Sunday, February 26, 2017

Being Transfigured By the Presence of the Holy

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A) – Transfiguration
Matthew 17.1-9
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

For the last two months, we have made our journey through the season of Epiphany. Today we come to the end of that journey. This is the last Sunday before beginning a new journey – our Lenten journey. The journey in which we walk with Jesus as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and what awaits him there.

Throughout the season after Epiphany we have explored various ways Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. Today, we witness the Transfiguration – what is probably the most dramatic way, short of the Resurrection, that Jesus is revealed as Son of God, as God incarnate. As such, this is a proper ending to the season of Epiphany – the grand finale, if you will.

In our Gospel reading for today, there are two things going on that are of significance, for differing reasons – Jesus’ Transfiguration and the disciples’ response to it.

First, the Transfiguration itself. We are told that Jesus’ appearance changes, becoming dazzling white. He is seen in radiant glory, showing forth his divinity. Revealing that he is at the same time fully human and fully divine. That he is indeed the Son of God. But this is not just a revelation in the present moment. In his Transfiguration, there is also a foreshadowing of the eternal glory Jesus will have following his Resurrection. This is followed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. In the Sermon on the Mount, in a portion we heard just a couple weeks ago, Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5.17). The presence of Moses, receiver and giver of the Law, and Elijah, greatest of the Prophets, symbolize Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. All of these coming together to provide irrefutable evidence of who Jesus is in the fullest.

Then, as if by this point there is still any doubt, we hear God’s voice out of the cloud, providing the disciples with confirmation of who Jesus is and their instructions for what follows. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17.5). This is truly revelation of Jesus’ true nature and being, the coming together of humanity and divinity in one person.

Second, we have the disciples’ reaction and response, as expressed primarily by Peter. Witnessing the transfiguration of their teacher and friend, accompanied by the appearance of Moses and Elijah, is obviously an awe-some, awe-inspiring, experience. They are surrounded by, even wrapped in, the presence of the Holy. They are in the presence of two of the greatest prophets of history, both of whom had seen God face-to-face, who had walked with God. They are in the presence of the Son of God. And in the cloud that covered the mountain, they were surrounded by God himself. What they experience surpasses their capacity for description, their capacity to fully comprehend. Peter, like so many of us in the face of the indescribable, is unable to just be silent and take it all in. Rather, he feels a need to say something. Somewhat lamely, he manages, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” And then, in typical human fashion, in the awkwardness of not knowing what to do with this incomprehensible event, Peter feels the need to do something. “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mt 17.4). He is attempting to hold onto the moment – to stay on the mountaintop and just bask in the glory of the Divine Presence.

Immediately before going up the mountain, Jesus had told the disciples that he about to begin his journey to Jerusalem and about his immanent death. That’s part of why they want to build dwellings and hold on to the moment. They want to save themselves, and Jesus, from the pain and the heartache that inevitably will come. They want to hold onto that moment with Jesus, to not let him go. But that’s not what’s supposed to happen. God speaks up, setting Peter straight. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Essentially telling the three disciples that staying on that mountaintop is not what they are meant to do. “Listen to Jesus, he will make all things clear.”

After Jesus calms Peter, James, and John, they look up and all is as it was before. It’s just the four of them. No Moses. No Elijah. No bright cloud. The scene ends with the words, “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’” (Mt 17.9). Why not? Why not share such an extraordinary experience, at least with the other disciples? Because it really won’t make much sense until later – after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Only then will it be put in appropriate context. Only when they see the light of the Resurrection will they be able to truly comprehend the majesty of the Transfiguration.

Also, because Jesus understood something about highly charged spiritual experiences – experiences that we now refer to as “mountaintop experiences.” That after such experiences, we need time to be quiet and reflect on what has happened. To sort it out, to allow transformation to occur. It is only in hindsight, only after having a chance to reflect, that we are able to see where God was in a particular situation – that God was in that particular situation, and how. To begin to see what God is calling us to do or be through that situation. This is where the transformation begins to occur. Where our own transfiguration occurs.

Nonetheless, there is always the temptation to hang on to those mountaintop experiences. To want to continue to live in the presence of the Holy. To try to hold onto the incredible, indescribable feelings we experience.

I had one of those types of experiences about 23 years ago while on a Benedictine study tour in England. By way of backstory, it’s important to note that I arrived a day late for the beginning of the study tour, thanks to a rail strike. Just that one day made a big difference in my initial experience. People had already begun to get to know each other, had started bonding. As a result of my late arrival, I felt like an outside, not really part of the group.

About a week in, our group made an overnight trip to Ampleforth Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery north of York. Shortly after arriving, we had the opportunity to sing evening prayer with the monks. After evening prayer, I felt moved to just stay in the chapel and pray. The chapel was cold and dimly lit, and as I sat there in the darkness praying, I suddenly experienced a sense of light and warmth, what I perceived to be the overwhelming presence of God surrounding me, holding me, loving me. All I could do was cry. I didn’t want to leave that place. I felt completely at ease, as if I had found home. I finally brought myself to leave the chapel. I was quiet throughout dinner, thinking about my incredible experience. That night, I did not sleep much. My spirit was restless. My mind was awhirl. The next morning after breakfast, I told Norvene, one of our program leaders, that I needed to talk to her. We took a walk through the foggy Yorkshire countryside while I told her about my experience the night before and how I felt like I might be called to stay at Ampleforth. She said it sounded like I was indeed being called to something, and maybe I needed some time for discernment. She offered to talk to the Abbot to get his permission for me to stay on for a while. The idea was very tempting. But then I began thinking of all sorts of questions. Was I ready to become Catholic so I could stay here? How will my parents react when I call to tell them I’m not coming home? What about my house and all my belongings back in California? What about my career? Of course, I was putting the cart before the horse. After thinking and praying about it, I ultimately declined Norvene’s offer. I realized that was not what God was really calling me to do. I realized that I needed to come down from that mountaintop and continue on with the group. Somehow, it seemed so important that I continue with that group on their journey – on our journey.

The first day was difficult. It was kind of surreal. I wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing. As I worked through my conflicting feelings, I began to realize that I had made the right choice. It was transformative in that while I had not felt much like a part of the group before, from that moment forward, I knew my place and I felt very much a part of the group. I also had a much clearer sense of the general direction God had in store for my life. While I did not answer God’s call at that time, it was a pivotal moment in my discernment process – the moment at which I realized in a very serious way that God was calling me to something. What it was had yet to be made clear. This was the moment at which I knew I had to really begin the work of discernment.

I couldn’t stay on the mountaintop – or rather, at the monastery – of my transfiguration. That ultimately wouldn’t have accomplished anything fruitful. I would have just been living a fantasy. I would not have had the real opportunity to discern and test out what it was that God was really calling me into. Of course, it took another five years of discernment and some pretty heated arguments with God before I finally accepted the call to Holy Orders.

So it was with our friends on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Jesus must go down the mountain to carry out his ultimate mission – to go to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, brought to trial, tortured, crucified, and ultimately resurrected. To fulfill his mission that will defeat sin and death and bring about the salvation of humanity. Similarly, Peter, James, and John must go down the mountain, to where their ultimate mission awaits. This will not come until after Jesus’ own mission is completed, when there’s will begin. To lead the movement Jesus began into the future. To spread the Good News of Jesus, particularly the Good News of what he has accomplished through his death and resurrection, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

So, too, with our own mountaintop experiences, our experiences of the Divine Presence in our lives. These are not just private matters for us to hold onto, to cherish in secret. Rather such moments are a gift given to us – yes, for our own joy and use, to energize us, inspire us, and guide us. But also to share with others, so that they too might derive benefit from them.

Now, not all experiences of the Divine Presence are as dramatic as the Transfiguration event. Every week, we come into the presence of the Holy. We hear God’s voice, not out of a cloud, but spoken through the words of scripture, through sacred music. We come into the presence of the Holy at the Lord’s Table. Ordinary bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ – bringing us into the presence of the Holy – the Real Presence of Christ. Just as Jesus touched the disciples, we are touched by his presence among us. But we cannot stay in the presence of the Holy, basking in the Presence of Christ. Rather, we must leave the mountaintop and walk out into the world, back to our everyday lives. But in our time here, we are transformed, transfigured, by the presence of the Holy. Even if imperceptibly,

Like Peter, James, and John, we are changed by our own mountaintop experiences. Like them, we must go back into the real world. But unlike them, we are not commanded to tell no one what we have witnessed, what we have experienced. Rather, we are called, even commanded, to go down the mountain and proclaim what we have experienced, how we ourselves have been transfigured by the Risen Christ. To show forth the glory of Christ in our own lives. In this way, both we and the world around us might be transfigured into what and who God is calling us to be.

No comments: