If you’ve been keeping your eyes and ears and heart open to Epiphany moments this season, you may have noticed that they stay with you, at least for a while. Maybe that early morning bird call echoes in your mind later in the day, when you’re taking the garbage to the curb. Maybe the image of that faint green pushing up through the concrete where the snow had pulled away inspires you to keep going when you’re tempted to quit a task or project. Maybe the memory of that encounter with an old friend just when you were thinking of him keeps playing itself in your mind as you fold the laundry. Startling beauty, inspiring courage, connections and “God-incidences” all around us, just waiting for the doors of our perception to open. Epiphany moments can last for hours, or days, or longer.
The Epiphany moment Peter, James, and John experienced up on that mountaintop would last a lifetime. Maybe beyond. The images of the Transfiguration of Jesus’ face and clothing up there on the mountaintop, and then the appearance of Moses and Elijah talking with him, seared themselves into the disciples’ brains. But it was the Voice from the cloud–”This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”–that’s what blew the disciples off their feet and onto their knees, shaking them to their core. TME. Too Much Epiphany. Too much Glory.
It was the same Glory that enveloped Moses up on that other mountaintop. It looked like a “devouring fire,” the people said. Like a devouring fire. It didn’t devour Moses, but there really were no words to describe it exactly. That kind of glory is way beyond words. Walter Brueggemann says that the glory of God is “the luminous, inscrutable, inaccessible power and presence of God.” [Odyssey Network, Scripture] It is way beyond our words or understanding, lest we think we can get too cozy with God. Like Aslan, the Lion-Christ in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Tales, the Holy One is good but definitely not safe.
This is not power as we usually encounter it. “Power corrupts,” we say, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The kind of power that we too often experience or read about is coercive and threatening. Do this or else… The power of God, though it may knock our socks off, is relational, it connects to us and with us at an essential level. It makes us reflect on how we live our lives. It heals us, illuminates us. It is “loving energy that gives birth to” [Bruce Epperly, Adventurous Lectionary, 3/2/14] our best, true selves. “If you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for new movement in your life, look no further,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor of the power and glory of God [DayOne, 2014].
“Get up and don’t be afraid,” Jesus said to Peter, James, and John when they had buried their faces in the dirt up there on the mountaintop. “Get up.” It’s the same word used for “Be raised, resurrected.” The Transfiguration story is a displaced resurrection story, some commentators say. In fact, Matthew uses a lot of the same language in his resurrection story–Describing the angel at the empty tomb, Matthew writes, “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”(Mt. 28:3) And elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes resurrection life saying, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Mt. 13:43)
“Get up and don’t be afraid,” Jesus says to the disciples. They were to be resurrected too, and they would need courage and assurance, even though they would be afraid. This Epiphany moment would need to stay with them and last them through all kinds of persecution and scary moments. They would need to keep this vision of Jesus “not as a victim, but as a victor, not the one despised but the one beloved of God” in the days ahead–as they continued their journey toward Jerusalem.
In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl writes that “to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic,”  but unavoidable suffering is bearable if it has meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure..[as some have said]or a quest for power [as others have said]…, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.” [Harold Kushner, in Foreward to 2006 Edition, Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. x]
We don’t know if this vision of Jesus’ transfiguration helped his followers through the awful events of Holy Week–Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It didn’t seem to have made much of a difference, if they ever actually had that vision, since they betrayed and denied and deserted him. But looking back years later, as the gospels and letters were written, it is clear that this epiphany moment, of who Jesus really was: that he was part of God’s loving intention and promise from the very beginning, in line with the great prophets and law-givers of their past, that he was so full of God’s glory and so beloved of God that no power on earth could take that away–that vision would raise them up and help them not be afraid.
The challenge for us, of course, is to keep our eyes open to transfiguration, to seeing the light and beauty present in the faces around us. The challenge is to allow Glory to change us, and then to have the courage to follow where it leads us, even if that means into that “great cloud of unknowing,” as one mystic described it, the cloud of death, or loss, or suffering.
Jesus didn’t remain on the mountaintop. In fact, he raised the disciples up so they could head down into the valley, where people waited to be healed, and fed, and brought to new life themselves. There would be no building of booths or tabernacles or temples or even churches where the Glory could be contained, and if you thought you could contain it and encounter it without being utterly changed, you were settling for something less than the Real Thing.
“Get up and don’t be afraid.” Whatever comes next, whatever life presents us with, whatever Cloud of Unknowing we find ourselves in, we do know that there is One who is with us in that cloud. His real presence is with us in this bread and in this cup. Take and eat, take and drink, he told his followers. I will be with you always and everywhere. In that assurance, with that vision, let us keep the feast. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark