The Feast of the Transfiguration
In the name of God: through whom we are made new. Amen.
Today, we’re stepping just outside the story that has been playing through the past several weeks – the stories of Jesus’ earthly teachings that define this liturgical season of the summer: Ordinary Time. And today, instead of a focus on Jesus’ life on earth, our readings point us to the divine nature of Christ. We turn from Jesus communing with the people in the villages, to instead focus on Christ, communing with the saints and prophets of the ages on the mountaintop and in the heavens.
Lesser Feasts & Fasts, the Episcopal reference book that explores our calendar of observances, refers to this day as a time for us to peek behind the “veil” of Christ’s humanity. Briefly, that “veil” of humanity is pulled aside so that a select few can see the deeper truth.
It can be a little hard to wrap our minds around it all. And we’re not alone in that. The “veil” of humanity that shields us from the holiness of God is something we hear of our ancestors clinging to throughout the stories of our faith.
In the reading from Exodus, we’re told of a literal veil. After Moses interacts with God, his skin is shown to be gleaming, and the people following him are frightened. The nearness of God – even removed through Moses as an intermediary – is too much for them to bear. So Moses covers his face with a veil when he is with the people to shield them from their fear.
And we hear it again from Peter. In the account of this story that we find in Luke, Peter is so dazzled by the nearness of God and by the holiness of the moment, that he loses sight of their calling from God. He wants to withdraw from the world and from the work that they had been doing, so that the dazzle could go on.
But that’s never why the veil gets drawn back. It’s never drawn back so that we can climb in and rest inside, separating ourselves from the rest of the world. No, it gets drawn back so that we can peek inside and then testify to all that we’ve seen.
When I was working in Youth Ministry, one of the things that had the kids’ attention those days were the Twilight series of young adult fiction novels – stories of Bella, a teenaged girl in the Pacific northwest who finds her story embroiled in the stories of magical creatures – specifically vampires.
It seemed like every Sunday night at the youth group meetings, that was basically all any of them were talking about – so I figured I better see what it was all about. I read all four books. While the stories were engaging, the writing was actually pretty terrible. I had a hard time getting through them. This was one of those rare times when the movies that came out later were actually better than books.
But, whenever I hear the story of the Transfiguration, I think of that story of Bella getting confirmation that the man she was falling in love with was, in fact, a vampire. In this universe, the vampires aren’t killed by sunlight, but their true natures are revealed by it. So Edward, the vampire that Bella falls in love with, takes her to a high mountaintop, above the clouds, and he steps into the sunlight. Suddenly, his skin begins to dazzle like diamonds. He reveals to her that that is why he and the other vampires who have become his family have to hide – because their truth would be too much for most people to handle – sort of like the way Moses has to hide his face after interacting with God.
But in the story of Jesus’ skin dazzling, the focus is never to hide who Jesus truly is, but to reveal it. Peter, and James, and John were there – not so much to be let in on the secret, like Bella – but so that they could testify to the divinity that they’d seen.
At the end of the Gospel it tells us that after they had heard the voice of God, “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” But we know that didn’t last forever. Eventually, their testimony became a part of the story of Jesus that was told again and again. We know that because we read about it in the Gospel, but we even read the testimony of Peter speaking of this moment. In his letter, 2nd Peter, he said, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
But the significance of the Transfiguration isn’t just the changes that Jesus experienced in his Body. And, as important as the testimony of the witnesses is, I think it’s not even really about that. So much of the story of Jesus is about showing us a pathway for what a deeper, closer relationship with God might mean for us. And part of the testimony we hear is that when we know God more fully, we leave the moment changed.
Think about the times that you’ve experienced God. It probably wasn’t like Moses – sharing the same physical space, seeing a literal being. Your skin was probably not permanently changed because of the radiance of the moment. And it probably wasn’t like what Peter, James, and John witnessed – the physical form of Jesus joined by the physical forms of Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from the heavens.
I wouldn’t say it’s not possible, but it’s just not how most of us experience God. But even so, most of us probably have had some experience of God – whether it was a passing moment of peace, or a sense of connection to loved ones that we’ve lost, or a moment of clarity and understanding that we couldn’t explain. God comes to us in different ways through many kinds of subtle means, that usually we’re too busy and too distracted to notice. But when we pay closer attention, we learn to see God more clearly. And when we notice it, we are changed.
But God doesn’t show us those moments so that we can get lost in them like Peter wanted to. And God doesn’t show us those moments so that we can smack people in the face with our experiences and frighten them, the way Moses seems to have. Instead, they represent moments of clarity that foreshadow for us the reality of God that we can’t yet fully know. Hopefully, we can use them to spur us to action, making the “kingdom of heaven” that we’ve been hearing so much about through these last weeks into something more tangible here on earth.
But our inclination is almost always to miss the point. We’re drawn to the idea of shielding ourselves – our faith, our experiences of the divine – as if it might protect those around us. Or, we become tempted to shield God, to hoard the experience of God in our lives for ourselves – to not tell anyone about what we’ve seen. But God is always calling us to something else. God is always calling us back down the mountain. God is always calling us to share the good news of the holiness we’ve encountered.
The real Transfiguration for us isn’t the process of clothing or skin becoming dazzling, or hearing the voices from heaven. The real transfiguration happens in our hearts – when we are brave enough to leave behind the glimpses we’ve had behind the veil, and to share the joy of those glimpses with others. When we do that, we’ve been transfigured into the people of God. Our skin may not shine like diamonds, but our spirits will.
Our experiences of God aren’t meant to be hoarded or shielded, but shared. Each day we have opportunities to be transfigured again, and to be agents of transfiguration for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.