Each year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday we turn to the account of the Transfiguration, as recorded in one of the three Synoptic Gospels. This year it’s Luke’s turn, but the basic narrative thrust in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9 is pretty much the same. I encourage you to read all three accounts because there are some interesting differences. The following is adapted from what I wrote here in the ForeWords blog a few years ago:
Hi. My name is Rich. And I’m a fixer.
My initial response in many problematic situations is to do the following:
Assess what’s going on.
Evaluate possible solutions.
Prioritize a plan.
Implement that plan.
Review how things went and, if necessary, come up with a Plan B.
Now, it’s not really as bad as all that appears. Quite often I can run through those steps pretty quickly, and every once in a while I just skip to the “doing” part. Occasionally I actually keep my mouth shut and do nothing at all. In any event, I somehow usually feel the need to fix what I perceive is the problem at hand. I’m told this is more commonplace among men than women. Perhaps so, but I don’t think it’s just a gender thing.
Can you imagine what a 12-step group for “fixers” would be like? Everybody working hard on everybody else’s problems, never quite getting around to dealing with their own blatant exhibition of denial. And what kind of person could possibly facilitate such a group?
Well, for starters, it would require someone with equal parts “listener” and “disciplinarian” and the patience of Job. That combination is, sadly, rare.
One more thing about me, and this is something of a subset to “fixer”: I’m usually trying to find the ‘big picture,” to establish historical and/or situational context. And so I’ll say something along the lines of “This week is actually the such-and-such anniversary of ‘whatchamacallit’ happening. So we need to always keep that front and center in how we understand this moment in time.”
Let me reassure you. I do know how to listen—and I can do it fairly well. It just doesn’t naturally occur as an initial response. (Side note: And yet, I’ve been married to the same woman for more than 36 years. Bless her.)
This brings me around to Peter in this week’s Gospel passage. Peter and I belong in that same 12-step group. Here’s how Luke describes what is arguably the ultimate mountaintop experience:
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. –Luke 9:28-36 NRSV
What an incredible experience! Rich with theological meanings, the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the great moments (perhaps even the greatest) in all the Bible where heaven and earth, God and humanity, connect. It’s layered with not-so-subtle references to Moses going up another mountain to receive the tablets of law (Exodus 24); to Elijah hearing the still, small voice of God out of the silence while hiding in a cave on that same mountain (1 Kings 19); and to the baptism of Jesus himself (Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3). It is an exegetical banquet.
Peter, James, and John get to witness this moment. Once more, just like the baptismal scene at the River Jordan, comes a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” But unlike the previous event, the Transfiguration includes one more sentence from the Voice: “Listen to him!”
One key to understanding all this is to note the timing of the Voice’s instruction. The three close disciples of Jesus have just seen his face shining like the sun and his clothing becoming dazzling white. You would think anybody would be awestruck, speechless. But no, Peter starts rambling on about the need for some kind of memorial to be built. Perhaps what he had in mind was similar to the makeshift shelters Jews construct for the Festival of Booths. Peter wants to build three of them, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
While Peter is chattering on and on about this great little project he is abruptly cut off by the Voice. I like to think an alternative translation to the Gospel writers would run something along these lines: “Peter, would you just shut up already! You’re in the very presence of God right now. Nothing you can say, much less do, can possibly trump that.” No wonder the three of them fell to the ground overcome by fear.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus then said the one thing that is always said by heavenly beings to mere mortals when they experience some kind of epiphany: Do not be afraid. (For starters, recall angels coming to Mary and Joseph separately and to shepherds tending their flocks outside Bethlehem.)
This scriptural moment, like all others remembered during the season of Epiphany, gets us ready for what comes next: Lent (which starts on Wednesday) and the passion and death of Jesus during Holy Week, all culminating in Easter Sunday’s great resurrection alleluia. Unlike the nine other close disciples and all the followers of Jesus back then, we know what’s coming and so we can prepare. They didn’t. Maybe it’s the Gospel writers’ way (this moment is recorded in Mark 9 and Matthew 17, as well) of saying to us in the 21st century, “Do not be afraid!”
Instead, what might we be doing? Probably some of us would grab our 4G cell phones or iPads and post something on Facebook, or at least send out a tweet. Those of us still blogging could write about it, of course. But would it occur to us to simply shut up and listen for the voice of the Lord to come in stillness and smallness or as a burning within? Do we have either the time or the inclination to pay attention to an epiphany? Yes, there are always places to go, things to do, people to see. That can wait.
If ever there is a time to simply stop and pay attention, it’s Lent. It’s not just about giving up something.
Do not be afraid to “be.”