Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 19 February 2012

Last Sunday of Epiphany / Transfiguration Sunday, Lectionary Year B
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Mark 9:2-3

He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Those lines from Irish poet W.B. Yeat’s “Easter, 1916” are from a poem about how ordinary people can become extraordinary people in extraordinary times. Yeats’ line “A terrible beauty is born” is always at the back of my mind when I read the Transfiguration story, which is traditionally used in the life of the church to signal the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent.

Even though we may not know what exactly to make of this particular event in the life of Jesus, our culture is very fond of transfiguration stories in general. We love the story of the ugly duckling become the beautiful swan, the scrawny kid who becomes the all star athlete, or the little girl who becomes the pop diva. We love those stories because we find it inspiring to believe that someone as ordinary as you or I can go to great heights.

But as we know, these inspiring stories too often don’t end well. The beautiful swan turns out not to be so clean and pristine after all. The star athlete ends up in a doping or betting scandal. The pop diva becomes a drug raddled wreck found dead in a hotel room far too young. It’s as if the trajectory of these stories is often doomed to follow the adage of what comes up, must come down. Indeed, the dark side within us almost demands that this narrative arc be followed its course, from inspiring legend to dark tragedy.

The life of Jesus can be seen to follow this parabolic narrative arc, rising from humble origins as the carpenter’s kid to the superstar healer and miracle worker, trying to keep one step ahead of the crowds, and ending on the cross as an object of scorn and pity as if in fulfilment of the psalms (Ps 22.7, 109.25). Indeed, if one follows the path through Lent up to Good Friday, we complete the second, back to earth part of this parabola, which would indeed end in tragedy were it not for the Resurrection.

However, on this day, we see the story of ascent and descent in miniature in the transfiguration. As seen through the eyes of the chosen few who go with him, Jesus ascends the mountain, is transformed into a blinding white form in the company of Moses and Elisha, two embodiments of the Jewish faith, and is granted the full authority of heaven in the voice that says “Listen to him”. Before their squinting and bewildered eyes, Jesus becomes the superstar of heaven, a megacelebrity of only anyone else was there to see it.

And then the moment is done. The light fades, Moses and Elisha are gone, the heavenly voice is still, and Jesus returns to his friends, telling them to be quiet about it all because his time is not yet come. I always like this part of the story, the return from the summit, and imagine the disciples looking at Jesus, trying to reconcile what they saw up there with what they see now, the person they know. They would see again the familiar face, the rough carpenter’s hands, the sandalled, dusty feet made calloused by months of tramping about. They would see the simple, homespun clothes, dirty and travel stained, and hear the familiar voice. If a terrible beauty was born up there, it has now faded away, and yet they remember what they saw, even if they don’t understand it.

Perhaps one purpose of the Transfiguration story is to stress Jesus’ credentials, to remind us that heis the Son of God, but I think its greater purpose is to repeat the Christmas idea of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is not a celebrity pulled down from on high by tragedy. He returns willingly, because his mission is with us. As he walks down the mountain with his friend, he knows the world he will return to. He knows that world is full of weak, bad, and even evil people. He knows it is a world of sickness and death. He knows the hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty of its leaders, and the desperate plight of the many. He knows the need of this world, and he knows that world has a cross waiting for him, and he goes there. He’s that sort of God.

The preacher David Lose recalls that after a Sunday on which he had preached, a person said to him, “Those were beautiful words, Pastor, but I don’t think you’d say them if you really new me.” Lose goes on to say that “The ache in those words stays with me still. How many of our people — and truth be told, on any given day, how many of us — wonder the same. Could God possibly love us if God new just how broken and at times dark our lives can be?”

The Transfiguration story answers Lose’s rhetorical question in the affirmative. That’s the reason Jesus comes off the mountain, to be with people like us, where the need is. Too often, I fear, church encourages us to think of Jesus like a stained glass image, all purity and glory and haloed perfection, up there where the air is clear, too perfect for us to bother him. If you think that, sometimes, then try thinking of Jesus coming down the mountain. Think of that young, strong man with the rough hands and the light in his eyes, dressed in clothing that is somehow both blinding white and yet stained and everyday, walking purposefully towards you, because he knows who you and what you need.

0 Responses

  1. I spent the morning moody and irritable because I didn't get to church due to the exigencies of the service.

    Thanks for the sermon padre. Cheering stuff.