Transfiguration Sunday is one of the most unappreciated holy days of the Christian year. In fact, some clergy avoid preaching on this passage because it is a mystery, and a confusing one at that. Yet, the message in the metaphor is one we desperately need on so many levels. This year, especially. Some say that we never left Lent in 2020 and now we are rapidly approaching it again. How are we going to manage this? Who needs a reminder of the finitude and frailty this year? Not many folx, for sure. Yet, how many of us need a reminder that we are indeed a temple of the Holy Spirit, the glory of God? This is what the transfiguration story can do. It can serve as a much-needed reminder that God’s glory is within us and can shine through anyone, anywhere, anytime. Let’s climb this mountainous mystery and figure this out.
I’m not going to speculate all that much on why Peter, James, and John were chosen to go up the mountain with Jesus. Maybe the others were busy. Maybe these three needed the mystical experience more than the others. Maybe they were the only ones with the right footgear to climb a mountain. Who knows? This isn’t necessarily the important part. They chose to follow Jesus up the mountain. Would you? Have you? They took the risk of following without knowing where they were going and what might happen when they got there.
This is where it gets weird and not worth lingering on the literal. Yes, it could have happened exactly the way the story is written. And maybe it’s a story of literally mythic proportions. Either way, there’s a message for us in the mysterious weirdness. In an unexpected moment of openness, the three disciples saw the glory of God shining through Jesus, unhidden and totally terrifying. They saw the truth of who Jesus was and it elevated him in the company of two other holy men – Moses and Elijah. The response of the disciples was to fall down in overwhelming fear and Jesus did not tell them not to be afraid. What does this tell us about the pure, unfiltered, presence of the Holy? It’s fine to recognize the Sacred in the setting sun, the flight of an eagle, the kindness of a stranger, etc. On the other hand, imagine what it would feel like to be in the presence of God unmitigated by Creation. Wouldn’t you be terrified, too?
We can talk about “mountain top” experiences and by doing so, we might diminish the power and value of this story. We talk about those moments when the Holy Spirit touches our human spirit and we are enlivened in some way. In college, we referred to this as a “spiritual high.” I’ve never heard anyone talk about these experiences with fear and trembling, though. Yes, sometimes the implications afterward were anxiety provoking in that they meant a life-change of some sort. The encounter itself, however, often left a sense of peace or hope or excitement in its wake. I’d venture to guess that few of us have encountered God in such a way that leaves us quaking in our hiking boots.
In contrast, we can totally relate to the three when they wanted to stay and build tabernacles. Maybe they wanted to honor God with altars. Maybe they wanted to hang out in that holy place and see if Glory would shine again. Who knows what their motivations were for wanting to stay. Whatever they were, we can relate. If you’ve had an encounter with the Holy, you might want to linger where it happened. You might be tempted to try to make it happen again. You might spend some energy longing for the experience to be repeated, perhaps just to confirm that it happened in the first place. It’s very human to want to stay in a place where the Holy Spirit has clearly shown up.
Of course, lingering wasn’t possible. There was work yet to be done down in the valley where folx live with all kinds of pain. We have no idea how long they were on the mountain with Jesus and we don’t know how long Jesus let them be in their awe before he told them that it was time to move on. And that caution not to talk about their experience until later was wise counsel indeed. They needed some time to think and to pray and sort out what meaning it all had for them, for their lives, and for all the lives they would touch. We would do well to pay heed.
Overall, though, this story tells us that the glory of God lies within. Maybe it will never shine through us with the pure unfiltered intensity that it shone through Jesus, yet anything is possible. We catch glimpses of God’s glory in other folx all the time. We see a holy sheen on those who engage their passion. Sometimes we feel it when we worship together. You know, that intense worship experience that is some-unnamable-how different from the usual worship service. My theory is that it takes more than one of us for true transfiguration to happen these days. Maybe that’s why there were three disciples with Jesus to bear witness to the three who shone with holy light. Maybe Glory is best experienced and witnessed in community. Maybe the deepest, truest connections with God come through others who’ve joined together to be vessels of Divine Love…
However it works, whenever it appears, God’s glory is a powerful thing. We would do well to remember that at least a spark or two of that Glory is within each of us. Yes, we will soon be reminded that we are made from dust and we will return to dust. And, yet, God chooses to shine through the dust, sometimes transfiguring what might be otherwise ordinary humans into spectacular visions of holiness.
On the brink of Lent, we are not alone in the wilderness, no matter how bleak or barren it appears. The glory of God shines in us and around us. When we gather together as the Body of Christ, we shine all that much brighter.
Shine on, my friends, shine on.