Many people, if not most people, have had a moment when life came vividly alive and they have the sense of something beyond this life, of some presence. “Time stopped still,” they will say. Or, “I just knew everything would be alright.” Very often these experiences take place when we are alone and, yes, up a mountain, or in what is described as a “thin” place – somewhere which feels closer to God. Whatever others may think of these experiences, the person who has had them knows them to be real for themselves. You never forget such experiences and you seldom, if ever, speak of them.
As I was preparing my sermon for this Transfiguration Sunday, I happened to have a couple of conversations, as well as doing the usual reading preparation. In one conversation a fellow priest reminded me of what the Orthodox Church thinks of the Transfiguration. For them, it is the disciples who are transfigured / transformed / metamorphosed. Jesus has always been what they see on the mountain. It is just that the disciples have not been able to see it before. My fellow priest suggested that when the disciples and Jesus go down the mountain and Jesus heals the Epileptic boy, this is also a moment of transfiguration. Where Jesus comes close and heals, our lives are transfigured. Now the three disciples who went up the mountain see Jesus in a new way and see what he does in a new way, even if they do not yet understand the way of the cross that he will take. Lifelong conversion is done a bit at a time.
The second conversation was with someone who came to talk to me about the place she finds herself in, which is pretty dismaying. Like so many other people she is a carer for a mother with dementia. Someone in the home where her mother is challenged her as to why she bothered to go and visit when she is not recognised. “I do it because I know who she is,” she said to me. “I know what soap she likes.”
The transformation story really starts with the stay at Ceaserea Philippi eight days before when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “But who do you say I am?” asks Jesus, and Peter makes the great leap of comprehension and faith and recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.
Is the Transfiguration also about the question of identity? Thomas Merton asked the question, “Who am I?” and the answer he received was, “I am one whom Jesus loves.”
The lady who came to see me transfigures her mother life because she recognises who she is. God recognises who we are, despite our “dementia”, our muddle, our self-hatred, our sin. God sees through and past all that. He never forgets who we are.
On the mountain the disciples comprehend who Jesus is a little more. Because of what they see and experience they understand themselves differently. The people down the mountain in their painful experience are transfigured by Jesus, even though they don’t recognise who he is. And through his grace working in us, we are able to transfigure the lives of others, even in very small ways – like buying the right soap.