Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
There’s a well-known mountain in the Holy Land. Ask a kindergartner to draw a hill, and that’s about what it looks like: improbably rounded and just sitting there, seemingly removed from its geological context. Mt. Tabor, the traditional sight of the Transfiguration story we’ve just heard. What’s most stunning about Mt. Tabor is the view from the top. It has to be one of the most beautiful anywhere, a grand, panoramic sweep.
If you’re standing facing east, the hills around Nazareth are back over your left shoulder, the hills around the Sea of Galilee at about 10:00, with Mt. Hermon, snowcapped in winter, beyond that to the north. The distant mountains across the Jordan River straight ahead. The hills of Gilboa, where King Saul was killed, at about 2:00. The rich, fertile plain of Jezreel at the foot of the mountain stretching from about 12:30 all the way to 5:00. The Carmel range stretching from about 3:30 back to 5:30 in the distance—Haifa, the Mediterranean port, is just out of sight almost behind us.
The Transfiguration story is mainly about Jesus, of course, and a vision of the fullness of his divine life. It’s about us as well, and a vision of the fullness of the Resurrection life we await. O wondrous type, O vision fair, of glory that the church may share. [Hymnal 1982, #137]
Although we anticipate this greater and more glorious life even now, the life we have is the one we have: the life of flesh and blood. A life of flesh and blood created of the dust of the earth, given to us and redeemed by God. A life of flesh and blood taken on by God: …and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our ultimate transfiguration, for the time being, belongs to the religious and poetic imagination.
But can we claim transfiguration for this life we have now? Can we, without losing sight of the heavenly, can we claim an earthly, fleshly dimension of transfiguration? What energies of transfiguration are loose in the world now, in this life of flesh and blood?
“He was transfigured before them”, it reads in Matthew’s version of the story. The word “transfigure” has poetic and religious connotations, of course. But it translates the verb “metamorphose”: from Greek, to change form or shape. The translators just as easily might have used the more pedestrian word, “transform”. He was transformed before them… Metamorphosis, transformation, transfiguration—they all amount to about the same thing, although transfiguration has a more visionary ring to it.
And they all refer to God’s business: God, the living God, is in the transfiguration business, the transformation business, the metamorphosis business. “We will all be changed”, Paul says [1 Cor. 15:51]. We are being conformed to the image of the Son [Romans 8:29], transformed into the image of God, from glory to glory [2 Cor. 3:18].
Some of this transformation we anticipate in the fuller life of Resurrection. But God’s energies of transformation, of metamorphosis, of transfiguration are loose in the world now. There are many energies of transformation in the world. Love itself is a powerful engine of transformation. Self-offering, even suffering can release energies of transformation.
But I’d like to focus this morning on something else. We might wonder why Jesus and the disciples went up that mountain to pray. They didn’t have to go up a mountain to pray. They didn’t have to go to the effort if all they needed was some privacy. Why did they go up that mountain?
Perhaps they went up the mountain for the same reason we go up mountains: for the view! For the sheer beauty of the view. For the expansiveness of the mountain top perspective. We human beings are drawn to high places. This says something important about our nature. It says something about our desires. It says something about our desire for transformation, for metamorphosis, for transfiguration. We are drawn to beauty because we sense its transfiguring power. We are drawn to the expansiveness and sheer beauty of mountain top views because of the transfiguring power we find there.
When we take in the majestic sweep of the view from the mountain top, we become more than we were before. In a sense, we eat the scenery—we take its beauty into ourselves, we take its expansiveness into ourselves. We are what we eat, and so we become more than we were. That beauty, that expansiveness becomes part of who we are. We have been changed, transformed, transfigured. Not in the whiter than snow, glow in the dark way, but in a more organic, flesh and blood way.
I wonder if Jesus and the disciples ever spent the night on Mt. Tabor. I wonder if they took in the immensity of the cosmos as they gazed at the night sky. In taking in the sheer immensity of the firmament, we begin to comprehend something of the sheer immensity of the One who created it. Against the backdrop of the expansive sweep of creation, we see the particularities of our lives from a new perspective—even if just for a while. And new perspectives can be liberating.
So we go to the mountain tops. Sometimes literally, more often figuratively. For some folks, going to the mountain top can mean looking through a microscope. Or going to the bottom of the sea. Or admiring the geological wonder of endless miles of glacier-swept prairie. Taking in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, eating the scenery, is a transformative experience. We become something more than we were. There is a bigness to life, there is an expansiveness to God’s creation, that we take into ourselves.
And we don’t need to head for the hills. We can head down to Symphony Hall. Br. Geoffrey and Br. Jonathan heard Renee Fleming sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss with the Boston Symphony this last week. Now, there’s a mountain top experience—talk about a panoramic view! There are mountain tops in the human realm of God’s creative work. In our artistic pursuits we extend the reach of God’s own creative energies, God’s transfiguring energies. There’s so much to take in. At the ballet, at the concert, at the museum, even in the very buildings that house these wonderful things.
And let’s not forget the beauty of science—more mountain top views there. Take in the immensity of space and time from the Hubble Telescope, take in the subtleties of high energy physics, take in the sheer complexity of the biosphere and the mysterious workings of the genetic code. Beauty, beauty, everywhere—in creation all around us, in the world we help to create–beauty to take into ourselves. Transformational beauty, transfiguring beauty.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Remember, O man, that thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return. But, oh, what dust we are—ancient dust, the dust of the earth, the dust of stars, the dust of ancient stars. Transfigured dust of ancient stars. Remember, O son of Adam; remember, O daughter of Adam; remember what thou art.
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