Transfiguration A 26-2-17
17.1-9 ‘A friend transfigured’
He was still in an intensive care bed; his condition was still critical. For over a month, they’d been trying to get him back on his feet. We’d been on the phone with the family trying to keep them up with what was happening for him – he was such a long way from home. There were times he’d said he was worried – lonely. I saw him often. But how could you help him enough?
But on one particular day, I got there and something had changed. All the busyness around him was still going on, but about him, there was a stillness; a peace. In his eyes, staring upwards, there was something like a great depth or maybe it was a vast distance – a kind of timelessness. We talked normally, joked. But he looked different. There was an ancient dignity, oblivious to the busy intrusion of intensive-care medicine. He was looking at something I couldn’t see – he could see further than I could.
What could he see? Since he died, we’ve been piecing together our conversations with him and each of us has added a dot to a picture which has been growing daily in clarity; a pattern has come into view.
It’s a picture of someone accepting that his death was coming. A pastor in Papunya spoke with him daily on the phone. They didn’t name it to each other, but the day after he died, the pastor wrote, ‘Looking back, I think he sensed he was dying.’ Gently, he set about putting relationships in order. In his last week here, he was on the phone with his family for most of each day; absolutely there with them as far as he could be – adjudicating disputes, giving counsel, telling people how we belong to each other.
And when Shekayla came back for school, in the last two days he was here, when they were together, her Dad’s priority was to focus her on her school life, and on her relationship with us here in Stirling.
The whole time he was here, he had a Bible with him. From time to time, he’d ask for different strength glasses, so he could keep up with his daily reading. Every time we spoke, he’d ask that we could pray together.
At some moment, he’d changed. He’d entered a place of stillness; of peace. His vision deepened with a distance, with a timelessness, with an ancient dignity. He was transfigured. But his transfiguration is still only now coming into our view – now that he’s gone – coming into view up in Papunya at the sorry camp; in our prayers and sadness down here, and in our friendship with his family. We’re discovering his transfiguration.
That’s what we saw on the mountain in today’s Gospel. Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John. But he knows they won’t begin to comprehend it until after Easter – until its full meaning can be put together. How can they understand that they’ve been present to the God of all time and space? It frightened them so badly that they collapsed in dread? How do you make sense of such a vision? But then he touches them so normally; tells them get up; don’t be afraid. The whole majesty of God, then a gentle touch of encouragement; can we grasp that?
Have you seen anyone transfigured? Did they do something, or say something, or did anyone tell you something about them which utterly transformed the way you see them? Often it’s close to their death, or after it – stories at their funeral that we’d never imagined – that does this.
Some of these moments we call mountain-top experiences. They bring us clarity and vision that we seldom know apart from the closeness of death. My hope for a medical miracle blurred my vision of my friend’s epiphany and transfiguration – it hindered me from entering into it with him.
Matthew gets that point across to us. It’s amazing how blind we can be. Jesus is dazzlingly transfigured on a mountaintop with his close friends. Moses and Elijah appear with him. And Peter says I’ll pitch three tents for you Let’s contain this in something we can comprehend. Is Matthew trying to show us how bizarre our reaction to the transcendent can be? He can afford to be knowledgeable; he’s writing this after Easter.
The season of Epiphany opens with the light of the star of Bethlehem, and it closes with the light of the Transfiguration. It’s the time of the light of God’s presence – God revealed among us, vulnerable and gentle, touching us and saying, ‘get up; don’t be afraid’. It’s the light by which, if we truly look, we can see people being gently transformed into God’s likeness.
I’ve learnt in the last months that I’m in God’s presence when people are open to God. I mightn’t necessarily notice until it seems too late. But God makes sure it’s never a too-late time. I’ve watched Christ transfigure limitations – even death – into a vision of God’s Love. I’ve seen a man in Christ’s image accept his death and gently prepare his family and friends for what they would face.
The light of the world calls us to transfigure lives and set the captive free: hallowed be his name! Amen