The Last Sunday of Epiphany
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Every year on this Sunday, just before we descend into the humbling valley of Lent, we are taken up on the mountain with Moses and Jesus for a last moment of glory. There is an encounter with God, which dramatically changes how they appear to others.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai, the skin of his face shining such that the Israelites were afraid to come near him. At another time, on another mountain, while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In our second reading today, Paul links together these two transfigurations. But he goes further. He says that all who live in Christ are also transformed from one degree of glory to another. The transfiguration of Moses and Christ becomes ours.
The Transfiguration is one of the most often-used icons of the Eastern Orthodox churches. They take very seriously what Paul said. They make no bones about it - the goal of the life of faith is to realize the glory of God. They call this theosis, or “deification,” becoming God-like.
In the West, we have taken up the possibility of transfiguration within what we call “spirituality.” In the practice of a spiritual life, we hope that over time we might finally reach a higher spiritual state, marked by true and lasting peace, harmony, and joy.
I’ve become cautious about this kind of expectation. For it has the danger of setting up a romanticized ideal which we believe to be presently inaccessible to us, but might be someday, if we were to really apply ourselves. But when it comes, it never seems to last. And so we either conclude that spirituality is for other types of people, or we try harder, convinced that permanent transfiguration is just around the corner.
I’ve become more drawn to the earthier - but no less profound - transfiguration that comes and goes in the moment. In those times when we stop our thinking, our worrying, our forward momentum, the present moment can open up. It opens not to some astounding and dazzling moment of glory, but to the simple fact of whatever it is. And that is deeply transformative.
Zen Buddhists call this “suchness.” Suchness is the concrete quality of being that can be experienced at any time: the sensory reality of light, sound, movement, and touch. But suchness also includes thoughts and emotions that rise and fall. And so the air, our thoughts, our sensations, the world around us - all of it together makes up the unique and ever-changing reality of this moment. Some teachers just call it “things as they are,” or more surprisingly, “things as it is.” For people of faith, it is a place of opening, where in the stillness, God is found.
This practice, often called mindfulness, is very simple, but very difficult. For we are a people of dissatisfaction, always striving to improve our lot, to reach what we imagine to be a more preferable state, to ruminate over the past and the imagined future. So to return to the present moment constitutes a radical challenge to all these deeply-ingrained habits. But there is also a sense in which this practice is easy. It’s so easy, we can do it right now.
Keeping your eyes open and fixed on a spot in front of you, bring your attention to your breath...Take in the sounds around you...Take in the colors you see in front of you, in your peripheral vision...As thoughts arise, let them move on... If you’re carrying an emotion today, or some kind of stress, just feel it emotion physically, without pursuing it mentally...Bring your attention back to your breath...know that God fully inhabits this moment...relax into God; let this moment be what it is - sensations, rising and falling thoughts, this room, other people...as God says through the Psalm “Be still and know that I am God...”
What we discover in this practice is that even while we humans always will - and should - strive to improve society and solve our personal problems, on another, more immediate level, life is always rich, always enough, just as it is. This is a form of faith. It is an encounter with God, for God fully infuses this, and every, present moment. And when are in this place, there is a quiet transfiguration, for God’s very presence changes us.
We are changed because it shifts our perspective. Conflicts become less loaded with danger; sadness can just be a feeling, without fear attached to it; boredom dissipates as the world in all its variety and beauty opens up to us. We are just awake, available, experiencing what is, without any need to change it or be somewhere else. And over time, we come to know that whatever might be going on in our life, this sacred and very earthy reality is our foundation, which can never be shaken.
The best part of this is that we are then more able to be of service to other people and to whatever God places in our path. This is the real benefit of transformation, or any form of spirituality, faith and prayer- it is not for our personal benefit alone.
For when we are present, we can move calmly into our activities, our relationships, our work, our conflicts and challenges without personal baggage. We become a helpful presence to others, even a healing presence, for we are empty, not bringing anything extra to complicate matters. We are in a position to serve the other, to serve the interest of the moment at hand.
In the story of the transfiguration, Jesus and his friends, after having that moment of divine encounter, go down from the mountain, down to everyday life. There they are met by a large and demanding crowd. God places in their path a man who is distraught over his son’s horrific convulsions - epileptic seizures, apparently. He begged Jesus’s disciples to help, but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything.
At first, Jesus shows his humanity, and expresses frustration: How long will I have to put up with this? But then he stops, takes a breath, lets go of his baggage, opens up to what is at hand, and turns to the sick boy, healing him with attention and compassion.
Jesus was only able to be a healer because he was grounded in God. Grounded in God, transfigured every time he encountered the divine in the everyday, he was in a position to be open and present to those whom God placed in his path, to serve the needs of the world around him.
In our second reading today, Paul talks about us having “unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, being transformed from one degree of glory to another.”
I don’t think what is promised here is some special, rarified state of consciousness that happens to a very elite few after years of strenuous effort. I think our transfiguration is simpler, more down to earth.
It happens whenever we wake up, whenever we return to the divine encounter that is waiting for us within each moment. We become open - our faces are unveiled, and we see the humble glory of the Lord in things as it is. And we, too, can then be of service to this world as Jesus was. We, too, can be a healing presence for those people and those situations that God places in our path.