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And Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
From the outset, the story grips us, and we know something significant is going on. If we’re paying attention, our hearts immediately make the link with another pivotal sacred story from our tradition that we hear in today’s Hebrew text.
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”
Mountains–along with other locations in the Biblical texts–are liminal places, locations where people experience transformative encounters with God. Places where thresholds are crossed, lives are changed, vocations are given, and new directions are taken.
I don’t think we talk enough about our encounters with God, those moments in our lives when we see and experience on a deeper, heart-centered level. Those moments when we are changed by the awareness that (it is important to say this) God is real and God’s realness has an impact on the way we live in the world. Perhaps the church, as an institution, has been much more focused on political and social prestige and influence than with its deeper vocation of heart-transformation through such moments of spiritual encounter. And we wonder why we face challenges with people not being drawn to share this space–what of our own experience would others experience? It’s worth pondering.
That is why this account of the Transfiguration is so absolutely essential for us to consider. In fact, we observe it twice in a given year, which should make us take note of its significance. This account is always explored on this Sunday: the Sunday immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. The actual Feast of the Transfiguration is on August 6, so close to my birthday that I’ve adopted it as my own “feast day” if you will.
The Transfiguration is an absolutely vital feast day for us as a spiritual community, because if we really want to explore what it means when we say, in our Baptismal liturgy, that we pray to “grow into the full stature of Christ,” we would do well to reflect deeply on the reality of this encounter with God’s realness.
The church explores the account before Ash Wednesday because we would do well to reflect on the realness of things before we dare to step into Lent. If I could swap out one word from our Marriage liturgy, maybe you get the point:
Therefore Lent is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God. (Or in Lent’s case, established by the church’s tradition).
Even when we say it is important to reflect on the Transfiguration account, we may struggle to know just how to do this. What are ways that we can be invited into the story so that our hearts are transformed by this encounter? How can this story of Peter, James, and John beholding Jesus transfigured before them make a difference in our lives today?
Let me try to come at this this way.
There is a remarkable interview on the OnBeing website with Krista Tippett and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. I bet I have listened to it a hundred times. Rabbi Kushner is reflecting on the deep teachings of the Jewish mystical tradition that nurtures a transformative awareness of God’s presence rather than merely maintaining the details or externals of the religious tradition. The point of religious practice–a common point between all religions through the contemplative lens–is to be transformed by the reality of God’s indwelling presence. We might dare say to be transfigured.
Rabbi Kushner tells a story of leading a classroom tour for a group from the congregations preschool. He led the kids up onto the bima, or prayer stage at the front of the worship space, where there is the ark where they keep the Torah behind a curtain. Just as he was about to open the curtain and show them their sacred stories, the teacher told him they had run out of time.
Rabbi Kushner thought and said, “Since we have run out of time, when we come back in two weeks, I’ll show you what is behind this curtain. It is very special.”
The next day the teacher came and said that his closing words had sparked enormous debate in the class, with some of the children arguing as to what was behind that curtain. As Rabbi Kushner tells it, one kid, “destined to be a distinguished professor of nihilistic philosophy,” said nothing was behind it. One kid was not really imaginative, saying it was a “Jewish holy thing” behind there.
A third kid, steeped in culture and hearkening to gameshows said there was a new car back there. But the fourth kid, Rabbi Kushner described, the fourth kid said something very interesting. The fourth kid told the rest, “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.”
Now, pause for a moment and do a scan of yourself, of your heart. Can you feel the truth in what this preschooler said? A mirror.
As Rabbi Kushner describes, “Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and a heightened and revealing way.”
That is truth, my friends, the truth of how our stories “work” and help shape our lives. How they challenge us to live more fully into our vocation to “grow into the full stature of Christ.”
So, how do we encounter ourselves in a new and heightened and revealing way in this Transfiguration account? For me, the Transfiguration is a wonderful–and convicting–mirror. In it I see both what I desire–and what God desires–as well as how I struggle far too often.
I can only speak for myself, but this is what I see when I dare to look in that mirror. For one, I see the truth of my deepest self, that part of me within my own spiritual heart that recognizes that as goes Christ so goes I, one might say. Or at least, as goes Christ so I am meant to go, we can say. Do we really understand what it means when we say we are meant to grow into the fullness of Christ? Can we give ourselves a chance to reflect deeply on that inner part of our spiritual heart that the contemplative tradition points to? We work so badly to keep Jesus as a distant and controllable historical figure rather than the incarnating, animating element of our own existence–and we wonder why the institutional church is struggling. Can we dare rest, even for a moment, in how Jesus’ own transfiguration hints at the transfigured existence promised to us by God, in the fullness and wholeness of all things?
The second thing I notice about myself is how Peter, James, and John embody my own tendencies. I see myself in them so easily. Rather than sit in that space of encounter. Just sit there and be there, beholding, they immediately jump to fixing and grasping and accomplishing. Notice how fast they move from having an encounter of God’s presence to wanting to construct a container for it. Let us build three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. If the transfigured Jesus offers a glimpse of God’s dream for our existence, Peter, James and John offer a clear picture of the struggles of our egoic human instincts. The mirror shows all.
There is a third thing that I see when I dare to look in that Mirror of Transfiguration. It has to do with the cloud people. Each time I explore this text–or it explores me, as it were–I pay attention that all three standing there on the mountain were enveloped by clouds. It is worth pondering.
Moses was enveloped by God’s presence on Mt. Sinai in his transformative encounter with God. Elijah was caught up in a whirlwind and taken into heaven after passing the prophetic mantle to Elisha. And now Jesus stands with them both there on the mountaintop as the Cloud of Unknowing descends on them all. And they talk. I love that they talk.
For me, this movement of clouds descending and being taken up into clouds–being enveloped–asks me to reflect more deeply on how my practice of faith is not so much about having all the answers and being able to explain–definitely not prove! We seem surrounded by claims that say faith is about certainty of thought when, in my experience, my faith feels most “certain” when I am caught up in, enveloped in, God’s presence–well beyond my thoughts. Some claim that faith is about grasping–onto truth, onto power, onto clarity. To me, the practice of faith seems most clear when I am caught up, taken outside of my small self-centered self and shown my true self, within God’s transformative presence.
Try to teach that within an institutional system. There we have the pressure, right, that this story lays bare.
So, to pause for now, maybe we can imagine ourselves like the children at the synagogue, wondering what is behind the curtain, wondering how we will approach our sacred stories. What do we see in them? What do they see in us? What do we see in ourselves?
And, maybe, we can imagine ourselves standing there with Peter, James, and John, beholding Jesus transfigured in that moment of glory. And we say, with them, “Lord it is good for us to be here.”
And we just stop talking.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 23, 2020
References from The Book of Common Prayer: The Baptismal Liturgy begins on page 300. The Marriage Liturgy reference is on page 423.
Here is a link to explore the incredible interview with Rabbi Laurence Kushner. Click HERE.