A few years ago my husband and I splurged for an anniversary and bought tickets to Cirque du Soleil.
Maybe you’ve been or have heard of it.
It’s a sort of a new wave circus, with incredibly skilled performers, on stages that move, musicians who sing while they spin in the air, water pouring down from the center, all kinds of other delightful surprises, all centered around a story.
We got all dressed up, we took the requisite photos outside the big tent, we headed in, and the show started. At first the show was utter delight for me, and then
the performers got more technical in their display of skill….
and I got more and more nervous.
They had this incredible performer doing aerial stunts on a silk suspended high into the air. They had acrobats leaping and spinning and crossing each other while they soared through the air between two high ledges, catching each other and swinging each other back up. It was a marvel of human effort: practice, impeccable timing, artistry. It was a mini miracle, happening right in front of my eyes.
Except, I couldn’t see it, since my eyes. were. closed.
I was so nervous that someone would slip, or lose their grip, or get the timing off, and I would have to watch them tumble to the ground, that I couldn’t relax. I didn’t trust their artistry and confidence more than I trusted my own fear. And so… I spent half the show shielding my eyes from their performance.
I missed the moment.
I couldn’t help but relate to Jesus’ disciples in this story that comes to us from Matthew today. First their friend and teacher transforms in front of their very eyes…then Moses and Elijah show up for a chat….then God God’s self speaks up from a cloud! I mean it’s no wonder that they threw themselves down!
But then when Jesus touches them, when they look up, it’s all gone. It’s over.
They missed the moment.
Transfiguration Sunday has always fascinated me. What the heck happened up there on that mountain, and why?
I did learn some things in preparing for today that I’m eager to share with you, but the main thing I learned is that what happened on that mountain was a mystical experience, and like all mystical experiences…it’s not something you can parse very well. Nobody really has an explanation for this enormous event that happens to Jesus in today’s scripture reading.
It just is.
Unless you miss it.
This mystical mountaintop event happens at a pivot point of sorts in Jesus’ life: from ministry in the small rural population in Galilee toward his final end in busy Jerusalem. It’s an important moment and one that appears in three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s a moment that clearly marks Jesus as not just a really excellent Rabbi. It’s a moment that Jesus’ divinity beams from his very self and becomes evident not just to him but those close to him.
Earlier in Matthew Jesus had been bringing some heavy duty preaching and healing to the people around Galilee. You’ve been hearing scripture and sermons from some of that teaching: about right relationship, transforming our lives, and the Beatitudes. Just prior to this story, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples where Peter announces Jesus’ role as the Messiah and Jesus announces his end and then consoles his friends over it. It’s been an intense time for Jesus.
And you know, after tons of social interactions and having super deep conversations, I like to head up to a mountain with friends to clear my head too.
But its relevant to our understanding to pause to learn a bit about the other similar story we heard today.
Remember that the people hearing this story about Jesus were well familiar with the mountaintop and Moses.
The people of Moses’ time had very different understandings of who God was than ours today. They understood that Gods were sort of affiliated with certain geographical regions and hung out in the heavens above that area. You accessed your God by creating a holy pathway of sorts, such as the tabernacle. OR you could head up to the heavens where your God lived, via, say, a mountain.
The presence of clouds also indicated the presence of that God, as we hear in the scripture, “The Glory of the Lord settled on Mt Sinai.” Reminds me of the lenticular clouds that are sometimes present over Mt. Rainier. When Moses enters that cloud the people of Israel knew him to be in communion with God.
So we’ve got this passage teed up, with Jesus sharing that he’s the awaited Messiah, and he heads up a mountain with his closest disciples, just like Moses. The scene is set for some kind of heavenly encounter. And wow does this story deliver!
Before Jesus and his friends have even caught their breath from the climb or taken in the view, Jesus begins to change before their very eyes.
With the beautiful descriptions of his glowing face and clothing beaming light, I think the text is trying to get at a transformation that’s beyond physical, one that revealed the divinity within Jesus. In that moment, I believe that the intermingling of Jesus’ humanity and divinity became visible. What had been a regular man suddenly was revealed to also, at the same time, contain the Glory of God. What a miracle.
And before we’ve had a chance to process this incredible event, Moses AND Elijah appear to them! Both were powerful figures of religious and spiritual authority of different eras of the Israelite people, who had both been ‘taken up’ to the heavens …and here they were, coming to kick it with Jesus! And just in case we somehow haven’t caught on about Jesus’ special role yet, God shows up and announces it very clearly, using the same language that God used at Jesus’ Baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
And now God adds – Listen to him.
I can only imagine what it would be like to encounter that much mystery, that much inexplicable, that much God’s Glory all at once!
But what I can relate to is not being able to handle it. While I yearn for even a glimpse of an encounter like this, it’s the disciples and their human response that I understand. Busying themselves with chores, trying to make an ephemeral moment last, hiding their faces from the intensity of it. I get that.
There have been times in my life when I feel I have gotten a glimpse of the Holy Mystery. I remember when I snorkeled for the first time, and came to understand there was an entire glorious world under the water line. I remember walking out accompanied by my family to meet the man I was to marry who was accompanied by his family and being overcome by the miracle of it all. These are the moments when God’s Glory is unmistakable.
Sometimes this glimpse of God’s Glory feels a bit more ordinary. I spent the last weekend at the coast with my family and one night walked alone in the dark along the shore. The crest of the waves glowed white as they crashed and rolled in while the stars kept me company in a moonless night. Ordinary shore, ordinary night…transfigured with God’s Glory. Simpler, softer moments too - Walking in my house after a long day and putting on my pajamas and watching a show snuggled up with my kids.
Sometimes the Glory of God shows up like it did during the transfiguration. A flesh and blood man suddenly revealed to contain God’s Glory. Sometimes the Glory of God shows up in an ordinary moment and we see just how divine that moment is.
And I wonder…how do we respond to these holy miracles in our midst? How do we encounter God’s Glory when it reveals itself to us?
Peter makes me laugh in this passage with his earnest and human response…when Moses and Elijah show up….he offers to build them each a tent. Most scholars imagine that he is offering to build them the kind of tent as for the festival of Sukkot, which stay up for a week. I can relate to his impulse. An amazing moment happens, and instead of being present to it, attending to it, I busy myself with supporting it somehow, with well-meaning efforts to make it last longer…and in doing so, I often miss the moment.
It’s like when you attend a performance, and you want to capture it to make it last, so you fire up your phone to record it…and you end up watching the performance through your screen, while you’re there at the concert.
It’s not only technology that we use to distract ourselves from the Holy that is revealing itself in front of us. It can be busy-ness, action, in painful moments as well.
I accompanied a family recently who had to make the hard choice of allowing their father to be released to death after a terrible fall. As they sat by his bedside in the immediate wake of his passing, in that sacred moment, the conversation began to turn to the logistics of his absence, of how they would tell people and who would check on the house and which funeral home they should use. Understandable. But OH, that’s a moment that won’t come again. And one we don’t want to miss.
I wonder, what are the ways you have missed the moment by trying to make it last or by moving into busy-ness? How would it feel to release those security rails of longevity or action and just sit in what’s happening, in the pain of it, in the mystery of it, in the Glory of it? Just be present to its unfolding?
I wonder, too, the ways that we shield our eyes from seeing, that we throw ourselves to the ground to keep from taking it in, as did Jesus’ closest disciples, and then by the time we realize we don’t have anything to fear, the moment has passed. God’s Glory has returned to its more ordinary shape.
There have been times where I have held another’s gaze where it has felt so raw, so tender, that I have averted my eyes. Times when I’ve been riding the ferry and the wind and scenery and power have been right there for me to take in, and I’ve headed underdeck to wait out the ride in my car. Times when my vulnerable truth was on the tip of my tongue, the Glory of God waiting in the wings to appear at the moment of honesty between us, and instead I metaphorically throw myself down, shielding myself from exposure and closing myself to the sacred moment.
What is it, I wonder, that keeps us from being fully present, fully showing up, to encountering God’s Glory when it is right in front of us? How do you turn away when suddenly the ordinary is revealed to be beaming with divinity in front of your very eyes.
I confess that I don’t fully understand what happened to Jesus on that Mountaintop. But I believe something holy happened, something that allowed him and his disciples to encounter the Glory of God. And, just as we say in the UCC that God is still speaking, I believe that God is still showing up in our midst, revealing God’s self among us, beaming God’s divinity throughout our human encounters and everyday lives, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.
As we close the season of epiphany today, the season of the star in our midst, and turn our attending to the quiet reflective season of Lent, I invite you to step into seeing, step into being with, to step into encountering God’s Glory in your life.
May your eyes and your heart be unshielded to the divine presence that is all around us ready to be seen and felt.
May the God of Glory accompany you in your seeing, in your being, in your encountering this week.