A Transfigurative Moment

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

Prayer of the Day: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“For [Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” II Peter 1:17-18.

Any way you look at it, we who follow Jesus stake everything on second hand information. Unlike Saint Peter, we were not there on the mountain top where “Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father.” We did not witness his transfiguration or overhear his conversation with Moses and Elijah. We were not enveloped under the bright cloud or brought to our knees by the divine voice. What we do have are the sacred writings of the apostles and their disciples passed on over the last two millennia first through oral tradition, then in written form and finally canonized by the church as faithful and reliable witnesses to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaimed. The immediacy of Jesus’ transfiguration-as is the case with the rest of his life and ministry-is forever beyond our reach.

Or is it? Do we still experience what the New Testament calls “Kairos” time? Instances when time and eternity intersect? Occasions when centuries of chronological time collapse into a single moment? Intense experiences of God’s presence to us in the present moment? I think that most believers can describe experiences of that kind. Many of us who have spent weeks of our childhood at Christian camps have memories of deep friendships formed, intimate worship experiences that deepened our faith and moments of intense spiritual joy. Some of us have experienced a rebirth and deepening of our faith at some crisis point in our lives that has imprinted itself on our hearts and minds.

I, for one, frequently sense a foretaste of the new creation when I see dancers defying the power of gravity and hinting at our final release from the gravitational pull of sin and death. I sometimes experience the timelessness of the communion of saints at the funeral of a loved one when, through tears, the congregation finds itself singing as one with the saints in light. I experience the immediacy of God’s inbreaking kingdom when poets stretch human words and images to the breaking point making room for mysteries too big for words. These are just a few ways God’s Spirit breaks through the ordinary rhythms of life and transfigures our vision, letting us know that there is more, so much more.

The thing to remember is that these transfiguration moments are transitory. Most of our days continue to flow in plain old chronological time where one thing follows another. Most of our weeks involve going to work or school, preparing and eating our meals, reading the mail, taking out the trash and singing the liturgy on Sunday. I do not mean to denigrate the ordinary. There is holiness to be found in the humblest task and joy that flows from the routine work of living and serving others. Indeed, I would say that the joyful work of discipleship is always done in the ordinary and that the ordinary is where our focus ought to be. Transfigurative experiences are not intended to free us from the ordinary, but to drive us back into it with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.  

Transfiguration moments can be transformative. They can sustain one’s faith in times when it is being sorely tested. They can broaden one’s vision and remind one that beneath the smallest subatomic particle the Spirit of God is throbbing with unlimited potential, the Word of God is tenaciously holding creation together against the powers of evil that would rip it apart and the parental providence of God is drawing it toward its proper end in God’s Trinitarian Self. Life is not directionless. It is going somewhere. Every so often, the Spirit of God gives us a glimpse-but no more than that-of the final destination. That is often just enough to keep us putting one foot in front of the other.

At this juncture in the gospel narrative, the disciples needed the Transfiguration. Jesus had just told them what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem. He told them that the cross he was to bear would be theirs to share. The gospels tell us the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were unwilling to accept it. How could they have reacted otherwise? Who can blame Peter for wanting to prolong the moment of Transfiguration and drown in the light of Jesus’ glory his call to take up the cross? Who can blame us for wanting to turn off the frightening news of war, deadly earthquakes, unidentified objects flying over us and ever new permutations of Covid 19? Who can blame any of us for wanting to tarry in the sunlight rather than take up the cross and follow Jesus into the darkness of death? How is it possible to believe that this dark path leads finally to a new creation?

Thank God for artists and sculptors who open our eyes to what is not yet, but might be. Thank God for musicians who lift our spirits, joining our hearts and voices in song, giving us a brief taste of the unity God desires for all humanity. Thank God for dancers and athletes whose bodily antics prefigure the freedom of the resurrected body from the gravitational pull of sin and death. Thank God for poets who stretch our minds and our imaginations beyond what we typically observe. Thank God for preachers who open the letter of scripture, making it a portal into the new age toward which we are being led. Thank God for transfigurative moments, great and small. May they give us just enough light to make once again the journey through Lent and into the mystery of the Resurrection!

Here is a transfigurative poem by James Weldon Johnson inviting us to “Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds.”

Sonnet

My heart be brave, and do not falter so,   

Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.   

Thy way is very dark and drear I know,   

But do not let thy strength and courage fail;   

For certain as the raven-winged night

Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,   

Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;   

’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.   

Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,   

And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,   

Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,   

Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:

   Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,

   There is a power making for the right.

Source:  Complete Poems (c. 2000 by Penguin Publishing Group). James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, teacher and civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led civil rights campaigns aimed at eliminating legal, political, and social obstacles to black advancement. Johnson was appointed under President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1906 to 1913. In 1934, he was the first African American professor to be hired at New York University. Later in life, he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically black university. In addition to these achievements, Johnson was also a gifted author and poet. He established his reputation as a writer and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novel and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture. His poem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was later set to music and came to be known as “the Negro National Anthem.” It is found in many Christian hymnals today, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). See ELW # 841.You can read more about James Weldon Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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