May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. Amen.
Along with the Baptism Sunday, today is also Transfiguration Sunday, the summit If you will, of the liturgical season we call epiphany. For weeks we’ve caught glimpses of the holy in Jesus as he walks this earthly plane, a dove descending from the heavens, water becoming fine wine, a fishing net nearly bursting from a miraculous catch. But today we see Jesus in his unveiled glory. We see the view from the mountain top and try to grasp the meaning of a luminous story of a mystical encounter. I must confess I’ve always had a hard time grasping what transfigured means, and then translating the theology of Jesus’s transfiguration without getting overcome by churchy, academic language.
Perhaps we’re to surrender to the mysticism of it and allow our minds to cross over the threshold to what the poet and priest, Malcolm Guite, describes as, “that one moment in and out of time on that one mountain where all moments meet the daily veil, that covers the sublime and darkening glass fell dazzled at his feet. There were no angels full of eyes and wings, just living glory, full of truth and grace. The love that dances at the heart of things shone out upon us from a human face. A sudden blaze of long extinguished hope, trembled and tingled through the tender skin. Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar, eclipse that glimpse of how things really are”. It’s beautiful.
Simply, the transfiguration is the divine touch of God witnessed in an earthly visible form. Radiant with divinity, Jesus is revealed as God’s revealer, as incandescent and as mystery. This mystery is alluring. It draws us in just as it eludes our full comprehension. To wit, Peter, James and John who witnessed this extraordinary event, but still can’t fully comprehend it. I don’t know, perhaps their groggy brains couldn’t process it fast enough. You know, if we were on that mountaintop, we’d all pull out our phones and start taking pictures and videos, some falling all over themselves to get a selfie with the law and the prophets. Me, I’d missed the whole darn thing because I couldn’t type in my password fast enough to unlock my phone.
So now come with me to the mountain top, just for a moment. I want you to get lost in your imagination and conjure what was shared between Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells us that they too appeared in splendor and were conferring about Jesus’ imminent death, as he turned his face toward Jerusalem. We have no idea how long this holy trinity carried on about such earth-shattering events, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But in no way was it fleeting. I have a hard time imagining how these elders could possibly have comforted Jesus when they died in one piece during their twilight years. Moses was 120 years old when he finally reached the promised land. God allowed him to see Canaan from a vista, but forbade him to cross into it. The 34th chapter, fifth verse, of Deuteronomy reads, “then Moses, servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab at the Lord’s command”. Curiously, the Bible notes that God buried him in an undisclosed location. Elijah, on the other hand, Elijah’s death was spectacular. Chariots of fire, led by horses of fire, descended and swept him up into heaven in a whirlwind. Certainly, they could share their perspectives on living and dying for God, but to prepare Jesus for the horrific cruelty that awaited him would be almost impossible. But who knows? My mind is finite.
Do they give him a pep talk and assure him that it would all be worth it? Did they remind him that he was begotten for such a time as this, that he is the universe’s fulfillment of their lives and work? That he is love in the flesh and what will befall him is a testament to the father’s love for humanity? That they will be there at the foot of the cross to carry him, across the threshold. I think it was all of that. And perhaps also, “buddy, we’re here for ya. You can do it”.
As all of this was going on, Peter understands enough to want to memorialize the theophany with tents, just as the Hebrews did on Mount Sinai when Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. But just then a cloud engulfs them, a cloud that is more than weather. It is alive, pulsating and smells like lightning. We have no idea how long the disciples tremble in the presence of the Almighty. God’s time is not our time. Barbara Brown Taylor describes this as, “the cloud of the unknowing, where faith has more to do with staying fully present to what is happening right in front of us, than being certain of what it all means”.
My friends, I believe that we are in a moment such as this. The world is reeling from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This madness provokes, fear, anger, and bewilderment. What are we to do but tremble in this cloud of unknowing. It is heartbreaking and numbing to imagine the suffering, loss of life, and the depth of trauma such war will perpetuate in the days or even years. In a few moments, we will renew our baptismal promises along with the parents and godparents speaking on behalf of their children. At the core of these vows lie promises to strive for justice, reconciliation and peace. We are called in very real ways to engage these promises. As the body of Christ, we are called to renounce this evil, because our very existence, was forged through a resurrection, which overcame the brute powers of this world. Our faith is calling us to abide in this cloud of unknowing. Amid the midst of chaos, we all arm ourselves with the weapon of love and encourage others to do the same. We climb those mountaintops together to pray and then pray some more, pray until we are weighed down with sleep. When we pray in solidarity for love at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn. We must pray until the Prince of Peace dissipates the cloud and brings light to the whole world.
John O’Donahue, the Irish mystic, theologian and philosopher, was poetic about the possibility of creating our own inner landscapes of beauty to keep us sane and our souls intact in the midst of bleak and dangerous times. O’Donahue believed that God is beauty. God is beauty. He wrote that beauty can be kind of an antidote even to our most pressing global crises. He gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life. Thresholds was the word he loved. A threshold is not simply a boundary. It is a frontier that divides two different territories of spirit, rhythms, and atmospheres. He said to understand, we must go back to the etymology of the word that comes from “threshing, which is to separate the grain from the husk. So a threshold, in a way, is a place where one moves into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness. Released or stripped from one’s own armor to abide in the trust of the Holy Spirit.
O’Donahue wrote, “This becomes essential. When a threshold opens suddenly in front of you, one for which you had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds or a dreaded phone call for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced. You look back at the life you have lived up to a few hours before, and it suddenly seems so far away. Think for a moment how across the world someone’s life has just changed irrevocably, permanently and not as necessarily for the better. And everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding”.
I think that merely being in the company of Jesus, the disciples were forced to cross new thresholds every day. And the transfiguration must have just blown their minds. Jesus, his face and clothing aglow, conversing with dead men come back to life. And God’s own glory lighting up the night, a voice booming from a cloud commanding that they listen to Jesus, his chosen. Wow.
As we sit in the safety of the sanctuary and you listen from the sanctuaries of your own home, may our hopes and dreams for the people around the world who were shrouded in war, poverty and oppression. May they be blessed and carried as they cross over. And may the beauty of God, transfigure what has hardened or become wounded. And please know that whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust. We can trust in this whether on the brightest mountain or in the darkest valley, Jesus is there. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and steady as he guides us across the threshold. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears and the ground trembles below our feet, Jesus welcomes us, and those we embrace in prayer, with open arms. We merely need to trust. Amen.