Gospel Reading for Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)
I close my eyes and I try to imagine the Transfiguration. I try to picture what it would look like for someone you know to be transformed before you, for their clothes to light up like they were aflame. I try to wonder how I would keep my wits about me as Moses and Elijah start talking to Jesus as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I try to hear that Voice that would have thundered on the mountain.
It feels like something out of a fantasy novel; a scene from Narnia or Middle Earth. And so imagination always feels like there is way too much CGI. The flesh and blood that was in the midst of all of that gets lost in the pyrotechnics. Most of the stories about Jesus have some sort of grounding in reality as we experience. I have never seen a person healed from blindness, but I at least know darkness and light. I can wrap my head around it.
But the Transfiguration? The bright lights? The changing face? Moses and Elijah? The Voice of God in the clouds? My imagination is the best that I can do and even my imagination is murmuring, "This seems a bit far fetched." Yet despite those murmurings, I believe it happened. I find myself wondering about Peter, James, and John. Three ordinary dudes who found themselves in the middle of the psychedelia; a first century rabbi's fever dream. How did they not lose their minds?
Peter actually seemed okay through his teacher transforming, lighting up like a Christmas tree, and the sudden appearance of arguably the two most important figures in his nation's history. He wants to build shelters for the three of them! How is he calm through that? I would be running in circles screaming, "Jesus is on fire! He's talking to ghosts!" Peter's nonchalance here makes me wonder about him more than anything else in scripture.
I cannot wrap my head around the Transfiguration. And I don't think that the mere prose of the gospel accounts can tell the whole story. I think that is one of those places where art can fill in some of the gaps for our reeling imagination. Art can be more abstract. I love the Sufjan Stevens song "The Transfiguration." It tells the story, but the mountain of swirling instrumentation seems to give a realness to such a fantastic occurrence. It puts meat on the bones of Luke's account.
Lost in the cloud. A voice. Have no fear. We draw near.
Lost in the cloud. A sign. Son of Man, turn your ear.
I would feel so incredibly lost and terrified on that mountain. It would feel like my soul was on fire and my mind was turned inside out. And when the Voice of God boomed from the heavens, I would probably be sure that I was going to die. Yet the Voice did not hurl judgment like lightning down to the mountain. Instead there was instruction. "Listen to him." In Stevens' song, I wonder sometimes who is supposed to turn their ear. I could read that line as "A sign: Son of Man. Turn your ear" or "A sign. Son of Man, turn your ear." Both work. We turn our ear to the Son of Man. We beg the Son of Man to turn his ear to us. But I find myself getting lost in this story again.
The one thing I can wrap my head around is the disappointment that occurs when they trudge back down the mountain. After this incredible, life-altering experience with God, they come across a man. His only son is suffering. The child screams, foams at the mouth, and tears at himself. Heaven gives way to hell quickly. Of course, Jesus heals the boy for he was the door through which God's kingdom entered into our brokenness. But the encounter had to be jarring. It had to be jarring for Jesus. It had to be jarring for those three disciples. We've all been there. Spiritual highs always comes crashing back down to earth at some point.
I wonder if that cold slap of reality was just as transformative as the experience on the mountain. It was the wake up call and reminder that for all the incredible things they had seen, there was still much work to be done. Both are necessary for the journey. Sometimes we get lost in the clouds with God and sometimes we get lost in the wilderness wondering if God is there. I imagine we ought to remember both kinds of experiences and pray God uses them to transform us.