Scriptures for this Sunday are Here
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On March 18, 1958, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the great writers on Christian spirituality in the 20th century, was walking down an ordinary street in the shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, as crowds went about their business, when something happened: he looked around and saw something. He wrote about it in his journal the next day: “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream.”
Years later, he wrote about the experience: “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Walking around shining like the sun? That may be true for spiritual giants like Merton, we might say; for Jesus, the Son of God – but surely it cannot be true for us.
After all, we got up this morning, didn’t we? We brushed our teeth, we ate breakfast, we rushed to get into the car in time, we got ourselves and our children here to church, we settled into our chairs and tried to figure out the tune to the opening hymn, we are ordinary people who every now and then get a glimpse of what God might want for us. But surely we are not shining like the sun. Shining like the sun is what Jesus did, on the mountaintop, in the Transfiguration story we read today.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. And Epiphany is the season of light: it begins with a bright star shining in the Western sky, bringing wise men from the East to find a child in Bethlehem. And Epiphany ends with that child full-grown, shining in transfigured glory on a mountaintop, dazzling his disciples with uncreated light. In the meantime, during Epiphany, we see how Jesus is light to the world, and we hear him tell us that we are also the light of the world.
Today’s story provides a clear bookend with the story we hear in the first Sunday after the Epiphany, when Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism to hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Today we hear the same words, as a voice from the clouds interrupts Peter: This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!
Dazzling light, shining clouds, Moses and Elijah, a mysterious voice! It is transcendent glory we hear about today. It is glory that looks backward to the baptism that began Jesus’ ministry, and it is glory that looks forward at the long Lenten journey to the cross that awaits Jesus when he comes down from the mountain. It is glory that looks even further than the cross, as Jesus commands the disciples to tell no one about their experience until after he has been raised from the dead. Apparently there is something about this experience that cannot be understood except in the light of Easter, glorious resurrection light. And it looks forward beyond Easter, to the moment when the risen Jesus leads disciples out to a new mountaintop and promises to be with them always.
The Transfiguration story is the centerpiece of Matthew’s gospel. Yet we could be forgiven for hearing this story and simply scratching our heads and asking: what could the Transfiguration possibly mean to us?
I have put a lot of thought into this question, and I have come to the conclusion that this story means everything to us. Not because transfiguration is something that we can see happening every day. Transfiguration is not an everyday human experience. It’s not the same thing as transformation, for instance – transformation is an excellent word to describe human growth and change, new orientation, new understanding – these are vital things in our spiritual journey, so vital that transformation is part of our mission statement at Nativity: transforming lives with the love of Jesus Christ.
But transfiguration is not about transformation. What happened to Jesus on that mountaintop was not just an important spiritual growth experience – he began to shine with God’s uncreated light. The glory that was his as Son of God was revealed in unexplainable splendor. And anyone who tries to express in words what happened that day, to dissect it, to analyze it, to make sense out of it, to explain it away in terms of ordinary everyday human experience like transformation is doomed to failure.
Because Peter, James and John were confronted with a truth beyond human comprehension – they saw something that transcended the laws of physics. And we cannot describe or explain what they saw. We can only say that they experienced a miracle of vision. A veil was lifted from their eyes and they saw something that ordinary humans normally don’t see.
And after years of thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that what they saw was the truth as it always exists. Jesus always, from beginning to end of his life, shone with God’s uncreated light – and for one brief moment, the veil of ordinary human existence was lifted from their eyes and they saw him as he truly was, shining with God’s light.
It is the same light that shone around him in the manger in Bethlehem. It is the same light that shone around him as he healed the sick and preached good news to the poor. It is the same light that shone around him as he hung gasping for air, crying out with pain, on the cross, and the same light that shone around him as he rose from the dead, astonishing his friends.
And what is absolutely remarkable, amazing to me, is that somehow, some way, I believe God’s light shines around each of us in the same way. We are baptized children of God, adopted into God’s family, sisters and brothers of Jesus the Christ, shining with his light. Thomas Merton saw that light, ordinary human beings shining like the sun as they went about their daily business.
My ancestor, the great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, known best for railing at people about their sin, also knew about that light shining around us; he wrote: “The rainbow that follows the rain is light reflected through a multitude of drops that are like God’s little jewels, each a little star that represents the saints of Heaven, the children of Christ receiving and reflecting the light of the sun just breaking out of the cloud that had been till now darkened. The whole rainbow, composed of innumerable, beautiful shining drops, all united in one, arranged in such excellent order . . . the different colors, one above another, in such exact order is the church of the saints, each with a particular beauty, each drop very beautiful within itself, but the whole as united together much more beautiful.” We are the light of the rainbow, he says; we are shining with God’s light.
So what does it mean that you and I are here, ordinary people in an ordinary church on an ordinary day, shining with uncreated splendor? Think about that, that God’s light might be shining around you right now. Think about yourself as not only God’s beloved child, though you are. Think about yourself not only as God’s anointed minister and messenger to your family and your community, though you are.
Think of yourself as a being shining with such glory that God has to veil all of our eyes so that we don’t all blind each other all the time. God’s Holy Spirit like tongues of fire, leaping from you to me to you, back and forth all the time, the whole time we talk, the whole time we listen, the whole time we look at each other and experience the events of our lives, the loves and the resentments and the irritations and the laughter and the tears, God’s uncreated light shining in us and through us every moment.
And what if it is really true? What if we are truly loved, not because we are good or kind or helpful, but because we are God’s children, because we are glorious? Then could we forgive ourselves our quirks, our helplessness, our insecurities? Could we let ourselves experience our anger and our pain and our sinfulness and our thoughtlessness? Knowing the whole time that there is nothing we could do that could ever stop God from loving us, because we are like God, not despite of the fact but because we are human, because we are created in God’s image?
And what would it be like if we could see past the veil that darkens our eyes, could believe that if it were lifted and we looked around at each other, we would see that same uncreated glory shining in our neighbors too? What if we could see each other as God sees us, bright and beautiful and shining with God’s love, God’s very being? What if every Christian could see that radiance in every human being, even those who are despised and rejected as Jesus was?. How would the world change? How could we judge, hurt, deprive each other? How could we not love and care for each other? How could we help but love our neighbors as we love ourselves, when every person we meet shines with God’s glory?