Feast of the Transfiguration
Today’s an unusual day in the rhythm of the church’s worship. Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, one of just a handful of days in the church’s calendar when – should that feast land on Sunday – it pushes aside the normal cycle of readings, to give preference for this day, that this feast can be rightly celebrated.
In some traditions, especially in the Orthodox Church, Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain is a central theme in their whole structure of understanding the mystery of Christ – his humanity, his divinity, his mission. It is an icon, of sorts, that invites us to peer into the deep, cosmic truth of our entire faith.
Afterall, the story is clearly given a prominent centrality in the gospel narrative. From a literary perspective, it is the structural center point in every synoptic gospel. The story of Jesus’ ministry is divided in two distinct halves: what happens before the transfiguration and what happens after.
In a nutshell, the first half of the gospel is one of “success” by any worldly definition. Jesus’ ministry is thriving. The crowds can’t get enough of him. Everything about his message and behavior fills them with hope: This really may be the Messiah! But after the transfiguration, the story takes on a decidedly darker tone. He leaves Galilee in the north and sets his face towards Jerusalem in the south. Along the way, he is increasingly misunderstood by his own disciples. His conflicts with the religious authorities increase. And he is crucified.
But between these two halves of the story, Jesus goes up the mountain. He rises above the sphere of this mortal life and – for a moment – enters into the radiant glory of God’s eternal life, where time itself is transcended, allowing him to share a living communion with holy ones of ages past.
And notice as well, how the authors of the synoptic gospels are so intentional in crafting their stories to make sure we see the Transfiguration’s central place within the arc of Jesus’ entire ministry. It began at his baptism, with the divine accolade from heaven: You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Jesus’ ministry triumphed at Easter, with the witness of the angels in their dazzling splendor: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen [just as he said]. And right at the middle of the story, here on this mountaintop, for that crucial moment when Jesus must choose away from success and popularity and towards death and obedience, he is bathed in light and the testimony of God’s own voice is proclaimed to the disciples: This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!
And so we see how the human Jesus – as vulnerable as any of us are to fear and doubt and lonesomeness – is gifted with a moment of mystical clarity, assuring him of his cosmic divinity and his solidarity with leaders from centuries past, whom God chose to accomplish God’s costly plan of redemption.
And as I consider all these things today, I’m struck for the first time how much this story finds its parallel with each of our own stories. It is no stretch of the imagination to see how our human lives very much follow this same arc.
The first half of life (generally speaking) is one of strength and progress: we’re striving to find our place and purpose in this world; we’re gathering unto ourselves friendships, families, homes, and possessions; we develop skills, careers, and coping mechanisms to assure our place in the world. And throughout it all, we’re sorting out our identities and building up our egos. And the world lies before us with its endless potential.
And then we hit mid-life with its startling reality: All that “endless potential” has now taken on a very limited form. Whatever might have been is now replaced by the particularity of our actual lives: I am not “Any Eric,” I am “This Eric,” with these stories, these relationships, this job, this home, this place. And, even more startling, we begin to see and believe that this particular life will not last forever.
And so we enter into the second half of life – a season which (if all is working out relatively normal) allows us stride into the particularity of who we are – a growing maturity that knows who we are and who we are not, what we are called to do and what we are not called to do, what truly matters and what matters very little at all. There’s less looking over our shoulders to compare ourselves to others, and more looking straight ahead, to do what we must. (And the freedom to do it in comfortable shoes!)
And, along the way, this second half of life does gets harder. Our bodies weaken and our memories falter. Our adult children, who love us and want our best, don’t understand what we’re experiencing, and can be downright condescending. More and more of our loved ones precede us in death. Society keeps rushing forward – faster and faster, beyond our pace – with social changes we don’t relate to and mobile phones and technologies that bewilder us and make us feel stupid. And, year by year, the harsh reality of our ultimate end becomes more and more convincing.
And so, for us who are in (or entering into) that second half of life, and doing so from a posture of faith, Jesus’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration can become for us a special kind of icon – an icon of what we need and what we desire as we make our way down the mountain, towards Jerusalem, and to whatever cross and tomb await us there.
And do you what’s on the top of the list, the most valuable thing Jesus was given there on the mountaintop? Friends. Moses and Elijah, these two particular men who uniquely understood what Jesus was confronting. There was no one in Jesus’ circle who understood what he was being called to do, and how lonesome and costly a work it would be. But Moses knew. And so did Elijah. So it was they who had the wisdom and the solidarity to talk with him about what was to come. And they could give him hope of what awaited him on the far side of obedience.
And as we age, we need these friendships, too. Just a couple will do – friends who understand, who are going through the same things or have been through the same things that we are confronting, friends who know what it’s like, and with whom we are safe to be honest and vulnerable. And we need to be such friends for one another. For as much of this life must be faced alone, so we humans are made for companionship. So it is right and it is holy to seek it out and to ask it of God.
And, there’s another layer to Jesus’ interaction with Moses and Elijah that also speaks to our yearnings as we age: and that’s the mystical experience he had of a living relationship with those who had already died. As we get older, more and more of our most essential relationships are severed by death. And, yes, there’s always space for new friendships, but there’s no replacing our mother and father, our spouse, a child, a lifelong friend. And with each loss, we don an increasingly weighty and lonesome mantel of perpetual bereavement. Which means, the longer we live, the more we yearn to experience what Jesus experienced: to know a real and living union with those whose lives have been interwoven most intimately with our own. It is right and holy to yearn for such an experience as the outcome of our faith, a faith which includes the communion of saints. But this is a gift only God can provide. And so the Transfiguration becomes our icon – our prayer, our yearning to God – to gift us with such a real awareness.
Which brings us to a similar point: It is also totally reasonable to desire – at some point in our lives – some experience in which we have been undeniably convinced that God is real, and God’s trustworthiness is real. Something more than just “faith,” but the object of faith. Surely, for Jesus, there must have been many times on his way to the cross, that the memory of the Transfiguration was what got him through – how that one moment of clarity, remained within him and before him, as an eternal reality that could not be shaken. And again, we cannot demand this of God; it is only God’s gift to give. But as an icon, the Transfiguration can become our prayer: God, I want an experience of you that is real, that is mine, that I can clench in my fist for whatever dark days lie ahead.
And, finally, there’s a fourth moment in this story that can also become a prayer for us as we age. And it has to do with what the disciples experienced. Jesus intentionally brought them along – but bless them – they had no idea what was happening. And Peter’s response, “Let’s build three booths to commemorate this by,” was rejected out of hand by Jesus. “Shut up, Peter, you don’t what you’re talking about.” Then comes this voice from heaven, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And so for us as we age, our adult children can be like the disciples. They’re with us in the process, witness to what we’re experiencing. But they’re not in the same place. And much as they want to do right by us, their “practical” solutions for us and our struggles, are often wide of the mark of appreciating or understanding the substance of what we’re actually experiencing here [in our hearts and in our souls and in our bodies]. And so we can pray, “God, as I must learn what it means to age, even unto death, so help them to listen and to understand who I am and what this is I am facing.”
Such moments of mystical clarity, for us and our loves ones, is never ours to force. We have neither the power nor the responsibility to make it so. But we are right in our place of desiring it. And so the Transfiguration can be as God’s gift to us, an icon to call our own. It is a portal for our yearnings that we, like Jesus, would be given what we need to live this life – with faith, hope, and resolve – for this journey we must make down the mountain and to Jerusalem, to the cross and the grave, and – please God – into the life that is to come.