Open to Being Transfigured

Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Feb. 3, 2008)
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

During the season of Epiphany – this year, a very short season, because of the early date of Easter – our Scripture readings focus on the revelation of the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God. A focus that helps to prepare us for the 40 day journey that follows – our journey through Lent toward the cross.[1] The gospel reading is so vivid in its description – “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” A mountain top experience of the most extraordinary proportions! Perhaps you’ve had an experience in your life that you describe as a mountain top experience, a time in which you have experienced God’s presence in a way that was beyond the ordinary.

When we think back to such times, it is typical to describe what we saw. For me it was after I climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and as I looked out across the rocks and the islands I saw vastness and power that chased any doubt I may have had about God’s existence right out of my being. I have a photo of me at the top of that mountain. A funny picture because, in the first place, I took it myself with arm outstretched trying as best I could to frame my face in the camera’s lens and, funny too, because it doesn’t capture any of the vastness I experienced – it is simply a picture of me. Often I have thought I would like to go back and re-experience that moment in time, to recapture the power and the awe. But more and more I recognize that even if I were to go back, to climb that same mountain on a day like that day, I would never have that same experience because I am no longer the person I was when I first climbed Cadillac Mountain in 1990.

When we hear today’s Gospel reading, most of us, I suspect are caught up – as were the disciples - by the changed image of Jesus – dressed now in dazzling white, his face shining in the sun, talking with Moses and Elijah on that mountain top. During this event, whatever we are to make of it, and I’ll say more about that in a moment, Peter offers to “make three dwellings” on the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Was this Peter’s attempt to add some permanence to the moment? Perhaps it was Peter’s equivalent of my meager photograph taken at the top of Cadillac Mountain. Peter is so taken by Jesus’ changed appearance that he wants to capture the moment. While Peter is never given a direct response to his question, it is clear from what follows that that is not at all the point of this transfiguring moment. For in the next moment, a bright cloud overshadows them and, from the cloud a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fall to the ground, overcome by fear. But, a moment later Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they do dare to look up, they see only Jesus, just as he was before.

Jesus, just as he was before. And yet this moment is referred to as the Transfiguration. A moment of change, or transformation. Jesus’ outward appearance, to be sure, is transfigured, but only for a time. The disciples, on the other hand, have experienced something profound. The words they hear spoken from the bright cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved” are words that have been spoken on only one other occasion – the time of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. The disciples though were not present on that occasion and so they are hearing these words for the first time.

The Rev. Judith Schenck, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Montana who is also a vowed solitary, living a monastic life in The Monastery of the Transfiguration, writes, "We usually think of the Transfiguration as something that happens to Jesus.” But Schenck asks, “Can we dare to think of Christ's transfiguration as something that happens also to us?"[2] What was true about Jesus at his baptism remains true of him at this time of transfiguration. There is no shift – he was and is God’s Son, the Beloved. So, what if, other than Jesus’ appearance, Jesus is not who is transfigured on the mountaintop. The disciples, however, cannot help but be transformed and changed by this experience; the disciples are ultimately transfigured by this new realization about who Jesus really is. But, can we dare to think of Christ’s transfiguration as something that happens to us also?

In just a few moments, you and I will share together the feast which Jesus first shared with the disciples. In the Eucharistic Prayer, we ask that God sanctify the bread and wine that they might “be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.” “We believe,” writes Rev. Schenck, “that the ordinary bread and wine are transfigured by the mystery of God into the Body and Blood of Christ” but “do we dare grasp what happens to each of us in the Eucharist?”[3] Later in the Eucharistic Prayer we ask that “the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” It is a prayer for transformation, for change, for our own transfiguration – that we, as a community in Christ, might become one body, one spirit – forever transfigured to serve the world in Christ’s name.

On Wednesday evening this week, we will observe Ash Wednesday with Eucharist and the imposition of ashes. This will mark our transition into Lent. The prayer book tells us that in the early Church, the “season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.” For each of us, Lent is to be a time of self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting, and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. All of these spiritual disciplines are engaged in during Lent, not because they are obligations, but because they are ways in which we can open ourselves to the transforming and transfiguring power of Christ in our lives.

As we transition from Epiphany into Lent, will we dare to think of Christ’s transfiguration as something that is happening to us also? Will we open ourselves to the transfiguring power of Christ in our lives? Let us go up the mountain together and be open to God’s Majestic Glory. Amen.

[1] James Kiefer, “Feast of the Transfiguration,” The Lectionary accessed online on August 8, 2007.
[2] Judith Schenck, “Last Sunday after the Epiphany,” Sermons that Work accessed online on February 2, 2008.
[3] Schenck (emphasis mine).