Last Sunday of Epiphany
Be the Miracle
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.] Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Each year we bring the Christmas/Epiphany season to a close and anticipate the beginning of Lent with the gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. In this iconic scene, Jesus climbs Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John and is there transfigured before them. He is made, as it were, iridescent and resplendent. Again we are not invited to see this as a historical event, but as a dramatic presentation of the faith of those who first came to believe that Jesus is Lord.
During the Epiphany season we affirm and celebrate our faith that the child born of Mary, is the very glory or presence of God among us. The glory manifest to shepherds, to wise men, at His baptism in the River Jordan, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee – the glory manifest in Jesus – is nothing less than the presence of the invisible, ever living, ever loving God.
As the presence of God in Jesus finds a crescendo in the Transfiguration, we remember that this moment in the life of Jesus is presented as a turning point. It comes just before Jesus embarks upon the road of suffering that led to His passion, crucifixion and death.
After His Transfiguration, the glory of God was veiled in the Man of Sorrows. And so this gospel is indeed an appropriate prelude to Lent. For Lent is that time during which we symbolically represent the shadowing of God’s glory by covering the cross with a violet veil. And in this church, by closing the magnificent triptych which adorns the high altar. In the restoration just completed, the glorious icon of Christ the High Priest, was made all the more shimmering, glowing and lustrous through the setting created by the caring and careful labors of Steve Crews and company. We are delighted to welcome Steve and some of his team as our guests this morning and want express our gratitude to them.
Now the word Transfiguration is not a word that we use with any regularity in our everyday lives. I would venture to guess that, to date, in the course of your lives, you have probably never used the word Transfiguration in your ordinary conversation. But while the use of word Transfiguration may be utterly remote, I would certainly hope that the experience of Transfiguration is one that each of us would know, and know on more than a few occasions, before we die.
Transfiguration, the heightened experience of God’s presence, can be something that we witness, as did Peter, James and John, or an experience that we own as our own, as did Jesus.
As we search back across the years of our lives, we might well begin to remember the transfiguration moments with which each of us have been gifted. For each of us the encounter with the numinous and divine mystery will needs be different and peculiar to our own life, circumstances and experience.
For some of us the encounter will be no less impactful than Saint Paul’s being thrown from his horse. Ever have your legs knocked out from under you as a wake up call?
For some of us the encounter will be as still and silent as the rising or setting of the sun, yet soul transforming in its power, much like the rising or setting of the sun.
When Whitney Huston sang, “And I will always love you”. You cannot tell me that the heart of God was not pouring out of her soul, making God light upon our listening ears.
For some of us it will be our having participated in or witnessed the miracle of birth.
For some of us, it will have been our privilege to witness the forgiving of the seemingly unforgivable. Yes, where forgiveness triumphs over hate.
I have known more transfiguration moments in ministry than I would have ever expected. As when a full church packed with deeply grieving mourners is brought to a place of deeper joy and heart felt uproarious laughter triggered by a memory of their beloved dead. Yes, where the hope of eternal life triumphs over death.
Or that day I stood at the altar of St. Andrew’s Church in Beacon and beheld the joy mixed with tears on a sea of black faces as we celebrated the election of this nation’s first black president. Yes, where justice triumphs over oppression.
Or just this week when Pastor Erick from Vida Real Church told me that the young asylum seeker, who made his own way across the border several years ago, after his mother died and his father abandoned him, and who was taken by ICE from the Children’s Home in Kingston on his 18th birthday, and locked up in a detention facility in New Jersey, stands a good chance of being released into the Pastor’s custody while his appeal is processed. Yes, where hope triumphs over despair.
Call up those transfiguration moments with which you have been gifted. Let them serve you in any and every vale of tears.
But we can also experience being transfigured as was Jesus, in those moments that we embody the presence of God.
Saint Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, said, The Glory of God is the human person who is fully alive. Transfiguration describes the experience of Jesus as being iridescent with the life and vitality of God. While captured by the sacred writers as a moment, it is probably more properly understood as His ordinary and ongoing experience.
But it can also serve as a descriptor for any moment in each of our lives in which God’s glory or presence is more obviously manifest in us. Those moments in our lives when any one of us is so fully alive, that we too become iridescent with the life of God though the presence of His Spirit.
Resurrection after death is not just for Jesus, but for us as well. So too, Transfiguration before death is not just for Jesus, but for us as well. If we would be Risen with Christ, then must we not also be Transfigured with Christ?
Is it not our sublime vocation to manifest the very presence of the invisible, ever living and ever loving God on whatever mountaintop and in whatever valley bottom we find ourselves? Is it not our calling to manifest that wondrous presence when the moment is light and when the moment is heavy, when there is joy and when there is sorrow, when there is hope and when there appears to be no reason to hope, at the peak of ecstasy and across the threshold of suffering, pain and yes, even death?
Some years back, I participated in a healing service for a dear friend of mine who discovered that he had an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. In a public affirmation of faith my friend told his gathered family and friends, in so many words, that, even as the cancer ravaged his brain, he remained very much alive and at the same time very ready to embrace his suffering and death.
And this, I believe, is the heart of the mystery – a will to embrace it all – embracing the miracles and embracing the absence of miracles. During that healing service my friend was transfigured before us. In his faith and in his face we beheld the glory and the presence of God.
Peter, James and John were blown away by what they saw and heard. To be sure they had been impressed many times over by the miracles of Jesus, by what He did and what He said. But this moment was unique. It was high up there in terms of the miraculous. It was more dazzling than a blind man given sight, a deaf man given hearing or a dumb man given speech.
It was a direct revelation and an unquestionable affirmation that this Rabbi, whom they chose to follow, was the very Son of the Most High God. We can be sure, in a private aside, as they descended the mountain, Peter and James must have asked John, “Man, what kind of mushrooms did you gather for lunch?”
Yet, even after so wonderful a sign, two of the three ran away when the going got tough. It remained for Peter and James to learn that they would only be fully alive when they believed enough to let go of their fear. When they were courageous enough to be the vision of God’s presence rather than wait for the vision of God’s presence – be the miracle rather than wait for the miracle.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 3, 2019