A reflection on the readings for
Transfiguration B/Last Epiphany2 Kings 2:1-2Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6Mark 9: 2-9
Ash WednesdayJoel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12Psalm 51:1-172 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
By Janine Goodwin.
One of the things I love best about the lectionary and the liturgical year is that they are always bringing unexpected things together. Every week, the lectionary readings bring together different voices from different times to tell us in different ways what God is like and what God wants to share with us. Their words and our listening combine to make something new. The year itself is not a straight line through time: it begins with Advent, but it does not end with Easter. Throughout its cycle, it weaves threads of holy history together, making a rich and varied fabric.
This week, Sunday brings us the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and hear the voice of God speak from a cloud. Wednesday brings us the reminder that we are dust and the admonition of Jesus to pray simply and privately. These two sets of scriptures may seem different or even contradictory; they are not. Reality is both transcendent and ordinary. The view from my window includes broken-down cars and a snowcapped mountain. I work at a small-town store where the owners know, in a quiet and practical way, that their work is both business and ministry. The same day can bring in people who are making the sorrowful decision to put a parent in a nursing home and a child rejoicing in the freedom of learning to walk, or involve me in wrapping a birthday gift at one moment and looking for fittings for someone facing a plumbing disaster the next. The newly-engaged and the long-married meet at the cash register and talk about love, life, and the new water filtration plant.
If we oppose Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday, we lose the understanding of the ways in which glory and ashes are woven together in our lives. I remember a sermon I heard in my teens, in which the preacher explained that the Transfiguration is all very well, but we have to come down off the mountain and live our daily lives, and we shouldn't over-emphasize the transcendence. At the time, I bristled in the pew. I now suspect that the preacher's issue was not with the transcendent experience itself, but with what we sometimes make of those experiences. As a teenager, I thought Peter had the right idea. I wanted to dwell in the glory of God without having to do anything on the ground. When I worshipped the feelings I had about the vision of glory, I missed what the voice said from the cloud. I missed it in a different direction on the days when I was glumly convinced that transcendence was a figment of my imagination.
I have come to believe that the point of the Transfiguration is not to suggest that real life is lived either on or off the mountaintop. The vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is glorious, but we miss what we need to know if we fail to hear the voice of God saying: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." The Transfiguration is not even about God's glory, but God's call to us to be in relationship, to listen. That listening can be done in any state of mind or heart, in any situation. We are called to practice it in every time and place, whatever our mood or our circumstances. I strongly suspect that God is not interested in opposing the transcendent and the ordinary. It is we who make that distinction. In another story that our gospel is meant to parallel, Moses was called to go up to the mountain and meet God in a cloud of glory, yet Moses did not go to the mountain to get instructions on how to make one's face glow with an unearthly light. He went to the mountain to get some plainspoken and difficult commandments on how to live with one another every single ordinary and unspeakably holy day of our lives. We know those commandments, we revere them, we try to weasel out of them or we just break them outright. We are a faithless people and a people of faith. We are part of the story of a world that is both good and wounded, and we are the tellers of that story as well.
I no longer want to place the Transfiguration against the work of Lent, but to see them together. I have crocheted with two different yarns held together and seen how the act of combining them creates new kinds of texture, color, and warmth; I want to see how the impossibly bright garment of the transfigured Lord and the plain homespun of prayer in secret on an ordinary day look when they are wound together. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah beside their daily companions; can we see them in our neighbors and co-workers? Can we see the fallible person in the prophet, and hear the prophecy that can only be spoken by those who live and work beside us?
The original word for the Transfiguration is "metamorphosis." Jesus is changed on the mountaintop, where the disciples get a glimpse of eternal glory. He does not morph into someone else, though: what differs is not who he is, but how we see him and who we say he is. When the voice from heaven tells us to listen to him, we are being told to listen to what he says on the mountaintop, in the place of worship, at a meal in a friend's house, on a dusty road, sitting on the stones of a well. He will tell us stories about bread, about money, about children, about our enemies, stories that open into new meanings at every turn: he will give us simple tasks that are terribly hard to do. The Jesus of the mountaintop is the one who will be tempted, who will weep, who will die. He will come back from the dead, still bearing his wounds, and ask whether we have anything to eat.
For a long time, I did not want to listen to Jesus, because I had been taught that he would give me strict orders and make me live a life of unquestioning obedience. When I began to pray with a listening heart and read the Scriptures without fear, I discovered a Jesus who asked me questions, who loved inquiring mind and who could take a challenge. I began to believe that God was calling me to participate in creation not as someone who had to play a certain part, but as an artist with choices to make and freedom to use or waste. There was more responsibility and less blame. I could not spoil God's plan for me. We were not reading a piece of music that had been written centuries before, lovely though such music is, but improvising on many different themes, old and new.
We all have trouble listening to Jesus, whatever our reasons may be. We even have trouble remembering we have been told to listen. How many of us remember, when the Transfiguration comes around, what the voice says from the cloud? Even when we listen, we all misunderstand his words. Often, we explain each other's misunderstandings to them and to ourselves without admitting our own. We do not necessarily do a terribly good job of living out what we do understand or claim to understand. We build huts to hold the blazing glory of a visionary moment, and lose the vision. We head down the mountain on the wrong path and find ourselves turning God's glory into our own self-importance. We walk right by burning bushes while reviewing our To Do lists. We argue among ourselves like the disciples, trying to pull rank and get a better place at the table. At different times we may run away from our faith in moments of fear, as Peter did, or keep a lonely watch beneath a cross. We will, if we practice faithfully, begin to hear the subtle tones of vanity and judgment in our most private and honest and penitent prayers.
The God who loves and forgives, who calls to account and offers us gifts and the power to use them, is with us. We see glory. We remember we are dust. We are called to listen to the voice of Jesus in every moment of our lives. This is the good news.