The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 27, 2022
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Yearning for–and resisting–a Transfigured Life
Of course, I wrestled with what to say in a sermon on a day like today, when we find ourselves witnessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wondering how we respond in our interconnected world. We remember that our Sunday lectionary texts are assigned to us, in our three-year rotation, and we wonder if the Spirit might be up to something when we reflect on today’s Gospel reading.
I have spent the past two years focusing intently on this story of the Transfiguration. It has become, for me, the imaginal key for unlocking a fuller understanding of the wisdom that the Gospel invites us to see not only about how we view Jesus’ life and our relation to it, but also how we view our own deepest, fullest selves. The story is so important for us that we hear it twice each year, once on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, and today, on the Last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It is that important of a story for us to pay attention to.
The account of the Transfiguration, I believe, lays out for us a trajectory of conscious spiritual development. It also lays out the struggle we have as humans in resisting this development, a resistance to the Spirit’s flow in our lives. It is an absolutely essential story for us to reflect on in these fearful and anxious days.
When we look at the arc of the story itself, we see Jesus leading Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray. While they are there, they witness, they behold Jesus transfigured before them, shining white and illumined. They see Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus in what, theologically, we describe as a theophanic moment, theos meaning God and phanein meaning to bring to light or appear. It is a moment when those three disciples behold God’s presence in a life-altering way.
Jesus’ true nature, the wholeness of who He is, shines forth as His very self is changed, radiating the divine energy and thinning the veil, if you will, to such a degree that Moses and Elijah are seen in communion with Him–a visual manifestation of the Divine Indwelling. The light shines from within Jesus and traditional icons of this moment depict Peter, James, and John dumbstruck at what they are beholding. Who wouldn’t be?
After things dim down, as it were, the group begins to walk off the mountain, at which point Peter speaks. It is a critical moment in the story’s teaching. Peter lays out his plan: that he thinks they should construct dwellings to mark the significance. And here we see Peter’s impulse to capture the experience. He doesn’t have a smartphone to snap incessantly and prove that it happened, but the drive is there to solidify this enlightened encounter.
Peter embodies our own tendency to control. I love that the text itself doesn’t have Jesus saying anything at that moment. Jesus is silent, but the narrator marks the sigh we all perhaps feel in our heart–so close, but he just missed the mark, didn’t he?–and the text says that Peter did not know what he was saying.
The point here is not to blame Peter or shame him; rather, the opportunity we have for wisdom in this story is to identify this tendency within each of us toward grasping and an urge to contain or control. Our tradition describes how the Spirit blows where it will, yet how often, if we’re honest, do we find ourselves hooking up nets or laying out traps to capture Her and make Her do our bidding like a genie in a lamp? We would do well to remember that to invoke does not mean to control.
At the moment when Peter lays out his grand plan, we hear how a cloud descends on them all, overshadowing them. And in this enveloped state, they hear God’s voice reminding them of who Jesus is, reorienting them back to the deep truth of what they have encountered. Immediately, our hearts may remember two other crucial moments when we witnessed someone being overshadowed by such a Presence: Moses on Mt. Sinai when he receives the Ten Commandments and witnesses God’s presence, and Mary, the Blessed Mother, when she is overshadowed by the Spirit and realizes her call to be the Theotokos, or God-bearer, as the tradition holds. What are the common elements in all these stories? A receptiveness to God’s guiding and reorienting presence.
Yes, the arc of this story lays out the dynamic within human life, I think, when it comes to the potential we have, on one hand, to nurture a conscious awareness of God’s presence in our lives. On the other hand, we become aware of our impulse to control, and we see the intent of God to reorient our lives by enveloping us in the Divine Presence. We hear God’s voice: this is my beloved, Listen to Him! It is a call to openness, to be receptive, to discern how the Spirit is at work and how we are called to respond and participate with Her. Receptivity, not control.
So, perhaps you see why this story has become, for me, an imaginal key that unlocks a fuller wisdom of the Gospel’s story for our lives: the Transfiguration is not only about Jesus, it is about us, each one of us, and how we are called to share in the illuminating Presence of God. And, yes, this story is so important for us to learn from these days when we witness the crass and tragic consequences of the dark side of human nature.
There are many angles to take in this story, many doors, if you will, for entering into the mystery of the wisdom teaching, but today my heart is caught up in the wisdom of the cloud. That is where I need to focus, given the pain we are experiencing in the world today. How does the overshadowing cloud teach me about the potential of a transformed life?
The more that I meditate on this story, I see that there are two parts to it, two pieces that are inextricably linked. We see the first part of the story with Jesus radiating the divine energy. Then there is Peter’s impulse to control. But next we have this remarkable moment when the cloud overshadows them. Matthew’s version of the story says that a bright cloud envelopes them. A bright cloud. I see this experience of being enveloped in the cloud as the moment of the disciples’ own transfiguration.
The thing about the cloud that I find remarkable is that, normally, we all experience clouds as obscuring our vision. No one likes to drive in fog. Clouds limit our sight, diminish our perspective. This cloud is different, because this cloud of the enveloping Presence of God broadens and enriches the sight of the three awestruck disciples. This cloud is a paradox–as so much is when it comes to our participation in the Divine Life. It is a cloud that opens eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and souls to become aware of the deeper and truer nature of reality.
In that cloud, they begin to see. They begin to understand just what this reality is that they have been invited into. And as the story ends in today’s lesson, they are left silent. Silence.
Silence is the only response to what they have encountered. And in those days they told no one of what they had experienced. Because what do you say when the way you understand all of reality has been stretched and opened in such a way? Try describing what it feels like to fall in love, or what it feels like, for parents, when we see our newborn child for the first time.
I was talking with someone last week about this text and I remembered this remarkable scene from the first Matrix movie. You’ll remember, Neo has been rescued from his pod where he has been plugged into the Matrix, trapped in a simulation, a neural illusion that kept him sedated so that the machines could reap the benefit of his existence for their own purposes. It is a gripping metaphor. The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar raises him into the ship where he opens his eyes and looks around. Morpheus, whom he met within the Matrix and who led him out and brought him to this moment, is there next to him. Neo struggles to focus with the light, and he turns to Morpheus and says that there is something wrong with his eyes. And Morpheus tells him, “There is nothing wrong with your eyes. You just have never used them.”
This cloud has opened the disciples’ spiritual eyes to see reality as it truly is. It is a transfigured vision, and it is a shock to their system that leaves them silent as they metabolize this experience. They will never be the same, and the way they have lived their lives must change. It must change from that point on.
Having said all this, I hope you can feel the connections between the wisdom of this story and where we find ourselves today as a society. Perhaps you can see the enormous invitation we have, when we experience this call to broaden our awareness of God’s Presence in our lives, a Presence that envelopes all of life as the Spirit breathes into and connects us all. Perhaps you also recognize the tendency to control, to grasp onto power in situations and assert our own agenda as we thwart the Spirit’s desire to hold all creation in an expansive embrace.
It is easy to look at the situation with Russia invading Ukraine and recognize the perils of such blatant arrogance and power-lust. And in moments like this we immediately ask “What can we do?” There is an answer that is grounded in the wisdom of this Transfiguration story, although I caution you it is not easy.
In moments such as this, we can use the muscles of our spiritual heart and look at ourselves and ask how, even in our own personal lives, we have caught illumined glimpses of the Spirit beckoning us to relax our urge to control or grasp, and to rest in the Spirit’s expansive movement toward compassion, justice, and peace. And, we can be curious about what systems we are a part of, on every level, that are toxic, oppressive, or distracting. We can reflect on how some patterns of our lives stifle consciousness in favor of maintaining routines or customs or inherited behavior patterns that we feel obligated to continue propping up….because, why? Maybe we become aware of how we have become emotionally or spiritually trapped in such mindless customs, or we realize how we have been checking out, numbing out, or acting out.
Nurturing or developing consciously like this is not easy, that’s why I always tell folks who may think that contemplative prayer or meditation is a self-focused, fluffy thing to be careful when you actually take the time to become more self-aware, because that deep awareness will challenge your pride, your grasping, and your agendas. The practice will nurture our healing through bringing these tendencies to our awareness, letting the Spirit work on them as we participate with Her.
Put another way, we see ourselves in Peter’s impulse to construct a space to contain or control even as we see the Spirit dismantling our prideful and fearful patterns brick by brick.
So, if it’s not too risky to do so, let us today pray for, as the text says, a bright cloud to descend upon us all that we may truly see. That we may truly see past ourselves, past our prideful control and mindless ignorance. Let this cloud clear our vision, broaden our perspective, increase our compassion, and strengthen our hope.
So we say: Come, Holy Spirit, descend upon us. Transfigure us and bring life to the world. Amen.