This last Sunday in Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, is also Transfiguration Sunday, where we celebrate the time when Jesus positively glowed for a few of his disciples on a mountaintop. (Yeah, it happens to be Valentine’s Day too this year, but that’s not on the liturgical calendar. It’s also the anniversary of my ordination.)
Transfiguration is a moment when we know God’s presence, not because we see God directly, but because we see the world around us, things we think ordinary, in extraordinary light. Think of Moses on a mountain before a “shrubbery” alight with flames that don’t burn. Or think of Jesus on the mountain aglow with inexplicable light.
This is how we see God in this life, by seeing the world around us, and the people around us, alight with God’s embrace, the finite aglow with the infinite—Transfiguration.
Have you ever had a moment where you saw somebody familiar as if for the first time, when you realized that their being that person in particular was just as mysterious as your being you? That’s a less dramatic form of transfiguration, where the mystery of God-with-us hovers in the background of the mystery of us.
But have you ever had a moment when you were confronted by someone who’s angrily threatening all that you consider holy (I’m having plenty of those moments these days), and it dawned on you that they are just as much the focus of God’s embrace as you are, though still threatening? That’s a form of transfiguration too, though an agonizing one.
Jesus’ transfiguration in this week’s lesson is closer to that agonizing version. It’s sandwiched in between the first and second time Jesus explains that he’s not the sort of Messiah his disciples wanted. He’s just predicted his own criminal’s execution in no uncertain terms. It’s the very first time he said anything about this (right after Peter called him the Messiah!). On top of that, he also called his followers to take up their own crosses—daily. He said it was the only way to the fulfillment they were seeking.
And the disciples keep wanting to pretend they hadn’t heard that part. They didn’t even want to hear about his resurrection, because that implied that he would have to die. It made no sense to them, not commonsensically, not even theologically. It’s a message that threatens all they consider holy.
Yet it’s this execution-bound Jesus who starts glowing on the mountaintop for them. And they’re really trying hard to forget what they’ve heard. No wonder Peter starts babbling about a building campaign. And no wonder his babbling doesn’t work. “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Maybe they were terrified in part because this was not an everyday happening. But how could they not also be terrified by the news they were trying so hard to repress?
That booming voice from the cloud is telling them to stop trying to repress this news. This soon-to-be-executed one is God’s Beloved. “Listen to him!” says the voice. What has he been telling them? Why aren’t they letting it sink in?
But they didn’t listen. In Mark’s gospel they never listened. Mark’s gospel ends before anybody sees the risen Jesus. They just couldn’t make sense of the message of a God who wins by losing. Who wants to transfigure that? Who wants to transfigure an instrument of torture and death? So at the end everybody runs away, even the ones who had just heard about resurrection.
Except apparently not everybody ran away for good, because here’s Mark writing about it, and here are his readers (all the way down to us!), ready to hear it, ready to find their own lives transfigured by a story of an executed messiah and his faithless friends, with just a glimmer of something wonderful awaiting us all. Transfiguration found them where they least expected to find it.
Can transfiguration find us now? We’re not having that many mountaintop experiences these days. But if we read closely, we notice that Jesus’ mountaintop experience wasn’t all that “mountaintop” either. It happened in the midst of a message his followers couldn’t bear to hear.
So maybe now is precisely when we can hope for transfiguration to find us, the finite aglow with the infinite—even now, as we are beset by forces threatening all that we consider holy. Not even this can banish God’s all-transfiguring embrace.