Today, as the drama of the liturgical year continues to unfold, we experience the final epiphany of the epiphany season. What began with a cosmic star over Bethlehem ends with a shining face on a mountaintop—and the wonder of Christmas stumbles into the wandering of Lent. Epiphany is the season when God’s reality is revealed again and again in the flesh and blood of incarnation—in the breathing, healing, loving presence of the human Jesus—so that all people in all times and all places might know God. But today, through the startling tale of the transfiguration, the cozy familiarity of this very human Jesus is transformed into the awesome power of a divine Lord. And the disciples—there on the mountaintop, and here in this sanctuary—are confused.
Now before we go any further, I have a confession to make. I have never particularly liked the transfiguration story. Why? because I don’t understand it. Actually, I don’t believe it—at least, not in a literal way. Factually, it seems like nonsense—much like the story of Jesus walking on the water. I know, and you know, that people don’t all of a sudden start glowing like a light bulb with voices booming from heaven, while the ghosts of ancient men appear out of nowhere. My enlightenment brain, trained in a rational and scientific world rejects this story. Which is why, of course, this story is so important. It is not a story of fact—it is a story of faith. It is not a story about the human Jesus—it is a story about the holy Jesus. So, it introduces us to a God who cannot be explained, a God who can only be experienced.
Whenever, I teach Confirmation Class, we always get into a discussion about whether the Bible is “true.” And then we get into a discussion about what is “truth.” It is clear to me that when we are talking about holy scripture, “truth” is not the same thing as “fact.”
Indeed, for me, scripture is largely myth—not myth in the sense of make believe, but myth in the sense of symbolic story—story that leads us beyond the world of rational knowing, into the world of spiritual knowing. As such the myths of scripture form a window that invites us to see the holy—a world we do not create or control, a world which, instead, creates us. If we now look at the transfiguration story as myth—as holy symbol—maybe we will be created in some new ways.
When the story begins, it has been eight days since Jesus announced that he must suffer and die—a totally confusing and unsettling reality for the disciples. Though Jesus has said the words, even for him they are still sinking in. And so, as a way of sorting it all out, Jesus decides that his daily discipline of prayer needs to be more intentional and more focused. So, Jesus invites three of the disciples to go with him to the mountaintop—up away from the daily distractions—up away to the mountain top—always a place in the history of human yearning where God has been found. You see, Jesus needs some extra spiritual strength—and he knows where and how to get it. He wipes out his calendar for an entire day, says to hell with all the pressure and people who need him, and then takes off to the mountain top. My friends, maybe this is the first way that this story can recreate us. Maybe we too need to go to the mountaintop. Do we—do you and I take the time to get away, to intentionally find God? Do we even believe that God is there to be found?
Well, the disciples back then seemed to have as much trouble believing in the power of prayer and meditation as we do. What happens on the mountaintop is that Jesus prays with intense need and energy—but the disciples fall asleep—unable or unwilling to enter the discipline of prayer. Then, all of a sudden, something happens. Jesus begins to glow—a light bathes his body and his face and his clothing. Out of the mystery of nothingness, Moses and Elijah appear—the archetypal figures of Israel’s power—Moses who represents the Law and Elijah who represents the Prophecy. These two historical giants appear, talking with Jesus, blessing Jesus, passing their power to Jesus, and affirming the fact that yes, Jesus must suffer and die for the holy work of God to be complete. All of this weird and mysterious activity finally wakes up the sleepy disciples (Indeed we must wonder if God didn’t and doesn’t do such spectacular things just to make us wake up?) And what do the disciples do? What do we do when something mysterious happens? We immediately try to make sense of the experience, to categorize it, to nail it down—to make it fit—to make it permanent, tangible, rational.
Peter, James and John decide they will build three booths—one for Elijah, one for Moses, one for Jesus—to ritualize and imprison Jesus in the history of the tradition. But God will have none of it. Immediately a cloud overshadows the whole mountaintop—the cloud which always represents the uncontrollable mystery of God—and out of the cloud, God speaks. “You fools—you are missing the point. Jesus, the one who has loved you and nurtured you and who has told you that he must suffer and die—he is not just another human leader like Moses and Elijah. No, Jesus is different. He is more than human. He is holy. He is my Beloved, my Chosen, my best Self. Jesus is me,” God says. “Listen to him. Love him. Cling to him. Follow him.”
And so, in the midst of a daily routine, the daily routine of prayer, Jesus turns away from the world, seeking God on the mountaintop—and he is not disappointed. The holy breaks into the human—and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.
Years ago when I was in seminary, I did a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital here in the city. Aside from the courses we took in pastoral care, in psychology and religion, we spent several hours each day relating to patients on the floor. One of the wards I covered was a surgical/medical ward—where the patients were not only mentally ill, but also were recovering from major surgery or life threatening illnesses. Add to this the fact that most of these patients were poor, black, and victims of addictive behavior—and I found myself in a wilderness that terrified me.
One day, after I used my ring of keys to unlock the door to this ward, there was a new patient—a man in isolation—all alone in a room—hanging between life and death—both legs amputated, but with gangrene still creeping through his body. You could smell the stench of his decay even before you entered the room, and he moaned and sweated in a miserable delirium. For an hour I wandered up and down the hall resisting going into see him—nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do. What could I—a naive, twentyfive year old white woman—possibly do or say to ease this man’s suffering. For that matter what could God do? And where was God, anyway, in the midst of all this misery?
Finally, I walked into the room, took his hand, and found myself repeating the words of the Lord’s Prayer. And that’s when it happened. That’s when the holy broke into the human—when God took over and grace flowed through me. This man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking. He turned to look at me and then started repeating the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me. For a moment, time stood still. There was, in that room, a peace that passes all understanding. A few minutes later, after I left the room, that man’s suffering ended. He died, finding his own peace at last.
Brothers and sisters, I can’t explain that moment to you any more than I can explain the transfiguration, any more than I can explain to you why Moses’ face shone every time he talked to God. But it was for me and for that nameless, miserable man, a holy moment, a transforming moment, and I have rarely doubted the existence of God or the power of prayer since.
My friends, to be transfigured and transformed by the power of God is not something we can understand or explain or make happen. Instead it is something that happens to us—if we open up and pay attention—if we condition ourselves to climb the mountain—if we take the irrational step of offering ourselves as a channel of God’s grace. In the wilderness of Lent that now stretches before us, let us take the time to be holy—time to become faces of holiness for others. May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.