Updated: Aug 5, 2021
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. (Luke 9:29-30)
Transfiguration: a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.
You may wonder: did it happen?
It is pretty hard to believe.
And yet, it’s a decent bet that the Transfiguration really did happen, since there is an account in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke; it’s alluded to in the first chapter of John (and we have seen his glory – John 1:14); and it’s referenced in Peter’s second letter, which we heard a few minutes ago.
And why, you may wonder further, is the Transfiguration observed on August 6th?
Well… because that’s when it actually happened.
Okay, I made that part up.
The Transfiguration is a pretty big deal. Big enough that, when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, the Book of Common Prayer stipulates that it takes precedence over the Sunday propers – the usual readings and collect for the day. That’s a big deal, considering that every Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection.
We find ourselves this morning, not only in Church, but also at just about mid-point in the season of Pentecost, which stretches from late Spring to late Fall.
Known in Godly Play as the long, green, growing season…
And the Transfiguration is plunked right down in the middle of it.
If you look at the arc of the long, green, growing season, you can see that it begins with Jesus telling us a whole lot about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It then segues – not coincidentally, I don’t think, right around this time of summer – into Jesus telling us how to get to heaven.
‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Early in my career as a Night Minister (clergy associated with San Francisco Night Ministry who walk around San Francisco’s streets from 10pm to 4am), I was walking up Market Street from 7th to 8th one evening. A woman called to me from the doorway of a donut shop “Father, father!” she called to me, so I went over to her. And she asked, “Why were Moses and Elijah on the mountain top with Jesus?”
Wow – I thought to myself. She’s not taking any prisoners, is she? So we talked about the mountain top experience for a while, had a prayer, and bade each other good night. And ever since that particular experience, I am prompted to ponder the Transfiguration more deeply, as I think of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah way up on that mountain.
I think it boils down to the ways in which our spirituality compels us to live out our lives. And if you want to go on thinking those two things are not connected – our spirituality and they way we are in the world – then don’t ever talk to a deacon for more than a couple of minutes.
Symbolically, the appearance of Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets.- And all the law and the prophets are summed up in those first two commandments: Love God; Love Your Neighbor.
How many times have we heard this? And how many ways have we pondered who our neighbors are? And how many times have we wondered how far is far enough to go to love them? That last part – well, that’s between you and God… What I can tell you is that it will always be further than we thought we’d have to go, and will often be further than we wanted to go.
There’s also a line of thought that may be interesting to consider here: that, even though we read accounts of Moses’ death, the details are sketchy. And there is no account of his burial place. Because of this, some Hebrew scholars assert that Moses body was assumed – or taken directly up to Heaven, like Elijah.
Following this trajectory, we could posit that the symbolism of Moses and Elijah being with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured also points to us being in heaven.
Not some day…
We hear that the Kingdom is with us, and within us.
My particular brand of theology informs me that any of us who want to go to heaven, are going. Sometimes we wonder if even the really bad people go to heaven too. I say, they are, if they really want to.
But maybe – just, maybe – The Transfiguration is how it is, and where it is, and when it is, to show us that in that tiny sliver of space and time between Jesus telling us what the heaven is really like, and Jesus telling how to get to heaven…
…Jesus is telling us…
…that we’re actually already there.
Anastasius of Sinai, a seventh-century Greek bishop, writes in a sermon on The Transfiguration: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.
We all have our defining moments. The moments that cause us to see the world in a whole different light – moments that change our lives, and leave us changed.
One day – years ago – I stopped to talk to a prophet. She sat in a doorway, persistently asking for money to get a hamburger. She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds on a good day. And I would pass by her every day on my way to work.
But one day, I decided to stop and give her a dollar. And whether she knew it or not, she proclaimed the Kingdom to me. She told me that she – she, who looked nothing like I perceived myself to look – that she and I had things in common.
She taught me that, in the Kingdom of heaven, no one is ‘other’.
She taught me that when we stop what we’re doing long enough to love a neighbor, we’re already in heaven – because that’s what they do there.
That day, I was about to pass her by, one more time, all dressed up for work, when she asked again for money for a hamburger. But this day, I stopped. And as I leaned over to give her that dollar, she looked me in the eye and said, “You look great! Are those pants linen?”
…I bet that’s what heaven is like.