By Bryan Spinks
“And he was transfigured before them.”
This last Sunday of Epiphany is also known as Transfiguration Sunday because the gospel reading is precisely that – the account of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. Jesus and the disciples ascend the mountain, and a cloud comes over them, and Jesus was revealed as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, joined by two figures that were believed to have been assumed into heaven.
Here on the mountain the voice of the Father, and the vapor of the Spirit bear witness to the only begotten Son, the Word made flesh. It is a neat repetition of where Epiphany began – the baptism of Jesus, where the voice proclaims he is the beloved Son. In case anyone didn’t get it then, so there is a second chance now – This is my son, the beloved. As the great German reformer Martin Luther said, “God says, ‘Listen to him. He is your teacher.’ It is as if he were saying, ‘If you listen to him, you have listened to me.’”
The whole story of the transfiguration is depicted beautifully in a famous icon by Theophanes the Greek. Christ is in the center, bathed in white. Either side are Moses and Elijah, in yellow and brown. Below, also in yellow and brown, are the three companions who were invited to join Jesus, overwhelmed by what they experience.
But the iconographer has connected the three companions. Rays of blue light come from the light of Christ, and touch Peter, James and John. Why? Almost certainly because Theophanes knew that there was implicit in the Gospel account a double transfiguration. Jesus was transfigured. But the three close disciples were also transfigured by the experience. They would never again see Jesus as they had seen him and known him before this experience. They too had been changed. It was not that they understood it all – there was still much more to learn and undergo. But they had been changed.
Fans of Harry Potter might recall that transfiguration was one of the core subjects offered at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The instructor was Professor Minerva McGonagall. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, she says, “Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts.. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.”
But we don’t have to take a course in it, and that is because God still transfigures his people.
Jesus invited three friends on this journey. He could have invited the 12, the 72, or many more, but he invited these three, and they set out on the journey to ascend the mountain. The early Christian divines were fairly certain it was Mount Tabor, though contemporary scholars suggest Mount Hermon with a height of 9,230 feet, and a six-hour climb. But first they had to reach the mountain.
We are all called to ascend our own holy mountain. For some it is an easy climb, and for others of us, it is really difficult – a real struggle. It is not always clear where we will end up, but we continue with the belief that God is with us, and that God is gently insisting and leading.
The journey of faith is like always ascending and descending mountains. And then there are times when all seems clear, and we glimpse something of God and God’s love and forgiveness, and we want to stop, and stay, and breathe it in.
Peter was overwhelmed and thought it would be good to make booths for everyone to stay. We may be tempted, like Peter, to construct booths to stay just here. Another great 16th century reformer, John Calvin noted that “Peter was afraid lest at their departure, that pleasant and delightful exhibition should vanish away.” But we can’t stay, because time never stands still, and God too is never static. And if you recall the Narnia stories, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you can never go through the wardrobe again.
I recall vividly at age 16 going on the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England. I was overwhelmed by the experience, this closeness to God inspired by the really exotic and elaborate ceremonial and color of the services and procession round the village. I wanted to experience it again. I have been back to Walsingham many times, but never felt the same closeness to holiness.
As in all our journeys of faith, when we glimpse something of God’s holiness, it is time to go, back down the mountain. And that can be harder than the ascent.
The three were told not to tell anyone what they saw. Indeed, what if they tried? Who could understand it? It was something to be experienced, not explained. And that’s it. Our journey of faith, the lows and the highs, those glimpses of the divine – that is exactly how God transfigures us. And the more we reflect on those encounters with God – however brief, however inexplicable – we know what we have seen, and know that this is the beloved Son. But it always difficult to explain to others, to share those encounters, and share that faith.
Christian life has a rhythm of coming and going, but we are never alone in our journey. We journey with others – the community of faith – those around us, visible and invisible – the saints of now and the saints who have gone before. But there is something else.
Harry Potter was reminded by Professor Dumbledore that Harry’s mother had given her life to save him from the evil Voldemort. Voldemort, explained Dumbledore, didn’t realize that love that powerful would leave its own mark. “Not a scar, no visible sign.. to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”
So in moments of great doubt, and despair, when the way forward in life and faith becomes difficult to contemplate, recall this. Jesus Christ gave his life to save and his powerful love has left its mark. To have been loved so deeply by the One who goes on before you, not only gives you protection forever, but also the courage to love and serve the living God. It is not only in your skin, but in your very soul. In that sure hope, we may all continue this journey of faith. And the valley of the Lent in our lives will give way to that joy of Easter, when we are assured, love wins out.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Spinks is Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School.