They were weighed down with sleep—but they stayed awake, it says. Icons of the Transfiguration often show the disciples lying on the ground while Jesus and Moses and Elijah stand in glory on the mountain peak. Perhaps Peter and John and James are in that half-awake, half-asleep state we all know. That dusky neither daylight nor dark state, that in betweenness familiar to people everywhere. The disciples do awaken more fully to the mystery light before them in the days ahead, in the months and years ahead, those bracing months and years ahead—and in the eternity to which they have finally arrived.
And so it is with us. As with the disciples, so it is with us. We, too, make our way through this life often in a half-awake, half-asleep mode. That neither fully daylight nor fully dark state. That “am I dreaming this or is it really happening” state of mind. There is mystery light before us—there is mystery light all around us. There is a greater truth before us and around us and within us to which we have yet to awaken.
What is it? What is this greater Truth? What is the whole truth, the full Truth? Well, the answer to that is a life’s work—more than a life’s work. Emerging from our sleepiness into wakefulness is more than a life’s work. We are drawn to the greater light, the greater truth over a lifetime—some more, some less. Sometimes we prefer to doze in the cozy half-light of dusk—like a cat curled up on a windowsill. But sometimes we think we hear a mouse somewhere in the room and we are suddenly bolt upright listening, watching, wakening. Noticing a change in the light. Waiting for more light, for something? Some days are like that.
What is it? What is this fuller light, this fuller truth, this mystery light? I can’t answer that–for you. He bids us each to seek and find for ourselves—but in each other’s company, of course. I think the answer is on this holy mountain, this Mount of Transfiguration. As with the sleepy disciples, so with us. As with the Transfigured One, so with us.
Jesus has already told the disciples about his suffering and death (as with Jesus, so with us)—and he tells them what happens after that. On the mountain they are given a kind of preview of what happens next. The story keeps going, beyond his death. He will rise in glory and keep on going and going and going. The vision of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration is the vision of Christ in his eternal glory—it reveals him as he truly is. Behold what he truly is!
(The great 17th century Anglican Divine Thomas Traherne said that when we love, when we love one another, when we love God’s creation, when we love God, the seeds of eternity sparkle in our souls.)
Behold what he truly is! As with the Transfigured One, so with us: “Behold what you are!” What is revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration is both who he truly is and who we truly are. “Behold what you are!” But, of course, like the disciples, we’re half asleep; our thoughts are curled up on the windowsill and we don’t quite take it in. We don’t notice the seeds of eternity sparkling in our souls.
I recently enjoyed a week of retreat at Emery House, which is beautiful in any season. I don’t know quite why, but I thought to do a kind of retrospective of my sermons. I’ve never done this before—I’m usually much more concerned what I’m going to say next time than what I said last time. One of the brothers has called my preaching eccentric—he said he meant that as a compliment. Another told me he imagines me sitting in my cell thinking weird thoughts. He did not say if he meant it as a compliment. I’m not sure why I thought to look back.
I had some idea of what I would find—I did write the stuff after all. I only got through a few dozen out of a thousand or so. But I think I could say that my core eccentricity (I think that may be a contradiction in terms…), my core eccentricity, my core weirdness is a kind of dogged, stubborn, relentless insistence on what is sometimes called (not very precisely) “high anthropology”. A “high anthropology” is a very positive way of thinking about the human condition—as opposed to the “total depravity” school.
The Bible starts right out with “high anthropology”: human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. And, although broken and sinful and afflicted and degraded in countless ways, human beings—nevertheless–have the capacity to be animated by God’s creative energies and the capacity to embody love and grace and truth in countless ways. That is, human beings have the capacity to incarnate God’s very essence, which is love and grace and truth—and creativity. And, regardless of whatever smallness we live with in this life, we enter the largeness of God’s vision for us when we pass through the gateway of death—and there are no barriers to this fullness of life and being because, in Christ, we are forgiven every infraction, every mistake, every sin.
The Transfiguration is the icon of “high anthropology”: behold what he is, behold what you are. As with Jesus, so with us. And, as with the disciples, so with us. Half asleep. Half asleep to the truth about ourselves. We’re curled up and dozing on the windowsill a lot of the time. We’re nodding off—even when mystery light pours into the room through the glass.
Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday after the Epiphany. The Transfiguration is a wonderful way to start a new week. But if we don’t watch out, we’re going to bang our heads on Ash Wednesday—it’s coming at us fast. This Wednesday we enter the Lenten desert, the Lenten season of penitence. And we face the facts about ourselves.
It’s a fact that we can be selfish, prideful, greedy, cruel, haughty, insensitive, impatient, uncaring, unloving, hateful, dishonest, resentful, unforgiving—the catalog of our offenses goes on and on. And it matters—we need to acknowledge the facts about ourselves. These facts matter, but they don’t count—the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. Your sins and mine. And it’s not only cheap grace, it’s absolutely free.
Sin is a fact, but it is not the greater truth. Sin is a fact, but there are lots of other facts. May I suggest this exercise which I sometimes assign for people preparing for the Rite of Reconciliation, for “confession”: make a list of your sins—and don’t leave anything out. Then make another list: make a list of how God’s love has been expressed in and through you, embodied in your life through your words, through your actions. List your acts of kindness and generosity; list your gracious words and gestures. List your acts of valor and courage and the beauty you have brought into this world. List all the ways the seeds of eternity sparkle in your soul. And don’t leave anything out. Because if the Rite of Reconciliation is about recognizing the truth, we need to see the whole truth. Put it all out there on the table, eternity sparkles and all.
Our sins are facts, but they are not the greater truth. The greater truth shines out from the Mount of Transfiguration. Behold what he is; behold what you are. Yes we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are indeed of dust: dust born in a blaze of fire and light from the explosion of ancient stars. Stars spoken of the Word, stars spoken of the Word himself in a blaze of love and grace from the very bosom the Father.
Sparkle, sparkle away, beloved of God. Sparkle away, sleepy heads. Sparkle like sunshine on snow.
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