As a church, this morning, we gather with Christians across the world on this Sunday in remembrance of the Transfiguration. On this last Sunday before the Lenten season begins we remember that trek Jesus took which led to a mountain top revelation. While in New Orleans this week, the Mardi Gras festival will come alive with the attaining of beads and wearing of masks and assorted debauchery, and early this week on Shrove Tuesday thousands upon thousands will gorge themselves on pancakes and other assorted sweets as a final hurrah before they get down to the business of fasting, this Sundays meaning often gets left in the dust. While pre-Lenten overconsumption and madcap shenanigans play prominently in our religious psyche for the next three or four days, our secular world will likely neglect the story of the Transfiguration, leaving it in the dust of antiquity. There are times, I think, when our post-modern world seems to think it has outgrown this quaint story of metamorphosis and transformation. This story where Jesus shines with an almost eerie light and communes with the prophets of old. One wonders if we haven’t dismissed this story for it is hard for our 21st century minds to adopt the visions of those four disciples who traveled with Jesus that day. Hard for us to imagine what occurred on that mountain top two thousand and something years ago. We are too rational, too skeptical to wrap our heads around whatever it was that happened on that hill in the middle east. We question whether the sacred could truly burst into the ordinary with such force.
We all know the story. Accounts of it are listed not just in the gospel of Matthew, but in the gospels of Mark and Luke as well, and the perspectives of each writer are all very similar. Obviously it was a story that “made the cut” into the final version of the Bible and so the early church believed in making sure the account was told. And, yes, there probably was a bit of a political agenda to the sharing of the experience as well. The writer of Matthew was adamant about trying to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And so what better way for the authority of Jesus to be conveyed than by making sure it was known that he kept company with Moses and Elijah? And then to have God pronounce again the words first declared at the baptism of Jesus, “This is my Son, the beloved.” Well, it is a pretty spectacular moment, filled with all the lights and wonder we have come to expect from a majestic God. And surely the disciples who saw it were stunned too, for they knelt in silent awe and fear. And their only response was to want to build monuments to the moment, to capture it for all time. Too much light, too much of the sacred can leave us awestruck and speechless I believe, or leave us yearning to somehow control the encounter by wanting to freeze it in our memory.
When the holy comes knocking, aren’t we often, like the disciples reluctant to accept it for what it is? Afraid of what it might mean? And how it might change us? And wanting to somehow capture it, rather than allowing it to capture us?
William Willimon, a United Methodist pastor and homiletics professor names the importance of the transfiguration in this way, “For a brief shining moment on the migration to Jerusalem and the cross, God gave the disciples what they needed to believe.” And perhaps that is the truest message of the transfiguration experience, that there are times when we see the divine clearly, and with stunning clarity and there is a sense of the ineffable which gives us reason to continue to believe, even if we cannot explain what happened. There are those transformative moments when the veil between heaven and earth is thin, and the sacred pierces our soul and hurts our eyes, and we have to hold on to those, to protect them and allow their memory to lead us when days are dim.
I may feel a special affinity for this story this week for a reason. As many of you know, I spent three days this past week on retreat. And while I was not on a mountain top in the desert in Israel, I was in my own netherworld in the hills of Michigan. I have stayed at GilChrist retreat center in the woods outside of Three Rivers for more than ten years on various excursions. Each hermitage, a one room cabin, of which there are ten on the land has its own flavor and feel. And because I was late in making reservations this season, I ended up in a new cabin, and for someone who isn’t keen on change this was not a welcome transition. I was housed in a place not nestled in the heart of the valley in woods where I felt safe and protected, but instead atop the highest hill in the area. My little aerie was called “Hawk’s Nest” and there were times when I looked out the window and literally thought I was going to tumble forward, because I was perched so high and could see so far. It was my own personal mountain, right in the heart of Michigan.
Being away on a retreat allows the world to slip away in bits and pieces, and allows for a clarity of vision. I pondered often as I planned for our Lenten season in the silence what it means for the sacred and profane to cross paths, for the mountain-top experience to immerse itself in the daily world. I wondered what the transfiguration would look like to our modern eyes. What it would take for us to see Christ in dazzling form in this time and place.
On my first evening away I was feeling especially raw. Silence, I’ve found, can do that. A few hours in the wilderness has the power to unnerve me and shake loose all the chaos and craziness of my mind. Buddhists who meditate regularly like to call this “monkey mind,” which makes perfect sense to me. A mentor of mine, a wise woman and pastor named Louie, once told me that in the first hours of retreat the only thing one can do is allow one’s mind to go blank…to stare out the window and let yourself soak into the landscape. And so after unpacking, I simply sat in the rocking chair and slipped into the quiet as I watched woodpeckers and robins and bluejays dart between the trees and onto my deck to gingerly feed from the birdfeeder not six feet from my window. But my monkey mind was not drifting into studied meditation on the transfiguration, or into disciplined prayer, but was instead dwelling on this friend, Louie. For Louie died tragically in a car accident two years ago, and it is a grief which still is quite raw for me. And a grief I push away in my day to day life.
One of the things I was remembering about my friend was her love of bold color. She grew up in Africa and she basked in the warm sun, in seeing the batik prints of the Nigerian villagers. Louie’s philosophy was “the brighter the better” and so when I picked out gifts for her I always veered toward the red spectrum. This has morphed into a ritual of sorts since her death of pausing when I see a cardinal, honoring those reds that Louie loved, and stopping short in my path and holding her memory and wisdom near me.
All afternoon on Tuesday I worked in my little hill-top nest. I read. I wrote. And that night after thinking about the message that Jesus gave on that mountain, after he revealed to the disciples the light which radiated from him, I stopped and reflected again on Louie and the gaping hole her death has left in this world of the light that was extinguished for me on the cold December day when she was killed. I put my laptop aside, and got out my journal and began to write about her and the legacy she left, and then, suddenly something caught my eye. And I share this story with all the conviction of a woman who has never really been all that convinced of “ooh-wah” signs from God. Despite the title of “reverend” in front of my name and that certificate claiming I have a masters in divinity I still tend to lead with my head. But this occurance I cannot deny. For there on the deck outside my patio doors alit a bright red cardinal, almost iridescent in the last blues and pinks of the dusk sky. And I held my breath as it turned and cocked its head at me, watching. It was the only cardinal I had seen all day. Indeed, the only cardinal I saw from my window after that.
And for this reason, the story of the transfiguration came alive anew, and I could almost imagine the shimmer of the face of the Christ aglow. For in that time and place on that mountain the holy and the ordinary had somehow found its way into the human world to those disciples. And while we may not understand it, we may not be able to wrap our brains around the details of it, there was power in it. And we can, and do, in our own way have our own little wee tiny mini-transfiguration moments which call us into places of holy awe. There are still times when we stumble into those thin places where the instersection of the sacred and divine meet. And there are still fleeting glimpses and signs in our lives where we know that something surely more than just coincidence and logical linear fact are at work.
And so I have to ask, “Does it matter if Jesus really appeared to those disciples? If there were indeed Moses and Elijah, alive and in the flesh, all actually communing with Jesus? Does it matter if heaven and earth truly and factually met in those moments so that radiant and blinding light was cast around?” Perhaps instead of seeking the science of it the answer lies in what we allow ourselves to believe. Perhaps the answer lies more in how we allow the story to change us. Perhaps the wisdom of the transfiguration is in how we allow ourselves to trust in the blinding light that shone from the face of Christ our teacher. And how we allow that light to reveal itself in our daily life even now.
In her book, “Home by Another Way” Barbara Brown Taylor says, “There is no shortage of epiphanies in this world. Those of us who have not yet glimpsed the brightness of the Lord may still behold his glory, reflected all around us.” And so as we discipline ourselves to journey with Christ again in this Lenten season, I invite you to immerse yourself in the light of the mystery of the one who shone dazzling white for all, and scan the horizon for your own cardinals. For we are awash in the glory of God, may we have the eyes to see the glow.