The Last Sunday of Epiphany – The Transfiguration preached at St Alban’s in Albany, CA
Mark 9:2-9 (click to read the gospel)
Whoa! What an experience for Peter, James, and John! It’s a good thing that Jesus told them to keep quiet. Can you imagine trying to explain that one to your friends?
But I wonder what it was like for them as they were coming down the mountain. Despite Jesus’ command to keep it quiet, I wonder if they discussed it amongst themselves… even just a bit.
Peter… “I shouldn’t have said anything about building a dwelling. How stupid was that? What an idiot he must think I am! Really! What was I thinking?” Peter, who ironically became the “rock” on which the church was built, always seemed to be the jumpy one. He later denied Jesus 3 times on the night of his torment, as you might recall.
James… “He should let us tell people! I can’t believe he won’t let us tell anyone! What, does he think? We’re scared?? I’m not! People need to know!” James, the apostle of the fiery temper, would eventually become the first of the 12 to be martyred for being a follower of Jesus.
And John… “Whoa! How amazing was that?! It was truly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Can you imagine? We just witnessed a miracle!” John, known in our tradition as the beloved disciple, was the one who stayed closest to him during his hours of torment on the cross along with a bevy of women.
Is it just me, or have I also just described the scarecrow, the lion and the tin man from the Wizard of Oz? I suppose it’s fitting, the Wizard of Oz is this fantastical dream where a young woman is transported out of Kansas on a tornado. And today’s Gospel is also a rather fantastical account in which a young man is transfigured into a new being in cloud.
What do you suppose Peter, James, and John did with this experience? How did they come to understand it? How are we to understand it?
Through Mark’s storytelling, we become privy to the knowledge that Jesus belongs amongst the pantheon of Judean prophets, indeed, the top echelon with none other than Moses and Elijah. Moses, the great leader who brought Israel out of slavery, and Elijah, who defended the worship of YHWH over the more popular god Ba’al. This is the who’s who of prophetic Jewish leaders. Mark uses the same literary motif as is used in the Hebrew scriptures here, the mountaintop theophany, or direct encounter with God, to demonstrate that Jesus belongs with these two great prophetic leaders.
But is this merely a story about inheritance? A passing of the mantle that clearly designates Jesus as the anchor leg of the great relay race of Hebrew prophecy? That’s one way of reading it, surely. A potentially dangerous way if it leads one to think that Christianity is the sole inheritor of Hebrew prophecy.
I suspect that Peter, James, and John got that Jesus was a prophet of the stature of Moses and Elijah. They were Jews who knew what it meant to have Moses and Elijah appear before them. But as we heard, they were a little freaked out. Understandably! To be honest, this description seems like the commentary from a rather wicked drug trip. I would be freaked out too! To watch their Rabbi change before their eyes must have shaken them to their core. Transfiguration literally means a change of embodiment – a change in the physical manifestation of self.
Now, while I can see the use of this text as a way to wrap up the season of Epiphany, the season of light… because, after all, Jesus was apparently rather dazzling and shiny up there on the mountain… I rather think it’s an invitation into Lent. An invitation to a transfiguration of our own.
As you know, the season of Lent has traditionally been seen as a time of preparation. Its 40-ish days are meant to be a time of purification, of transformation, of examination. A time of learning.
Lent is a time for people to go through the catechumenate – the deep learning of what it means to be a Christian – in preparation for baptism at Easter. We also associate Lent with a time where we give up something that proves to be a temptation for us. Or we fast in some way to demonstrate submission to God. I’ve also known people who use Lent as a time to take on a new practice such as daily prayer/meditation, or exercise.
And Lent is a penitential time. A time of reconciliation. A time when we bring our darkest parts to the light of Christ. The practice of confession is a powerful ritual. In the Episcopal Church, we, of course, offer a corporate confession nearly every week. And as a denomination, we offer the lesser known sacramental rite of the reconciliation of a penitent. Many would know this is private or individual confession.
All of these practices are opportunities for the transfiguration to take place in us… but not because we are evil. I don’t believe that for a second. I know that the truth of who we are, the very ground of our being is that we are exquisite manifestations of God’s grace. We are the beloved of God.
Recalling the psalm:
God speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
We are made of this earth, from the waters of salt and brine and mountaintop snow and the dusty, desolate desert and the dark, moss covered forest floor, the wet sand of the beach… we are made of this earth and breathed to life by God’s own breath.
We are summoned from this earth as the beloved creatures of God, along with the redwood and the tamarack pine, the chameleon and the grey wolf, the rat and the little terrier named Toto. We, the creatures of God are blessed. We are the perfection of beauty in which God shines forth.
So why do we need Lent? If we are these magnificent creatures, why do we need to be transfigured?
Quite simply, because we carry shame. We carry parts of ourselves that we think are lesser parts. We have pieces of our experience that we hide, even from ourselves. Things that we would rather not think about, would rather not let others know about, and most definitely do not want other people to see. And it’s usuallly nothing we’ve done, but something done to us – the shame of being abused, being the object of ridicule. Or it’s something beyond our control, like being inexperienced at something.
And because of this, we shut ourselves down in some way, and become unable to have fully loving relationships because we become unable to receive love. We block it because we think we don’t deserve it. Shame can be a healthy thing, when it helps bring us back to right relationship… like when we feel badly that we’ve treated someone poorly and we apologize. But when we over-identify with shame and hide parts of ourselves, there is nothing more harmful to our ability to perceive grace and experience God’s love.
These parts – these aspects or experiences that we hide in darkness – are the parts of ourselves that are being called to be transformed. These are the parts that I think God wants us to recover in some way so that we can be made a new creation in the explosive joy that happens at our Easter Vigil.
What science has revealed to us is that it takes about 40 days of regular diligent practice to change a habit. There is this thing called the neural net. It is the connecting web of synapses in our brain. It is the part of us that keeps us locked in habit, that keeps us locked in a particular pattern, a particular understanding of ourself. Science has revealed to us what our tradition, somehow, instinctively knew – that we need periods of intentional practice to change patterns in our lives. A re-minding. A transfiguration.
And it’s not just our Christian tradition. The Islamic tradition has the month of Ramadan during which they fast and are asked to redirect their heart. The Jews have Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement, which is preceded by 40 days of penitence beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul.
So, why do we need Lent? Quite simply, we need Lent because we need to re-mind ourselves. We need intentional time to re-member whose we are and how very magnificent we are. We need Lent because God is calling us to know that we are the Beloved! To know that we are the beauty that shines forth.
We are called to be transfigured… not just in a mountaintop experience of God, such as the one that Peter, James, and John experienced, where we have a realization that temporarily lifts our mood, only to find ourselves at the bottom of the mountain again, confused and unable to sustain the deep knowledge of God’s Love.
But through our desire to be free of the shame we mistakenly, yet somehow willingly carry, we embark on a journey to have our very embodiment changed by God, to work with God to re-form our synapses, alter our neural net… in a way that transfigures us, in a way that re-minds us we are created by God and are called to shine forth the love that is inherent in our very being.
In a strange way, Lent is a lot like that journey through Oz that I mentioned earlier… where the scarecrow and the tin man and the lion all come to understand that there is nothing wrong with them after all.
Let us enter into Lent together this week, offering ourselves up to be transfigured by the Love that is God.