This is the final Sunday before Lent begins, and the last gospel story we tell is of Jesus’ transfiguration. I want to speak to this gospel episode, but also say some things about the coming season of Lent; what it might mean for you and for us as a church.
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The transfiguration sits more or less midway in the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—if not literally halfway, certainly symbolically. It is just before this that the disciples have begun to realize—ever so slowly realize—that Jesus is more than a teacher and healer; that he is… perhaps?… dare they hope?… can they say it out loud?… the christos, the anointed one, the messiah. It is also right around this point that Jesus begins to turn them from the Galilean countryside toward Jerusalem. They wonder, though, is he mad? Flaunting danger? Word is that Herod is becoming concerned about the news of this Jesus. Maybe he’s not ready. May they’re not ready. They’re still thinking in terms of a conquering messiah, an heir to the warrior king David, a revolutionary of sorts. Which is of course amazing, given that he has shown absolutely no sign of being that sort of a king.
They’re filled with questions, they’re not entirely sure what he will require of them, and when from time to time when he speaks of his own dying, they can’t bear to hear it.
It is in the midst of this that Jesus turns to Peter, James, and John—a kind of triad of his closest disciples—and asks them to climb up the mountain with him so he can pray. Up they go, and they have what can only be described as a mystical experience. In using that word “mystical,” I don’t mean to suggest it was somehow less real, or that they were having what amounted to a shared hallucination. In the Christian mystical tradition there is a sense that what is seen or heard is actually more real, not less. That’s true of the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, with her series of fourteen visions or “showings”. It is true of Francis of Assisi, hearing the voice of Jesus coming from the crucifix in a derelict chapel, telling him to “rebuild my church.” It is true of Martin Luther King Jr., when he was awoken by a threatening and hateful phone call, threatening both him and his family. He couldn’t sleep, so he got up and sat at his kitchen table, pondering whether or not he could go on. Then came a profound stillness, of which he later wrote, “I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’” My brothers and sisters, you just don’t get any more real than that.
But you hear this story, in which Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white,” and suddenly he’s there with Moses and Elijah? Moses and Elijah? They’re long gone, right? And “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” It all just too much, right? I mean, it has to be a story created later on to say something about Jesus being Lord even over the law and the prophets. It must be an apologetical story intended to proclaim his divinity? It must be what is called in our epistle tonight—with tongue in cheek and more than a bit of sarcasm, by the way—“a cleverly devised myth”.
To this, N.T. Wright responds, “Our Western consciousness, and perhaps self-consciousness, denies us so much.” Not so with the theologians of the ancient church and the patristic period. They positively rhapsodized over this story, elevating it to a place of importance that has really been obscured in the Western church, most particularly in the Protestant world. To cite John of Damascus from the late seventh century, “Christ is transfigured not by receiving something which he is not, but by revealing to his intimate disciples what he really is, opening their eyes and enabling them to see out of their blindness.” Their eyes were opened and they were enabled to see “out of their blindness” who he really was. They relapsed into blindness, of course, fumbling around and missing so much of what Jesus was trying to teach them. But for all of that, they had this moment. And they remembered it and in time would retell it, which is why it is referenced here in our reading from 2nd Peter: “You will do well,” the epistle says, “to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
It is why we read this story on the last Sunday before Lent begins, so that we will have this “lamp shining in a dark place,” aware of who it is that walks out into the desert in next week’s reading, and who it is we will watch die on Good Friday. Not just a troublesome teacher and healer that the Romans found necessary to dispatch. No, the Christ, whose very face shines.
So how to walk the season to prepare to again bear witness to this death? Each year I encourage you to consider taking on a Lenten discipline of taking something on or giving something up… remembering, of course, that the 40 days of Lent don’t include the Sundays! What might that be this year? A discipline of daily reading from one of the little books that are sitting out on the table at the back of the church? A commitment to praying each day for the people all around you? The friends and those you care about, and those who are a bit of a thorn in your side or a pain in your… well, never mind. Or you could give up some favourite food for the season—dessert, maybe, or wine with dinner? You could give up social media, Netflix, or the television, or fast from buying anything for yourself that you don’t actually need. How about a commitment to some sort of almsgiving, maybe letting go of that daily Starbucks coffee and using the money to buy fruit for Agape Table each Sunday? The possibilities are endless, but the point is to see about actually doing something that will help you shape the season differently.
Here’s something else to ponder. Repentance is a big theme in Lent, and by repentance I don’t mean crippling ourselves with guilt and shame and locking ourselves in a place of self-loathing. No, repentance means turning around, doing a 180, but only after acknowledging that there are things in my life that need to be turned around from. That’s the space we create each Sunday night, when we have the opportunity for confession as part of our communion liturgy. That sort of liturgical confession is ramped up a bit over Lent, particularly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but here’s something you may not be aware of. There is provision in this tradition for private confession as well, and the Anglican sensibility on this count is “no one has to, all may, some should.” You get that? No one has to, because you don’t need a priest to absolve you; God does that. Yet there is something very moving and potentially transformational in speaking aloud your failings or sins or struggles, in confidence, to someone who will carry those things with you. Allison Courey wrote a very fine piece about this in a recent edition of the diocesan online paper, and I’ve posted that up on our website. But I’d also want to say that my own recent experience of making a confession during my retreat time in Halifax has brought home to me again just how freeing a thing it can be. If that is something you find yourself drawn to or just wanting to know more about, I can give you more information about what it involved, and if you’d like to proceed we can make that happen.
But however you decide to engage this coming season—whatever the practices or disciplines or decisions you might make—just know that it is all part of readying our hearts and minds and souls and bodies to bear witness to the death of the one whose face shone, over whose life was pronounced “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”, and who yet did not flee from that dying.
May you have a holy and blessed Lenten season.