Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, MA
2 Peter 1:13-21
Transfiguration: When we see Earth shining
We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we consider today on the feast day of the Transfiguration. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, 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 speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through our bodies and the whole body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. 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 Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29,34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love.
We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of the ocean knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but, also, to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes.
As we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I believe this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. For let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil were placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated, assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as essentially separate from and even “above” the rest of creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights.
By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with alarm that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. We are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17) and whose presence fills the whole creation (Eph. 4:10). We are gazing at the one who, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, commissions his disciples to go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel good news to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). That’s our mission, as disciples of Jesus: to bring good news in word and deed to the whole creation, for the whole world is shining with the love and presence of God.
So, when we see God’s creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break stunning new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the sacredness of God’s creation and to protect it from further harm.
When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that individuals can do – maybe we can fly less, drive less, drive electric, install solar panels, avoid the clothes dryer and hang our laundry out to dry, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet – and so on. You know the drill.
Making personal changes is important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states very clearly that we must transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we must join hands and work together for collective action. What are some possibilities? Here on Cape Cod, we can join Faith Communities Environmental Network, which inspires eco-justice on Cape Cod and the Islands and is part of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative. Or we can join 350Mass, the grassroots, climate action group in Massachusetts that has a node right here on Cape Cod. If we have money or credit cards in one of the four biggest banks that fund fossil fuels – Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo – we can move our money out and join the campaign to pressure banks to stop financing fossil fuel expansion.3 If we’re over 60, we can join ThirdAct.org, the new group started by Bill McKibben just a year or two ago that has already attracted thousands of old people like me who want to do everything we can to slow climate change and protect democracy. Last but not least, in September the U.N. Secretary General will host a first-of-its-kind Climate Ambition Summit to demand that world leaders commit to stopping the expansion of fossil fuels that drive the climate emergency. I hope that you will join me and thousands of other people who will take to the streets of New York City on September 17 in the March to End Fossil Fuels, the largest climate march since the pandemic. There is so much we can do! Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. I’ve made a one-page handout of resources that you can pick up at the door to the church.
Today we stand on the mountaintop, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. As we give ourselves to the great work of healing God’s creation, I trust that we, too, are shining.
1.William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115.
2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115.
3. For more information about this campaign, visit ThirdAct.org. For suggestions regarding climate-friendly credit cards, check this pdf produced by 350Mass: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1R8jbw3laMOcOrilbnOsQdVlM7MDkf1zP/view?pli=1