"...that we, beholding by faith the light of His countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross." Collect for the Day
It has always seemed to most of us that the key to understanding the Transfiguration which is described in today's Gospel and which is the center of our worship this morning is the "light" that is described in both the Gospel story and in all the references to it. This experience of "transfiguration" is something that we are familiar with in various aspects of our lives.
All of us are familiar with the way in which many women when they are pregnant have a sort of "glow" to their skin and to their expressions. Despite the physical discomfort, morning sickness and all the rest, there is something in the physical fact of pregnancy that "transfigures" many women in their pregnancies. Another kind of "transfiguration" can come at the end of a rain storm. Where all has been dark, the clouds break and depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun, we may see a rainbow or we may see that incredible shaft of light from the horizon which cuts though and "transfigures" the clouds of the storm. Again, we see faces "transfigured" by relief after agony, or by agony itself. What we see in "transfiguration" is some aspect of reality which we do not normally see, some quality of a person which is normally either hidden or "under control," or "not called for" most of the time. Transfiguration does not normally add something which isn't there. It brings to light or brings light to something or someone. In the Gospel description of the Transfiguration we have just such a "bringing to light."
We need to remember that this took place as the last event before Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem even when he knew that the Sadducees and Pharisees were plotting his death. It is, in some sense, at least as the Gospel writers set it, the culmination of his teaching and action which is then followed by the events which lead to the cross which is the final culmination.
Let's stop and look at the event as Mark describes it. Jesus took Peter and James and John with him, leaving the other nine disciples to wait and withdrew for prayer up on the mountain. While he was praying his whole being was suffused with light and the disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing with him. Peter suggests that they should build three "tabernacles," three shrines to honor the three, Jesus, Moses and Elijah. At this point they are all "overshadowed" by cloud and they hear a voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Then, the cloud clears and there were only the four of them, Jesus, Peter, James and John.
Part of what we are told in the Gospel account is that the disciples, even this late in their experience with Jesus, were still not sure who he was. Peter's suggestion of building three shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, puts Jesus on equal standing with Moses and Elijah who both are, and represent the Law and the Prophets, the two bases of Jewish faith and life. Obviously they understood that Jesus was as important as the Law and the Prophets, but no more. However, they are immediately told that he is much more. That indeed he is the Son of God, the Beloved who was to be listened to and heard.
Now, let's step back a bit and think again about the light. Remember that when Moses came back from being in the presence of God his face shone with such light that the Jews were terrified and he had to learn to wear a veil each time he came out of the presence of God until the light wore off. Any Jew hearing about the transfiguration of Jesus by light would connect it with this part of the Exodus story. Again remember Isaiah in the temple when he saw only the edges of God's presence and was immediately aware of his sinfulness and need for the mercy of God. He had seen only the edges of God because no one could see God and live. No one could stand in the presence of the total holiness of God and not be destroyed.
So for the disciples this "transfiguration" which made Jesus so "white" that nothing earthly could have produced that light is immediately confirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah and then established by the voice from the cloud identifying him as the one who was promised in the Law and the Prophets and who was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And then, suddenly, it was all over, and everything was back to normal. Or was it?
And Jesus started walking towards Jerusalem, walking towards his death, walking towards that cup he prayed he would not have to drink, but which he would accept if it was His Father's Will. Suddenly, having just been declared to be "My Son, the Beloved" he and we are back in the everyday world. And having been transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John, he and they and we have the regular everyday events to do. He and they and we are back to the way of the cross.
"Transfiguration," then, while it may change our understanding, while it may confirm our faith, while it may even confuse us, does not and never will take us out of the real world in which he and they lived and we live now.
Obviously, the disciples were confused by this event. Equally obviously, they really didn't want Jesus to go to Jerusalem, but when he went they went with him and in the following days they were to share the Last Supper, to betray him by act or denial or by running away; to know him as dead; and then to know Him as their Risen Lord.
And so it is with us. We have, in some sense, seen Him Transfigured; we have met Him and been fed or healed and so we have some experience of that "light" that is in and through Him. Just as we have seen a woman transfigured by her pregnancy, or the end of a storm transfigured by the return of light, so we have seen His majesty at some time and place in our lives and we shall never be the same. We have, if you will, "see the light," if only for a moment and we are different for all time. Oh, yes, we still, like Him, have the way of the cross to walk in our lives, but having been given the grace of the light we will walk in its presence, His presence, and our lives, too, will be transfigured if we let His light shine through us.
Remember the child's definition of a saint? "They are people the light shines through." The child was thinking of the saints in the stained glass windows, we know that here is a perfect definition of a saint, "one through whom God's light shines in the world." And in this sense, we are called to let our lives be transfigured so that the light will shine through.
And like our Lord's transfiguration, this is going to happen in the middle of the real world, in the middle of our lives, and also like our Lord's transfiguration, it isn't going to be seen all the time. His transfiguration was a single event, at one point in his life and ministry. We are called to let the light shine through as often as possible, as much as possible. And that means constantly seeking to be in His light, in His presence so that His light can shine through us into the real world of our way of the cross. As none of us can walk our Lord's way to the cross, none of us is the source of the light. We are those to whom the light has come, those who have to some degree and each in our own way, been given the light and it is in our everyday lives that the light must shine through so that others may receive the light as we did. Here, in this world, in our lives. Not only on mountain tops or in "mountain top" experiences, but somewhere along our way of the cross.
As we go into Lent, as we seek to look at ourselves and our service to our neighbors and our God, let us center on letting the light shine through rather than on the darkness that is in all of us. Yes, we must be honest about our sins, our failures, our doubts, and our need for His Grace. But the real story of Lent and the real value of Lent will come as the light returns in the Easter Vigil. We need to be honest about our darkness, yes, but far more importantly, we need to let His light shine through so that others, seeing the light may learn to follow it and not spend their time and their energy on useless breast-beating. The ashes of Wednesday are real, but they disappear very quickly if we go about our work in the world. And the darkness in our lives can also disappear if we set about letting His light shine through.
We know what the light calls us to. It calls us to justice, to honesty, to humility, to the service of His children regardless of race or sex or language. And the question for each of us is whether we are willing to let His light shine through us. As our Lord turned towards Jerusalem immediately after being transfigured in the presence of Peter and James and John, so we are called to walk our way of the cross here in this world, in our lives, just as He did. The light gives us both the direction and the strength to follow His way of the cross. This is what we are called to, not negative, self-centered, concern with our sins and failures, but to the task of allowing His light, which we have been given in our Baptism, and which is constantly replenished by our receiving His Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Altar, to shine through in the way we live, here and now, in our world, in our time.
This is not a task without frustrations and failures, but it is what we are called to. To walk each of us, our own way of the cross, which is the way of light and life for us and for all whom He has made. May we so behold "by faith the light of His countenance, (that) we may be strengthened to bear our cross" and bear witness to His light. Amen.