February 14, 2010
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
St Alban’s Episcopal Church
“With You, Oh God, is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” (Ps 36:9)
When I was 20 years old I spent the summer working in a High Sierra camp in Yosemite National Park. The camp was called “Sunrise” and at 10,000ft high it felt like a home among the clouds.
It was the most amazing summer of my youth. I worked as a waitress in the food tent, a maid in the overnight tents, and as a concierge, mountain guide, and naturalist in my off hours. I played my guitar and sang John Denver songs to the campfire in the evenings.
My favorite hike was to a place called Cloud’s Rest, a huge slab of granite that served as an overlook to Yosemite Valley, nestled 6,000ft below. Sitting on the edge of this precipice I felt close to God. And like the name implies, hikers were regularly engulfed in the cold mist of clouds coming to rest like lamb’s wool on the cold granite dome. When the clouds came it was time for the hikers to leave. Lightening is often not very far behind.
The season of Epiphany comes to a close today with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain top in Galilee. It is a story of the illuminating light of God setting off a chain of reactions that brings light into the lives of the hopeless and helpless even as it sends Jesus to his fate on the cross.
Epiphany begins with the wise men from the east, following the light of a star to find the infant Jesus, lying in a manger. What they discover brings them to their knees, as they recognize the true nature of God in a unique infant.
The word “epiphany” means, “the appearance or manifestation God.” Another term for this phenomenon is theophany: “a visible manifestation of God.” The season of Epiphany features the Gospel stories where the divine nature of Jesus emanates from him like the light of the sun, blinding in its power and able to transform doubt into dazzling belief.
During Epiphany, we hear Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirit of God is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4: 18) Jesus’ first miracle is the turning of water into a ridiculous abundance of fine wine, revealing his glory to the disciples, “who believed in him” from that point on. (John 2:11)
Jesus increases the disciples’ faith by giving them such an abundant catch of fish that their boats begin to sink, leaving them questioning their sanity and shaking with fear and awe.
At Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist’s followers hear the voice of God proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) They witness a dove, a sign from God, descending on Jesus in a fluttering of wings, stirring up awe, wonder, and fear as the known world changes before their eyes.
Epiphany stories wake us up and recharge our batteries so that we can make it through the hard times ahead. We are about to descend into Lent, beginning this Wednesday, as ashes are smeared on our heads and we are reminded that we are “but dust and to dust we shall return.”
It is helpful to remember that even dust originates from the stars and has the capacity to glow, just as we carry the light of Christ through the darkest of times. Faith is belief without tangible evidence. Our faith in the light of Christ is buoyed by Epiphany stories but gains its power from the testing of darkness.
Mountaintop experiences end, but we carry the faith we receive on the mountaintop securely in our communal heart – passing the flame among us in order to keep it alive.
Today’s readings compare two mountaintop experiences – Moses and Jesus. Paul teaches the Corinthians how the two stories differ. Let’s look at how they are the same.
Moses descends from the mountain with his face glowing so brightly that it hurts the eyes of all who look upon him. But, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29)
His transformation was for the benefit of the God’s people. The rays of light radiating from Moses’ face provide evidence of his intimate relationship with God. The fear of those who witness this physical transformation, this theophany, or epiphany, instills a respectful obedience from the Israelites. This man Moses is obviously someone who can lead them through the wilderness because he speaks to God so intensely that his face glows with God’s light.
The Israelites believed that no-one could look upon the face of God and live. The light they see radiating from Moses is God’s light in a human face. They don’t know how to handle this new phenomenon. When in doubt, better to veil Moses’ face while it glows, lest they gaze upon the light of God and die because of it.
The Jewish liturgy continues the practice of keeping scripture under a veil, or covering, reminding the faithful that underneath the veil waits the blinding light of God’s revelation.
Jesus is on the mountaintop to pray. Just like Moses, Jesus climbs to the highest point he can find in order to enter into the luminal space between earth and heaven, human and divine. The air is thin up there and it literally takes your breath away. Jesus already stands with one foot in eternity, but when he prays, wherever he is, time stands still – the past becomes present, and the future twinkles with reality.
Peter, James and John gaze upon Moses and Elijah, standing there on either side of Jesus. Commentators explain that the presence of Moses and Elijah is confirmation that Jesus is the continuation of the ancient faith story of his people, and is the fulfillment of all that has come before.
Moses represents the Torah, the great and ancient stories of creation, human sin, redemption, promise, and covenant. Elijah represents the stories of the great prophets – warning humankind to pay attention to God in their midst, calling them repeatedly to change direction and focus on God’s will instead of their own.
Jesus is planted firmly in between the two figures as the bridge between the old and the new, between promise and fulfillment. As Moses led his people out of slavery into freedom, Jesus will lead all of God’s people out of the slavery of sin and death into a new home where all of creation will be redeemed.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Peter, wanting to build some kind of sheltering monument for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. It is a natural enough thing to want to build shrines where the Holy has taken place. Just look at what the Christians have done to the Holy Land.
There are treasures of gold, jewels and icons, lit by the light of eternal flames that burn around the entrances to the cave in Bethlehem, the mount of the Transfiguration, and the tomb at Calvary – none of which are verifiably holy sites, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
What matters is that there are places here on earth where Holy events actually happened. And that is enough to bring tears to pilgrim’s eyes even thousands of years from the time it all happened. Jesus did climb some mountain in Galilee, but as our Gospel stories emphasize – no-one built a shrine, so we’re not exactly sure where it was.
Peter wants to remember it forever. He’d like to come there again, to the very mountaintop where Jesus was transfigured before them, in order to remember that Yes, it really happened, and there were three of us there to see this marvelous theophany.
This is not what Jesus wants them to do. No matter how powerful a transformative experience is, it is not in the remembering of it, or the hallowing of the place where it happened that its power lies. No. The power of an experience of the Holy is what transforms within us.
Think of a time when you have seen someone’s face glow with the radiance of holiness. We have all seen it. We recognize it at ordinations, consecrations, baptisms, and Christmas Eves. We see it in the eyes of children reaching out for the blessed bread at communion.
Frederick Bueckner writes, “That they had caught something from Christ, I thought. Something of who he was and is flickered out through who they were.”
Paul explains to the Corinthians that with Jesus, a new light has come upon us all: a light that results in our own transformation. Paul uses the term ‘light’ interchangeably with truth. The truth of the Gospel is light to those who believe, but is veiled to those who don’t. Here Paul is using the word ‘veil’ to mean misunderstand.
When Moses descended from the mountaintop his face was radiant with blinding light. Those who believe in the truth of the Gospel see the words themselves as glowing with the light of truth.
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2Cor 3:18)
What Paul is teaching us is exactly why Jesus told the disciples not to be afraid. The glory of God, living in the truth of who Jesus is, changes all believers into bearers of the same glory that lit Christ from within.
What Peter, James and John witness is the light of Christ shining a light straight to his fate in Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah whisper to Jesus where he is to go, and it is this news that lights him up with the holy purpose of God. When he descends from the mountain he turns his face resolutely toward Jerusalem, knowing what will happen to him there. And he tells his disciples not to fear.
The light of Epiphany points us toward Calvary and challenges us to be steadfast in our faith and never to abandon our hope in God’s glory.
When I left my aerie in Yosemite I was married within the year and quickly had two children. I suffered from a prolonged post partum depression that eventually morphed into clinical depression. I didn’t quite lose my faith, but it became the darkest time of my life.
It was because of my belief that my children needed to find God in their own lives that I finally went back to church. I was acting on instinct alone, having them baptized at the Easter vigil service when they were 3 and 4 years old. Their baptism was the beginning of a long journey of faith for me. I never left the church again, and it was through pastoral counseling that my depression finally lifted.
The Psalmist writes, “With You, Oh God, is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” It is our responsibility as Christians to carry the light within us as if it is the Christ child himself.
Throughout the season of Lent we will come up for air every Sunday, reminding each other that Easter already came, so we can celebrate the Resurrection in the midst of our disciplines and dark Lenten stories.
Matthew writes, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) It is in the sharing of our Epiphany light that we keep it glowing. We must be as ready to ask for this light when we need it as we are to offer it when we feel abundant. It takes faith seekers as well as faith givers to make a complete community.
May we have the grace to look at our own St. Alban’s community and share not only the light of Christ with each other, but also our pain and struggles. It is what Jesus asks us all to do as we walk with him from the mountaintop to Jerusalem.