Reflections for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany
What happens in Mark’s gospel this morning
is the event the Church calls The Transfiguration—
this moment on the high mountain
when Jesus metamorphoses, becomes something
different than what he appeared to be
as he’s been with them. And a cloud comes down,
and a voice comes down out of it and claims Jesus the Beloved,
and commands the disciples to listen to him.
If you’ve been around the Episcopal Church for a while,
you may have noticed—but don’t feel badly if you haven’t—
that our tradition has a special Feast day to remember the transfiguration of Jesus.
Its in August. We’re in February.
We’re hearing the story this morning
because this is the story that always comes last before Lent begins.
Its always the hinge between our wondering together about the meaning
of Jesus’ having come to be with us,
and our wondering at the meaning of his death.
Its the hinge in Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry,
that begins with his baptism, and he’s healing and teaching,
and outside of Caesarea Phillipi,
Jesus starts telling his friends that he must die and be raised.
And then, before he goes to Jerusalem and events tumble toward the cross,
he takes Peter and James and John up a mountain.
My dad was an artist, a painter.
Half the house was his studio.
In there, it smelled like linseed oil and turpentine,
and on tables around his easels were ranks and piles
of twisted aluminum paint tubes,
and the palettes with their beads and swirls
of ochre, umber, viridian,
where he was stabbing with his brush,
scrubbing them together in search of a color that was true.
Cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine;
these were what he had to work with.
Pure, dense pigment, and what an extraordinary luxury!
Until the eighteenth century,
the only way to make the stable,
ultramarine blue was from a stone, lapis lazuli,
dug out of a valley in Afghanistan, drug across
deserts to Italy and ground into the dream of painters.
There was no other way to achieve or even imagine holding that color.
It was the stripe in the hood of a flower the day it opened,
a racing iridescence across the wet body of a fish;
it was the possibility of painting sky as luminous as the sky feels.
It was the possibility of catching the truth beyond the surface of things,
the deeper pulse of life.
So here is something that catches me about this story of Jesus’ transfiguration:
Marks writes that, when it happened, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.
His clothes became whiter than any cloth-handler on earth could make.
It was a fairly dingy world. It was hard to make anything clean,
let alone scour wool bright white—
even the robes of the precious people that were
pounded in alkali baths, fumed with sulphur looking for real white.
But in those moments on the mountain,
the ordinary, probably miserable clothes that Jesus wore,
became a color beyond color.
Something beyond earth.
but entwined with earth.
But Jesus is still Jesus—
he’s still recognizably a human being in a man’s clothes;
he doesn’t blur out of comprehension,
or dissolve into earthquake and fire:
the way the people of Israel once saw Godself on a Mountain.
Jesus is a person. God has become entwined with humanness.
He is not God pretending to be a person.
Mark recognizes that this isn’t a moment that Jesus stumbled into—
his words about separating from the disciples
except Peter, James, and John,
“privately leads them them up alone to a high mountain,”
mean care for who and how this will be witnessed.
But as for what they saw and heard,
we have four staccato sentences:
Jesus was changed somehow;
his clothes became dazzling;
Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with him;
there was a cloud, and a voice sounded.
But the memory of those moments, however fragmentary
opens the greater mystery of God with us:
the dazzling and metamorphosed Jesus is a revelation
that everything the man Jesus did was a revelation of God,
that he was God as much everywhere he went, and everything he did,
as he was on the mountain.
And in the same way that all we see and touch becomes a part of us
—in the same way that everything that happens to us marks us—
everything that Jesus passed through in his human life
is a part of the life of God.
John’s gospel tells us Jesus rose with the wounds of the crucifixion.
Luke writes that, when the risen Jesus
appeared among the disciples, he said
“Look at my hands and my feet—that I am myself.”
God came as Jesus into the world that God made-
God chose to be revealed like that–
because our Creator is willing to be in pain
with the world as it goes wrong,
so that everything might be transfigured into its promise.