The scriptures for today speak of grand visions: flashes of light, chariots of fire, mountaintop transcendence, voices from beyond, being overshadowed with cloud and light and fire. The stories of Elijah’s parting and Jesus’ Transfiguration speak of the complex relationship between master and student, Teacher and disciple. They speak of partings; of blessings, double blessing; and lead into the difficulties that lie ahead, as Elisha continues on, bearing the mantle of the departed Elijah. As Jesus begins to reveal to his disciples what has been revealed to him: that the Human One must suffer and be treated with contempt, and rise from the dead. They do all this through these mystical narratives in which the borders between heaven and earth are overcome, if however briefly. We in the church prepare for the season of Lent – the season of fasting, prayer, and repentance – with these grand visions of divine glory.
We Anabaptist minded folks are not used to thinking of Jesus in this way. We are accustomed to thinking of him as the one who teaches and tells parables. Jesus the healer, compassionate – or was it angry? – who touches the leper and makes him clean. Who hangs out with the tax collectors, argues with religious leaders, challenges social norms, and sees that there is bread and fish for all – men, women, and children. What’s Jesus doing with his head up in the clouds? his dusty road-worn clothes now dazzling white?
We’re pretty sure we know what to do with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, but not quite sure what to do with the Jesus of the Transfiguration on the Mount.
It’s the same with Elijah. We like our prophets out in the public square, condemning injustice, offering words of comfort to the oppressed. Spinning out poetry about God overturning the order of the world and raising up the lowly and pulling down the powerful from their thrones. Using that prophetic imagination of theirs to broadcast a vision of God’s dream for the world when swords will be beaten into plowshares and nations will live in peace.
We’re not as sure what to do with a prophet carried up into heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses.
Or maybe it’s not so much a matter of being a practical-faith minded Anabaptist as it is a matter of being a citizen of the modern, rational, world. Where do those gravity defying horses and chariots of fire think they’re going anyway? Heaven is a whole lot further away than it used to be. It’s a big universe, getting bigger by the nanosecond.
It is a happy coincidence that Transfiguration Sunday rolls around not long after Mennonite Arts Weekend. We are a practical people. And yet quite recently, we have been reminded that we too can be transported. That something beautiful and transcendent can break in and take us to a different place. Or, better, take us more deeply into this very place where we are right now. Lift the veil and help us see glory. When Debra Brubaker, the director of the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir was introducing the singing of Ave Maria, she noted that the song is arranged in such a way as to evoke the beating of the wings of Gabriel in his visitation to Mary, announcing the invitation for her to give birth to Christ. I don’t know about any of you, but as those sopranos kept elevating higher and the Aves started getting more layered, piercing the air, I was pretty sure something like an angelic visitation was in the works.
Even though we do not always lead with it, there is a place in our souls for mysticism. For transcending the finite matter of our bodies and touching the infinite. For Transfiguration. For fiery chariots that transport its riders to the heavenly realms.
The story from 2 Kings tells of the parting of Elijah, witnessed by his disciple in training Elisha. Elisha does not want his master to go. He keeps getting increasingly saddened and perhaps annoyed by those who remind him that Elijah is going away soon. “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” Yes, Elisha knows, and isn’t in the mood to talk about it. Not from the company of the prophets in Bethel. Not from the company of the prophets in Jericho. Don’t speak of it, he orders them both. Who has ever wanted their master to go? Who has ever wanted to lose a mentor, a father-figure, a protective mother whose fierce love reminded you that there are soft and gentle places in this difficult life?
Elijah wishes to ease the going. To have Elisha stay behind, to say goodbye under more predictable circumstances, before the very last minute forces an unceremonious and choiceless goodbye. “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” Elisha replies: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” Elisha persists, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
Elisha will not leave his master. He is clinging to his master and won’t let him out of sight. Not yet ready for the leaving. It might be a matter of determined faithfulness, staying by his side to the very end; or it could be a matter of fear of the unknown, uncertain of what else to do except latch on.
When Jesus goes up the mountain he takes with him his inner circle of disciples-in-training: Peter James and John. On this mountain, Mark mentions, almost casually, “and there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Though to us this may sound unreal, commentator Richard Swanson helps us understand the poetics of the story and the mind of the ancients. He says: “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) In this encounter Jesus is going deeper into the real, with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, as his guides. And they are hearing echoes in the heavens of those baptismal words first spoken at the Jordan River: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” How much more real can you get than Beloved?
Peter and his companions have no idea what to think of all this. “Terrified” is the word Mark uses.
This Transfiguration story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with Luke adding an interesting detail not present in the others. He notes that while Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus on the mountain that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. Sound familiar? It highlights an important part of this story more implicit in the other tellings, alluding to that other time when Jesus is with these disciples on a Mount, intensely communing with God, and they cannot keep awake. The Transfiguration story not only points back to the Jordan, the beginning of the call and the naming of Jesus as Beloved, but also points forward to Gethsemane, the final night of Jesus’ life, when he is arrested, tried, and crucified as a common criminal on a Roman cross. Moses and Elijah are not just providing a word of temporary encouragement, they are illuminating the entire arc of what Jesus must do, where he must go. The Transfiguration is that suspension of time, between the Jordan and Gethsemane, when both Belovedness and suffering must be accepted as being part of the same path. The mystical is not an escape from reality. It is a going deeper into reality, which includes belovedness, suffering, even physical death. This too is a story of parting. The disciples just don’t know it yet.
One of the joys of Facebook – if you want to call it a joy – are all these different cartoons and images that get posted and reposted by different people. These are often funny, or witty, or political in nature. One from this past week had a different tone. It made the rounds on Valentine’s Day. It had six frames, each with silhouetted figures of a tree, a male, and a female. In the first frame the tree is small and there is a boy and a girl playing with balloons. In the second frame the pair has grown to be teenagers, and they are holding hands, walking alongside each other. Next they are young adults, facing each other and looking into each other’s faces. Next they are an old couple, slightly bent over, leaning on canes, still underneath this tree, which is now full grown. In the next frame the elderly man is sitting under the tree, looking at a gravestone. And in the final frame, with the tree holding no more leaves, there are two gravestones.
Kind of a beautiful, and sobering image for Valentine’s Day.
A friend of our family from my home area, who is my parent’s age, commented on the post and said: “Thanks (for posting). Wish I was (back) in the second picture.” So, for all you teenagers and young people out there, take note. There are times when adults look back longingly on those days of youth, perhaps especially as we become more and more aware of our own mortality. So you can treasure your youth as a great gift, and don’t try and grow up too fast.
This progression is also a kind of link between Valentine’s Day and upcoming Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, when we say to one another, “Remember that you come from dust, and to dust you will return,” and receive the ashes on our foreheads as a testimony to our acceptance of our own mortality and our surrender to the eternal grace of God.
I wonder at what point along the way this beloved silhouetted couple had their experience of Transfiguration, whether it happened all at once, or gradually over the years. When they were visited by Moses and Elijah and not only re-heard the words from the beginning, that they are Beloved and Chosen, but the words about the full arc of their lives. That their life together will not only involve joyful companionship, but also times of shared grief, and suffering, loss and loneliness, and death. That they are walking this fearful and holy path with very little assurance that it will all turn out as originally planned. That they are held, tenderly, but firmly, within this eternal dance of life, and that from here on out, once they descend that mountain of Transfiguration, living between the Jordan and Gethsemane, their life is an offering.
When Elisha is about the say goodbye to his master and friend, he has one final request. That he receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. That a double blessing be passed from Elijah to him for the work ahead that Elisha must do. Elijah comments that this is a hard request, but that if Elisha is able to see, able to see Elijah as he parts, that this double blessing will be granted him. And Elisha does indeed see. He sees horses and chariots of fire. He sees glory.
If you have looked deeply into this place, into this time, this splinter of heaven; if you have looked and have seen the glory, then you have what you need for the journey ahead, difficult though it may be. Moses and Elijah are over you, giving counsel. Gabriel’s wings are beating around you. Jesus the Christ is going ahead of you. And you walk with a blessing. Even, a double blessing.