The Transfiguration – February 27, 2022
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and we are given the story of the Transfiguration. Of Jesus’ transfiguration. An amazing story that is shared in three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Like Moses before him, Jesus is given an experience of God and God’s majesty. Mountaintop experiences are like an alternative reality with the palpable presence of the kingdom of God, here and now. It’s no wonder Peter wants to harness the holy, to make the fleeting permanent, to keep Jesus shiny, beautiful, and safe up on a mountain. After all, everything is so good up there. So clear. So bright. So unmistakably spiritual. Why not stay?
Well, because God is just as present, active, engaged, and glorious down in the valley as God is in the visions of saints, clouds, and shadows that Peter experiences in the high places. In fact, what Peter eventually learns is that the compassionate heart of God is most powerfully revealed amidst the broken, the sinful, the suffering, and the despairing. The kingdom of God shines most brightly against the backdrop of the parent who grieves, the child who cries, the “demons” who oppress, and the disciples who try but fail to manufacture the holy. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. God’s beauty is best contained in broken vessels. We might not like this aspect of faith, but it’s an aspect that has much to teach us.
Jesus, like Moses, in spite of being chosen, is not granted easy passage. Jesus comes down from the mountain, into the valley, after his mountaintop experience. And this is so important, that Jesus came down from the mountain and met the crowds and immediately set about rebuking an unclean spirit and healing a boy. In the words that make up a title of a book, love bent down. God became united with God’s own creation in a radical, irreversible way. God, in Jesus, became one of us and walked through the dark, lonesome valley with us. Love bent down.
We are all experiencing, on some level, the horror of what’s happening in Ukraine, which is bringing about fear, frustration, anger among other emotions. This is a dark valley that is difficult to journey through. But we have examples of others who have made that journey. One that comes to mind is Etty Hillesum who is called the “Mystic of the Holocaust”. She was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation and who died at age 29 as one of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. In her short, remarkable life, Etty grew to see God in the depths of her own soul as well as in all other people.
In the book Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, editor Anne Marie Kidder writes, “Etty is a mystic who, amid the war’s horrors, could affirm the goodness and beauty of life and taught herself, as she taught others, to explore the landscape of the soul and the soul’s quest for truth and God.”
Etty’s transforming journey is a textbook case, Kidder observes.
“In the beauty of the smallest pebble, the petals of a flower, the curling branches of a tree, she could detect the entire cosmos, and this discovery made her burst out with the exuberant pronouncement that life was beautiful and God was good. When Etty decided to volunteer working at the Nazi transit camp and insisted on remaining there against the urging of friends…it was from the conviction that she would be carrying her peace and love into the world in order to transform the world, at least to some small degree.”
Jesus came down from the mountaintop into the ordinary life of the world. Finding God in the ordinary requires dwelling in the ordinary. As Debi Thomas shares:
So here’s the great challenge of the Christian life: can we speak glory to agony, and agony to glory? Can we hold the mountain and the valley as one — denying neither, and embracing both? Can we do this hard work out of love and compassion for each other, so that no one among us is left to hurt and suffer in the places where God’s presence is harder to discern?
What’s hard is consenting to follow Jesus back down the mountain. What’s essential is finding Jesus on the long road. In the deep sorrow. At the heart of the unanswered prayer. What’s key is discerning the presence of God in the spaces between the light and the shadow.
With Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. Having seen the brightness of Epiphany, we prepare now for the holy darkness of Lent. We can’t know ahead of time what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears, Jesus remains among us — Jesus alone.
So don’t be afraid to come down from the mountain. Keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him. He is Lord of all.