by Dr. Sam Laurent, Campus Minister for the Episcopal Center at Duke
If I’m being honest—and I think that’s the general expectation here—the transfiguration always puzzles me. Jesus takes some disciples up on top of a mountain, and he begins to glow a dazzling white. Elijah and Moses appear next to him. From a cloud, the voice of God calls out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And poor Peter, James, and John are supposed to figure out what to do with this experience.
Now, the rhetorical point of this story is fairly clear. The transfiguration underscores for us the divine lineage in which Jesus operates. He is a leader called by God and equipped with abilities other people do not have, just as Moses and Elijah were. I always imagine his glowing as a manifestation of the divine current that flowed through his being. The voice of God makes perfectly clear the authority that has been invested in Jesus.
So, this is the guy. The one that Israel has been waiting for. All systems go, this is the real deal.
But what are the disciples to do with this information? Peter, bless his heart, tries to do the right thing. “Rabbi,” he says, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It seems like a good idea. This is, after all, no doubt a pivotal event in Peter’s life. His teacher has brought him up a mountain, whereupon he started glowing and the greatest prophets in Israel’s history appeared alongside him. Peter knows he is in the presence of God. This mountaintop is a holy place now, and Peter would like to mark it as such.
But the mountaintop is not the point. The prophets disappear, Jesus stops glowing, and it is soon time to head back down to all of the people who haven’t seen that those on the mountain saw. Jesus knew they wanted to tell everybody about what had happened. About how Jesus had glowed and Moses and Elijah were there and there was this voice. He forbade them from telling. In fact, they weren’t allowed to tell anyone until after Jesus rose from the dead.
This makes some sense for Jesus. If word gets out that he holds such authority, then the secular powers that be will surely not appreciate it. He isn’t here to appear powerful. He’s here to deliver the good news, and that means he needs some time. Tell them when it’s time, he says. For now, keep quiet.
So what is this story telling us? Jesus is Lord, yes. But there have been other stories that told us that. The Star of Bethlehem told us that. This is where I’m a little puzzled. What else is going on here?
Perhaps the point is the coming down from the mountain. Our mountaintop experiences don’t last very long. Eventually you have to come down, and the intervals between our experiences of God are where we practice our faith. Faith is easy when you’re on a mountain and Jesus is all lit up and the voice of God is echoing around. But how do you keep that with you? How are Peter, James, and John’s lives going to be different now? What are they going to do, equipped with this knowledge of God, between this day and the resurrection? How will they retain the glow of the transfiguration?
No accident, then, that this day comes right before Lent. Ostensibly, Lent follows Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, and offers us a chance for a reflective season just before Holy Week. Note, though, that Jesus time in the desert came at the beginning of his ministry. This is not chronologically obvious. This is a decision the church made. So, while we prepare for Easter, we might also take Lent as a time when we honor the reality that our ordinary times, the times when we are not on a figurative or literal mountain-top, are difficult. As intent as we may be on following Jesus, our minds will wander, a shiny materialistic goal will grab our attention. We grow weary and disheartened, perhaps no time more than at the present.
So then, as you consider a Lenten discipline or practice, let me urge you away from the convention of giving up something you like because you like it. I gave up caffeine one year in college. I didn’t find God. I fell asleep. Don’t choose a Lenten discipline that will feel really good to stop doing at Easter. This isn’t about making Easter feel better by making ourselves miserable first. That’s why I couldn’t stand Lent when I was a kid.
This is about helping ourselves recognize that we are people in the midst of a dazzling and mysterious God whom we can hardly grasp. It is about, like Peter coming down the mountain, learning to see life down here in the valley a bit differently.
So for your Lenten practice, look at the ways your life is pulled away from holding Jesus as its center. And choose a practice that can help you bring it back.
That may mean giving something up. We are prone to be far too occupied with our own thoughts and ambitions, and to miss out on the deep truth of life as a result. In our era of screens in our pockets, we are one semi-conscious login away from little blips of thought that keep us from the harder task of being truly present in our bodies and in our souls. Perhaps there are other habits that we use to deflect the experience of being human. Ways we numb ourselves or hide from ourselves.
Maybe you want to take on a new discipline. Perhaps meditation, which is the simple practice of being present to yourself. Maybe exercise will help clear your mind and allow you to center on depth, and not on the noise we surround ourselves with. Perhaps a scripture study will put your mind on heavenly things.
The point is to find a way to cultivate that memory and hope for the mountaintop in your everyday practice. Because, while God’s presence was plain to see in the story of the transfiguration, God did not go away afterward. Nor has God retreated in the centuries since. We are, as ever, in the presence of the holy. The Spirit moves us still.
And between now and Easter, we have a time to let ourselves be people who need God’s grace. We can drop the illusions of self-sufficiency and simply be human, people of dust. We can practice welcoming God’s presence deep into our being, instead of resisting it through the habit of busy thought. We can, like Peter, learn that we find God not by building a monument to God’s presence, but by being humans who know that God chooses to be with us.
The transfiguration was a rare event. That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. The business of Christianity is to live our lives aware that it happened, and that each moment is a tiny epiphany, if we are present to notice it. So I wish you a holy and peaceful Lent. May you come to know yourself better, and may you become ever more ready to gratefully receive the boundless grace that God pours on us in every instance.