A number of years ago, I had lunch with a former professional football player who now runs a faith-based program for inner city youth. Every year he takes at-risk teens to the mountains, far from city lights, in order to gaze at the stars and see the face of God.
Like Aldous Huxley, decades before, he may have discovered that “if the doors of perception are opened, we will see everything as it is – infinite.”
We all need transfiguration. Often we discover that we have been sleepwalking; we have missed out on the wonder and beauty of life; and we need to wake up and discover how amazing life is in all its diversity and complexity.
Author Annie Dillard describes such a transfiguration in her magical book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek…
One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian and mystic, said “radical amazement” is at the heart of religious experience. And, this is what Jesus’ disciples experienced on the mountaintop. The world was filled with light. Jesus dazzled and so did his companions Moses and Elijah. Perhaps they experienced the spiritual energy that burst forth on the first day of creation nearly 14 billion years before.
They were so overwhelmed that they nearly lost consciousness. When they came to, they were dazzled and wanted to stay on the mountaintop forever. They wanted to build three temples, delight in the light, and stand apart for the rough and tumble road that leads to the Cross.
For a moment everything was clear and certain. They were safe without a worry in the world, and had no interest in returning to the world of budgets, differences of opinion, controversy, and suffering.
Transfiguration leads to transformation. It took them a day to recover from this theophany, or divine manifestation, but when they went down the mountain, still illuminated, their ecstasy encounters epilepsy. An anxious and fearful father comes to them, reporting that his son is possessed by a demonic force and no one can cure him. The force, manifesting itself in ways similar to an epileptic seizure, renders his son unconscious and deathlike.
Jesus sends the evil spirit packing, curing the boy’s epilepsy, and revealing that God’s transfiguring power changes our cells as well as our souls.
When I was chaplain at Georgetown University, I often took students on weekend retreats. As we drove home from the Shenandoah hills toward Washington DC and papers and tests, the students often lamented that they had to return. They wanted to stay on the mountain forever. I don’t blame them: it’s difficult to return to the world of ISIS, daunting church budgets, political confusion, and uncertainty about the future. But, this is precisely where we live out our transfiguration experiences.
It’s about vision. It’s about seeing the light in every person and situation. It’s about realizing that the whole earth, even the difficult situations of life, is filled with God’s glory.
Mother Teresa ministered to the dying in Calcutta, and claimed to see God in all of God’s distressing disguises. Jesus says that as you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me. In other words, every encounter is god-filled and every person an embodiment of Jesus.
I may have previously shared a story from Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners Community in Washington DC. A woman he knew was especially hospitable to the homeless at a local soup kitchen. Now, homeless folks aren’t always easy – some struggle with mental health issues, others with addiction, they often offend our sense of smell, and they are often suspicious of our intentions. But, she had a kind word and greeting for each one. “Why are you always so welcoming?” Wallis asked. She responded, “One day, Jesus is coming down the line, and I want to treat him real good!”
Jesus is coming down the line. The wondrous transfigured one is also the one hidden in our day to day life, and his love is so great that even the Cross in all its indignity can become God’s way of salvation.
Be transfigured today! Pause! See Jesus in our little children at church. See Jesus in the one who pushes all your emotional buttons. See the light of God in the homeless person, the antagonist, and – more radically – see God in all God’s wonder in yourself, and you will be transfigured. You will face the crosses of each day with energy, hope, and courage, for God’s light shines, making all things whole and holy.