Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 6, 2005, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at All Saints Parish, Brookline, Ma.
Transfiguration: Christ’s and Ours
It is wonderful to be with you again. To those of you whom I havent yet met: I served for 8 years as Priest Associate at All Saints until my family and I began packing up last June for a move to western Massachusetts, where I now serve at Grace Church in Amherst. This is my first trip back, and I cant think of a happier occasion to return than today – and Im not referring only to the Superbowl. Today we mark the end of Epiphany, its literal high point. Epiphany is the season of light – it begins with the star that guided the wise men to the holy child, and it ends with Jesus radiance on a mountain.
Today is also Annual Meeting Sunday, and Im told that this years Annual Report is focused on the topic of “forming.” Thats what our whole Christian lives are about: being formed by Christ, being changed, as the Collect says, “into his likeness from glory to glory.” And what a glory it is, as we heard in todays Gospel! Soon after Jesus announced to his disciples his coming Passion and death, he went up a high mountain to pray. What began as deep prayer grew into an intense religious experience: his face and clothes began to shine as if he were lit up from within.
You probably know that mystics from a variety of religious traditions 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 enlightenment in many Eastern traditions is associated with a flow of energy throughout the human body. (1) Christian mystics likewise speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body; it cant be seen with our eyes or touched with our hands and yet it lights up the edges of things or shines out from within.
At the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up in the love that sustains the universe. What Dante called “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (2) penetrates and embraces Jesus completely. The God who met Moses on Mount Sinai, the God who met Elijah on Mount Horeb now meets Jesus so powerfully on Mount Tabor that he is changed. He is transfigured, so that who he really is – in fact, who he has always been – is revealed at last. He is the light that is shining through him. Even the three disciples can see it.
It can be a fearful thing to become aware of the radiance of Christ. Like the disciples we may fall to the ground, acutely aware of our brokenness and sinfulness, needing to cry out, as Peter did to Jesus on another occasion, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). But sometimes we may be willing to bear the love a little longer, to open to it and to let it affect us. Gradually, through Gods grace, we become able to open ourselves completely to Christ, to love without holding back, to offer everything in us and to let ourselves be loved to the core. The more steadily we are able to be present to the glory of God in Christ, the more we are changed. Epiphany begins with Jesus baptism and it ends with his transfiguration. And that is our destiny, too – the transfiguration of our human nature. As Athanasius put it dramatically many centuries ago, “God became human so that we might become God.”
The Eucharist is our training ground, our own hike up Mount Tabor. At the Eucharist, our human nature meets the divine light and power of God. Week by week we offer God our open hands, our bodies, our worries and fears, our very selves, and week by week God gives Gods self back to us in the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood. We may have no clue that were being changed. We may not feel any more holy or peaceful than we did when we walked in the church door. But in every Eucharist God meets us on the mountaintop. We offer our selves to God in Christ and his love touches and transforms us a little bit more.
Sometimes we do feel the radiance, and how sweet that is. But even so we cant stay on the mountaintop forever, though we may want to stick around and build those “dwellings” that Peter proposed. No, like the disciples and like Jesus himself, we must head back down into the darkness where the world cries out for healing and where the cross awaits. The light of Christ cant grow in us if we hide out from the world but only if we immerse ourselves in it. Mystical experience is not based on flight from the world but rather on the willingness to plunge into life and gradually to discover Jesus in every aspect of existence. (3) As we head back down the mountain we take the light back with us, and we hear Jesus words to his disciples ringing in our ears too: “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7).
I want to close with a story. It didnt take place in February or at the end of Epiphany, but its a story about transfiguration, all the same. Its a true story and its a story about you.
Maybe you remember the summer a while back when it just about never stopped raining. I remember that I grumbled a lot: it was definitely too damp and chilly for July. But that fall it was as if the trees gathered up the wet and the cold – even the complaining – and turned it into beauty, for by early October every maple, birch, and ash tree was ablaze. Commuters on the turnpike couldnt help slowing down to stare in amazement as they passed through corridors of scarlet and yellow. City kids ran laughing down the street, hands outstretched, trying to catch the gold that was raining down on their shoulders and hair.
What magic God can work in us through the natural world! In that transfigured fall, something was happening to our eyes. I tried my best not to notice – I was as busy as anyone else, I had things to do – but I remember a Sunday in late October when I couldnt put it off any longer. I decided that after celebrating Holy Communion at All Saints, Id go outside. I needed to gaze at trees.
After church I went straight to the nearest bit of woods and wildness that I could find. Here in Boston, we cant meet God on Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb, or Mount Tabor, but we do have some humbler hills, so off I went to the Habitat Nature Sanctuary in Belmont to wander through its forests and fields.
As I pulled into the driveway I wasnt surprised to find a row of parked cars. On days like that one, when the sky was blue, the wind was up, and every tree was apparently intent on proving the worlds beauty, even the most inveterate city-dweller must have felt an urge to gaze.
I walked up the path that led to a field, brushing against banks of tall grass. I nodded to a young couple with a stroller but I didnt speak: silence seemed the only way to absorb such a feast. Luscious was what it was – on the other side of the field, I could see oak trees the color of chocolate and maple trees the color of blood. I could hear a chickadee sing.
You know how it is. Nothing can prepare you for beauty. We can only take in bits at time: here is bark that is rough and bumpy to the touch. Here is a line of trees bowing down in the wind. Here is a branch that curves across the sky.
I walk more and more slowly. I come to a stop and tug a leaf off a birch tree. I take a look: its small and yellow, with a tiny stem. It rests lightly in my palm. I glance up just as a red-tailed hawk bursts from the edge of the field and wheels overhead.
Can I see this? Can I take this in without defense? If Ive seen it all before, then now I will see nothing. I want to stay awake, to pay attention and receive what I can.
You are too much to take in all at once, I say to God, but how beautiful you are.
Its as if God is pouring out Gods self to me all over again, saying to me now, as in the Eucharist just hours before, “Here I am! I am giving myself to you and to everything that is.”
I spent the afternoon walking, gazing, and praying, and eventually the time came to head home. I turned back toward the parking lot and caught sight of one last tree. It was a maple standing tall and gold against dark pines, and it hadnt yet dropped its leaves. The setting sun was shining straight into its heart and its leaves were a blaze of light. It was hard to say where the light began – whether in the sun or in the tree itself – for the two seemed to be calling back and forth to each other in an exchange of mutual delight.
I looked down at the leaf I still held in my hand. For the first time I noticed that it was the same size as the Communion wafer that Id blessed and broken that morning, and placed in your hands. I remembered the faces of you dear people – the worry and hope etched in the lines around your eyes, the way that each of you knelt at the altar rail that day, slumping or erect, distracted or alert, all of you looking – as I am – for something that we sense all around us and yet none of us can fully grasp.
I wanted to let that leaf drop quietly into each of your outstretched hands. I wanted to bless the longing that we share. I wanted to ask you, Do you know that you are as beautiful as the trees? Do you know that you are shining like the sun?
1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love: Mysticism for a New Era”, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 115.
3. “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 hearts eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” — St. Augustine