If I ask you to tell me a favorite memory of an event that changed your perspective on something, perhaps a cherished recollection from time you spent with your grandparents, or something special that happened while you were praying in the woods, most of us could come up with a story that we cary within us. The memory is linked to what Abraham Maslow called a “significant emotional event”, and unlike some other memories from our past, these don’t seem to fade with time, rather, their meaning becomes clearer and clearer over the years. eople my age know exactly where they were when they were told the news of President Kennedy’s assasination, in the same way that another generation remembers the Challenger disaster. Or the way we all remember the events of 9-11, and exactly where we were when we first heard the details.
Today’s Gospel is one of those memories from our Christian past that has the same power, the same ability to become a permanent part of our collective remembering. Whatever this unusual event of Transfiguration means, it made such an impression on the Gospel writers that the story appears in three of the four Gospels and, unlike so many other stories, this one appears with very little variation in the telling. This suggests that the story had circulated orally in nearly a unanimous form, and then was written into Luke’s Gospel.
Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the sacred mountain to pray, but it isn’t long before they’re napping. It’s a long hike up a mountain, and no doubt they’re tired. Jesus is, after all, an exhausting kind of guy who has made a lot of demands on their resources, their time and their lives. They’re asleep and just starting to awaken when they catch what is apparently the tail end of a supernatural event: Jesus is glowing with irridescence as he prays. Not only that, but he is hanging out with Moses and Eliljah, both of whom have been dead for several centuries.
Sometimes when I’m lecturing in class, I notice someone dozing or with his or her eyes closed, and that is always the one I call on to read, or to answer a question about whatever my topic is that day. Even a mediocre student will usually try to fake an answer, to cover up the fact that she or he hasn’t a clue about what has been happening in class to that point. Peter is one of those dozing students, and so he blurts out that nonsensical, “Teacher, hey, it’s really cool that you guys are here, so let’s just set up camp and kick it for awhile…” Even Luke is embarassed by recording that absurd comment, and so he adds that Peter “did not know what he was saying.”
And like a fortuitous fire drill that happens in the middle of a student trying to b.s. his way through one of my questions, suddenly a dense cloud appears, cutting off any other deep observations Peter might have been tempted to speak. The men realize, almost too late, that they are in a mystical experience, that somehow they are in over their heads, that they are in the process of witnessing the power of the Divine. The cloud overshadows them and they’re afraid, not knowing if they’ll even survive to tell this story to their children. The voice from the cloud is, thankfully, more to the point than Peter’s comment: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The disciples are reduced to silence, and marked with an indelible memory. It is not the warm fuzzy kind of memory, but the awe-inspiring, fear-filled encounter with something they do not understand.
The story became part of the treasured memory of the Church and it speaks to us of “mountaintop experiences” or perhaps of spiritual retreats in the wilderness. We all have these experiences and we treasure them. Sometimes we are tempted to think that our own mountaintop experiences are the the only ones that matter, that other people’s experiences aren’t quite as true as ours. This is why we have so many flavors of Christians, because we want to take our own experiences and stories and turn them into dogmas or formulas requiring faith, rather than respecting another’s interpretation. Even our gospel writers place slightly different interpretations of the Transfiguration experience. Mark sees it as a mountain top experience, Matthew as a vision, Luke as a prayer meeting. Differences of interpretation are both good and necessary to really get to the fullness of the story.
The disciples had heard this voice in the clouds before, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. They had come to believe that this Jesus was someone special, someone who seemed to have a special relationship with the God of Israel, someone who could heal people on the outside and on the inside. They believed in him. They believed in his mission.
But perhaps recent events had given them pause, like when Jesus told them that he must suffer many things, that he would be rejected and crucified. Each of them had seen perhaps hundreds of crucifixions before; that’s how the Romans kept the peace in troubled Judaea. The possibility of death by crucifixion was always a possibility with this Jesus because he simply would not shut up! On the other hand, he appeared to be the Messiah, the one promised to delilver them, so it seemed downright impossible that this could really happen to God’s Anointed.
They had come to the mountain to pray and, unexpectedly, here it was again: the mystery cloud with the voice. Jesus receives heaven’s confirmation a second time, and the message seems to be that regardless of what happens to this Jesus, God’s plan will move forward precisely because of him. It will be years before any of them recall this event and are able to give it meaning, but when they do begin the business of writing it down, they will develop a profound appreciation for it.
In my opinion, this passage is not primarily about developing a prayer life, or climbing mountains in search of God. Luke includes this story because it presents two Truths that we can cling to. First, Jesus is God’s Chosen One, and through the community that continues to minister in his name, we are always able to find hope, fulfillment, healing and joy. He is truly the presence of God with us. But secondly, following Jesus will not take us down the freeway of life on cruise control. We will perhaps be taken down back roads that will bring us suffering and pain, rejection and death. But we believe that even at the intersection of hopelessness and pain, Our God will triumph and we will be transformed. Sometimes we find unforgettable experiences of God in even the most unlikely places.
A few years ago, I received a call from the partner of a young man dying from AIDS who wanted urgently to see me before he died. He had only a couple days left to live, so he wanted to tie up all the loose ends. I was apprehensive as I arrived at the hospital and was given a hospital gown and mask for my own protection because, on top of everything else, he had contracted a virulent form of TB. I knocked and entered his room where he lay, emaciated and shriveled, as all AIDS patients are at the end of their journey. He, too, was wearing a mask, and was obviously burning up with fever. He handed me a 4 page script of how he wanted his funeral to be conducted, including all the music he wanted me to sing at his viewing.
So we went over the entire program, song by song. It’s harder than you might think to communicate compassion and caring with someone while you’re wearing a mask, since facial expressions are limited to the eyes only. He couldn’t put long sentences together, had difficulty breathing, but was grateful for my agreeing to do everything exactly as he requested. When it was time to leave, I took his hand in mine and squeezed hard, looking him in the eye. I expected to see fear or resentment at having to face death at such a young age, but that is not what I saw. Instead, I saw only immense gratitude, a glimmer of that pure light that only comes from knowing that God is real and is never going to abandon us.
Coming down the hospital elevator on my way to the parking lot, I felt thankful that I had been given the privilege of being a part of his journey, of having witnessed the moment when his many years of suffering and fear were transfigured into childlike, peaceful trust in God. I, like Peter, had been an unwitting and unworthy witness to transfiguration. I had come to the mountaintop expecting a difficult and uncomfortable meeting with a dying young man, trying to rehearse my words in advance. I came away with a profound belief in the transfiguring power of faith and a memory of God that is beyond words.