Today is the church’s celebration of the moment when Jesus revealed himself to be far greater than his disciples had ever imagined he was. This was the occasion that changed our relationship with God. In the early days, God spoke directly to a select few individuals: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. But after the Exodus, God’s will was revealed through the Law, as delivered by Moses and argued about by generations of rabbis and scholars up to the present moment. When Israel established itself as a nation, God spoke through the prophets, and the greatest of them was Elijah—so great that Jews still leave a chair and a glass of wine for him at Passover dinners.
And now, Jesus shows us a new way of understanding and relating directly with God. It’s a big day.
Oh, and…happy Valentine’s Day! Today we also celebrate more earthly relationships. It is of course a coincidence that these two celebrations happen on the same day this year. But oddly, I think we may find that there’s an actual connection between them.
We’ll start with a look at the Transfiguration.
By the time this event happens, the disciples have been following Jesus from town to town for a good while, and they’ve already seen quite a few miracles. Jesus has cast out demons, walked on water, and fed not just one, but two huge crowds with a few fish and loaves of bread. This is a heady experience for a group of village fishermen.
But, miracles are actually happening all over Israel these days. Wonder-workers and healers are thick on the ground, turning water into wine and casting out demons. Elijah himself brought a dead boy back to life and kept the boy’s mother miraculously supplied with food. There have even been a handful of candidates for Messiah. So although Jesus is unusually wise and charismatic, the disciples mostly see him as a teacher and preacher, although Peter has named him as the Messiah—that is, as the as-yet uncrowned king of Israel.
But Jesus has recently asked them for a commitment, and he’s let them know that he expects them to give up their very lives for his cause. And he wants them to see who and what they are committing to. So he selects a few disciples and takes them up a mountain. And there they see him suddenly dressed in dazzling light, and talking as a colleague with the greatest lawgiver and the greatest prophet in the history of Israel’s relationship with God. And a voice from heaven announces that he is the Beloved Son of God. Listen to Him. The time of the Law and the Prophets has been completed, and their time is over. This is the era of the direct experience of God.
The three disciples are disoriented and terrified. This is so much more than they’d signed up for. Peter is floundering again, as always, and he probably speaks for the others as he tries to regain some sense of normalcy.
And then the moment is over. The disciples look again, and it’s just their friend and teacher, just Jesus. But they will never see him quite the same way again.
This moment is the very definition of grace—a God-given moment when something familiar and ordinary suddenly shows itself as filled with God’s presence, and so beautiful it leaves us breathless and weeping. And even if that moment is fleeting, we are changed. Our perception of overwhelming beauty and sacredness transforms our relationship with the person or object. For an instant, we have seen as much of God as our human selves can bear.
So, what does this mean for us, right now?
Well, there are a lot of jokes going around the Internet, about being stuck at home …for quite a while. There’s a map with a caption that says, “Looking at the map to get some travel ideas for the weekend.” And of course it’s not a map. It’s a floor plan. Other jokes list exotic destinations like San Living Room, Costa del Balcony, Piazza Dining Area, Shower Falls…you get the idea.
We’ve been in lockdown for almost a year, and by now we’ve learned every crack in our ceilings, every creak of our wood floors. If we live with other humans, we also know their every tic and bad habit. A friend of mine calls every day Blursday, because all days are alike. Going to the grocery store, or even outdoors to pick up the mail is a big event. Life is way too familiar, and so are the things and the people—or solitude—we live with.
But sometimes, in the middle of this endless sameness, we are given a moment of grace. The sun slants in a window to catch a houseplant’s leaves and transform them into green fire. Or we notice an instrumental line in a familiar piece of music on the radio, and the piece becomes new and wonderful. Or the cat or dog pushes her furry face into our hand, and we feel her life force under our fingers. In those moments, God’s face shines through the ordinary and makes everything holy.
Back in the 1970s, I worked as a guard at the Seattle Art Museum when it was displaying James Michener’s huge collection of Japanese woodblock prints. For the first couple of weeks, the job was a joy. I learned a little about the history of the art form and how to see the differences among the artists. I chose my favorite pictures, and I loved walking through the rooms where they hung.
But a museum guard’s job is to walk slowly from room to room for eight hours, direct guests to the bathrooms or the gift shop, and make sure they don’t get too close to the art. That’s about it. And after a while, I began to get really tired of walking through the same galleries a dozen times a day, mouthing the script of the same documentary film, humming along with the same background music, and reciting the same comments and questions from the guests before they even opened their mouths. I noticed that my feet hurt, a lot. I started to dread coming to work.
And then one day, in the middle of another trek through the galleries, I somehow approached the art from a different angle. And I saw the ceiling lights shining onto one of the pictures, and I saw for the first time that those large blank areas were not really blank at all. They had been printed with an ink that was permeated with powdered mica. And so the picture glittered and glowed, and radiated its own light back into the room. And that moment of beauty opened my eyes to the exquisite details of each of those little masterpieces, and I spent the last two weeks of the exhibit in pure gratitude for the privilege of spending so much time in their presence.
These moments of grace are the Holy Spirit’s way of telling us that every moment is Spirit-filled, if we keep our eyes and ears and hearts open. Even in the repetitive familiarity we are living through, God occasionally bursts through, like light on glittering ink. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
What’s even better is that we have the raw materials to create these flashes of the divine out of the same daily routines we are so tired of. The songwriter Carrie Newcomer captures that potential for everyday grace in her song “Holy as the Day Is Spent.” You can hear it on YouTube, and I’ll put the address in the Chat area. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRfBksw5GsQ
But here are some of the things that Newcomer sees through the lens of holiness:
The dish and drain, the soap and sink, the cup and plate…
The busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat…
The dog that runs in her sleep to catch that wild, elusive thing.
The familiar room, a quiet moment in the afternoon.
Redemption everywhere I look.
It’s all part of a sacrament as holy as the day is spent.
By now, you’re probably way ahead of me about how all this relates to Valentine’s Day. Remember that feeling of falling in love, or realizing that you are already in love? A face that has become familiar suddenly transforms into the most beautiful you have ever seen. You could look forever. All flaws and mistakes disappear. That is the grace of love, human love, which is a miniature version of God’s astonishing love for us, for the world, for all of creation.
As a relationship settles into ordinariness, those little problem areas come creeping back, and we tend to forget the moments of glory. But we can regain them, renew them every day, keeping eyes and ears and hearts open to the grace that comes to us through the person we know and love best.
And what if you don’t have a special person in your life on Valentine’s Day? What if you’ve spent these weeks and months of lockdown mostly alone? Where does God’s love shine through for you?
Remember those moments of God-given glory. Stay open to the possibility of a flash of beauty, a perfect chord, a spontaneous recognition of the astonishing gift that is your life. Let yourself fall in love again and again with the first light of morning, the taste of your breakfast cereal, the comfort of warm soapy water on your hands. Look for the face of God in the people you meet on your walks, or in the squirrel outside your window. There are God’s Valentines for you. There is your daily Transfiguration.
Happy Transfiguration Day. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, God.
May God surprise you every day with moments of grace.
May you be blessed with open eyes and hearts to receive them.
And may God’s grace and beauty of shine through you to illuminate the world.