I felt really lucky growing up in North Carolina. Greensboro is located on the northern border between North Carolina and Virginia in the center of the state. What was incredibly exciting about my hometown is that I could drive four hours east and be at the beach, or four hours west and be in the beautiful mountains. While the ocean has provided me with a place to calm my heart and my spirit throughout my life, it was the mountains where I went to clear my mind, to think, and to make important decisions. I first told a pastor that I was experiencing a call to go to seminary on a mountain. I discerned and made peace with unsettled emotions about that call to ministry on another mountain. I learned the source of my then recently diagnosed depression on yet another mountain. In many ways, getting away from the rest of the world, offered me the opportunity to breathe deeply, to clear my head, and to have what one might call a mountaintop experience, a deep sense of unity with all that was around. Mountains are quiet, peaceful places that offer the opportunity for deeply profound personal reflection. For me, these mountaintop experiences were some of the places where I felt God’s nearness most closely.
In our Gospel reading this morning we hear of a literal mountaintop experience for Peter, James, and John as they experience God’s proximity. The three disciples are lead up the mountain where they see Jesus transfigured, emitting illumination as they have never seen before. Now there is a difference here between a transfiguration and a transformation. According to Webster a transformation is a change in character, condition, or physical appearance. A Transfiguration by contrast is a complete metamorphosis, an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change. Jesus’ transfiguration is a drastically awesome and shocking thing for the disciples to behold. It’s something they’ve never seen before.
Not only do they see Jesus’ appearance transfigure before their very eyes, but they also see two of their most well known ancestors in Moses and Elijah. Peter is overwhelmed by all that he is seeing and falls back on the hospitality that the Jewish tradition holds to such high importance. Initially we might see Peter’s offer to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah as strange, but in fact, hospitality is considered a mitzvah, or ritual or ethical duty in obedience to the will of God. Peter offers each a dwelling place on the mountain in which to reside, just like Peter might fling wide the doors to his own house to any stranger who might ask for food or rest from their travels. Peter is keenly aware of the fact that the Israelites were once strangers in their own land as they made their way through the wilderness, and wants to provide every comfort he can. Peter seeks to protect the extraordinary encounter he is experiencing, offering to do what he can to stop time and preserve this moment in this place for all of eternity.
But before he finishes speaking, Peter learns that the surprises are not over yet, as he witnesses something else he has never seen before. Suddenly, a great cloud overshadowed those gathered. And from the cloud emits a voice saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased…” We learned through our Heberw Bible reading that this is not the first time that God has shown up on a mountaintop in the form of billowing clouds; Moses had a similar experience in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. We also heard these exact words when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, a few weeks after Christmas. Yet…in our reading today, God makes one addition to his original statement: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” As we depart the Epiphany season for the start of Lent later this week, God’s reminder to listen is an important one.
Between Jesus’ luminous transfiguration, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the booming voice of God, Peter, James, and John are at the limit of what they’re able to process. The three heard the voice of God and then fell to the ground overcome by fear. It was simply too much. Really, can you blame them? I don’t know about you, but in this situation I would’ve been overcome by my own fear a long time ago. Yet, Jesus doesn’t berate the disciples for their fear. He does not judge them for their fear either. For as much illumination is present in today’s gospel reading the shadow of fear is just as real and just as present in the lives of Jesus’ friends. And so, before Jesus says one word to these friends he loves so dearly, he reaches out to touch them. One of my favorite quotes about the power of touch comes from a Jim Butcher novel where he says:
Jim Butcher, Skin Game
“There’s power in the touch of another person’s hand. We acknowledge it in little ways, all the time. … “Hands that wrap us in warmth, that hold us close. Hands that guide us to shelter, to comfort, to food. Hands that hold and touch and reassure us through our very first crisis, and guide us into our very first shelter from pain. The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better.
“That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.”
Touch. Has. Power. If misused of course, touch has the power to do irrevocable harm, but properly used, touch can be quite powerful. And the thing about that kind of touch is that it most always stems from love.
Jesus first reaching out to comfort Peter, John, and James in their fear is such a small part of the written text of today’s gospel, but it’s important not to overlook the power that touch can have. Fear is answered by a comforting and loving touch. Once the three disciples were drawn from their panic and made aware of Jesus’ presence he instructed them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” They listened.
Upon rising from the ground the disciples discover that they are once again alone with Jesus, just as they had been before this luminous and overwhelming encounter had started. And then. Jesus takes them back down the mountain and gives them one last instruction: to keep the entire experience a secret. To tell no one what they had seen. At least not yet. “Not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” After all that? After all that Peter, James, and John have seen Jesus asks them to keep their mouths shut. Can you imagine? But there’s a reason for it. Just as Peter couldn’t stop time by building dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountain to stop time, time will not stop. Today Epiphany ends to make way for Lent. Lent is a time for self-reflection, of listening to key stories from Jesus’ ministry. For some that means giving something up that might distract from that focus, others consider taking on a spiritual practice to connect with the season’s tone of reflection. As theologian and poet Jan Richardson describes Lent:
“We move into this season to look at our life anew, to consider what has formed us, where we have come from, what we are carrying within us. Lent invites us to look at the layers that inhabit us: our stories and memories, our imaginings and dreams. This season invites us to notice what in our life feels fallow or empty, where there is growth and greenness, what sources of sustenance lie within us, where we find our inner earth crumbling to reveal something new.”Jan Richardson
It’s time for us to go down from the mountain top of the Christmas and Epiphany season and into the valley below. Before there is Easter there is Ash Wednesday, and there is Good Friday. There are mountaintop experiences, there are valleys of doubt and fear, and everything in between. In photography if you have too much light or too much shadow the photograph remains flat and details are washed out, however if the exposure on the photograph is balanced, where both light and shadow are equally present, the photo is crisp and clear.
While it’s easy to want to remain on the mountaintop like Peter did, freezing that moment for all of eternity, Jesus reminds us that the work done in the valley is equally important in order for us to reflect and be present for the moments that defy imagination.