is that hard reality about mountaintop experiences. We can go up to the mountain or into the woods or off to the deserted island and gain some insight or knowledge of that which lays beyond the here and now, of what is really important. But once we are there, once we have gained that knowledge, what do we do with it? Is it enough to bask in the transcendent glow of Jesus’ shining raiment? I don't think that it is.
As soon as Peter makes the suggestion to build those booths, something changes. “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” As soon as Peter wanted to hold on to the moment his grasp on it loosens and God comes in and reminds them just who Jesus is with the same words they heard at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus is God’s “Son, his Chosen,” which to their ears, familiar with this kind of language from reading the prophets, would have signalled both Jesus’ holiness and his fate as the suffering servant. God in that moment showed Peter both a vision of the Resurrection and new life that is to come and a reminder that their work is not finished and that there is still a journey to travel in the world before they can get to that place again.
They must go down the mountain, back into the world, back to the work they have before them, onward to the passion and the cross and on to that moment when they will see Jesus transfigured again, full of resurrection life in the Easter that lays before them. They can not stay on the mountain basking in that glow. They must go down and get on with their work, which is just what they do. They go on with the work of preaching, and teaching, and healing that will lead them to the encounter in Jerusalem with the cross and empty tomb.
Mountain top experiences show us something worth living for. Mountaintop experiences give us a glimpse of the reality that lies at the heart of everything: that God is, through Love, reconciling the world back to God’s very self. We are strengthened for the journey when we go up the mountain, but we know we can not stay there. These experiences push us back down the mountain, send us out into the world strengthened for the road ahead. Today we celebrate a mountain top experience. We can glory in the beauty of the risen Christ whom we see before us today so that when we walk out the doors of this church, we can return to the world and continue the works of Love to which we have been called.
Andrew C. Blume✠
The Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume