February 14, 2010
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today we conclude the season of Epiphany. We began this season with light, as the star of Bethlehem guided the Wise Men to the light of the world, to the holy child in the manger. And today we end Epiphany season with light, as Jesus’ face and garments become dazzling white on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Like Moses before him, Jesus ascended a mountain and there, he met God. Like Moses, Jesus was filled with divine light. And as with Moses, the vision was too much for others to bear: Moses’ shining face had to be veiled; a cloud overshadowed Peter, James and John, and they were terrified. Glory, dazzling brilliance, and awe. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory; hosanna in the highest!
The transfiguration is perhaps the most central symbol of the Eastern Orthodox churches. In it they see the ultimate transfiguration of all creation in Christ, where every living thing will live in harmony, shining like the sun. In it they also see their own personal transfiguration, the glory of God manifested in each believer. They make no bones about it – the goal of human life is to realize the glory of God. They call this a process of “deification,” becoming God-like.
That’s a pretty bold claim. We westerners tend to put God’s glory off a bit, at a distance: in the sunset, in heaven, in the second coming of Christ. We may catch glimpses of glory here and there, but after all, we’re only human. God is God and we are not. In fact, western theologians have always told us that we are completely sinful, utterly alienated from the divine. I don’t buy it. I think deification is close at hand; transfiguration can happen any time, to anyone.
In Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, an ambitious young girl in a small town in Colorado named Thea dreams of moving to the big city and becoming an opera star. She says to her friend, the wise old Dr. Archie “Living's too much trouble unless one can get something big out of it." When Dr. Archie asks her what that something big might be, Thea answers “I only want impossible things. The others don’t interest me.” Thea dreams of transfiguration.
For several years, I’ve been involved with an Episcopal clergy renewal organization called CREDO. One of CREDO’s suggestions for clergy renewal is for them to pray and dream about what they call a BHAG – a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. A BHAG is something that is clear and compelling, difficult, almost impossible, requiring many years to achieve. One person’s BHAG was to compose choral settings for all 150 psalms. Another’s was to climb Mt. Everest. Another’s was to create a rural center for retreats and interfaith dialogue. Mine? I’ll get to that.
Praying and dreaming up a BHAG can transfigure one’s life. It can come out of the realization that living’s too much trouble unless one can get something big out of it, perhaps even an “impossible thing.” And it can take one into uncharted territory, full of great risk and great potential.
Maybe you have such a dream about your life. Do you ever think about what you would do, if you could do anything, and money or other practical considerations were swept aside for a moment? What do you imagine? And what makes you think that you couldn’t do this?
I feel as if we here at St. Michael’s are in the process of living into a BHAG that has been years in the making. The flowering of ministries we recently witnessed at annual meeting, the tearing up of our parking lot to construct a $2m Ministry Complex, an 18-month process called ReImagine St. Michael’s – these are Big, Hairy, Audacious things! We are seeking a transfiguration of sorts, so that we will live into our full potential, shining with the glorious light of God.
But as we dream, and as you dream about big things in your life, I want to remember something. Transfiguration isn’t just all about externals. Transfiguration isn’t just about climbing the Himalayas, developing a wealth of church programs, and constructing big buildings. After all, we know that it is possible to gain the world and lose our souls.
Transfiguration can also be internal. Perhaps your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal is to become filled with the light of God, as Christ was: to walk through your days in simplicity, with purity of heart and clarity of mind; to see God everywhere; to love without reason. Living is too much trouble unless we get something big out of it, but that something big might be an internal spaciousness and the ability to really feel life, in all its beauty and pain, and give yourself to it without reserve.
Mary Oliver, a New England poet, is, for many of us, one of the clearest voices for this kind of transfiguration. She writes:
When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
We can find this amazement, this spaciousness and feeling for life, this vibrant awareness. All it takes is a prayerful life. And as I’m fond of reminding you, Thomas Merton said, “If you want a life of prayer, you must pray.”
And what is prayer? An ongoing desire for the goodness that surrounds and fills us; a tendency to open our heart to something beyond our little life; a willingness to trust and surrender into the presence that will always remain a mystery.
For each person, this takes place in very personal, very unique settings. For some, it may be a walk in the bosque with your dog; for others, a conversation over tea with your best friend; or it may happen anytime you close your eyes, still the world, and feel your breath. Connection with God has the result of putting our forward momentum on hold, and opening us up to the beauty of life.
When we do this, the ordinary is revealed as quite extraordinary. No matter what is going on, no matter where we are, the world lights up in front of us. Food becomes miraculous in our mouth; we see our companion as an incarnation of Spirit; and how did the sky ever get so blue? There is no need to look further for meaning. Everything is revealed.
When we are reverently present, we get something big out of life. We are transfigured then and there - not in some ultimate, permanent way - but for that moment. The more we do it, the more familiar and accessible the route to this place becomes. Over time, we develop more space within us for God’s light.
On this Mount of Transfiguration today we perch above the valley of Lent, which begins on Wednesday. Down there, we will soon recall our imperfection, our mortality. We will be invited to face into the personal and very specific obstacles that keep us from a prayerful life: shame, addiction, stubbornness, fear. In the valley of Lent, we will slowly clamber through, over, and around these obstacles, pausing along the way to bring awareness to each of them. We then give them to God as a humble offering, and open to the grace that will help us move beyond them.
We need a vision before we begin this difficult journey, a vision of light and glory, so that we remember why we’re on this pilgrimage in the first place. We need the vision of the transfiguration. And in this vision, as St. Paul said in the second reading today, we see “with unveiled faces…the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.”
The glory of the Lord reflected in a mirror? How amazing - it turns out that you are the one who is transfigured on the mountain top. That is your purpose in this short and precious life, your BHAG - to be a bride of amazement.