I’m going on a hunch here, but my sense is that most of us think that this Transfiguration passage is a strange story. Maybe you would have another word for it besides strange – bizarre, fantastical, opaque, confusing, or maybe just “Huh?”
We’re very practical people with an every day sort of faith, so we tend to be a little skeptical toward ecstatic kinds of spiritual experiences. We seem to be less interested in that one dazzling event that can completely change a person’s life and more interested in those daily habits which slowly form us into ethical, compassionate, followers of Jesus Christ. “Pray with you feet,” we like to say, by which we mean faith that faith is as faith does, by which we mean that this is hard work, and change takes a long time, whether that be changing our own souls or changing the world to make it a more loving and hospitable place. If you must have your dramatic conversion experience, or if you must have your very clear sense of call when you heard God’s voice direct you in the way you should go, then fine. Just hear us out when we say that it’s still a matter of choosing to be a follower of Jesus every day in every situation which often isn’t all that glorious.
We like it when Todd Davis opens our Mennonite Arts Weekend by saying that the holy is everywhere. I do. Not confined to any one particular location, like a church building or a temple or a forest or mountain. The holy is everywhere and, like Wendell Berry says, there is no such thing as places that are holy and places that aren’t holy. Just holy places and desecrated places. This makes sense. It resonates. It lifts up the spirit and calls us to attention to recognize that of God in all people. To look for signs of the kingdom of God in all things. To make each moment or even each breath an expression of praise. Difficult, demanding all that we are, but the kind of spirituality we relish. Even, the kind we can relax into. A spirituality we can trust and that keeps us grounded. I concur.
So when Jesus takes with him three of his disciples, Peter, John, and James up a mountain, and is transfigured in front of them such that his clothes and his face are radiating light, and then is seen talking with, of all people, Moses and Elijah, we’re not quite sure what to do with that. Peter, in a move that Ted Swartz would have a lot of fun with, first can barely stay awake and then can barely make sense of what it is he thinks he’s seeing. The best he can do is suggest that they all set up camp, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and spend some good quality time together. We might not even get as far as Peter in knowing what do to in this situation. We’re left scratching our heads trying to figure out if this is actually a “true” story and how this display of glory, this experience of light and revelation, and voices speaking from the clouds, has much to teach us about our lives. The sermon on the mount we can handle – blessed are the peacemakers, you are the salt of the earth, love your enemies – but the transfiguration on the mount we can’t make heads or tails of. What does this have to do with a practical, everyday grounded spirituality? Instead of building three shelters to preserve the moment and bask in its glory, let’s hurry up and get off the mountain, get our head out of the clouds, and let Moses and Elijah do whatever it was they were doing before we interrupted their blessed rest – and let Jesus get back to doing what he does best: being with the people, loving them, touching them, teaching them.
We’re not quite sure either what to make of Moses with his shiny face in the story from Exodus, receiving the two tablets of the covenant. Apparently, coming down from his particular mountain didn’t end his experience of radiance. He walked around with a prolonged afterglow from having talked with God. Some of us know about veils and head coverings, but I’m not aware of anyone who had to wear one because their face was shining too brightly such that it interfered with the fellowship. What’s that all about?
That’s my hunch of what our first off, gut reaction might be to these kinds of stories. It’s the way we’re wired, I guess, and I think it’s kind of cool. Kind of our contribution to the human family. We’re not all that impressed with shiny faces or bright lights. We know the shine wears off. We know that the life of discipleship isn’t about trying to stay on that mountain as long as we possibly can, but that we have to come back down with Jesus and keep our feet on the narrow path, our hands in the dirt and grime of real life.
Except, I have to say, that I think I’ve seen a crack in our armor – nonviolent, not-intended-for-combat-purposes armor. Not that we’ve abandoned our practical faith, God help us. But I think I’ve witnessed, quite recently, in fact, that you have a thing for allowing your spirit to soar from time to time. That there are particular times and particular places that are elevated, that present themselves as opportunities to see, to hear, to experience beauty and wonder and, even ecstasy in a way that is extra-ordinary. I saw some of those expressions on your faces when House of Doc hit the harmonies on “Simple Times and Simple ways.” Transported you were. We may not wear it on own sleeve, but I’m pretty convinced that somewhere in each of us there is a closeted mystic, a little creature who lives for those moments where the veil is pulled back, and we get a fill of radiant light, and we long to set up camp and somehow preserve the beauty and awe and sense of holiness that we’re given. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that in this new church body this is exactly what they have access to. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” OK, Paul. You’re right, this time. That’s what we experience sometimes. That’s what we want to be like. “From one degree of glory to another.”
Like a good piece of art, the Transfiguration has different layers which give it it’s depth of meaning and allow us to enter it at different points. There are all sorts of echoes in the story of other stories that bring their own meaning into the picture. We aren’t told which mountain this is that they are on, but being on a mountain with Moses and Elijah evokes the time when each of them were on Mt. Sinai and received their own encounter with the divine – Moses in hearing the Voice that gave the Torah, and Elijah, escaping to the mountain for fear of his life, hearing the still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, that filled him with a sense of assuredness and calling to continue his prophetic work. These two with Jesus speak of “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Departure could also be translated exodus, and with Moses as a companion, there is a layer present of Jesus preparing to lead a people out of bondage and into a new place. The disciples’ sleepiness looks like a prelude to Gethsemane, another time when they missed the moment, failed to grasp the significance of what was going on. They are all “overshadowed,” by a cloud, like Mary was overshadowed with the Holy Spirit when she accepted that she would bear the Messiah. From the cloud comes a voice that is an echo of the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism. They say the same thing, a naming and firming up of Jesus identity, his inner sense of self-hood that would propel him into his life work: “This is my Son, my chosen, my Beloved.” Unlike other times when Jesus has to sternly order the disciples not to tell anyone what has just happened, we get a new twist of voluntary silence: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
We have this story of Jesus being transfigured and there’s a part of us that recognizes the experience, or at least wants to recognize it.
We’re modern people, and aren’t accustomed to thinking about talking with old dead people like Moses and Elijah, but we’re starting to become more open to mystery, to seeing fantasy as a part of reality, valuing dreams and visions, and maybe even taking council from people who are no longer living in the physical sense of the word.
Toni Morrison talks about being “pleasantly haunted” by ghosts, something that can happen to characters in her novels. She speaks of how she feels that seeing ghosts is really just a matter of being alert.
Richard Swanson helps us understand the mind of the ancients: “Moses and Elijah…are characters from some of the oldest stories told among Jews. They are more real than Peter, James, and John….more real than Caesar…Quirinius…Pontius Pilate…” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke) To the ancient Jew the figures of the tradition absolutely permeated one’s consciousness. They were present as conversation partners, as guides, there to argue with, to question, to transform one into a member of the covenant community.
The Transfiguration is an experience of vocational clarity for Jesus – and this is where it puts the story in the place of being a complex combination of the grounded, every day spirituality, and the ecstatic elevated spiritual experience. A nice compromise, we might say. We don’t know exactly how Jesus thought of his life trajectory up to this point. He had begun talking about the cost of discipleship, alluding to bearing one’s cross, speaking of betrayal and crucifixion and resurrection. But up to now, this point in the story in Luke, he had only been wandering around Galilee and the surrounding area, staying in the northern countryside away from the urban center of Jerusalem. But here on the mountain, in council with the prophets, remembering once again his baptismal identity, speaking about an exodus that involved him going to Jerusalem, there is a pivot in the story. Whatever it was that happened on the mountain, it seems to have oriented Jesus for the rest of his life path. Very soon in the story, in the same chapter nine, there is that pivotal verse 51, that says Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The KJV records it as, “He stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Now, after coming down from the mountain, there is a steadfastness, a resolve, about Jesus’ mission that affects his whole orientation. From this point on, he is oriented toward making his way toward Jerusalem, where he will essentially march on the city in nonviolent love, call on it to carry out, as he says, “the things that make for peace,” and then allow himself to be taken down by the forces that array themselves against him. And, in an irony of history that can only be of divine origin because of how little sense it makes to us, to proclaim that dying in love is a victory over killing in hatred. And then ,resurrection.
So Transfiguration turns out to be directly linked to the practical call of vocation – where one discovers what ones life is to be about. Where we hear those voices that direct our path. Those rare experiences that give us a sense of resoluteness about what in the world it is that it is we are doing with our lives, that orient us in the direction we should walk.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has a wonderful line where he says that we must let our lives become the word that is the answer to our own questions. Our vocation, what we are to be about in this life, is to allow God to form us into the word that is the answer to our own deepest longings. I think that’s absolutely beautiful. Our grounded Anabaptist theology and tradition remind us that the way we go about this is through the difficult path of discipleship, our baptismal identity, through being peacemakers in a violent world, through the disciplines of prayer and study and being accountable to one another in community. Our mystical selves know that to become this word, to even be able to hear the letters that will eventually make up this word, we will need times of pure grace when we are swept up in beauty, when we are taken up on the mountain, elevated, and having those rare but precious experiences of communing with the angels, hearing the voice that gives us our identity, gaining a sense of steadfastness in our life path.