Preached by Melissa Wilcox on February 11, 2018
One of the treasures of my priesthood has been children and Ash Wednesday. When I was a newly minted priest, I was given the job of sharing Ash Wednesday with the children from the parish preschool.
I remember sharing a story with them that talked about the palms. We held the palms and recalled the Palm Sunday narrative and got to talk about donkeys and whether any one had ever ridden one.
We then moved from our storytelling out into the frigid Chicago cold. There we gathered a whole bunch of preschoolers around a fire and watched the palms burn slowly into ashes. We made quite a cloud there as the soot took hold.
When that was over, we left the ashes to smolder while the kids went back to their goldfish and juice. The next day, as I bent over the altar rail, reminding these kids that they are dust and to dust they shall return, a little girl completely balked from receiving the ashes.
I later learned that she thought those ashes were still hot and still smouldering and she was afraid to have them, justifiably so, placed on her forehead. Something that as a grown up I took for granted, this little girl reminded me was a very confusing symbol.
Sometimes, when I preach on the Transfiguration, I feel like the grown ups can be very confused about the clouds and the dazzling white, just as that preschool girl was. In the midst of another kind of cloud, three giants of the Christian tradition are central figures in the drama that takes place high amongst the clouds. We are told that Moses and Elijah together with Jesus are there at the peak of that mountain.
Mark assumes that any listener knows that the presence of Moses evokes the scene at Sinai when the Ten Commandments are given. And, of course, the presence of Elijah, reinforces the mystical tradition of Old Testament prophets who signify the restoration of all things. The other players in the scene are just three disciples, who are explicitly named, Peter, James, and John.
It seems that only a select few are invited to see Jesus transfigured. Again, there is a dynamic of seeing and not seeing, of clouds and fog with regard to what can be seen and by whom as Jesus is transfigured before them.
But, let’s take a moment to look carefully at what this Transfiguration literally looks like. Despite that only three disciples are mentioned, this event is the most conspicuous of the Gospels so far.
Up until now, Mark reminds the disciples to remain silent about what they have seen and heard. This silence is often called the Messianic secret. The baptism of Jesus splits open the heavens and the earth, but there is no record that others were there to see this sign.
But, the Transfiguration is a whole new ball game. We are told, almost like a Tide commercial, that Jesus clothes are dazzling white. The Transfiguration is set on a high mountain–there is a reason for that. High mountains remind us of Moses and the long standing relationship of Jesus to the prophets. Mark is hammering us with the historic nature of this one time event.
But the most revelatory moment is “when a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
That’s it. That is the simple purpose of the Transfiguration. It is a moment when the clouds point to the greatest truth of the Gospel; that truth is that Jesus is fully revealed as God’s son AND God makes it known that we are to listen to him. The same words spoken at the baptism of Jesus are now spoken here–but now for all the world to see and hear as it is shouted from the mountaintops. Yes, go tell it on the mountain…
Sometimes, these directives from the gospel come across as foggy for us. I mean, in a broad sense, what does it mean for God to say to us to listen to him. Many of us, throughout our lives as faithful Christians struggle with discerning God’s will for us and trying to hear his voice.
Let’s step back for a moment and use Lent as a case for exploration.
The Hallmark caricature of Lent makes Lent a marathon for personal transformation. The example that is often tired and overused is the giving up of chocolate for Lent. How strong is your will to walk by those piles of Easter candy for forty days without caving into a bite of Cadbury?
I always like to remind folks that lenten practices invite us closer to God. They are not New Year’s resolutions that make us focus on how determined or strong or controlling we can be.
In fact, one way that I learned to lean into God during lent is by observing Sundays as a feast day. Whatever piece of my life that needs to disappear during Lent, could gently reappear on Sundays, reminding me that it is not my will, but God’s. That is not my strength, but that my life would be shaped by the gift of the Sabbath and space to rest in my creator.
The Transfiguration is about nothing less than God revealing God’s self to us in Jesus in the most intimate way. Jesus is wearing white on top of a mountain and the clouds have been lifted. He is standing there alone and somewhat exposed. This is the height of intimacy. And this intimacy is an invitation.
This invitation comes at the end of Epiphany before we are invited into an intentional intimacy with God. Jesus, at this juncture, has to descend that mountain and begin a journey that ultimately leads him to a small hill outside of Jerusalem. He will be lifted high again, but on a cross, not in dazzling white for all to see. His difficult journey, however, is guided by the intimacy he shares with God the Father as his beloved Son.
Our journey in Lent springs forth from Jesus transfiguration. These forty days set aside ask us to develop practices or habits that bring us into this tender intimacy at the heart of God.
Each of us has been extended a formal invitation by the gift of the Transfiguration. We are invited to put aside personal transformation because the focus becomes too much on us and our will and what we can accomplish. Instead, the Transfiguration reminds us that when the clouds are lifted Jesus is revealed in his fullness as God’s son and we are invited to share an intimate life with him.