By Amy Richter
Sue Monk Kidd writes, “When my young daughter was in the Christmas play, she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door wearing her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. ‘What exactly will you be doing in the play?’ I asked her. She answered, ‘I just stand there and shine!’” There’s no shame in just shining, as it turns out.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is transfigured in front of his disciples – his appearance is changed. His skin and his clothes become dazzling white, glowing with the glory of God. Just for a moment, high on this mountaintop, the disciples get a glimpse of Jesus as he really is, so alive with the presence of God, so infused with holiness, so vibrant with divinity that the light simply won’t stay in. The veil is lifted, the covering loosened, and the radiance comes flooding out.
An amazing sight – but not practical, really, for every day. For one thing, it scares the living daylights out of people. Peter, James, and John are, understandably, terrified, awestruck, dumbfounded by this unmediated divine reality before them. It lasts just a moment though, because what happens next is this. “A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”
While the dazzling light from Jesus is what gets our attention first, we need to pay some attention to this cloud. We need to pay attention to this cloud because it does a very interesting thing. It overshadows them.
There’s only one other place in the gospels where that same word is used, “overshadow.” When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and explains to her how she will become the mother of Jesus, how she will bear the child called Emmanuel, God with us, how God will bring about the salvation, the wholeness, the reconciliation of the whole world by doing something new. But God won’t do it alone. God will only use humans who participate freely with God in bringing about the transformation of the world. The angel tells her, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” And Mary says, “Okay, yes, let it be with me according to your word,” and she becomes the bearer of God.
When God shows up, God often appears in and through people. Jan Richardson says, “God goes not for architecture, but for anatomy. Or, rather, God makes architecture of our anatomy.” God overshadows us and we become the bearers of God. God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation of the holy.
Jesus is transfigured not for his sake – but for ours. The disciples need a glimpse of the all-out, unrestrained glorious truth of his identity, so they can move forward into the dark and hard times that lay ahead. But it’s as if God says, don’t be distracted by the dazzle. Savor the moment and then go. Don’t get stuck here. Don’t build shelters. Be shelters. You be the place where God dwells, the place from which God acts, the bearer of God’s good news in Jesus Christ.
The cloud overshadows the followers of Jesus – the power of the most high comes upon all who follow and waits for us to say our own yes to be part of God’s plans for transforming the world, to participate in the self-giving love, death, and resurrection life of Jesus Christ. To claim ourselves as habitations for the holy, dwelling places for the divine, beloved children of God who incarnate – show, make real, with flesh and bones, and hands and hearts, and feet, and eyes and ears, reality — the love of Jesus Christ to others.
Here’s the amazing thing: when we do this, when we know and show the love of God in Christ, transfiguration happens. Things get seen for what they truly are. Glory leaks out around the edges, fills us with a sense of the glorious impossible, that we too may be caught up in God’s work in the world. Transfiguration can happen on a mountain top. Transfiguration can happen in a valley. Transfiguration can happen anytime we listen and hear the words of Jesus.
Maya Angelou wrote about her experience of understanding, deep-down knowing the love of God for the first time:
One day the teacher . . . asked me to read to him. I was twenty-four, very erudite, very worldly. He asked that I read . . . a section which ended with these words: “God loves me.” I read the piece and closed the book, and the teacher said, “Read it again.” I pointedly opened the book, and I sarcastically read, “God loves me.” He said, “Again.” After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything.”
Knowing love moves to showing love. “I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things.” That’s why we gather in a church and not up on some mountain top. Our worship should feel like time set apart, suffused with glory and wonder and praise. But we’re part of a church community in order to continue to be transformed and act as agents of transformation. There’s much to do. Samuel Miller writes, “We need to match our inward transformation with the magnitude of the world’s need.”
In other words, we have some shining to do, and often it involves movement and not just standing there and glittering. When we know the love of God, when we show the love of God, when we use the power that has overshadowed us and claimed us as God’s holy habitations, transfiguration happens whether or not the beams of light are blinding. It can happen in the most mundane and simple of places. The most ordinary of people can help it happen.
Mary Ann Bird wrote about when transfiguration took place in her life because someone showed love to her. Bird was born with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided feet. As a child, she suffered not only the physical difficulties, but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”
She would lie and say, “I cut it on a piece of glass.”
One of the worst experiences at school, Bird says, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like, “The sky is blue,” or “You have new shoes.” This was called “the whisper test.” If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Bird would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year, Bird was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Bird, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Bird was called to the teacher’s desk. As she cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. Bird says, “I waited for those words, which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue, or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was, “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann Bird went on to become a teacher herself, a person of inner beauty and great kindness.
A cloud overshadowed them and the glory of the Lord shone upon them. And they could see who is really there with them all along.
Transfiguration happens. Sometimes there’s no mistaking it. Transfiguration happens when we listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, when we glimpse the reliable truth that he is the Son of God, God made flesh for us, God with glory made visible, made vulnerable, made tangible for us. Transfiguration happens when we know ourselves to be loved with God’s unconditional love, a love that allows us to take great risks, that sets us free to try great things. Transfiguration happens when we pronounce the words someone needs to hear: “I wish you were my own. I am not ashamed of you.”
Transfiguration happens when the power of the Holy Spirit overshadows us and dwells within us and makes us no less than dwelling places for the divine, able to give and receive the hospitality of God. Transfiguration happens when we gather in this place, look at one another and see beloved children of God, when we share the peace of God, when reach out our hands to touch ordinary bread and wine and find that it is none other than holy food and drink for holy people, the body and blood of Jesus for the body of Christ.
Transfiguration happens. If this life is a drama, there are no small parts. Shine.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves the Anglican Parish of Pasadena and Cormack in Newfoundland.