For the past three weeks we have been hearing passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as found in the gospel of Matthew. Today we skip ahead in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life to another experience that happened on a mountain, the transfiguration.
For the writer of Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. Since Moses met God on a mountain, receiving the ten commandments on Mt Sinai, it only makes sense that it would be on a mount where Jesus gives his sermon – and then where this mystical encounter happens. Moses glowed and was in a cloud of God, with God, on the mountain. So Matthew paints this portrait of Jesus and his closest disciples on the mountain: Jesus is radiant and the cloud of God engulfs him. That is the literary background, interesting to know perhaps but not particularly life changing.
But the experience of the transfiguration, of seeing Jesus in a new and glowing light, this changes lives. The ever sincere Peter is determined to hold onto this moment by building tents, not for himself and the other disciples. Just for Jesus, Moses and Elijah because that is what you do. You try to capture the holiness – in the ark of the covenant, in the temple, in broken bread, in a cathedral, in liturgical words. Peter is like many careful and conscientious disciples. He is determined to preserve the holy situation so he can pull it out again when he needs it, when he wants to remember what it was like to be close to God. If he can just save this experience then it will be dependable; it will be there the next time he needs it.
Peter’s plans are disrupted when the glow goes away and a voice is heard. It seems to be the same voice, at least it is the same words, that were heard when Jesus was baptized. “This is my Own, my Beloved; on whom my favor rests.” Except this time there is an instruction that was not included at the baptism – “Listen to him.”
Having fallen to the ground in fear, the disciples listen when Jesus says “Get up, don’t be afraid.” I wonder what scares them more, the glowing Jesus, the voice from the cloud or the sudden disappearance of Moses and Elijah.
The disciples get up. They walk back down the mountain and they listen when Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone about this – until after the Chosen One is risen from the dead.” Hearing this probably freaks them out all over again.
As readers who already know the end of Matthew’s gospel, we know that the transfiguration of Jesus prefigures his resurrection. As we prepare for Lent next week, walking the road with Jesus toward Jerusalem and his death, it can be a comfort to hear this story, to remember the ending before the traumatic parts begin. Like Peter, we might want to hold onto the good parts, the amazing, surreal parts. Our own lives might be a mess, at least we have these amazements from the bible to cling to.
But like Jesus and the disciples, we can’t take up residence on the mountain top. Sure some people live on a mountain. Being at Rolling Ridge Retreat Community last weekend (near Harpers Ferry) and hearing the residents there talk about “living on the mountain,” it does sound marvelous. The residential community lives on the mountain – and their day to day lives contain the mundane, the difficult, the every day stuff, like mulching blueberry bushes and stacking firewood – which we who were on retreat were invited to participate in. This kind of labor was out of the ordinary for us city folk, pushing wheelbarrows, wielding pitchforks and tossing wood; it felt like a strange privilege.
Transfiguration is not a word that gets used in every day life. We use transformed, because with transformed there is actually a change. With transfiguration the change is more within the viewer, what we see seems different though it is only that we see it in a new light. In the Transfiguration of Jesus the disciples see the “true nature” of Jesus. They thought they knew Jesus but on the mountain, with the cloud and the voice and Moses and Elijah, they have a new understanding. Just for a moment they understand that Jesus is the Chosen One, God’s beloved. I say “just for a moment” because Peter goes on to deny even knowing Jesus. Peter’s understanding of Jesus may have changed but the experience didn’t change Peter, at least not enough to give him the courage he needed, at least according to Matthew.
Most of the time, our lives do not glow or radiate or glisten. We leave it up to poets and artists to find and name the glow, to point us to the luminous places in every day life. But what about those of us who are not good with words or a paintbrush? Can we find the glow, the transfiguring moments in an ordinary day? How do we do that?
I am drawn back to Michelle’s sermon during advent when she talked about macrophotography. (Dec 8) Michelle described macrophotography this way – “Macro photography is extreme close-up photography of an object or a portion of an object. It captures micro details and puts them on display in large scale. Macro as a word refers to the overall – the big picture – the large scale. Yet, macro photography focuses on the micro, the details.”
Might ordinary transfiguration be more accessible if we focus on a small detail of life and then, like in photography, blow up that small event. By making the ordinary big, we pay attention with greater care, we see it with fresh eyes.
Some of us are really good at this, making the small things big; in its negative this might be called anxiety. With anxiety we can focus on the small things but when they grow they lead not to new understandings or mystical experiences but to discomfort and sleeplessness and other physical symptoms. Sometimes when we are in the grip of anxiety we imagine that if we share the anxiety with others, make it bigger, we will feel better. That can work – especially if the ones we share it with handle it carefully and don’t absorb the anxiety or multiply it.
But that is a tangent; it is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about focusing on something small – or maybe something large – and looking at it closely, allowing yourself to be drawn in, to marvel and be surprised, to see it in new light.
I am reminded again of being at Rolling Ridge last weekend. The starkness of winter, in this hemisphere, can strip things so that “desolation” seems more the descriptor than “raw essence.” The West Virginia trees were empty of green, the air was cold, the muddy ground was frozen, even the birds were quiet for trying to keep themselves warm.
The first night there, I woke at 4am and looked out my bedroom window. Instead of seeing barrenness, I saw shadows on the ground, not from any light poles like on my street in Mt Rainier, but from the moon. Moon shadows of the tall, bare trees, stretched straight across the hard, frozen ground. The shadows drew my eyes upward to the clear sky, which was ablaze with stars. Suddenly being awake at night was not my usual unwanted problem, it was a gift. I was grateful and amazed; the freezing, dark, barren woods were transformed in the middle of the night. The moment didn’t last long but it was enough, the way it imprinted onto me. The commonality of shadows now glows within me.
The next morning we entered the day in silence; the moonshadows were gone but they drew me to walk in the woods. I am usually hesitant to walk alone in the woods since my sense of direction is more circular than is helpful without street signs and sidewalks. But in the winter, the trees are bare, and the woods are spacious. I could see the path and the trail markers in ways that are not possible in summer when all is green and flourishing. I walked the trail alone, fording small streams, hugging trees, catching sight of deer and woodpeckers. There was no voice from the cloudless sky; and it was a transfiguration, an ordinary experience of the holy.
Like Peter, I find myself trying to capture this experience, which is perhaps why I am telling you what happened last weekend. I feel a little sheepish speaking of such a small thing. And yet because it was such a beautiful experience and because it stays with me, and because I would wish for you a similar experience of beauty, I share it with you, this ordinary transfiguration.
The experience that Peter, James and John have on the mountain with Jesus seems big. But what if it is not the size of the cloud or the brightness of the light or how loud the voice is that speaks the blessing. What if it is the attention we give, the extra breath we take in, the openness of the heart.
These brushes with the Holy are often so fleeting we don’t have time to put them into words. And sometimes we just want to treasure them in our hearts, like Mary. We don’t want to risk speaking them and have them trampled underfoot by so many metaphorical pigs and wild dogs. Because I love and trust you, I will risk one more.
Last night I was part of a black history month concert. Several choirs joined together to sing “Lift every voice and sing.” The song is familiar, I know these words by James Weldon Johnson, have memorized some of them. And yet, in that moment, with that gathering of African American singers, I heard the words with new urgency. “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.” In that moment, I felt as if my own tears might be able to join with those who have come “treading (the) path through the blood of the slaughtered.” In this gruesome, all too contemporary image, I understood anew why we need African American History month. And I was drawn to work together with others so that it is history, and not one that keeps getting replayed. It felt like a small flash of the kindom of God, and then it was gone. Four measures later it was over.
Which is how Transfiguration works. It is a mystical moment, even in every day life. New understanding opens. Meaning is clarified. Beauty is revealed. And just for a moment we ourselves are changed.
Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.” As disciples of Jesus, let us watch for mystical moments, transfiguration in our lives, with our eyes wide, our hearts open and without fear.