Last Sunday of Epiphany B
Live the Truth
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Mark 9:2-9
The Second Book of Kings contains one of the most sensational, among the many spectacular stories, that are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of the aging prophet Elijah and his servant Elisha and an awesome ride to glory in a fiery chariot.
In today’s first lesson, we enter the narrative, as God informs Elijah that his ministry on earth is over. He is to cross the Jordan River and go to a certain place, where a heavenly chariot will pick him up and translate him to glory.
As the old prophet pondered his last days, he decided to visit the towns of Bethel and Jericho. He invited his servant, Elisha, to go along with him. After visiting both towns, they arrived at the bank of the Jordan River. Elijah took off his mantle and he struck the water with it. The waters parted, and the two men crossed over on dry ground. Of course, at this point, we are supposed to remember Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, and Joshua and the parting of that same Jordan River.
When they reached the other side, Elijah turned to Elisha and said: “What do you want me to do for you, before I am taken away.” Without hesitation, the younger man answered, “Give me a double portion of your spirit.”
At first glance, Elijah appeared surprised by Elisha’s request. He said, “You have asked a hard thing…” Then he answered, “If you see me as the Lord is taking me away, your desire will be fulfilled. But if you miss the action, you’ll have to go home disappointed.”
As they walked along, suddenly a chariot appeared out of heaven and separated the men. In a flash, Elijah was taken up in the chariot – and Elisha witnessed the whole scene.
Elijah was gone – but his mantle had dropped to the ground. When Elisha saw it, he ripped off his own clothes, tore them into pieces and placed Elijah’s mantle on his back. Then he returned to the Jordan and did just as his master had done: He took off the mantle and struck the water with it. Immediately the waters parted, and Elisha walked over on dry ground. And so began the young prophet’s own remarkable ministry.
First, we are not being asked to believe this story to be literally true anymore than the story of Jonah being ingested by a whale before being coughed up unto the shore. But imbedded in the fanciful story of a fiery chariot ride to glory, is an unmistakable teaching. God wants to take us to glory and he desires that the heirs of the prophets, you and I and our children and grandchildren, do greater things with each succeeding generation.
It is wonderful to read about God opening the Red Sea for Moses and parting the Jordan for Joshua and then for Elijah and then again for Elisha. But it is even a more wonderful thing to realize that God always gives us more than enough of His spirit to work even greater wonders. He longs to increase and enlarge our faith – so that, like Elisha, we ask for a double portion of His Spirit, for his glory, and also enlarge our lives to manifest a double portion of His spirit, also for his glory.
Elijah’s flight in a fiery chariot prefigures Jesus’ own return in glory to the Father – and thru Christ the return of all God’s children to the Father in glory. We are all glory bound. And while we are here, Jesus promises us, “You’re going to do greater works than even I have done.” He’s saying, in essence, “You’re going to have more of my spirit than any who have gone before. And my Spirit is going to endue you with all you need to prevail.”
In the Gospel story, the prophet Jesus, realizing that his own end is drawing near takes Peter, James and John with him up a mountain. He is preparing to pass his prophetic mantle on to them. As Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a fiery whirlwind, in the story the disciples see Jesus transfigured, aglow and on fire with glory, with Moses and Elijah flanking him.
Again, the event as pictured is not the point. The point is that in their experience of Jesus during his ministry and most especially in their experience of him as Risen from the dead, the disciples came to believe that in their encounter with Him they were encountering God Himself.
Their post-resurrection faith is retrofit into the Gospel and presented as a special theophany – a vision of glory – a peak experience. It is inserted into the story at that point at which Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem anticipating His passion and death. It is intended to serve as a catalyst to galvanize them for the difficult days that lie ahead and to prepare them for the theophany of theophanies, the experience and the vision of the Risen Jesus, and to empower them as witnesses to God’s faithful, merciful and loving presence within and among men and women.
The word Transfiguration is not a word that we use with any regularity in our everyday lives. 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 on more than a few occasions before we die.
Saint Irenaeus said that, “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 miraculous 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 is more obviously manifest both within us and before our eyes. 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, or that we behold that divine presence in others.
As resurrection after death is not just for Jesus, so too, Transfiguration before death is not just for Jesus. If we would be Risen with Him, then must we not also be Transfigured with Him? Is it not our sublime vocation to manifest the very presence of the invisible, ever living and ever-loving God on whatever mountaintop or in whatever valley bottom we find ourselves, even one filled with dead bones as captured in book of the prophet Ezechiel? 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 sadness, 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 and pain?
As we search back across the expanse of our lives, we might well begin to identify the theophanies with which each of us have been gifted. For each of us the encounter with the numinous, divine mystery will be different and peculiar to our own life, circumstance and experience.
For some of us the encounter will be no less impactful than 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 powerfully soul transforming, much like the rising or setting of the sun.
When Luciano Pavarotti sang one of those awesome arias, you cannot tell me that the heart of God was not pouring out of his soul, making God Himself lite upon 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 have witnessed the forgiving of the unforgivable. Yes, where forgiveness triumphs over hate.
I have known more theophanies 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 even heart-felt uproarious laughter triggered by a memory of their beloved dead and an engaged awareness of that one’s eternal vitality. 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 each Wednesday afternoon, when leaving the office, I walk through a parish hall pulsating with the energy of those deeply compassionate, loving and fearless hearts preparing the distribution of food for the many who would otherwise go hungry.
Or many years ago, when I knelt at the feet of a holy man, Bishop James Edward Walsh, who laid his hands upon my head and ordained me a priest. As I have shared with you, and as you may recall, Bishop Walsh had been released, just the summer before, after having spent twenty years of his life in a Chinese prison for confessing his faith in Christ.
In these dark times, in which a pandemic has seized control of the world and every aspect of our lives, and during which the souls of so many of our elected representatives have been seized by the demon that would disfigure them, rather than the Spirit of Truth that would transfigure them, such that they demonstrate themselves to have no moral compass, and to be devoid of conscience, we remember these powerful words of Dr. King, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right”.
So yes, in these dark times, let us summon up those theophanies with which we have been gifted. Let them serve us in every vale of tears and let them empower us to own as our own the double portion of the spirit with which we have been gifted, so that we may be servants of God’s love and mercy, and prophets giving voice to His truth in an otherwise broken, deceitful and fearful world. Let us be numbered among those, quoting Congressman Jamie Raskin, who quoted Father Daniel Berrigan, who when he spoke of Dorothy Day, numbered her among those, “who live the truth as if the truth were true”.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
February 14, 2021