Transfiguration in a Time of War

I usually love Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the grand finale of the Epiphany season – the spectacular revelation of Jesus on the mountaintop with the two biggest heroes of Jewish faith and history. The glorious spectacle almost reminds us of Easter.
And as we stand in the doorway between Epiphany and Lent, we could see this as a bookend, paired with the splendor of Easter Sunday to come. 

I also love the mystery of the mountaintop experience witnessed by the disciples, the rending of the veil between heaven and earth. We can’t fault Peter for wanting to capture the moment, store it in a structure, to be savored over and over. Having such an up-close encounter with the Divine would be both amazing and unfathomable. I envy Peter and the others who were there. So, yes, I love the glory, the mystery, the brilliance, the knowledge that such encounters can even be possible. 

But today – once again with news of the world intruding on our celebration – it’s hard to feel celebratory. Those of you from the Roman Catholic tradition may know that Transfiguration is celebrated annually on August 6 – which creates an interesting juxtaposition in light of current events.

August 6 is Hiroshima Remembrance Day. In 1945, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There was a dazzling, blinding light from the blast followed by an overshadowing cloud. Sounds eerily like the description in the gospel stories.

Going back even further, August 6, 1456, Pope Callixtus III declared the Feast Day of the Transfiguration due to the victory of the crusaders over the Turks. Interesting, to say the least, how this day is intertwined with acts of war. What is a preacher to do?

The mountaintop experience of Divine glory seems far away from the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The image of Jesus and Moses and Elijah as the superheroes of the world seem pale beside images of political strong men and heavy artillery. I have always thought of the Transfiguration as the possibility of trans-formation for all of us, indeed for the whole world. But war brings feelings of hopelessness, of despair for the future of the human race if we cannot – or will not – live together in peace. 

You know, I used to not like the way the lectionary includes the next section of the gospels, where Jesus is confronted by a man with a son who had epilepsy (although Luke says the boy is afflicted by an unclean spirit, demon) and heals him. It felt to me like it took away from the majesty of the transfiguration. I guess you could say that I wanted to build a booth and stay up on the mountain with Jesus.

But one thing today’s juxtaposition of Divine revelation and military invasion has done is flesh out a little more of these two stories together and what they can mean for us. Think about that mountain. We don’t know what mountain it was, but I am imagining that from its heights Jesus and the disciples were able to see down into the countryside where there were hundreds of people crucified on Roman crosses. So even though they had their mountaintop experience, the realty of everyday life in Palestine was never far from their sight. So coming back down and encountering a real-life situation is not as jarring as perhaps we might read it.

Divine revelation and everyday life are not at odds with one another;
they are both part of the whole reality of faith and life. 

As Franciscan priest and mystic, Richard Rohr has written:
We have created an artificial divide or dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism is precisely what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are — and always have been — one. Rohr challenges a ‘mountaintop’ religiosity that divides the sacred and special from the secular and ordinary. 

I like to believe that’s true, at least I do when we’re talking about the ordinariness of everyday life. I do believe that our time with family, our time at school, at work, at play are all part of our spiritual lives. But war – that’s another story – as is any violent act, bullying, any kind of abuse. These should not be part of the ordinariness of everyday life. So what do we do with the ugly side of life, the view of crosses from the mountaintop?

Jesus certainly knew what to do. Even though he could see those crosses and could look ahead and envision one in his own future, he came down from his mystical, glorious, Divine mountain and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. A demon had seized a boy and was making his life a living hell. We could discuss their understanding of demons and unclean spirits, but the point was that for Jesus, there was work to be done. And he did it. 

We could say that a demon or unclean spirit has come upon us. War is not part of God’s intention for God’s people. But lust for power and domination, violence have infected our world from time immemorial. The invasion of Ukraine is just the latest episode of our warring madness.

It is not part of God’s intention, but it is part of our reality. Our secular lives are not separate from our spiritual lives. And so we must consider what our response will be to this war, as well as to any part of the maelstrom of human misery and need.

Perhaps you feel that church is no place to discuss a political situation, that this hour on Sunday morning is sacred, our mountaintop, where we come to commune with the Divine, to get away from the worries of the world. And that may indeed be true. We do come here to be refueled by the Spirit. And that is as it should be. But like Jesus and company, even from the loftiness of our spiritual high, we can see the crosses. We might try to shut them out of our consciousness, but its hard to do. Especially when we have Jesus himself talking about going to Jerusalem to die. The cross always looms over Transfiguration Sunday. 

And we know what to do. Like Jesus, we come down from our Sunday mountaintop experience and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. How do we respond to this latest war? Partly it’s up to each of us to decide how to respond based on our own sense of calling as a follower of Jesus. There are certainly many appeals for money for medical supplies, humanitarian aid, or refugee assistance. I’m sure organizations such as Heart to Heart International and Church World Service who have gathered hygiene and school kits in the past are in the process of mobilizing to do so again. I remember at the start of our Iraq invasion, there was an initiative here in the Bay Area to send school kits to the children of Iraq. We should be on the lookout for opportunities. 

And of course, we should be in prayer – for both Ukraine and Russia. If praying for Russia seems extreme, remember Jesus’ words from last week: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus was no stranger to violence, oppression, and war. He didn’t call disciples into a hermetically sealed bubble, safe from the realities of everyday life. We are not called to be followers of Jesus who seek only mystical union with the Divine. Those transfiguring, transforming experiences are of one piece with the gritty, messiness of human experience. He calls us now – to pray for oppressed and oppressor, to tend to the afflicted in whatever way we can. 

As we move into Lent and ever closer to the cross, it may be hard to remember the gloriousness of the Transfiguration or to anticipate the splendor of Easter. In the shadows of Lent, we embrace the suffering of the world – hoping and trusting that resurrection life will prevail, but unsure that it will. For Jesus, yes. But for our situations of discord and death and war? We’re not always so sure. But it’s not called a wilderness time for nothing. Our faith will be tested. Our discipleship questioned. 

Now is the time to remember Jesus on the mountaintop with the great heroes of faith, to bask with the disciples in that glory. The Divine Presence is in the world. Now is the time to go back down the mountain with Jesus into the needs of the world. We now bring that Divine Presence to others. As C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote:

Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

The rhythm of the church year has brought us now to this liminal moment, this threshold between the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle and the Lent/Easter/ Pentecost seasons, this dazzling moment of timeless Holy glory and endless possibility. It has been said that the mission of the Church is to be a vessel where transformation can happen. Where lives are changed – from the bottom up, from the inside out – by the enlightening presence of God. We have to leave the mountaintop. But hopefully we go as transformed people. Something has changed or something has shifted. We’re not exactly the same as when we arrived. There’s a little bit of extra glow around us, a renewed vigor to be salt for the earth and light for the world. A re-energized optimism to believe in God’s vision for the world – a world of justice and true peace.

We can’t know what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears, Jesus remains among us — Jesus alone. So keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him.

It is all of one piece. 

Amen.

Photos
Transfiguration, 1973
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon. Each reading was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.

Attribution: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Gospels, Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy, Walters Manuscript W.592, fol. 48b by Walters Art Museum Illustrated Manuscripts. This work has been marked as dedicated to the public domain.

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. 

Luke 9:28-43a
About eight days after saying this, Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up onto a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and the clothes he wore became dazzlingly white. Suddenly two people were there talking with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. They appeared in glory and spoke of the prophecy that Jesus was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had already fallen into a deep sleep, but awakening, they saw Jesus’ glory—and the two people who were standing next to him. When the two were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and the disciples grew fearful as the others entered it. Then from the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my own, my chosen one. Listen to him! “When the voice finished speaking, they saw no one but Jesus standing there. The disciples kept quiet, telling nothing of what they had seen at that time to anyone.

The following day when they came down the mountain, a large crowd awaited him. A man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Teacher, please come and look at my son, my only child. A demon seizes him and he screams, and it throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth. It releases the boy only with difficulty and when it does, he is exhausted. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t.” Jesus said in reply, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be among you and put up with you? Bring the child to me.” 

As the boy approached, the demon dashed the child to the ground and threw him into a violent convulsion. But Jesus reprimanded the unclean spirit, healed the child and returned him to his father. All those present were awestruck at the greatness of God