Sermon for the Feast Day of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2006 delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, at St. John’s Church, Ashfield, Massachusetts.
Transfiguration on the Mountain
It is good to be back in Ashfield and to worship with you again. This morning we have a wonderful Gospel text to consider, because today is August 6, the Feast Day of the Transfiguration. You may remember having heard the story of the Transfiguration back in February, because every year we end the season of Epiphany — the season of light — with this very literal high point of Jesus’ ministry and public life. Because the Feast Day of the Transfiguration, August 6, falls on a Sunday this year, it pre-empts our regular readings and we have a chance to ponder it again.
You know the story: soon after Jesus announced to his disciples his coming Passion and death, he took with him Peter and James and John and went up on a high mountain to pray. Jesus seems to have lived his life in a rhythm that alternated solitude and service, prayer and compassionate action. Again and again throughout his ministry, Jesus went away to some solitary place to pray, before plunging back into ministry.
On the mountain, what began for Jesus as deep prayer grew into an intense religious experience. “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” [Luke 9:29]. To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use a word [“metemorphothe”] that is the source of our English word, “metamorphosis”; Latin manuscripts use a word [“transfiguratus est”] that is the basis of our word, “transfiguration.”
Metamorphosis. Transfiguration. Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: 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” (1) 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. The dazzling brightness that emanates from his body is a shining forth of his divinity. He is the light that shines through him, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
What is God saying to us today through this story? You may be aware 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. (2) Christian mystics likewise speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body. We can’t see this Presence, can’t hear it, and can’t touch it with our hands. But we sense it nearby. It lights up the edges of things, or shines out from within them. We experience it as light and yet we can’t see it. This is 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 both of “dazzling whiteness” and “glory,” and of a “cloud” that “overshadowed” him. Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens love within us, and awe.
This kind of mystical insight may seem remote from our own experience. But psychologists tell us that these so-called “unitive” religious experiences are in fact very common, though we often forget them or push them aside. The poet William Blake has a wonderful line — “We are put on earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.” It takes time and practice to learn to “bear” those beams in both senses of the word: to endure them without running away and also to bring them forth, as a mother bears a child.
You may be familiar with an icon of the Transfiguration that was written years ago by Fra Angelico. In the icon, Jesus is standing on a mountaintop, his arms outstretched, surrounded by an egg-shaped oval of light. His face and clothes are shining. Near him stand several figures, including the two most holy men of Israel: Moses, the lawgiver, who, as we heard in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, spoke with God as one might speak with a friend and whose face shone with God’s glory, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. The glory is too much to bear. As the text tells us, the disciples are “terrified” [Luke 9: 34]. In the icon, Peter turns away and throws up his hands; he looks about ready to bolt. James is half-facing Jesus. He leans uncertainly on one hand and lifts the other to his face, as if to shield his eyes or to squint through his fingers. Only John is able to face the radiance directly. He is on his knees, leaning forward toward Jesus and cupping his hands as if to offer himself completely or as if to drink in the light. It is a posture of complete attentiveness and trust, a posture of both giving and receiving, and his palms are open in the same gesture we use to receive Holy Communion.
As depicted by Fra Angelico, these three disciples are expressing different movements in our spiritual journey. They suggest the slow progress we can make as we “learn to bear the beams of love.” When we sense that God may be drawing close, trying to get our attention, we sometimes leap up and run away, overcome with fear, as Peter does in the icon. So we dive into one escape or another — we get busy, grab a snack, pour a drink, take another tour of the Internet — anything rather than be still and open ourselves to the Holy. Another way of avoiding sacred encounter is to try to master or dominate the experience, as Peter seems to do in our Gospel text: in his confusion, he proposes to build three booths, as if he could somehow contain the experience or hold on to it.
But with practice, with patience, with a willingness to return to God whenever we notice that we have strayed, slowly — like James, in the icon, and finally like John — we grow accustomed to the light and learn to abide in it. Slowly we are transformed. We begin to spot the light in others. We begin to want to say or do whatever might release more light in them and to let it glow a bit more brightly. Sometimes some light may even leak out of us, too; sometimes we, too, may begin to shine. And of course that’s the point: not just to gaze at Jesus as he is transfigured, not just to watch him from afar, but to let the divine light penetrate us and to let it change our lives.
On this holy day of Transfiguration, I pray that you and I will commit ourselves afresh to the urgent call to walk up that mountain with Jesus and to open ourselves very consciously to the light of God in Christ. The choice before us is clear. On a Sunday morning 61 years ago today, a plane flew high over Hiroshima and released a bomb that produced another kind of blinding flash, another kind of cloud. The following Wednesday, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In all, more than 200,000 people were killed. Since 1945, the Feast Day of the Transfiguration has become charged with new meaning. August 6 has become for us both a promise and a warning: unless we can find a way, as individuals, as a nation, and as citizens of the world, to abide in the light of God, our future on the planet is bleak. This August, nuclear weapons are again in the news, as our country negotiates with Iran and as our Administration proposes developing what it calls “reliable replacement warheads.” This August, we remember the only times that nuclear weapons have been used in war and we say, “Never again.” (3)
And we remember, too, the places around the world where today the skies are lit up by explosions and where people look into each other’s faces not with love but with hatred, rage, or fear. We remember especially the violence in the Middle East, where just days ago shells fell on Cana, the site of Jesus’ first miracle, and we pray that the light of God will shine again in every human heart.
We remember, too, the unprecedented violence that is being carried out against the Earth itself, the scorching of the planet as our relentless consumption of fossil fuels continues unchecked, and we pray that the light of Christ will give us the will to protect the Creation that God has entrusted to our care.
Today is a good day to hike up mount Tabor and to gaze again at the light of God in Christ — for, as today’s Collect puts it, in beholding his beauty we are “delivered from the disquietude of this world.” We want to see Jesus, and the Eucharist is our meeting place. Here in 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 God’s self back to us in the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood. We may have no clue that we’re 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 that divine love touches and transforms us just a little bit more.
Sometimes we do sense the radiance, and for that we give thanks. But we can’t stay on that mountaintop forever, much as we might like to. Strengthened by the light we’ve seen, we walk with Jesus and the three disciples back down into the darkness where the world calls out for healing and where the cross awaits. Interestingly enough, that descent down the mountain is part of our transfiguration, too. 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 flight from the world, but depends on our willingness both to pray and to plunge into life, so that gradually we discover Jesus in every aspect of existence. (4)
“We are put on earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.” In what places in your life do you need those beams of love to shine? In the silence after the sermon, I invite you to let them in.
(1) William Johnston, “Arise, My Love ”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 115.
(3) Wording from the Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament Initiative, http://www.nrdi.org/forpeopleoffaith.htm
(4) “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