Holy Communion, Charleston (SC)—Mark 9:2-9
Most people can testify, at one time or another, to an intermediate state of consciousness that is neither fully waking nor fully dreaming. In my own experience, it happens most frequently either in those groggy moments after I have awakened in the morning, but before I get out of bed, or during the day, when I sink into the chair at my desk and close my eyes for a few moments without allowing myself to actually take a nap. At those times, it seems like we can suddenly, though fleetingly, grasp complex realities in a single flash of intuitive insight. All sorts of visions and fantasies and intimations of wonder and beauty that are beyond words dance across the stage of our imagination, teasing us with possibilities that are both greater and clearer than either our aspirations when we are awake or our dreams when we are asleep.
These are premonitions of glory, almost subliminal glimpses of reality as it should be and could be and—dare we hope?—will be. They are experiences of deep peace, the peace that passes understanding, an inner assurance that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” These spiritual experiences—whether they be mundane or mystical, calm or ecstatic—these experiences are channels, or even reservoirs, of grace that sustains us when we have to eventually wake up and disengage from them and deal with reality.
Ah, reality! “Reality happens.” Mystical experiences, mountaintop experiences, even when they take the form of three-second baby dreams, are wonderful. But while the view from the top of the mountain is spectacular, actually living there is not practical. And when we have to come down, disappointment is inevitable. The vision of wholeness which we saw so clearly and seemed so powerful is now faded, like the morning dew evaporating in the noonday sun. When we see something so beguiling, so compelling, fade before our very eyes, we cannot resist surrendering to disconsolation and despair.
This was certainly the experience of the inner core of the inner core of Jesus’ followers: Peter, James, and John. One day Jesus takes them aside and says, “Let’s go on a hike.” So they grab their walking sticks and pretty soon they find themselves on some high ground that would probably not be very impressive to people in the higher elevations of your lovely state, but by the standards of the Low Country, at least, qualified as a mountaintop. Then it got dark, but they didn’t need a campfire, because Jesus himself glowed in the dark, throwing off more light than any number of Coleman lanterns. The heroic and highly symbolic Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah suddenly appear as well, and strike up a conversation with Jesus.
Peter and James and John are appropriately awestruck. They want to build some kind of monument to commemorate the event, perhaps as an excuse to stay on the mountain a little bit longer. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to come down. Reality, by comparison, was boring on a good day, and frightfully stressful the rest of the time. But Jesus leads them down the mountain as resolutely as he had led them up it. And what lay ahead of them in the—shall I say it?—low country? Suffering and death. The suffering and death of Jesus was what awaited them in the low country.
St Mark tells us the story of the Transfiguration in hindsight. He and his first readers were aware of the rest of the story. They were Christian believers. They knew not only about suffering and death, but about resurrection and glory as well. And we have even more hindsight than they did. We know about suffering and death and resurrection and glory, plus we have 2000 years of collective experience through which we can witness the power of the gospel to change lives—to promote healing, health, and wholeness, and to keep evil and destruction in check until that day when the victory won on the cross and in the empty tomb is brought to fulfillment and completion.
The clue to our understanding of the Transfiguration is found in a brief command Jesus gave to the three disciples as they were on their way down the mountain. Mark tells us that “he charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead.” He did not want them, or anyone else they might tell, to look at the Transfiguration as an isolated incident. He wanted to be sure they understood it in the total context of what followed: the passion, the cross, the grave, the empty tomb, and ascension into glory, and—one might add, borrowing from other New Testament material, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants us to understand that suffering and glory are inseparable. They are the proverbial two sides of the same coin. They are mutually interpretive—one sheds light on the other, one gives meaning to the other. The idealism of the mountaintop cannot be understood apart from the reality of the valley, and vice versa. Joy cannot be recognized apart from the sorrow from which it is born. Depression and despair are devoid of meaning apart from the promise of hope and deliverance. The crown of glory is, in the alchemy of grace, fashioned from the cross of suffering.
Those mystical moments of transfiguring glory that we experience—the flashes of insight, the moments of intuitive connection with the transcendent, fantasy that seems more solid and enduring than anything made of actual atoms and molecules—the mystical moments of transfiguring glory that we experience are gifts from God that illuminate the valley of reality in which we actually live our lives. The fantasy, the dream, the intimation and premonition of glory—these are the sources of grace that sustains us in the real, the concrete, things that are said and done in actual time and space; the place where we suffer, the place where we die, not just the one quick and final death, but the countless hundreds of lesser and slower deaths that we endure in the course of a lifetime.
But this same stuff, this same concrete material out of which life in the valley is constructed, the actual words and deeds which both wound us and heal us—these constitute the very vehicle by which reality itself is transfigured, the means by which the ideal becomes real and the real becomes ideal. And then it will no longer be a fleeting dream in the mist between waking and sleeping, no longer a mere premonition or glimpse or foretaste, but a fully unobstructed view of our heavenly inheritance, “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”
It all boils down to something quite simple, but not at all simplistic. The author Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who spent her first years as an adult convert to Christ in the Episcopal Church, but is now Eastern Orthodox—Mrs Mathewes-Green writes: “All we can do is persevere, and trust that if Jesus was raised, we, too, will be raised, and all our suffering will be made right.” You and I have some good bit of trusting and persevering to do as we walk the floor of this valley. But today we have a glimpse of the view from the mountain, and we realize that we are being changed from glory to glory, and that all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.