Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2008.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA
|Exodus 24:12-18||Psalm 99|
|2 Peter 1:16-21||Matthew 17:1-9|
On the Mountain
It’s a rowdy season just now in New England and across the country – a season of hubbub and excitement. Today’s the day of the Super Bowl (in case you hadn’t noticed), and we’re gearing up for Super Tuesday. Whether it’s the wide world of sports or the wide world of politics that most captures our attention, either way many of us are charged up this weekend, ready to make history, with passions running high.
Yet when we walked into church this morning, we stepped into a different space. Here on our last, climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season, God summons us away from the clamor and commotion of our fast-paced and sometimes driven lives, and sends us up the mountain to pray, as Moses did, as Elijah did, and as Jesus did, as well. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping views and its cold, clean air, we have a chance to sense – and perhaps encounter – what today’s second reading calls the “Majestic Glory” [2 Peter 1:17], the Glorious Majesty that we call God.
“Come up to me on the mountain,” the LORD said to Moses [Exodus 24:12]. And so Moses went up Mount Sinai and received the Law – the Ten Commandments – that established the covenant between God and God’s people. Moses spoke with God as one might speak with a friend, and his face shone with God’s glory.
“Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD,” the LORD commanded Elijah, the greatest of the prophets [1 Kings 19:11]. And so Elijah went up Mount Horeb and from its height the LORD passed by – not in the tumultuous wind that loudly split the rocks apart, not in the earthquake nor in the raging fire, but “in a sound of sheer silence” [1 Kings 19:12].
Like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus headed up a mountain to pray. Six days after Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and after Jesus told his disciples about his coming passion and death, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and climbed with them the 9,000 feet of Mount Hermon.
On that high mountain Jesus’ prayer grew into an intense religious experience. As we just heard, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” [Matthew17:2], an event that is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. To describe what happened, the Greek texts use the word “metamorphosis,” and the Latin texts, the word “transfiguration.” Whatever you call it, the meaning is the same: at the top of the mountain, Jesus was swept up into the love and infinite grandeur that created and sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”(1) so completely infused and embraced Jesus that who he really was – in fact, who he had always been – was revealed at last. The dazzling brightness that emanated from his body was a shining forth of his divinity. He was the light that shone through him, as the three disciples saw. To quote from today’s second reading: “we [were] eyewitnesses of his majesty” [2 Peter 1:16].
The story, despite being familiar, may sound far-fetched to the critical, rational, analytic mind, but mystics from a variety of world religions speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything. In Asia, for instance, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.(2) Christian mystics likewise speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body. We can’t see it but we sense it close by. We might describe it as lighting up the edges of things, or shining out from within them. We experience it as light even though we can’t see it – and that’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Matthew uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of a “bright cloud” that “overshadowed” them. Something about perceiving that radiant darkness can’t help but awaken our love.
We usually think of the Transfiguration in terms of the eye – in terms of light and a blaze of glory. We speak, as in today’s Collect, of “[beholding] by faith the light of his countenance,” and, as in that beautiful passage from today’s second reading, of being “attentive as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts” [2 Peter 1:19]. Visual imagery is a powerful way to speak of God. But I think it’s good to notice that the story of the Transfiguration also speaks about the power of the ear to lead us to God – about the power of listening, the power of silence.
Take Peter, for instance. His eyes have been opened – he has seen Jesus’ face shining like the sun; he has seen Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white; he has seen Jesus suddenly draw to himself Moses and Elijah, the lawgiver and the prophet, the two most holy men of Israel; and he has seen that Jesus’ authority is even greater than theirs. And what does Peter do? He starts babbling – as I probably would, too. The Gospels of Mark and Luke add a comment that Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying – he’s frightened, so he starts chattering about building three dwellings right there on the spot, as if he’s trying to regain some kind of control over what’s happening, trying to make sense of it within his conceptual framework, to contain it and somehow box it in.
But even while he’s talking, poor soul – just as we all start talking to ourselves when our experience in prayer becomes too intense and we’re afraid of losing control – God interrupts Peter in mid-sentence, as if to put a gentle hand over Peter’s mouth and to say Hush. Then “a bright cloud [overshadows] them, and from the cloud a voice [says], “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Today, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we recall how the season began. The dazzling star that led the wise men to the infant Jesus is now the light that shines from Jesus himself. The voice from heaven that spoke at Jesus’ baptism now speaks as a voice from the cloud, and repeats the same words, adding only: “Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen. That’s a message about hearing, about keeping quiet, about being attentive with our ears, as if we can only apprehend the fullness of God in Christ, or take in his glory, if we know a good deal about silence.
So how are we doing at listening – at listening to ourselves, at listening to each other, at listening to God? I can’t help but think of all the people who walk around feeling lonely, because no one really listens to them. I can’t help but think of all of us who are so eager to speak, so quick to insert ourselves into a conversation or to turn the conversation back to our own agenda, our own preoccupations and concerns, as if we’ve forgotten the kindly art of making space for someone else. I think of my own chattering mind, how I can fill it with voices from the radio and TV, fill it my own busy thoughts, judgments, opinions, and commentary, until I lose any sense of inner silence, any awareness of contact with God.
What would it be like to learn to listen? To walk away regularly from the world’s chatter and jargon and argument, and to listen in silence for the voice of love that is always speaking in our depths? Poet Adrienne Rich puts it like this:
“ there come times – perhaps this is one of them –
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires .”(3)
I know that when I make space for silent prayer, I find it easier to be more mindful when I speak; I feel more ready to listen to others, less hair-trigger ready to jump in with my instant reactions, judgments, or advice.
Sometimes God can only find us if we listen. Sometimes God can only speak if we are silent. Only as our minds grow still can we begin to glimpse what Thomas Merton discovered in his own practice of contemplative prayer: “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fountain of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility.”(4)
I wonder what it would be like if we kept listening to that inner silence – what metamorphosis, what transfiguration, would take place in our own lives if we returned regularly to that holy mountain. Imagine seeing Jesus’ face, all lit up with glory. What does he look like? What expression do you see in his eyes? And when you listen to his voice, what do you hear? What is it that Jesus wants so much to express to you? These are questions to explore in silence as part of a regular practice of prayer, a practice that we renew every year during Lent.
For we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever, much as we might want to. The vision of God is too much for the disciples, and they fall to the ground, overcome by fear. Jesus comes to them with great tenderness and touches them, as if to restore them to ordinary consciousness, and he tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Strengthened by the light they’ve seen, they walk with Jesus back down into the nitty-gritty struggles of their community, where people are suffering and can see no way out.
And of course we too must make our own descent down the mountain if we want to be transfigured. The light of Christ can’t grow in us if we hide out from the world but only if we immerse ourselves in it. Mystical experience is not about fleeing from the world, but about being willing both to pray and to plunge into life, both to set aside time for solitary communion with God and to roll up our sleeves and move into our workplace and into our relationships with family and friends with one ear to the ground, as we look for the light, and listen to the voice – until at last the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”(5) and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.
1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love ”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 115.
3. Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude” (excerpt), The Dream of A Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.
4. Thomas Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, New York: New Directions, 1977, p. 363.
5. “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” — St. Augustine