- Published: 17 March 2015
The transfiguration story is a rather strange story which I must confess has become one that has become very significant for me in my own spirit and life journey over the last five years. As Marcus Borg reminds us “Myth are stories about the way things never were, but always are.”
It is precisely five years ago, I left for a short Lenten sabbatical retreat right after Transfiguration Sunday and in preparing for that retreat I noticed that, if I manage to survive until normal “retirement” date, that particular Transfiguration Sunday was exactly half way through my vocational life with the United Church…17 years, 2 month behind me, 17 years, 2 months ahead. This realization was both sobering and grounding.
In the gospel story, the transfiguration story serves as a middle point in the Jesus story, a time when Jesus and those closest to Jesus are regrounded as ancestors in the faith appear in vision and as Jesus, half way between his baptism and his death, hears again sacred voice declaring that he is “beloved”.
This experience of regrounding is essential, essential in the fabric of the sacred story because it provides capacity to stay the course, to stay the course in moments of crisis whether that crisis be personal or corporate. The gospels stories were written in social and spiritual upheaval, and the writer wisely constructs a story to transition the first half of the gospel message to the second half. It is like thre is an Easter resurrection planted into the middle of the unfolding drama, a resurrection moment to sustain both followers and readers to the end of the story
Three years ago this story of the transfiguration lodged even more deeply into the geography of my soul when I was actually climbing a real-life mountain. It was the first mountain of “any scale” that I ever “scaled”. I was climbing Mount Elgon in the East African country of Uganda as a part of a spirit sojourn marking my 50th birthday.
As I was climbing towards the mountaintop, rain clouds were swirling in every which direction, hiding and revealing beauty and wonder. Hidden on the top of Mount Elgon is the second largest crater in the world, a wonder I knew nothing about even though I spent my whole childhood on East African lands.
My climbing partner and I were looking at a series of beautiful crater peaks speculating which was the actual mountain top. Our guide, Alex smiled and pointed to a flat ledge as the mountain top, a ledge shaped like a woman’s breast. It looked lower than the jagged like peaks, but Alex assured my climbing partner and I that this breast-like ledge was indeed the highest point. Then he noted that Mount Elgon is known as the mountain of many illusions.
As we climbed, a feeling of sadness engulfed me, sadness because I was in spiritual crisis. Swirling within were uncertainties, fears, my own inner turmoil and terror. The spiritual crisis revolved around a “poor me” or a “woe is me” or a “I am no good” feelings. These emotions overwhelmed me, swamped me. I tried to set the feelings aside, because I simply wanted to enjoy climbing around this beautiful crater, but the feelings persisted.
When we got to the top, the first mountain top I had ever reached, the clouds thickened and rain fell as our view of the landscape was eclipsed. I was disappointed. Our guide Alex, excited and trying to compensate, offered to help with the picture taking and in the jostling, hit my arm to that I dropped my camera rendering it inoperable. Frustration was added to my sadness.
Huddled over that broken camera, something clicked for me. My eyes were focused on a broken camera and not the wonder of an amazing mountain. Not smart, and something beyond me rose up within me. I looked up at Alex and my climbing partner declaring it is just a camera, it doesn’t matter. We are on top of a mountain, this is a one-time experience to be relished.
We separated, sitting quietly as we were lost in the swirling clouds on that mountaintop. Along with the sadness and disappointment and frustration still bubbling within, but another spirit arising and it was in that instance I heard the voice of God. It was not an audible voice, nor even a quiet inner voice, I heard the voice of God through this transfiguration story, through this story that never was but always is, I heard sacred voice saying “you are my beloved, one in whom I am well-pleased”.
As I sat on that mountain top, I could feel the words of Marcel Proust…The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. New eyes were happening for me, my own sort of transfiguration as I was invited to see differently, but the invitation was just beginning.
As the clouds dissipated and we descended back to our campsite, something about the experiences didn’t seem quite right or complete, there was a linger of illusion on this mountain of illusion. I kept pondering as I explored more of the mountain when I realized I didn’t hear the voice of God accurately in this story of transfiguration. I changed the story for my own purposes, to hear what I thought I wanted and needed to hear. I wanted to hear that I was beloved, which is actually true. You know on this valentines day weekend it is good to be reminded that we are beloved, and I do believe that is the gospel narrative Jesus is identified as beloved to awaken all of us to our own belovedness. But that is for another time.
I realized that in the transfiguration story, the voice of God names as “beloved” the one who led, the one who guided those up the mountain as the “beloved”.
Alex guided me up the mountain. It was Alex who was the Christ for me…the illuminating light. You see it wasn’t all about “me”. That is the illusion.
Alex and I had talked often as we climbed the mountain. We learned things about each other’s lives some things. I had heard about his life as he struggled through wars, corrupt government, economic disparity, the struggle to raise and educate his nine children in a world where there are school fees and no social safety net, where work comes and goes. Tourism was in a slump and there were not very many climbing that mountain. I was drawn into his story, and the voice of God was telling me to listen to him, listen to Alex. Alex is the beloved, the beloved one who jostled your camera to the ground, the Alex who doesn’t own a camera. Your sadness and disappointment and frustration is filled with illusions, it is time to see differently.
Alex taught me about his people, the Sabine who are divided into clans, each with an animal name. That animal name means their clan cannot kill that animal but rather must work for its protection and conservation. An ancient ecological understanding of conservation woven into the very fabric of a people, of God’s beloved people.
As we trekked up the mountain, Alex provided the pace and the wisdom, reminding us of the African adage, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. These words still echo in my heart connecting me to the transfiguration story propels us beyond “me” or “us”.
Peter want to settle down and make a home in the comfort of pure divine light on a mountain top. This is peter’s version of “it my gift and I am keeping it”. Jesus said no. Jesus came, not to be a light-bulb on the top of a mountain, but to be healing light in the midst of the real world.
In all the gospels, the transfiguration story is followed by Jesus coming down from the mountain and engaging in the healing of a troubled child, of an epileptic boy and which begins the ultimate walk of the Christ to challenge the destructive forces of life.
Jesus, knowing you can go further together, took Peter, James and John up that mountain to burst some illusions and to awaken them to their calling, to help them see more clearly and to see in order to engage in the crisis of their day. This is a story that never was but always is, this is a story that speaks to us in the crisis of our own time, and our own lives.
This new seeing for Peter, James and John included receiving the wisdom of the ancestors in the faith. Reminders of stories that never were but always are. Elijah and Moses, ancestors in the faith, had been to the mountain top themselves.
Elijah had that amazing victory on Mount Carmel where fire rained down on his water soaked alter while the prophets of Baal were proved ineffective. Yet in the wake of this marvelous wonder, Elijah allowed violence and bitterness to eclipse his spirit until he fell into a sulky depression and a “poor me attitude”.
There the holy lulled him to a mountainside cave to listen for sacred voice. You know the story, first there is rock shattering wind but God’s voice is not there. Then there is an earth moving quake but God’s voice is not there. Then comes lightening quick fire, but God’s voice is not there. Finally, there is a gentle breeze, and it is in this small unassuming quiet breeze that God chose to speak, that God’s voice could be heard, a sacred voice reminding Elijah that he was not alone.
Elijah had the illusion that he was the only one who understood the crisis of his day, but the sacred voice proclaimed that there were 7,000 others knees that had not bowed, and 7,000 lips that had not kissed Baal. In the quiet breeze, Elijah was gently reminded that he was not the saviour of the world by his lonesome self. He could go further together.
Linked arm and arm with Elijah was Moses. Moses has a large mythic presence is our Biblical sagas. He is infamous for his mountain sojourn up Sinai to get the ten Words or Ten Commandments, however, it is the last mountain he climbed that I find most significant.
The last chapter of Deuteronomy describes how Moses went up Mount Nebo and there God, there the Sacred One showed him the promise, the promise Moses would not personally experience in life. Moses while in Moab, while still wandering in a wilderness time, died. Others would realize the promise and Moses became one who dreamed a dream that was larger than his life time.
We are told that Moses lived to be one hundred and twenty years and that when he died his eyes were undimmed and his vigour unimpaired. As one who is starting to struggle with reading glasses, I am intrigued by this phrase, “his eyes were undimmed”. I am having a hard time believing that Moses had perfect eyesight as 120.
Bruce Feiler in his book “Walking the Bible” observes that if one stands on Mount Nebo, one cannot actually physically see with the naked eye all that is described in the text. What God showed Moses, Moses saw, not with the naked eye, but with the eye of the soul. These undimmed eyes are not about physicality but spirituality. Moses was continually growing in life, was one who continued to allow himself to be transfigured.
To see and to die with undimmed eyes is not about perfect eyesight, but eyes not cluttered with by illusions but looks at life clearly, life’s gifts and wonders, life’s losses and pains, life’s challenges and struggles.
We are all invited to continue to be transfigured because all of us have been to the mountain. We face huge challenges in our world and our churches, challenges that require extraordinary skill and discernment, determined courage and imagination, but the good news is that each of us can say, I have been to the mountain. This is the story that never was but always is.
Our voices can join together in this Black History month with the voice of Martin Luther King Junior who echoled the story of Moses on Mount Nebo when just before his own death he declared… Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop…. I just want to do God's will. And God's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land
May we, on this day allow the myths of our ancestors in the faith direct our now actions so that we share the gifts the great creator has given us. Transfiguration, a story that never was because it is a story that always is.