Communion Meditation: Transfiguration Sunday

Mar 3, 2019 by

Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Exodus 34:29-35        Psalm 99          2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2           Luke 9:28-36

Did you see the Moses cartoon in The Globe and Mail the other day?  Sometimes I think the Globe is using the lectionary, too.  Anyway, Moses is coming down the mountain with two tablets – not stone tablets but computer tablets.  The people catch sight of him and one says, “Looks like Moses is getting a bit ahead of himself.”

Moses had powerful visions up on that mountain.  He heard God’s voice and likely saw God’s face.  His own face was so bright from his encounter with God that the people were afraid to come near him.  The tablets, of course, contain the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses.

In 1992, I went to a mountain top in Pennsylvania, to a Christian retreat centre called Kirkridge.  It was Easter Monday and the week-long course was called “Poetry of Resurrection.”  I went there because it felt to me as if my life as a pastoral minister was coming to an end.  Each morning, as I trudged up to the mountain top from the farm house accommodation, I had so many questions, all jumbled up in my mind.  Questions like:  what am I doing in ministry?  Why can’t I do this?  Is this really me?  Am I meant to be in pastoral ministry?

It was on that mountain top that I first met the poet, Mary Oliver.  Not in person, sadly, but through her poems.  She died recently at age 83, having written dozens of books and received many awards and honours.

I guess you would call Mary Oliver a nature poet.  She spent her life in rural Massachusetts, in deep woods, open fields, beside ponds and lakes.   What captured me that week on the mountain was the way her poems include so many questions.  One question in one particular poem really spoke to me.  The poem, The Summer Day, ended with a question:  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 

            That question lived on my fridge that summer and fall as I struggled with burn-out.  It changed the direction of my life.  It helped shape me into a poet, a calling I had left behind many years before.   And all these years later I have found another way to do ministry.

Questions.  The Gospel of Luke is full of questions.  Mary asks the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  The people who hear Jesus preach ask, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  The unclean spirits ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  It would seem they know who he is.  Some questions are accusatory.  The Pharisees ask, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?”  And, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  Even John the Baptizer sends two of his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come – the Messiah –or are we to wait for another one?”  And Herod says, “I put John the Baptizer to death, but who is this about whom I hear such things.”

You notice, these are all questions about Jesus’ identity.  Even Jesus himself is questioning who he is.  He does that not by looking into a mirror or by searching his thoughts and feelings, but by asking others to tell him who he is.  People in that Ancient Middle East were not introspective.  When they wanted to know the state of their honour and reputation they asked others.  A bit like checking one’s credit rating but to check one’s honour rating.

Jesus asks his disciples:  “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  They answer, “John the Baptizer; others say Elijah; and still others that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.”  Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”  And then Jesus tells them about the suffering to come.  Not a Messiah on a throne but one tortured and shamed and killed.  This happened a little before today’s story.

It is with the questions around identity, then, that Jesus, in the company of Peter, James, and John, climb that mountain.  It is a long and arduous climb that probably took them all day.  They would have been exhausted and hungry when reaching the top.  And it is in this very state of distress and anxiety, as evening falls, that the visions come to them.

Half asleep, and in a trance, the three disciples see Jesus in earnest prayer.  And suddenly they see his face changed and his garments turned dazzling white.  They see Moses and Elijah on that mountain, talking to Jesus.  You might say they see Jesus on equal footing with Israel’s greatest prophets.

Peter is in a kind of ecstasy, wanting to build three booths, one for each of the prophets, and stay there.  But then the 3 disciples experience a cloud that overshadows them and they are terrified.  And from the cloud they hear God’s voice:  this is my son, my Chosen One.  Listen to him!”  The vision ends.  They see Jesus, now alone.

“People in the Mediterranean world of past and present slip readily and easily into various states of consciousness.  This is especially true when they need to find an answer to a question or a resolution to a problem.”  (John Pilch, Flights of the Soul.)  In this story the trance-like experience answers the question of who Jesus is and what his role is as the chosen Son.  It also answers the disciples’ confusion about what will happen in Jerusalem.  They are to trust him, to “listen to him.”  Those words calm them down in the face of the frightening destiny that awaits Jesus.

Admit it.  We North American mainline Christians shy away from visions, dreams and trances as meaningful experiences.  But 90% of the world accpts them and expects them, even invites them.  Of course, the insights gained from these experiences of Alternate States of Consciousness must be tested in the wider community for any truth that might be revealed, especially if action is called for.

Still, we North Americans do dream.  We pray alone and in community, hoping for answers to our deep questions.  We may meditate or practice fast writing or read a lot of poetry or pray the Scriptures.  We do experience and invite the Christ to be present among us, as today when we gather at the table to remember his death and to celebrate his resurrection.   And sometimes the experience can be powerful, even life-changing.

Here at the table we may become so intimate with the body and blood of Christ, so close that we say in a metaphorical way that we eat Christ’s body, we drink Christ’s blood.  And if we come with life’s deep questions and struggles in mind – loneliness, aging, illness, loss, even loss of faith –we may be restored a little; given a taste of new life.  We may come away feeling a little more connected to the Holy One and to one another and to the world that calls us.

When Bob Tees preached a few weeks ago he quoted a writer who said, “If you do not picture angels in your head, you will never see an angel.”  Perhaps if we never picture Christ here with us as we receive the bread and wine, we will not see this great mystery of faith, the offering of Christ’s own self to us, and our own entry into an eternity of love and grace.  But if we picture it, the connectedness with each other as we move toward the table, our closeness with those who have gone before, ourselves walking on a road and Jesus drawing near – then perhaps we will know ourselves as children of the Holy One, all moving toward eternity.

I wonder, if William Blake was picturing the bread and wine when he wrote:  To see a world in a grain of sand

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

You might want to picture those lines of poetry as you come to receive the bread and wine today:  “To hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.”



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