Gospel: Luke 9:28b-36
Just the other day, I came across an unexpected reference to transfiguration. The author mentioned how transfiguration rendered an entity what it most deeply is, rather than different from what it is. All the same, that transfiguration involves letting go of what was. And the author offered the example of a vase painted by Cezanne in a still life.
Think about that. Any vase in a painting has relinquished its three dimensions, its capacity to occupy a surface or hold a flower; but it has also sacrificed the possibility of being broken or replaced by something more fashionable. And yet, as a representation, for all it has sacrificed to exist on the surface of a painting, represents the very essence of a vase.
This connection between transfiguration and sacrifice is borne out by what people confide to me in confession or what I see in other peoples’ lives or in the recent losses and deaths we’ve experienced here in this community and our responses to them. Paradoxically, strength or sensitivity or hope can transfigure our lives from such losses or sacrifices. That why what I had read caught my attention: it seemed more like a description of experience than a clever idea. I inevitably think of the caterpillar that becomes the butterfly; I wonder that the majestic and delicate butterfly is what the lumpish crawling caterpillar most truly is. To reach that point, it had to sacrifice being like a caterpillar to release a beauty totally unexpected but most deeply itself.
I think I see this in St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. What does it tell us about Jesus if he is transfigured as himself in conversation with Moses and Elijah? Why do they belong together on a mountain? What do they have in common?
Both Moses and Elijah are associated with Mount Sinai. Both had experiences of God there–Moses in thunder and cloud and fire; Elijah, not in the shattering wind, not in the earthquake not in the raging fire but in a subtle breeze and a tiny voice. For all the special effects of Moses’ sojourn on the mountain, when he asks to see God, he too has to settle for much less: he’s hidden in the cleft of the rock and God passes by, covering that cleft and only allowing Moses a fleeting glimpse as he departs. What a beautiful picture, a visual analogy of what we often experience! How often do we just catch that glimpse of God in retrospect? How often do we recognize God in a past event, in a person, a gratuitous kindness after it’s all over? In a sense, we experience God in what we’ve already let go. In a very real sense, those divine depths of Jesus of Nazareth were only glimpsed and grasped after he was gone. Did Peter James and John understand what they were seeing on Mount Tabor? Did Peter propose building three tents to hold that puzzling presence just a little longer? Do we, perhaps, miss the point until later, simply because it’s beyond us, it’s too powerful to hold back? Thank God that we recognize it at all! Too late is never too late, not from God’s perspective.
Both Moses and Elijah were harassed and resisted by their own people and how the two prophets reacted! I think of Jesus cleansing the Temple of merchants when I read about their anger. Moses reacted so badly that he was barred from the Promised Land. In fact, the last mountain he stood on was Mount Nebo where he saw only from afar the land to which he had led his recalcitrant people, a land he himself could never enter.
When Jesus arrived on Mount Calvary, his life and ministry must have seemed frustrated, sacrificed, perhaps wasted; his ultimate victory must have appeared as a distant horizon viewed from a heap of defeat and powerlessness. Surely it was a benefit for others, not for himself, on Calvary. There he did not stand between Moses and Elijah but was crucified between two criminals. All had been poured out, all had been sacrificed. Even mortality and vulnerability had been offered and sacrificed and would constrain him no longer. And there lies the hope for our tragedies and deaths and frustrations. We’re emptied out and God enters in because there’s finally room for the fullness of God. It is as that low point that Jesus says to one of the thieves, Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. Too late is never too late from God’s perspective. That healing word to a thief at the end of his life, that, too, is transfiguration and don’t we recognize that from our experience? Don’t we recall those moments when we’ve been reduced and without resources but, finally, touched by God’s mercy? Doesn’t it take forever for me to wake up from my delusions and get on track? But too late is never too late from God’s perspective. Once again, the caterpillar becomes the butterfly that it most truly is.