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Vague attempts at describing the Transfiguration of Jesus might be as follows: overwhelming glimpses. Sounds a bit like an oxymoron: seeing more than you can handle but in just a brief, fleeting moment. But perhaps that’s for the best. In the biblical texts, any time you encounter even just a moment of God’s presence, the experience just cannot be tamed into easily recountable words or images.
Nonetheless, when one encounters God, there is good reason to speak of the experience. It may come in the oddest of moments or at the most appropriate times, yet you know that in the midst of things, you have encountered God. The best way to enter into the Transfiguration narrative is to hear about those times when God has been experienced. You might call them “mountain top moments” or “God sightings” as a pastor I know used to call them.
The writer Robert Coles shares a wonderful story of an argument he once had with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was an advocate for the poor and the church’s calling to identify and live with those in need. Dorothy Day was also a person accustomed to staring down her opponents (bishops included). A formidable servant of God is the best way I would put it after reading her story! Thus, an argument with Dorothy Day would be quite memorable.
Coles and Day were arguing about how the spiritual life really worked. Coles said that he pressed Day on how she knew spirituality worked. Dorothy Day explained that we live long, secular days and experience short sacred moments.
In the religious world, “secular” is a word that we tend to use as “the opposite of something that is sacred.” Day had experienced in her own life this knowledge that no matter how long things went on that seemed mundane or not necessarily out of the ordinary, there were always times, even if brief, when you experienced something unmistakably evident of the sacred at work.
Of course, there is another dimension to experiencing “sacred moments.” When we are suddenly in the midst of such a spiritual time, it is more than just feeling. The Bible tells of many times of mere mortals experiencing time in God’s presence. The most intense of these experiences is called a “theophany”. When Moses stands before the burning bush or Isaiah is taken up into the highest heavens to be called as a prophet, again, words seem so shallow to capture the moment. But look at any decent Bible dictionary, and you’ll read about theophanies as always ending, no matter where they occur, with a call to serve.
Jesus took these disciples up the mountain to pray. As you will remember, Luke’s talk of the prayer life of Jesus is always on the fervency of Jesus ‘ prayers. Jesus withdraws to pray not because of being overwhelmed but because of his connection to God. Jesus invites his disciples to a life not fraught with duties and obligations, but one of passion, and devotion even if it is shaped by sacrifice and simplicity.
The disciples fall asleep and miss out on the beginning of the transfiguration of Jesus. They wake up to see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and Jesus caught up in divine glory. As they scramble to their feet (and their brains are a little scrambled too!), they start trying to figure out how to mark this occasion. Peter even suggests that they set up a marker to commemorate the event.
Then the divine voice rumbles from above: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And suddenly all that talk of drawing up a holy monument goes to the wayside. The disciples fall silent. Their first response is not to speak. They are overwhelmed by the Holy.
Yet, in true human fashion, as soon as they are silent before God, the disciples start trying their best to come up with something to explain the moment. Sometimes, God cannot be explained, yet we will exhaust ourselves trying to explain God and God's ways.
To make sense of the Transfiguration, or any moment that is God-suffused, we need to wrestle with the “so what?” question. We see a brilliant sunset, receive a wise word at just the right time, or experience a moment that suddenly makes sense of the knot our life seems to be in. To experience God is not about “feelings”; it is about “knowing” that God is prompting us to something beyond our imaginings. The disciples are overwhelmed by the moment, confused by the moment, and even try to make sense of the moment by offering to build something commemorative. Then the voice of God speaks, and they realize that there’s something much bigger going on. In the true fashion of a holy experience, they realize that words just cannot make up explaining what has taken place.
The brilliance of the Gospel traditions, Luke and Mark alike, is evident here. When the disciples descend to the places down below the mountain, Jesus and the disciples are asked to help people in need. The call to serve is made quite clear when the disciples come down from their high places and encounter the needs below.
One error that the Church often makes is keeping faith all about the high moments. Over the centuries, Christians have tended to put their energies into building big monuments that are commonly called “church buildings”, “cathedrals” or “church campuses”. We do this for the glory of God, yet we tend to forget that the church is really about people, not buildings, and if we are ignoring the needs of people around us, we are missing the gospel that Jesus preached and modelled. Even when affirmed by God, Jesus did not ignore the needs awaiting him down below.
The healing of the child at the bottom of the hill symbolizes our own call to be disciples who can have these “God sightings” AND know how to live out a life shaped by the call to serve God and tend the needs of this world. We must remember that even in the blessings and joys of encountering God at work in the little and big things of this congregation’s life are indeed blessings and joy, but they are also calls to serve.