Very, very strange. How else could one describe it? The three witnesses of this event were so terrified that they kept silent and told no one what they had seen. I guess that is all one can do with an experience that we just can’t explain. There are plenty others like it in the Bible: Moses and the burning bush, Jacob and the ladder of angels, Job and the voice out of the whirlwind, and in the Old Testament reading today, Moses shining face—so blinding that he had to wear a veil before he came out to speak to the Israelites. Veils and clouds are a big part of the readings today—both metaphors for the otherworldly.
Mystery. Famous Baptist preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, one time minister at Riverside Church in New York wrote “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”
I wonder if the admission that we are mystified by some experience—that we can’t explain or understand—is not the beginning of growth. Certainly, it was the beginning of serious growth for Peter, James, and John: Glistening garments, blinding light from heaven, an eerie voice out of nowhere proclaiming the divinity of Jesus and bidding the three to pay attention to him.
Methodist bishop William Willimon tells the story of his friend’s aunt who used to attend lectures given by theologian Paul Tillich whenever he spoke in the environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though she was by no means a theologian, she would sit there transfixed by Tillich’s remarks. “You mean she was able to understand what Tillich was talking about?” Willimon asked. “Are you kidding,” replied his friend. “My aunt never understood a word of it. But she said that she loved listening to him because she knew that whatever he was talking about was very, very important.
And what if this is a story that’s not really meant to be explained? What if it is like standing before a splendid masterpiece of art. Do we exclaim, “I got it! I got it!” or do we walk away in awe mumbling, “Wow. That really got me.” What if the transfiguration story is like a great work of art upon which we gaze with awe rather than a theological problem to solve?
American Biblical scholar Marcus Borg describes two metaphors which he believes are central to being Christian: “Open hearts” and “Thin places.” Together, they express a transformational vision of the Christian life, the purpose and practice of the Christian life for us as individuals and in our life together as church.” The word “heart,” often used to refer to the whole self, appears well over a thousand times in the Bible. We associate the heart with love, as on this Valentine’s Day, but also with courage as in “brave hearts” and with grief as in “broken hearts.”
“Thin Places” is a term we inherit from the tradition of Celtic Christianity, a form of spirituality that flourished in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales, and northern England beginning in the 5th century. Thin Places involves a particular way of thinking about God, as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is and affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality—the visible world of our ordinary experience and that of God, the sacred, Spirit.
“Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect; places where the boundary becomes very soft, porous, permeable; places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God and experience the one who is both all around and within us. Thin places can be geographical like the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the birthplace of St. Patrick in Ireland, sacred cities like Jerusalem, Canterbury and Rome or mountains and high places like the location of the Transfiguration story. But they are more than geographical places.
A thin place is any place where our hearts are opened because the sacred becomes present to us in a way we didn’t expect. It is a means of grace: nature and wilderness areas, the arts—music, poetry, literature, and dance—experiences where the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears. Christian practices such as the Eucharist have as their purpose to provide the possibility for us to encounter a thin place where our hearts are opened.
Thin places are all cracked doors between this world and some other brighter place where God is a palpable presence and each time that veil becomes sheer enough so that we are able to step through it our hearts are opened, even if only a little bit at a time. The life of faith is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places. Having lived through two years of the death toll and life changes due to a pandemic and watching the suffering and bravery of the Ukrainian people, I think we desperately long for some modicum of grace and even the slightest entry into a thin place where God shows up and assures us that all will be well.
On the mountain that day, Peter was all set to set up camp. He wanted to create a B and B for Jesus and Moses and Elijah—a task that would have kept him and his companions busy for a while. But the door of the “thin place” is only cracked open for a moment and the cloud of our ordinary days and routines returns to bring us back to reality. Peter, James, and John had to come down from the mountain. We have to come down from the mountain.
We’ll do that on Ash Wednesday when we declare our humanity and vulnerability in a very profound way by allowing our foreheads to be smeared with ashes. It begins a forty-day journey of going deeper into the mystery—the mystery of life, the mystery of God, the mystery of those “thin places” we may encounter along the way, knowing that with every step we take in Lent we are walking on holy ground. We may not fully understand what lies behind the veil or within the cloud, but deep in our hearts we know it is very, very important. Do not lose heart!