Today is Transfiguration Sunday, which is like a time of transition between the time of Epiphany – the season we were just in – and the season of Lent. And Lent of course begins on this coming Ash Wednesday and then leads us to Easter. So today is like a bridge between those seasons; it’s like an in-between time.
It’s also probably the only time all year long when most of us will use the word transfiguration. I guess it’s just not something that many of us think about all that often, at least outside of this one Sunday. But it’s an important part of the Gospel.
There’s a Biblical scholar named Ched Myers, and he says there are three major pillars to Mark’s Gospel, three landmark events. The first is when Jesus is baptized, and Heaven opens up and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And then the voice from Heaven declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
And then, the last, of course, is when Jesus is crucified. A great darkness spreads, and the veil in the temple is torn. A centurion standing there in front of Jesus on the cross says, “surely this man was the Son of God.”
Well, there in the middle, half-way in between these defining events is the transfiguration, this mysterious moment of divine radiance. And it all begins on top of a mountain. You know, there are things you discover on top of a mountain.
A long, long time ago, I worked for the forest service. It was part of a job program that matched teenagers with work opportunities. I was a very young teenager at that time; in fact, I was too young to operate a lot of the equipment. But I remember, one day, very bright and early, our job was to maintain the road that led up the mountain to the fire tower. Since I was too young, I had to pull weeds by hand, but a couple of times when the bosses weren’t looking, I tried out the weed eater that I wasn’t allowed to use. I guess it was a rite of passage.
Anyway, we worked our way up the mountain, and at the top there was a house, and that house was the residence of the person who sat in the firetower looking for forest fires. If that was your job, then that was where you lived. Well, after we worked on the road, our job was to paint the house and do some basic maintenance.
That’s how I remember it anyway, from thirty years ago, but what I remember best is being on top of that mountain. Earlier in the morning, when we were on the road climbing up, it seemed like we were going into a fog, but now that we were on top of the mountain, and looking down, it was like we were above the clouds. You could stand there and look out where the forest should be, but you didn’t see trees, you just saw a floor of clouds, and above you was nothing but the blue sky. And I just wanted to stay there in that moment.
Well, eventually, as the Summer day got into the afternoon, the clouds lifted. Actually, if I remember correctly, it turned into a hot and rainy day. But that mountain top moment as brief as it was, up there above the clouds, stayed with me. It seemed important somehow.
Have you ever been in a space like that? Maybe it was the top of a mountain, or just out in the woods, or even by the ocean or a lake. You’re separated from your usual day-to-day experience, and there’s something about that that feels like prayer. The smells are different, the noise of traffic isn’t there, and you just feel a little closer to God.
This is what I think about when I read this story of Jesus taking Peter and James and John up a high mountain. Mark doesn’t tell us this, but in Luke’s telling of this same story, Jesus took them up there to pray.
They had been through a lot over the past week. Just days before, Jesus had told them that in time, he would suffer and be rejected and then killed, and then three days after that, he would rise again. He was teaching them about the cross and about his resurrection. It was a lot to take in, and the disciples really didn’t understand. Who could understand all of that? And so Jesus led Peter and James and John up this mountain to go and pray.
Now clearly this is different from how we might usually think of prayer. Most of us don’t do this… we don’t usually climb a mountain just to go pray, but maybe we should. There are things you discover on top of a mountain. Or maybe on a walk around a lake or out in the woods somewhere. The point isn’t really the geography. I don’t think it’s about where you go.
It’s about getting outside of yourself. It’s about letting go of all the noise and the trouble of the world for a little while. This kind of prayer is contemplative. It’s about being with God, and simply listening to him. And when we do that, we make space, and we allow God to speak into our hearts. And I think we discover that God was with us the whole time, but we needed to quiet all the other noise before we could really listen.
Well, it’s in this moment, at the top of this mountain, Mark tells us, that Jesus is transfigured. Something about Him was somehow more. His face looked different. His clothes glowed like lightning. And for Peter and the others, what happened then, you can really only describe as a mystical experience.
They saw Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses, both of whom had been gone for a very long time. The disciples knew that both Elijah and Moses had been taken into Heaven by God a long time ago. But now here they were together with Jesus. It was like in the presence of Jesus on top of this mountain, the veil or the curtain that separated Heaven and Earth was pulled back.
There’s this belief in ancient Celtic Christianity that there are these liminal places, thin places, places where you feel a little closer to God. I was reading recently one writer who said that there’s this Celtic idea that “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” Maybe that’s what it felt like on top of that mountain.
The disciples really don’t know what to make of what they’re witnessing, but they seem to have some sense, some idea that this is a divine encounter. Peter knows this moment is important even if he doesn’t understand it, so he says to Jesus, let’s put up three tents here for you and Moses and Elijah. Let’s mark this place as holy, and you can stay here.
But the truth was, Peter really didn’t know what to do. In fact, Mark tells us all of the disciples were terrified. Now I imagine this wasn’t a fear of something bad happening; they weren’t afraid in that sense. It was more like awe and wonder. They were in awe of all that they were witnessing because here they were on top of this mountain, witnesses to glory. And so Peter felt like he should do or say something, but he just didn’t know what to say so he threw something out there.
But the thing is, he didn’t have to say anything. Not really. And neither do we.
How often do we feel like we have to say something to God? When we pray, we feel like we’re drawing near to God and so we really should have something really important to say. We feel like we need to say all the right things to God, but what if the pressure is off to say anything at all? Of course we know it’s good and acceptable to take all the things on our hearts and lift them up to God in prayer. But there are also times when we’re at a loss for words, and we don’t know what to say.
Maybe it’s because of an experience of awe and wonder, a mountain top experience when we feel a deep sense of the presence and goodness of God, and we feel like we need to do or say something, but we don’t know what.
Or, on the other hand, maybe it’s during a hard time, a difficult time, when everything seems so overwhelming and chaotic in our lives and it feels like our heads are barely above water. So much is going on that prayer just seems difficult, and you think, God, I just don’t know what to say right now.
Or maybe we’re in one of those in-between times. One of those times when you’ve gone through so much, and you really don’t know what’s coming next. Maybe you’re at a loss for words. What can you say in a time like that?
But what if you don’t have to say anything? What if it’s enough to just be present with God?
Because, you see, it’s in that moment when Peter is struggling to say anything he can come up with that a cloud rolls in, and from that cloud comes a voice that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” Just…listen to him.
And it’s enough. To be still. To be quiet. To rest in the presence of God, and just listen.
In fact, sometimes I think we need it. In those chaotic, overwhelming times, I think we need to interrupt the noise with some silence. The world around us can have so much to say, but what if we pause, even if just briefly, even if just for one breath… and be present with God, and just listen to him
Richard Rohr, who has written a lot about the times and spaces in our lives that feel thin, and about the importance of quiet contemplative prayer, says this, “we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual …patterns. …We need to be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona…”
Today maybe our invitation is just to be still and quiet in the presence of God. We don’t have to do. We don’t have to say. We can just be present with God, and just listen.