Today is a funny day in the liturgical year of our church. It has many of the trappings of an important feast day: A prominent, oft-referenced gospel story; the last Sunday in a season of the year; traditions of preparation, like collecting last year’s palms, for the coming season; associations with a period of celebration and parties. However, while today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany—meaning the Sunday before Lent begins—it is only a Sunday. The Feast of the Transfiguration, when we hear again today’s Gospel passage, happens on 6 August, all the way in summer.
This liminal, in-between feeling that today has—more than a Sunday but not a grand, historic feast day—is not a problem. I’m not entirely sure that it’s intentional on the part of the calendar-planners of our church, but it does seem appropriate. The focus of the church year is turning from the Christmas stable to the coming Passion and the Easter celebration that follows. Historically, all of the catechumens—people preparing to be baptized at Easter—would be getting ready for the final stretch of prayer, fasting, and preparation that is the foundation of Lent. The rest of the Church, walking alongside them on that journey, is called to an examination of itself that it might be ready for the holiest days of the year. Today, not quite Lent but close enough to smell the sacrificial coffee and chocolate of that season, has something important to say to both of these circumstances.
For those preparing for baptism around the world, Lent is going to be intense. It’s the final stretch of learning, repenting, fasting, praying, and making ready before taking the plunge into the waters of death and life at the Great Vigil of Easter. Like the month leading up to a marathon run, final exams, or some other major milestone. It’s going to be hard work and, like any period of intense self-examination, there may well be moments of discouragement. Becoming a Christian and following Christ are hard work and it’s not all gumdrops and rainbows.
Today’s Gospel passage is an encouragement to people making that journey toward living water. In the Transfiguration story, the full glory of Christ Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John. The full glory of the life they will share. The glory that the Ethiopian eunuch and the repentant thief will share. The dazzling glory that every Christian is promised a share in through God’s overwhelming love. The catechumens are being reminded of this before Lent as a reminder that this life is not only hard work. If we use the Early Church’s favourite example of Christian life as a race to be run, Today is a showing off of the trophy while the runners for this leg are lining up. It may be a long race, the sun is hot, the pavement is hard, and the course includes some tricky terrain, but the prize for every runner is absolutely glorious.
The story of the Transfiguration, located here in the liturgical year, is also a word to those of us who are well into the race. For us, our attention is less on the dazzling glory of the revealed Christ—though that’s certainly worthwhile—and more on what follows. The voice from heaven speaking to the disciples and saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Listen.
I love the disciples so much because they are so very human. In them, so often, we can see ourselves without even looking very hard. Here is Peter, faced with one of the most profound revelations of divine truth in all of creation’s history and, so much like the Church today, his response is not to fall down in worship, not to listen for what else might be revealed, not to ask what this vision means, but to propose a building project.
I say this good-naturedly and not to shame Peter’s response. We are also told that he and the other disciples were terrified and really did not know what to say. Mark’s Jesus is one who reveals—an apocalyptic Jesus—and when one is confronted with unsettling truth, it is perfectly natural to reach for stability. To reach for familiarity and tradition. In Peter’s case, he is confronted with a supernatural vision of undeniable divinity centred on his friend Jesus, to say nothing of Moses and Elijah appearing beside him. This is a great deal more God, up close and personal, than Peter would ever have thought possible. And, in Peter’s world, God needs a place to live, like the Temple in Jerusalem. If God is also present in Jesus and these two great prophets, they should have dwellings here on the mountain where they appeared. He’s offering his best effort at the appropriate response to this deeply unsettling experience.
Revelation is a funny thing for us. We pray often that God might reveal some truth to us, great or small. Some insight into a concern or worry in our lives, some movement in the world toward greater justice and peace. But, when God does show up and reveal that divine truth, it’s never as we expect it to be. Running into God alone is enough to shock us, but when it happens in a completely unexpected way, we’re thrown for two loops. Revelation is uncomfortable and difficult because, as the Revd Dr Martha Simmons says, “It’s where the sweet by and by meets the nasty here and now.” [Martha Simmons, “Introduction,” in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy, ed. M. Simmons and F. Thomas (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2001), x.] Revelation always disrupts our routine and our preconceptions. It’s that sudden turn in the race course through terrain that we didn’t anticipate in our training. It demands a faithful, nimble, attentive response. It demands that we pay attention. Revelation demands that we listen.
God calls us to always be attentive, with every one of our senses. To be listening for answers to prayer, for revelations great and small about the new thing that God is doing. God invites us again and again to cooperate and share in what God is doing here and now, in our midst. To discern the path to which God is calling us—calling the whole Church–on our way to the Cross and Easter’s empty tomb. Not to remain in what is familiar and comfortable but to step out into the light and to risk our discomfort, to risk being unsettled. To risk being changed. To risk everything on the promise that you and I, too, will be changed. We listen that we might be transfigured.