In my mid-20s, while still in my secular phase of life, I took a fellowship at the University of Colorado in Boulder and, thus, had the opportunity to go hiking in the Rockies. It was our fourth day of backpacking. As a shore girl and a newcomer to the Rockies I had been overwhelmed by the stark, craggy beauty of those mountains. But nothing prepared me for the morning when we climbed up to a steep ridge high above our camp, to a place where we could see all the way up the valley to the crystal lake where the ridges came together, and then gaze back the other way at fold after fold of mountains. It had been a hard climb, but there on that high rock everything seemed to open up and flow together. Peak and meadow, tree and sky, all seemed to be singing some chorus of praise.
I hesitate to say too much about what was a passing, glancing moment, but standing there with my two companions I seemed to sense that everything I saw was somehow part of one life, that I belonged to it, and it belonged to me. It almost seemed as if I were sensing a harmony pulsing through the whole universe. I’d had this feeling before but always it involved the sea – with that heartbeat of the universe made visible in the movement of waves and tides, or how the light dances on water in the same way the stars and the eyes of our beloved can twinkle.
In those moments, I no longer felt that I was an isolated “I” taking all this in, but was part of a “we,” an “us,” that included my companions and the mountains and stream below and the whole world beyond. I wanted to stay and not turn loose of that moment. The only word I can come up with for what I sensed was “glory.”
Later on, as we made our way down from the ridge, life seemed ordinary again, enough to make me wonder whether what I had sensed was real at all. But still, I sensed I was on to something. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir caught the dilemma in a poem called “The Transfiguration”:
Was it a delusion?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
Sole glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
I had traveled up that mountain as a tourist — out for an interesting few days with friends. But there on that mountain, I became a pilgrim. I had glimpsed a glory that had left me feeling on the edge of something immense.
I don’t make any special claim for that mountaintop moment. I tell you about it not because I think it is rare but because I’m convinced it’s not. I don’t know where or when it has happened for you, but my hunch is that it has. Sometimes, it is as if the veil between time and eternity draws back.
- It’s what overwhelms us in the middle of a Bach fugue
- or when we gaze at a Turner landscape
- or even walking down the street
when we sense just for a moment that this is all a great dance, all these people so different, so filled with their aches and their hopes, but somehow are bound to one another in a way that is deeply real.
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Before we move into the season Lent as we will this week on Ash Wednesday, the church invites us to climb a mountain in the company of Jesus and his close friends to witness & participate in a strange event in which Moses and Elijah appear in a conversation with Jesus, as he is transfigured – altered in appearance – and a voice from heaven, the voice of God, declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
These words from heaven are the same words we heard at the beginning of the Epiphany season when we stood with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan River as Jesus was baptized. But here, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice continues — addressing the 3 chosen disciples saying, “listen to him”.
The command, listen to him, also transforms the 3 dumbstruck disciples from passive observers into participants. Listening to Jesus involves more than speech because in the Gospels words are not just spoken.
- Words become events.
- They happen.
- And those who are present are obliged to respond “yes or no” with their lives.
So, “listen to him” means something more like:
- take to heart,
- draw into the depths of your being all that you have observed
- all you know as you heard him teach, saw him heal, shared his life and experienced his love.
The disciples’ response out of awe on that mountaintop was to try & freeze the moment – to whip out their phones and turn on FB live stream. And it is exactly at this moment that the voice of heaven and intervenes and lays waste their desire. “Listen to him” which drives them all to their knees, and must mean something like
- “Don’t try to hold onto this moment.
- Rather, let it contain you and take you where it will.”
The Eastern Christian tradition, which has shared ancient roots with our own Celtic traditions of Christianity, attaches great importance to the transfiguration of Jesus and sees it as a doorway into a reality that we seldom discern because of our distorted vision and the dullness of our blinded sight. In this view all creation is seen as luminous, revelatory, transparent to the light of what our Exodus reading calls “the glory”, the bright, dazzling presence of God which we see in the face of Jesus Christ.
According to this tradition what changed on the Mount of Transfiguration was not so much the person of Jesus but the perception of the disciples. They saw clearly and, with undistorted vision, who Jesus truly was. And so it is with us, when we are available to the motions of the spirit deep within us. – whether we are atop a mountain or by the water. We, too, can see with undistorted vision. But, like Peter, James, and John, we are well advised to “listen to him”.
And so, “listen to him” becomes an invitation to us – to journey with Jesus down the mountain and along the road, up to Jerusalem and to the cross and through the cross into that force field we call Resurrection.
The transfiguration orients us to the Lenten journey. We might say that Jesus’ transfiguration in advance of his arrest and crucifixion is a hint, a foretaste of the new reality of resurrection which will meet Jesus and his followers beyond the cross. As such the transfiguration serves to give us courage to make the journey with a sense that the darkest hour may not indeed be the end.