February 23, 2020 / Transfiguration of Our Lord / Richard E. Holmer
1st Reading: Exodus 24:12-18 ; 2nd Reading 2 Peter 1:16-21 ; Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Proclaiming the Mystery
As they were coming down the mountain after sharing a truly extraordinary experience on that summit, Jesus gave Peter, James and John strict orders to tell no one about what they had witnessed – until after he had been raised from the dead. It probably wasn’t necessary to tell them to keep quiet. What could they say? What words could begin to communicate the strange and awesome things they had observed? For them the entire event was utterly unprecedented. They had never experienced anything quite like it. They may have been wondering if it all had really happened – or if it was perhaps a dream or a hallucination. And if they weren’t sure – how might anyone else believe them? How do you explain that Jesus began to glow with a radiance as bright as the noonday sun? Who has ever seen such a thing? How do you convince someone that out of nowhere the two greatest prophets in the history of Israel suddenly appeared – and were having a conversation with this glowing Jesus? And, by the way, since they had been gone for hundreds of years – how did they know it really was Moses and Elijah? But wait – there’s more….
Once again, the scene changes (as in a dream). A bright cloud covers the mountain top, and out of that cloud a heavenly voice speaks directly to the disciples, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Even if you are convinced that you have heard the voice of God – how do you persuade another person that this actually happened? I imagine that Peter, James and John were content to keep the whole mysterious story to themselves. Words would have seemed inadequate. It was an experience beyond description – one of those moments where truly: “you had to be there” to appreciate it.
Well, if it was challenging for those disciples to communicate what happened on that mountain, how much more so for you and me? Each year when this story of Christ’s transfiguration comes again as our gospel reading, I struggle with what to say about it. What’s the best way to approach this event, which, even more than the miracles of Jesus, is way beyond the boundaries of our normal experience? I imagine that most of us would be more comfortable telling the story of Christ’s birth, or the feeding of the 5,000, or of his resurrection than we would be trying to narrate this story of Christ’s transfiguration. That word “transfiguration” isn’t even a word included in our regular vocabulary. Trying to explain this event is like trying to de-mystify a mystery – or like describing to another person a strange dream you had the previous night. What’s difficult for us to understand is even harder to communicate to someone else. We’re content to hear this story – and move on to more familiar things.
On the other hand, there actually is another mysterious encounter with Christ that you and I share on a regular basis: Holy Communion. Consider the unique and mystical nature of this sacrament. As on the Mount of Transfiguration, at Holy Communion Christ is present. Christ has not walked on this earth for 2,000 years – yet just as Moses and Elijah showed up on that mountain, so Christ shows up whenever we share this meal. The bread and wine we share are more than symbols. We take Jesus at his word when he says, “This is my body, this is my blood.” We don’t attempt to say how – but we believe Christ is really and truly present, in, under and around these physical elements. HOW? It’s a mystery! We believe that by our sharing in this holy meal, we experience forgiveness for our sins. Exactly how this is so is not easy to explain. Likewise, we receive our Lord’s body and blood as food that strengthens and preserves us, even unto eternal life. What a wondrous and fantastic claim! Each and every time we share in this sacrament, we have a personal encounter with our Living Lord – we are touched by his amazing grace. And so we speak of the food we receive as the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. Words are not sufficient to capture the fullness and the richness of what we experience at the Lord’s Table. It is a mystery we share. It is interesting to note the parallels between what we experience at Holy Communion and the story of Christ’s transfiguration. Both experiences are a moment outside the usual routine of our lives – time apart where we encounter God’s holiness. Nothing in our daily lives is quite like the grace experience, the personal encounter with our Lord and Savior that we share at Holy Communion. It’s a weekly mountaintop moment. In both cases, God speaks clearly and directly. On the mountain, God says: “This is my Son. The Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” At Communion our Lord says, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
The story of the transfiguration brings together past, present and future. Moses and Elijah are the emblems of the heritage of the Law and the Prophets. The disciples see with their own eyes the divine, transcendent glory of Jesus. And Jesus points to the future by speaking of being raised from the dead. Likewise, at Holy Communion we recall all that Christ did here on earth: his life, death and resurrection. We experience his living presence with us, here and now, through forms of bread and wine. And we get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which we will share. In both cases, Christ serves as the meeting point, the vital intersection between things temporal and eternal, between humanity and God. The shining and divine Jesus is also the familiar friend from Nazareth. It is through knowing the human Jesus that we come to know and love almighty, invisible God. For all the drama, mystery and wonder in both experiences – what both convey to us is peace that only God can give. After all they have witnessed on the mountain, the three disciples are face down on the ground, overcome with holy fear, Jesus says to them: “Get up and do not be afraid.” And they do. At communion you and I are blessed with the peace that comes with the assurance that Christ is with us and our sins are forgiven. We get up and are not afraid. And then, just as the disciples headed back down the mountain, returning to the everyday world with all its challenges and demands – so do we depart from this table in peace, and return to the responsibilities and commitments of our daily lives.
Ultimately, Peter, James and John did share the story of Christ’s transfiguration. After Christ was raised from the dead, having been with their risen Lord, what they had experienced on the mountaintop they now understood within a new and much larger context. They still could not explain all that they had seen and heard, but they realized it was no hallucination. It was still mysterious, yet it was very real. In the same way, we cannot explain the fullness of the mystery of Christ’s presence with us in Holy Communion. Instead, we follow our Lord’s instructions. We keep doing this in remembrance of him. We proclaim the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We celebrate his living presence with us in this meal. We are blessed by the grace of forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. We invite others to come and share with us in this holy meal. We do not need to explain the mystery of how Christ comes to us in Holy Communion in order to be blessed by it. Anne Lamott has said it well: “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that grace meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it finds us.”
Thanks be to God!