Now about eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James,
and went up on the mountain to pray.
And while he was praying,
the appearance of his face changed,
and his clothes became dazzling white.
Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday
Transfiguration Sunday is neither a fast nor a feast but something bizarre, something very large and uncontainable.
We are at the last week of Ordinary Time until June, and the least possible Ordinary Thing rushes to meet us with the speed of a pillar of fire.
Jesus, who has been spending every day in the muck of daily life – touching untouchables, taking naps, running away for introvert time, picking fights with institutional leaders, and being so very human – goes up on a mountain and the very-human Jesus does not look so very-human any more.
People who preach this passage as a joyful “mountaintop experience” are not watching the disciples very closely. This is not a glorious, hands-in-the-air worship experience. The disciples are terrified. They’ve had a Jesus revealed to them that they had no idea existed, and they panic. (I preached about this when I studying at Candler School of Theology, and you can read my sermon or watch it here).
This is a supremely uncomfortable experience. This is dismantling and disorienting.
Disorientation isn’t a bad thing, though.
Sometimes disorientation is what we need so that we can remember that enchantment is more solid than any of our “real life” kingdoms.
Re-enchanting Our Imagination
It’s raining in Atlanta today, the kind of Southern rainstorm that comes out of nowhere and then stays all day. Things do not feel enchanted today in Atlanta. Things feels very humdrum.
We wash dishes and go to meetings and binge Netflix and go to church. We set alarm clocks and get to work on time; we set timers and take the bread out of the oven. Spirituality can become one more time-bound activity that we busy ourselves up with.
We are in desperate need of holy disorientation.
Scripture is a record of time-bound people who are making bread, going to work, going to worship, and then bumping into the glory of God. It happens while herding sheep in the desert, while making dinner, while on the road. The people of God are always trying to contextualize these moments of holiness, especially in the passage today. The Gospel writers link the kabod of God (the weight of glory) that Moses experienced on Sinai with the Transfiguration, and Luke in particular is contextualizing Jesus as a Jewish Messiah who fulfils both the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). The Gospel writers do poetic work, painting theological pictures with the otherworldly colors that linger after the new revelation.
But before we paint, we’re just stunned. Confused. Scared.
Before we are comforted, we are disoriented.
This disorientation is incredibly holy.
We have to be disenchanted of the lies that “time is all there is,” that “everything real can be touched.” This disenchantment hurts and is scary. All our plans look absurd now, all our sermons taste flat, everything we wanted to be when we grew up is meaningless here “at the end of all things.”
Disorientation means coming to the end of the world and finding ourselves terrified at a spiritual cliff face.
Paul says that at the bottom of the cliff, though, there’s hope.
Therefore We Do Not Lose Heart.
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.
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry,
we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians 3:18-4:1
Epistle for Transfiguration Sunday
When our hearts are dog-tired, Paul tells us that it is disorientation and re-enchantment that will keep us from losing heart.
Glory, the kabod God, the ineffable, gives us courage.
Magic will keep us alive.
This explosion on Bafflement Mountain saves us from what will slowly kill us – our obsession with the kingdoms of this earth, our obsessions with control and power and security, all things that the enchanted world of the Divine has no use for.
It is scary. But if we let it, if we submit to the mystery, it can start to change us.
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
I say “start to” change us because these bizarre experiences of the holy shake us for a minute and then, just like the disciples, we get back to the normal. A few verses later, the disciples are arguing about who is going to have the most power and respect in Jesus’ kingdom, so they aren’t as transfigured as one might hope. That’s discouraging, but also comforting. We’ll experience mystery, we’ll be shaken, we’ll release our grip on the world for a moment, and then we’re back at it. Jesus expects that and is gentle with it.
But for a half-second, something that we can’t explain will bust open the walls of our cement ugly-ass buildings that we have constructed on value, power, popularity, security, religious cliches.
And if God is gracious to us, that minute will haunt us and keep us awake at night, because we are in desperate need of some holy sleepless nights.
…the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” – C.S. Lewis
Before we step into Lent, before we begin to fast, before we remember our death, before we walk through 40 days of repentance and sorrow – we say goodbye to Ordinary Time with the a flash of remembrance that everything ordinary exists right alongside the extraordinary. We honor the mystery, that we can’t see or taste or touch except every so often on a terrifying mountain.
While we pray for justice, peace, hope, repentance, maybe we should also pray that God will be the exploder of all our hopes and dreams, and drop us into realities that we don’t have words for – realities that we’ll screw up in, but that will bring us to closer to the topsy-turvy shalom of the mystery of God.
God is alive, magic is afoot
God is alive, magic is afoot
God is afoot, magic is alive
Alive is afoot, magic never died
Though mountains danced before them
They said that God was dead
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
– Leonard Cohen