GOSPEL Luke 9:28-36
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge piece in the church year, between the season of epiphany glory and light, and the dark journey to the cross over the season of lent. The church year and it’s turning help us to intentionally live our lives as Christians practicing our faith and trust when things are glorious and when things are shadowed by death. While our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers celebrate this feast day in the sunshine of August, Lutherans for centuries have celebrated it in February. A dark and cold month for many places where Lutherans called home. Perhaps to give us a bright moment in the midst of grey and snow. Perhaps to show us that God reveals Jesus even in February when we have nearly given up hope that spring will ever arrive.
We intentionally celebrate Transfiguration Between the Sundays after epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Which serves to cap off one season of Jesus revealing himself and being revealed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – and begins the next season of remembering why we need a Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Some years ago, I found a term for Lent that really spoke to me in the writings of influential Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Schmemann. One of his most popular writings A Great Lent, speaks of this upcoming season of Lent as the Bright Sadness. He writes – “….as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.”
“The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.”
If there’s one thing that Lutherans love is a good paradox. We receive the very body and blood of our savior in ordinary food stuff. We receive the Holy Spirit’s power and claim on our lives in ordinary water. We understand what it is to have mountain top experiences of clarity and divine majesty. We know the glory of God’s presence is a bright and life changing thing – and we have seen it, felt it, and been consumed by it. And we have also fallen back down the mountain into the valley of despair and confusion and darkness.
We know what it means to find yourself in a thin place – where heaven and earth seem to touch, and the holy is palpable and tangible – and we also know what it means to find yourself lost in the valley of the shadow of death where God seems to be absent or at least hiding from you. The paradox of Bright Sadness is fitting, as we prepare for the Lenten Season as well.
In this bright and shiny gospel – we also see confusion and fear. There is drastic change and revelation, but also hiddenness. Transfiguration is not just a change from looking like one thing to looking like another, but a change of perspective. As Christ is transfigured before them, the disciples’ perspective is broadened and deepened. But then they were terrified.
A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. The mood changed quickly. Clouds often signify bad news, a storm coming, or at the very least changing, but God’s voice comes from this cloud, proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ identity. Our perspective may be veiled, clouded, and dim. But there will be times we hear God’s clear voice despite of our inability to see what’s in front of us. Times where we must listen and digest what we’ve seen and heard, and we might not even have words to describe it yet. The paradoxical nature of this experience, glory and terror, revelation and cloudiness, hearing God’s voice, but being unable to speak about it, is preparing us for our Lenten Journey to the cross. The sad brightness of the path through the wilderness, trusting that God is leading us, but being frightened and confused none the less.
Because we can’t stay on the mountain, and our firm foundation of our faith is not that one time Jesus dazzled and really looked the part of being sent from heaven. The firm foundation is cross. Not shiny. Not dazzling. This is what Luther means when he writes about a theology of glory and a theology of the cross.
A theology of glory sees God working through the dazzling, special, big and powerful. That wealth and power are God’s blessings and a sign that God has shown up. Jesus, however, reveals that God often works through weakness – even shame and death.
A ‘theology of the cross’ says that God is most reliably present not in our strengths or our successes or the things we like best about ourselves. Rather, God is present and working in the world exactly in the place where a person is falling apart, where they are discovering the limits of their power instead of its possibilities. It also means that God is always involved with people and situations exactly as they currently are, instead of as they could be or might be or used to be.
A theology of the cross means that God is not just at work with us when things look special or sacred, when our experiences feel inspired and holy. But that God is at work when things are veiled, or hidden, God is at work when things are confusing or even terrifying. God is at work in the suffering going on down in the valley, not just in the glory on the mountain top.
Alleluia cannot always be our song. In a very real sense. As with many spiritual practices of the church, the seasons give us real space and time to practice what we need for our faith. As we walk these next 5 weeks to Holy Week, we enter a space where we can focus on the valley: Our suffering, and the suffering of others. Where we can focus on our hurt and confusion, and where we have contributed to the hurt of others – times when we have felt like we were in exile from a homeland, or lost in the wilderness.
We speak about these things in real time, through the life death and resurrection of our Savior, so that when they happen in our life, we know the truth of the matter.