Father Nicholas Lang
The Last Sunday After Epiphany: The Transfiguration
I don’t have many phobias but one I will share is my fear of driving over bridges—not the kind that connects Stratford and Devon. I’m fine with that kind of nonthreatening crossing. It’s long span bridges, bridges that seem to go sky-high as you travel over them, bridges that cover a lot of water—maybe because I can’t swim. Yet bridges are the means by which we get from one destination to another. Bridges are conduits of passage and transition. Without them, we could not get on with the business of life. So I cross them, albeit with some trepidation—or stay put, and never get to my destination.
This Last Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us the astonishing story of the Transfiguration. It is a transition Sunday, a bridge we are asked to cross to arrive at our annual observance of Lent and eventually Easter. Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls this “the swing Sunday,” the day those who follow Jesus look down at our maps and say, "Uh-oh," because it is time to turn away from the twinkling stars of Christmas as we don the snowy white vestments of the Transfiguration and move toward the deep wilderness of Lent and its somber purple.
Matthew’s Gospel today includes the stuff that makes for indelible memories. Whatever this extraordinary event of the Transfiguration means, it made such an impression on the writers of the gospel that years later they could still recall it. The experience awakens sleepy Peter who announces, “Master, it is good for us to be here.” He wants to pitch a few tents and stay for the long haul but the unexpected cloud that appears cuts him off and the disciples soon realize that they are in over their heads. Then a voice confirms that this Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. They are told to “listen to him.”
The disciples emerge from the Transfiguration event with an indelible memory—not the kind that poets write about, of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, and music. On this mountain these three simple fishermen experienced the presence of God and it reduced them to silence.
American Biblical scholar Marcus Borg offers 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 word “heart,” often used to refer to the whole self, appears well over a thousand times in the Bible.
“Thin Places” is a term we inherit from the tradition of Celtic Christianity, a form of spirituality that flourished in Ireland, 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. Our Celtic Eucharist on the Wednesdays in Lent will immerse us in that tradition.
“Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect; places where the boundary becomes very soft, permeable; places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God and experience the one who is both all around and within us. 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 the wilderness, music, art, poetry, literature, and dance—experiences where the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappear.
What we do here in this sacred space offers the possibility of encountering a thin place where our hearts are opened. Thin places are all like 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 and our hearts are opened, even if only a little bit at a time.
So here’s the story we have to tell this Last Sunday after Epiphany: on the way to the cross and suffering, the veil is pulled back and we hear about the Transfiguration event and are invited to see a glorious vision, one that does not remove the cross, but which transfigures everything and enables us to bear it, having seen who Jesus is and where he is—God with us and in us and among us. What say we cross this bridge together? We’ll start with a smudge of ash on our forehead this Wednesday. I don’t know what the trip will be like but I do know that it will be a safe one and will take us to a place we need to be.
Novelist Mary Gordon calls the Transfiguration “an incident of whiteness.” She tells this story:
I wandered once by chance into a Catholic church in San Francisco where the Mass was being said half in Chinese, and half in English. The priest, who was Chinese, preached on the Transfiguration. “We don’t know whether this really happened,” he said, “but if it did, it was one of those moments where the veil between the invisible and the visible is torn away.”
He spoke of a mentally challenged man with whom he worked. When he asked the man if he prayed, the man said he did, and when he prayed, what he meant was that he listened. The priest asked what he heard. The man said, “I hear: ‘You are my beloved.’” The priest told the congregation, “This is what we should always be hearing
Indeed, that is what we should always be hearing.