We all have experiences when God’s presence with us is especially clear. The world briefly shines with heavenly light – but then the moment passes, and we need to make sense of what we have witnessed, and what it has to do with our daily lives.
Vicar Jessica Christy
Transfiguration of Our Lord
Text: Mark 9:2-9
You have to be ready for the week after church camp. That’s what the older kids warned my youth group as we were preparing to go to summer camp for the first time. They promised that it was the kind of experience that was going to change our lives – and that we wouldn’t want to leave when it was over. They were absolutely right. For that week in the Wisconsin woods, I felt closer to God than I ever had in my life. We spent our days reading scripture, discussing our faith, and playing amidst the beauty of nature. And at night, we’d gather around the campfire to sing quiet songs and bare our souls to one another beneath the endless, starry sky. For seven days, it was like we were living on holy ground, where faith and friendship were all that mattered.
And then, it was over. We went home and returned to our regular rhythms and responsibilities. The older kids’ warnings were right: the transition wasn’t easy. After that week of intense, faithful joy, the rest of the world seemed lifeless and unhallowed. I spent the next months longing to return to that sacred place where Christ was so clearly and unapologetically the center of my life. Camp had been so special, and everything else was so ordinary, that it was hard to see what the one had to do to the other. In confirmation, we would reminisce about our summer and ask each other: why couldn’t all of life be like church camp? Why couldn’t we stay in that sacred space?
And so I feel for Peter, James, and John as they’re walking back down that mountain. I can’t imagine how strange it must have been for them to witness the miracle of the Transfiguration, and then return to their work as though nothing happened. On top of the mountain, they see Jesus filled with the light of creation as he is named God’s son. They see the old heroes of their faith walking the Earth. They hear the very voice of God. When Peter sees Christ shining in the presence of Moses and Elijah, he understandably thinks that this is it – the Day of the Lord has finally come. Here and now, all of God’s promises are at last being fulfilled. He wants to crystallize this moment, to build dwelling places for the ancient prophets so they can stay and usher in God’s reign on Earth. He thinks that this is what the coming of God’s kingdom looks like, shining high above the mess of everyday life.
But Jesus has already told him that’s not quite right. In Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration is immediately preceded by Jesus’ first prediction of his own death. Jesus proclaims that he will experience suffering, rejection, and death, and then rise again on the third day. Peter is appalled. He pulls Jesus aside and tries to silence him, but Jesus doubles down on his claim and calls on the crowds to follow his difficult way. There will be no path to glory that does not pass through the Cross. So of course the disciples can’t stay on the mountain with Jesus and the prophets. They can’t just escape to enlightenment and leave the rest of the world behind. They might wish it were that easy, but that’s not how God works. The mountaintop isn’t where Christ lives.
So back down the mountain they go. Back to the hard days on the road. Back to the press of the crowds. Back to a teacher who has stopped glowing and gone back to saying that he’s about to die. They have to return to lives in which everything about their world has changed – and yet everything seems the same. They’re not even allowed to tell people what they’ve seen. Maybe they couldn’t put it into words if they tried. It must have been lonely. It must have been hard.
The three disciples had a special revelation, and that means they had a special challenge as they came down that mountain. But their experience wasn’t all that unique. Human beings are so marvelously receptive to beauty and wonder that we all have shimmering moments when God’s presence in our lives is made especially clear. All of us are given glimpses of the Transfiguration. Sometimes it happens in the midst of worship – during a beloved hymn, or at the baptism of a child. For some people, it comes in prayerful meditation. Sometimes it is revealed in an experience of nature, the overwhelming beauty of a sunset or the stars or the sea. Or it is found in art, or a relationship, or something else altogether. Even if we haven’t seen Christ shining on the mountaintop, God invites each of us, in our own ways, to stand on holy ground and witness a flash of God’s glory. That is a marvelous gift, and as Peter says, it is good. But then comes the hard part, when the curtain falls back into place and the heavenly light fades. The moment passes. The world returns to normal, and we have to figure out what to do with what we’ve seen and felt. We might struggle to articulate what happened to us. We might wonder if it was even real. We might long to return to that place where God shone so bright and clear, and wonder why God so often remains hidden from our sight.
But friends, the good news is that the Transfiguration is all around us. It may not be obvious at every moment of our lives, but it is always here. Christ came back down the mountain, back down to us, and the whole world shines with his image. The Transfiguration is not some perfect vision up in the sky. It is not something we have to wait for or search for on some distant summit. It is here and now, illuminating everything. In Christ, all ground is hallowed ground. Jesus taught the disciples to return to the crowds, because the crowds are where he’s really found. We are called seek out and serve the light of Christ in one another.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was standing on a busy street corner when he had the most famous mystical vision of modern times. All of a sudden, he saw the people around him “shining like the sun.” He wrote that it was as if he were seeing the crowds around him through God’s eyes, and everyone’s innermost beauty was for an instant laid bare. He realized that the glory of God is in everybody, “like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven…and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” At this vision of light, Merton was overwhelmed with love for these strangers, and only wished he could show them how brightly they shone.
If we follow where Jesus leads, then the path back down the mountain brings us to one another. We witness to the Transfiguration in each other, and when we do so, we are ourselves transfigured. We carry God’s light into the world for each other to see.
Christ is shining all around us. Christ is shining in us. Trust that, and seek it, and you will see that it is true. You will see Christ – everywhere.