Luke’s account of the Transfiguration intersected life this week, thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary, and I found a strange solace in the story I had not seen before. Sometimes, I suppose, tired eyes see new things.
Maybe it’s just me.
Or maybe it’s that we are marking the second anniversary of the full descent of the pandemic on our country. And just as we begin to get some hint that things might ease up on the COVID front, we’ve watched Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine and listened as the governor of Texas told people to start reporting parents of trans children as child abusers. That’s just part of the news this week—and we haven’t even touched on any personal issues.
Maybe all those things are what lead me to see how exhausted Jesus and his disciples appear to be most every time we come to read our Sunday scripture. They are living in their own whirlwind of people wanting to hear Jesus, people wanting Jesus to heal them, Jesus trying to teach his disciples while those who disagree with him politically and theologically keep trying to trip him up and the Romans keep working to kill him.
In fact, it’s that last thing that sends them up the mountain. The disciples returned from trips to other towns and Jesus started talking about dying—well, being killed. After that, Luke says, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. As I said, they were exhausted even before the hike. Once they got to the top, Jesus started to pray and the disciples fell asleep.
But then something woke them up.
Jesus’ face was luminous and he looked like he was dressed in lightning. Moses and Elijah were with him and they, too, were talking about his death—his departure—which, Luke says, he “was about to accomplish” in Jerusalem.
Peter and the others were still groggy, but they made themselves wake up to see what was happening. Peter, true to form, spoke up even though he had no idea of what he was saying. “This is great!” he said and, in his confusion, shifted into hospitality mode. “Maybe we should pitch tents for each of you.” Nobody else said a word. And then a cloud enveloped the mountaintop and God was in the cloud and said, “This is my Chosen One. Listen to him!” And then the cloud, the voice, the two prophets, and the lightning all disappeared and they were alone on the mountain.
When they came back down, they kept silent. Even Peter.
Maybe they kept quiet because they didn’t know how to describe what had happened. Or maybe they didn’t say anything because they didn’t have a chance. Once they got back to the bottom of the hill, the crowds descended on them. The other disciples were in a panic because they felt overwhelmed. Nobody seemed to care what had happened on the mountain. They wanted to talk about their stuff.
Life went on, as exhausting as ever.
Over the years, I have heard sermons on this passage that talked about the power of “mountaintop experiences,” those moments when God feels especially close and life transcendent. Those sermons made it sound as though Peter didn’t want to leave: “let’s build shelters for everyone and stay here.” Then the preachers went on to say that we had to learn to live in the valley of life because that’s where things grow. We can’t survive in perpetual transcendence.
That’s a lesson worth pondering, but I wonder about another angle.
The details we are given make it look as though the time on the mountain wasn’t exceedingly joyful or euphoric for the disciples. They woke from a dead sleep to find Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about his death, then a cloud rolled in and a voice told them to listen to Jesus, and then they came back down the hill. They weren’t any less exhausted or any more confident than when they started climbing. They didn’t know what had happened. The best they could do was not talk about it. And yet, here we are twenty-one centuries later, reading the story, which means at some point they did figure out how to talk about it.
The fact that we have the gospel accounts means that they did tell others what they saw and heard that day, but it was after they had taken time to remember what had happened. They didn’t talk about their immediate reactions; they kept quiet and let it sink in. Also, when they came back to town, they walked into the middle of crowds and soldiers and, well, life.
My guess is some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as they began to try and figure out how to live without him, they thought back on their experiences with him. Maybe Peter, James, and John talked between themselves about what they saw and heard that day and then said to the others, “Remember the time we went up the mountain with Jesus and we came down dazed and nonverbal? Well, let us tell you what happened.” Then they were able to begin to see what it meant to them beyond the clouds and lightning and exhaustion.
And even then, what they saw and heard wasn’t easily explainable. Even this morning as we have read the story, we have not explained it; we have only brushed up against the lightning.
As I was reading this morning, I came across a sentence that said we are often tempted to try and “reduce the awesomeness of life to manageable proportions.” Perhaps what was at the heart of their silence was they didn’t want an explanation. They wanted to live in the awesome mystery of the moment.
That’s the invitation this morning, four days before Lent begins and two years into the pandemic that feels like it will never end: it’s going to be a while before we know what the living of these days means for us—but we can begin to learn from them if we will keep quiet and listen, and maybe look a little farther back to stories we have forgotten to keep telling.
One of the reasons that is hard to do is that we live in a culture addicted to the immediate. Most of the opinions voiced on television or written in the newspaper are about what happened today, not what happened last month or last year or the year before that—and they are happy to provide concise, repeatable explanations for everything.
But we rarely learn from things as they are happening to us. And simple explanations do not leave room for the awesomeness of our unexplainable universe. We need time to be silent, to reflect, to remember the stories, and to retell them so different details can rise and fall and open our hearts to greater compassion and understanding.
As we look ahead to life beyond the worst of the pandemic, for instance, perhaps we would do well to remember—to put together again—what life was like before words like COVID and omicron became so familiar. I’m not talking about being nostalgic, or simply wishing the pandemic hadn’t interrupted everything. What about those days is worth remembering? What moments were clothed in lightning or clouds? What exhausted us? Where was God for us in those days? What from that time has sustained us?
What stories are worth telling again?
In the days and months to come, some of those things may come back. Chances are some may not. Life is not going to go back to the way it was any more than it did for Peter and James and John after they saw Jesus blinged out in his lightning and talking with Moses. The days to come may also continue to be as exhausting as the ones we are living. And, just like Jesus, we are all going to die.
One of my favorite prophets, Mavis Staples, sings, “Death is slow, but death is sure,” and then she says, “Allelu, allelu”—that’s the gospel truth: death is sure, and so is love. Alleluia. We can be tired and tenacious, exhausted and encouraged, perplexed and amazed. Death is not that last word, love is—that is the story we keep telling—and learning from—over and over, even though we can’t explain it. Amen.