Year A; The Last Sunday After the Epiphany; 2.23.2020
Matthew 17:1-9 The Transfiguration
Many of you know that I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. It is on the eastern border of the state of Kansas. Missouri was only a few miles east. But, my family treated the western border of our state as a close neighbor. We loved being a neighbor of Colorado, a mere 400 miles away!
It was not unusual for my family to pack up the station wagon and drive even for a weekend, to Denver in 8 hours. We wanted to be in the Rockies as soon as possible.
The trip across Kansas took us about eight hours through pastureland and wheat fields and, as my dad would say, “land as flat as a pancake.” To pass the time with her four children, Mom would play games with us. One of the games began just after we crossed the border into Colorado. She announced that she would reward a penny to the first person who spied the Rockies. Honestly, FOR A PENNY, our eyes were rapt on the western horizon, straining to see some kind of “blip” rising up!
As we neared Limon, Colorado before the Interstate took a turn north toward Denver, there it was! Just to the left! On the horizon! A barely visible point. During every single trip, that point of Pike’s Peak was exciting to see. By the time we spied it, we had forgotten about the penny. We just wanted to see a mountain peak because we knew that the majestic range of the Rockies was going to be coming clearer and clearer into view. All my life and trips to the Rockies I strain to see that peak first. For those of us who grew up in the flat plains of Kansas, we were awestruck every time we took that trip to our neighboring state in the west and saw the first peak. We were like a station wagon full of “Moses-es”, and Pike’s Peak was God saying, “Come on up the mountain to me and rest awhile.”
I’m really a mountain lover. The first time I saw Katahdin to the left of I-95, it took my breath away. Mountains are symbols of majesty, mystery and the divine. Ancient peoples climbed mountains to be near the heavens. If you ask a modern-day mountain climber, I would suspect that being close to heaven might also be one of their reasons for climbing.
In Scripture, mountains are sources of mystery, clouds, the theophany of God’s voice giving the law to Moses, of God’s voice confirming the beloved Jesus, and of the resurrected Jesus giving his last instructions.
We don’t ever hear of an “ascent to hell” or a “descent to heaven.” Always in religious symbolism and literature and poetry, an ascent up a mountain is the path of a pilgrim receiving wisdom or enlightenment or entering an inexplicable heavenly realm. When we dream about mountains, they are archetypes for the divine and heaven and wisdom.
In Matthew’s Gospel, a mountain is the important setting for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He ascends a mountain, assumes the rabbi’s sitting posture and teaches his ethical lessons to his followers. Jesus’ last resurrection appearance in Matthew’s Gospel is the mountain in Galilee where he directed the eleven disciples to meet him. It is on that mountain that he sent them forward with the instructions to baptize and teach, making all nations disciples. And from that mountain, he gave them the most wonderful news of all, “I am with you all days, until the end of the age.” (Raymond Brown, Commentary of the New Testament)
And then there is the mountain of the Transfiguration from the Gospel reading today. Jesus takes his inner group of disciples up a mountain. It is NOT a coincidence that this trip up toward the heavens comes after Jesus talks rather frankly in Chapter 16 about how he will die. He stated privately and plainly to his disciples that he will go to Jerusalem. He predicted that he will suffer greatly and be killed by the religious elite. He also predicted that he will be raised on the third day. But by that time, the disciples were already stressed out by his talk of suffering and death that they were beginning to be frightened. None of the disciples could bear his bad news, though Peter had enough awareness to reject it and make plans to defend Jesus. Plans that Jesus rejects outright.
The next chapter, Chapter 17 begins with the story of the Transfiguration on the mountain. Jesus leads his inner group of disciples up the mountain toward the heavens where the holy light of Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John. Not only is Jesus awash in dazzling light, the holy ancestors appear with him. Moses and Elijah are also awash in the light.
And then, a cloud covers them – a cloud that has the voice of God in it. “This is my son. He is the object of my love. I am pleased with him. Listen to him.”
The disciples drop to the ground. This is just too much stimulation and mystery to take in, so they drop down terrified. Nothing in the content of what that voice said was scary. But the disciples’ fears and sorrows had already been heightened. They fell to the ground overwhelmed with fear.
But then, ever so gently Jesus touched them and said to them, “Get up and do not be afraid”, for he knew that he was preparing them for what was to come.
When I’m overwhelmed with sorrow, circumstances that I can’t explain or by exposure to a baffling revelation, what else can I do when I simply don’t understand what is unfolding before me? Maybe I don’t fall to the ground. But sometimes I take to my bed. It is there that I hope and pray for Jesus to touch me and gently tell me to not be afraid.
Episcopal priest and educator Maryetta Anschutz shares her commentary of the Transfiguration that helps us understand its meaning. This is what she writes, “The Transfiguration offers the disciples the paradox that while there is nothing they can do to save themselves from suffering, there is also no way they can shield themselves from the light of God that sheds hope in the darkest moments. The mountain was the way for God to prepare a human band of companions for the sacred journey, to offer something to hold on to when they descended into the crushing reality of the world below.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A)
The mountain was the way for God to prepare the frightened and sad disciples to look for hope when reality began its crushing defeat. The beauty of the Transfiguration for the faithful is that in the darkest moments, or the terrors we anticipate in the near future of our lives, God is more active in our lives than we can imagine. God is making a fuss by lighting the darkness for us, by affirming his love for Jesus and for us all and by promising to never forsake us…never.
Many of us are frightened pretty much all the time because there is so much uncertainty about the future of our country. And it’s a fact of life that no one ever gets through life without some sorrow and suffering. We get an unexpected bad diagnosis. We lose our beloved spouse. Our child dies in a car accident. Our friend asks us to help him die. We are betrayed by a loved one. Our job is cut. The aging process makes us suffer more than we were prepared for. And it’s lonely.
“…the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
I imagine that each one of us will experience a crippling defeat that throws us to the ground. But I also imagine a voice from the mountaintop that calls us to hope in the One who suffered as we do, and who always lifts us up to his Light, his Life and his Love.