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Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

I’m struck by the reticence of this story, by the way that it alternates between this euphoric revelation of Jesus in his spiritual reality and the very voice of God—and then the bewilderment of the disciples and Jesus’ command for them to keep silent. I think those two elements make this the perfect story as we transition from Epiphany to Lent. We’re going from a season of meditating on revelation, the disclosure of God’s glory, to one of silence and darkness. (I love how the church calendar puts us in this odd relationship with time: like when everything is at it’s darkest and coldest, we’re like, let’s have a party because God is with us! And then when things start thawing and growing again, we’re like, OK, remember that you’re gonna die!)

Anyhow, in our story this morning, we have this dramatic moment of revelation, where we see Jesus in the spiritual reality of who he truly is, this is a moment where heaven itself breaks through to earth, where God speaks and reiterates the blessing Jesus received at his baptism—but our response to this is bewilderment. When Peter sees Jesus with the prophets Moses and Elijah, he starts making this furtive suggestion that he could build some kind of dwelling for them, but I wonder if he says that in a way that trails off at the end, where maybe he doesn’t even quite finish his thought because even he’s not sure that what he’s saying is a good idea. It seems like maybe he’s talking just to talk, because the story tells us that, truthfully, he didn’t know what to say.

And then, when this experience is over, and it’s just the disciples and Jesus again, and the disciples are looking around, probably dumbfounded, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone what they’d seen until after he rises from the dead. Which really adds confusion on confusion. We already know they don’t know how to talk about what they’ve just seen, and now Jesus is throwing in that he’s going to rise from the dead, which also implies that he’s going to die, which seems to run counter to this glorious experience that they’ve just had. They’re already speechless and Jesus tells them not to speak…yet.

Eventually, they will speak. But maybe they need the story of the resurrection to help them make sense of everything else they’ve experienced. They need the Holy Spirit to come and help them speak in new words and interpret signs they can’t make sense of yet. They have this experience on the mountaintop, but the meaning of that experience only unfolds over time and so they have to wait to be able to say what they’ve seen. And in that sense, the experience isn’t over, but it continues on with them as they continue to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond. It’s kind of like William Faulkner says, “The past isn’t over, it’s not even past.” The transfiguration continues with them, just like at the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah are there in the present, the law and the prophets are words from an ancient time that are also words for now. So in this story, past, present, and future, the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, meaning and silence, Epiphany and Lent, all become fluid categories, not distinct from each other but moving in and out of each other. What’s right in front of us all of the sudden shows itself as porous to deeper realities.

And that can be scary. I think maybe that’s why Peter initially responds the way that he does. When things are porous, when things are fluid, when we’re not sure what an event means in our life, or what our life means, that’s scary. We can only handle so much reality. And so Peter’s desire here to create a distinct and solid place for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah makes a lot of sense to me. Like “Here, this is cool, but I need to fit you somewhere where I can understand you.”

This is one of the things that language does for us. It lets us put things or experiences into discrete categories so that they make sense to us, so we can get a handle on our lives. This is part of why we use cliches, it’s part of why we use so many stock phrases in small talk, because even if life is unpredictable and unstable, at least we can fit that instability into a familiar category.

But then this funny thing happens, where we don’t just choose words to fit our experiences, but we also end up fitting our experiences to our words. So those cliches, those categories that we reach for, which we’ve always received from our families and our broader society, end up giving shape to our experiences, our perceptions, and what we take, or don’t take, from them.

There’s this funny scene at the end of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, where the narrator is talking to this playwright who’s got writer’s block because whenever they start trying to write, some abstract idea pops into their head and they’re like, “Well, that pretty much sums it up. Why would I write this whole thing?” Like, she’d start writing about two people who have a power imbalance in their relationship but then she’d think, “Oh, this is about justice. That sums it up.” And then she didn’t feel like writing anymore. Because the abstract word, the cliche, machines down all the complexities she wanted to explore and she felt like, “What’s the point, if all these things I want to say just come back to that one word?”

So many of the words we’ve received, so many of the stock narratives rolling around in our heads are crafted to keep the world in place, to machine down our experiences into discrete, easily manageable categories, and then when we have parts of our lives that we can’t manage we’re told that those are pathologies, as though our anxiety or depression or rage are not on some level reasonable responses to the state of the world.

We’re supposed to narrate our experiences so that we can move on. Because one of the worst things you can be is a person who doesn’t move on. Forgive and forget. Live and let go. Jesus take the wheel. Hakuna matata. Let the past stay in the past.

Now, if you are traumatized, meaning if your experience of the past means that you are convinced you are not safe in the present, there are treatments for that, you don’t need to keep living that way. Getting that kind of treatment is actually the opposite of moving on—that kind of treatment requires you to go back and process what you’ve been told to move on from. Part of the reason the powers of this world want us to move on, why they want to flatten out the timeline of our days so that the past is so distant from us, is because it keeps us from having to deal with what’s wrong in the present.

This is the kind of things that’s implied when someone says, “It’s 2024, we shouldn’t be doing this anymore.” And so the idea is, the Civil Rights movement which is in the past, fixed racism, so now racism is in the past. The Labor movement fixed those awful working conditions at the turn of the 20th century, that’s in the past. So why would you dredge up those old wounds now? Why would you be so militant about racism or class war now? That stuff is in the past. It’s 2024. Sit down and shut up; or, know that you’re already good because you recognize how progressive you are.

So flattened out language creates a flattened out timeline that flattens out what’s acceptable behavior from us today. Let’s build these dwellings, sum up the Transfiguration, and move on.

And I wonder if that’s why Jesus invites silence in response to this experience. He doesn’t want Peter and James and John and us to sum it up so that we can move on from it. He doesn’t want us to slide his revelation into prefabricated categories that hide the fire of divine love under a bushel. There are different kinds of silence and the silence here is not the silence of repression or indifference, it’s the pause while thought gathers itself, where desire stretches for what it can’t quite grasp, it’s the silence that seeks new forms of speech and life to make sense of what this world’s cliches can’t machine down.

Jesus doesn’t want us to flatten down our own experiences, in part, because this world is not flattened out and closed in on itself. If the story of the Transfiguration shows us anything, it’s that the world is porous. The disciples don’t go up to that mountain expecting a divine revelation. Moses didn’t expect to find the divine on a mountain in a burning bush either. And Elijah went up to his own mountain thinking that he might hear the voice of God in the grand noises of the earthquake and the whirlwind, but it turns out God was actually speaking to him to in the silence like a still small voice. (I wonder if all of these stories are actually the same moment, if Jesus is on the mountain with the disciples and Moses is hearing him in the bush and Elijah in the silence in exactly the same moment, because the past is not past, but it’s meaning is constantly unfolding, and this world is not alienated but shot through with eternity everywhere.

If that’s true, then that means you don’t have to just move on, you don’t have to forgive and forget, you don’t have to become well-adjusted to a world that wants to just keep kicking you. There’s more going on than we’ve been taught to see, which means we can sit in silence, or we can go poking holes in the surface of things, looking for the dazzling light that melts away all our categories and gives us new ones to work with.

And I think that’s part of why we practice Lent, which is a season that invites us to fast. Fasting is not about punishing yourself (by definition you only fast from good things; if it’s a sin, your just supposed to stop altogether). It’s about disrupting your habits, it’s about shifting your relationship to what’s normal. We’re so comfortable using cliches to think about our lives because our lives are often so rote, so automatic. And so a fast is really about taking down the dwellings that we use to divvy up our lives. And that doesn’t have to be about food. Maybe it’s alcohol. Maybe it’s caffeine. Maybe it’s Netflix. There are any number of little things that we use to cope with our days, to fill them with background noise. Lent is an invitation to turn off that noise, to forego that cliche, and find what voice we might hear if we listen to the silence. Because it may just be the voice of God reminding us, “You are my beloved.”


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