Last Sunday after Epiphany B
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9: 2-9
On each of the mornings of this pilgrimage I just returned from, Bishop Rickel or Father Paul, the other leader of the pilgrimage, would begin the day with prayer on the bus. I was glad for this for it set the tone of the day. This meditation, by John O’Donohue was read on our third morning, as we departed our place on the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee, which is not a sea at all, but a fresh-water lake, is the lowest freshwater lake on earth, at 695.8 feet below sea level. On this morning, our first destination was the top of Mount Tabor which is 2,000 feet above sea level. The mountaintop is one of the places where scholars believe the Transfiguration of our Lord took place. It is the most likely of three possibilities.
Northern Israel is a hilly and mountainous…not in the same way our Western Washington is, but it is fair to say that you go from way down to way up often. On this day, a cool and misty one, our bus let us off somewhat below the level of the summit. The road that takes one to the top is not for busses.
We waited there at the part-way up tourist stand, purchased hot coffee and scarves and other trinkets and waited for our rides to pick us up…37 of us in four vans. Our van was second, but when I saw the first van pull off to the side so we could go first, I knew we were in for a ride. Hairpin curves are never my thing…I don’t mind hiking them, when my joints are in good shape, but our driver had done these particular turns enough that he knew them well, and drove them rather like a LeMans racer would…going up the hill. We all sloshed around in the back and realized how high we were, relatively speaking…we could see the green of the northern valleys…and then a gentle enfolding mist surrounded us. And the parking lot…welcoming us to the Church of the Transfiguration. You see a photo of the inside of the church on the cover of our bulletin today.
I’m no stranger to high places. I rather like them. Hiking to them is best, but just being above, and in the place where the air is thin, and the vegetation…different…is being, for me, quite often….in a thin place…a place where the veil between human and divine is not as easy to determine. Mountaintop experiences are unique to mountaintops.
Mountaintop experiences in scripture are often places where God encounters humans and transforms them, sending them back down the mountain with a prophetic message. Noah’s Ark rested on a mountain, Abraham attempted the unthinkable death of his son Isaac on a mountain, the ten commandments were delivered to Moses on a mountain, and in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches his followers the Sermon on the mount…and we could go on and on from there. Mountains have a special place of meeting for humans and God. And so it seemed to me that day.
A grayish mist made me glad I’d worn an extra layer of clothing as I strode, with my fellow pilgrims toward the church. The Church of the Transfiguration is minded, as many of the churches in Israel are, by Franciscan brothers. We were welcomed by one, and given a brief time to take photos, and then shone into one of the several small chapels for our communion service. Our non-Roman-Catholic status, we were not allowed to approach, let alone worship at the main altar, which is set somewhat below the level of the rest of the church, but we were offered wine and wafers for our Eucharist. We worshipped there in one of the smallest chapels I’ve been in, 33 pilgrims, two leaders, a bus driver and guide in a room probably designed for 20, at the top. It was a close experience. It was a mountaintop experience.
These side chapels were built to represent the three huts that Peter desired to be built, one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. I’ve often thought how human it was for Peter to voice his concern and desire to house the holy three. We humans need shelter, and so, in an attempt to be hospitable, to extend his willingness to care for…in a human way…Elijah and Moses and Jesus, who seemed to be glowing, Peter offered to put his construction skills to the test. But that was not needed, and Peter, who often bumbled his way through the teachings of Jesus, made this too-human offer, we are told, out of fear.
Peter often misses the point, I suppose, like we do. So what did happen on the mountain that day? And what was the point? The words bear scrutiny. Transfiguration is not the same is transformation. Transformation implies a remaking of a person or object. Transfiguration implies a revealing of one’s true nature.
Jesus was not transformed on the mountain that day. He didn’t go up, like some sort of caterpillar to wrap himself in a cocoon, emerging later as a butterfly. That happened at the resurrection, but not at the transfiguration.
Today’s gospel reading from Mark is the record of one who is being revealed. Jesus’ true nature is revealed to all present, just as if a mask were taken away from his face, and the disciples were granted the ability to see who he really is...just as God the Father sees him and loves him. If we are to believe that the human body of Jesus contained the glory of the Godhead, which I believe it did from the incarnation, then in this transfiguration, the disciples are able to see through the shell of his body into the soul of his being and power.
Transfiguration – have you ever been aware of the same kinds of moments in our own lives? When you are among people you know and love? Have you ever looked at the face of a child transfigured with joy at some gift or unexpected event? A new kitten or puppy? You are probably gazing at their very souls, through the layers of dirt on their sweet faces. Or have you ever known someone who is beautiful, who was so overcome with anger and frustration, that their face became transfigured as well? That is a frightening time, seeing how people really are on the inside. It’s easy to want to dwell in the light on the top of the mountain.
In 1519, the painter Raphael was commissioned to paint the Transfiguration on a canvas thirteen feet by nine feet. Rather than involve a number of assistants and pupils, which was common at the time, he decided to do the painting himself. He began at the top with Christ, his arms raised in blessing. He was dressed in white and bathed in light. On one side of Christ was the image of Moses, and on the other, was Elijah. Awe-struck disciples crouch on the ground shielding their eyes. The sight was both awesome and terrifying, the painting conveys. In 1520, Raphael died, leaving the painting unfinished. Other artists were engaged to finish the lower part of the painting. They knew their Bible well and they began. When completed, the painting showed a stricken young boy with his eyes rolled back. Some of the agitated crowd pointed to him and others pointed up the mountain top. The painting could not be left unfinished as it was after Rafael’s death. What happened on the mountain top relates directly to what is happening below. Peter didn’t get that. Peter didn’t want to face what lay below. Peter wanted, perhaps, to build those huts and to remain on the mountaintop for much longer. But, they had to descend, and carry with them the light from the mountaintop.
Christian life, baptized life, is not continual life bathed in the glow of things like the Transfiguration. We need both the mountaintop and the valley floor and, if we are sensitive, we will meet God in both places.
Peter, James and John experienced the transfiguration of Jesus that day and it, no doubt, changed them. It transformed them. These men were lake dwellers, fishermen, not mountain people at all. They had climbed up the mountain because their teacher had asked them to. And then, this unbelievable event…God’s voice telling them that The Rabbi, the one we have followed is God’s son, God’s beloved. God was revealed in Jesus on that mountain. That would change anyone who came along. . . but what is to be done with that change?
They may have wanted to stay, or… they may have wished like anything to go back down the mountain and return to the normal air, the dear ones they knew, and the need for healing and God’s abundance in the day-to-day life they all lived. It’s easy to want to continue a mountaintop experience. I wanted to stay longer on Mount Tabor and the thin place I felt there, God’s presence in the old church….. but the journey, the pilgrimage was going on, and that called to me. So, I crawled back into a van, prayed that the brakes had just been recently checked, and descended to the bus, the next stop, interactions with fellow pilgrims, and in doing so, knew God’s presence in all the many places I would go that day and the people I would encounter. It was so…
For the Traveler
By John O’Donohue
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitation
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.