Today marks the end of the Epiphany season. Epiphany begins on January 6 with the story of the wise men following the miraculous star, the divine light, that leads them to the Christ child. Epiphany always ends with the Gospel story we just heard, the story of the Transfiguration, when Christ himself shines with divine light.
Light is the theme of this season: light that points us to Christ who is the Light of the World. Epiphany is all about seeing Christ’s light.
But it is not always easy to see Christ’s light. That’s true now, and it was just as true two thousand years ago.
The disciples were with Jesus all the time, but they still mostly couldn’t quite see Christ’s light. Not until Christ’s resurrection did they truly see Christ, did they really grasp that their risen Lord is God incarnate.
Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of the one time during Jesus’ earthly ministry when at least a few of the disciples saw Christ’s light in all of its glory. For once, they truly saw God in the man they have been following.
But even in that moment of clarity, of vision, the disciples were their normal goofball selves. Despite the heavenly fireworks all around them, they were “weighed down with sleep.” I have always found that strange and kind of funny.
Not knowing what to say, Peter babbles. No surprise there.
At the climactic moment, the disciples were not overjoyed to hear God’s voice; they were terrified.
And after it is all over, they “kept silent and…. told no one any of the things they had seen.” I assume that’s because they couldn’t make sense of what had happened to them. It was all too much to take in. They were too tired and too confused and too afraid.
As one last sign that they still didn’t get it, the very next day, just eleven verses farther in the Gospel, the disciples were back to arguing about who was the greatest. That seems to have been a regular topic of conversation for the disciples.
Still, and this is the key point, despite the obvious limitations of the disciples, despite their inability fully to take in what they experienced that day, at the Transfiguration the disciples were truly in the presence of the glorified Christ.
And so we can say two things. First, the disciples have this glorious moment. They have this transfiguration experience. They really do see Christ shining as the light of the world. And, second, they very nearly miss it. To some degree, they do miss it.
Which sounds a lot like us.
I have never had the full transfiguration experience as described in our Gospel reading, a vision of God so overwhelming that it reduced me to stunned and terrified silence. But we have all had little transfiguration experiences, moments when we were in the presence of our risen Lord.
Indeed, we are having one of those transfiguration moments right now.
Every time we gather for worship, we enter into the presence of God. It may not always feel like it, but gathering for worship is a bit like going up the mountain for our own experience of transfiguration, for our own encounter with the risen Lord.
Christ is with us always, of course, just as he promised. But Christ is especially present with us as we come together in his name. I say it a lot, and still it is startling to contemplate. We are, right now, in the very presence of God. That’s true for those of us in the building, and that is true for those who join us virtually.
When we enter the sanctuary, we can see the lit candle over the tabernacle. When that candle is lit, as it is almost all the time, it means the tabernacle holds the reserved sacrament, consecrated bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood. Like the star of Epiphany, the light of the candle guides us and focuses us on Christ’s presence, here with us right now.
That’s just to get us ready. Our entire service is an encounter with Christ kind of like what the disciples experienced all those centuries ago, just with fewer fireworks. We may not overhear Moses and Elijah chatting with Jesus. But in our first reading, we heard the voice of Moses, as the disciples did on that morning. We may not see Christ’s face changed and his clothes of dazzling white. But when we are nourished by Christ’s body and blood, we behold Christ’s real presence, as the disciples did on that morning. They encountered Christ’s divine glory on the mountain. And we encounter Christ’s divine glory here. This is a little transfiguration moment.
And sometimes we experience worship that way. When the singing is just right, or the Bible story really hits home, or the sacrament touches our heart with peculiar power, we know we are in Christ’s presence. We feel the Holy Spirit swirling around. Transfiguration happens, and we get it.
But sometimes we don’t. And that’s because we come to our transfiguration moments with the same challenges the disciples did.
Sometimes we are weary and weighed down with sleep. Sometimes we bring our anxieties with us as we come into the presence of Christ. Sometimes we are confused and uncertain about what God is calling us to do or say. Fatigue, and fear, and confusion are the very challenges Luke mentions, but we can add to Luke’s list. We all carry wounds of one sort or another, physical or emotional or spiritual pain. Any of them can hinder us from feeling the joy of meeting our Lord.
As a result, we sometimes just go through the motions of singing and praying. Sometimes the Bible story falls flat. Sometimes the sacrament doesn’t move us.
But what we see in our reading for this morning is that Transfiguration happens anyway. The disciples weren’t particularly receptive on top of the mountain that day. And still Christ shone with divine light and glory. Sometimes we are not particularly receptive. And still Christ is here.
I’ll say that again. Transfiguration didn’t depend on the disciples. They weren’t feeling great, and Christ showed up anyway. Christ showed up for them, and Christ shows up for us, no matter how we might feel. That’s good news.
And that good news goes far beyond the times of our worship and the walls of our building. We come together for worship because Christ promises to meet us here in word and sacrament.
And in those encounters, we are changed just a little bit. We grow just a little bit. We are changed and we grow, whether or not we feel touched on any particular week. We are changed and we grow whether or not we even notice. That’s what happens when we enter into Christ’s presence.
And then we go out into the world, a little better equipped to encounter Christ in our daily lives, in our interactions with others, in our times of private prayer. It turns out that Transfiguration can happen anywhere, anytime. And over time, with practice, we get better at seeing it, at seeing the divine light that shimmers just beneath the surface of our world.
And so, on this Transfiguration Sunday, I give thanks to God for meeting us here, and I pray that God will help us to see God more clearly here and elsewhere, now and always. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan