Well, here we are at a turning point. Epiphany is coming to a close. Lent is looming. The joy of one season gives way to dread of another. How profound, how perfect, that we should experience this transition atop the Mount of Transfiguration. It is a high place, in every sense. A place of seeing, a place of vision. On the one side we can see all that is behind us, the joy of Jesus’ Jordan River baptism and his Galilean ministry of healing and miracles. On the other side we can see all that is ahead of us, the dread of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. And right here on the Mount, joy and dread meet and mix and set fire to the air around and above us. The vision of it is as glorious as it is terrifying. There are the two great ancients: Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the first among prophets. And there is the One who is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, in all his blindingly-white glory.
Are we even capable of comprehending this vision? Were Peter, James and John? Think of what they’ve been shown. The hidden glory of Jesus has been made visible; Peter, James and John actually see the Messiah! I hope this doesn’t sound silly, but I’ve always pictured the moment of Transfiguration taking place not on a mountain but in a candy store. Jesus is behind the counter. Those three kids, Peter, James and John, walk in the door. They’re regulars. But one day, Jesus says “Psssst! Come here!” and takes them back to the kitchen. He’s got a confection they haven’t tried. Something a bit like Red Hots. Peter, James and John say “Give us the whole box!” Jesus says, “Well, let’s just see how you handle a taste” and gives each of them a small piece. The three kids pop the candy in their mouths and it’s…Heaven!
The disciples thought they knew everything there was to know about Jesus and his candy store. But now they’ve been given just a sliver of heaven. They’ve seen it. Felt it. Tasted it. And it’s so good that it’s…unbearable! They can’t stand it. They’re terrified. They thought they could handle the Truth? They couldn’t handle the Truth! Even when God shrouded them in a cloud and told them to listen and believe.
Poor Peter, he’s overwhelmed by what he’s glimpsed. He can’t wrap his mind around it. He proposes that he, James and John build dwellings for each of the three resplendent beings before them. In other words, if they spit those Red Hots out of their mouths, fold them up in their wrappers, then slide them back into the box, they’ll be able to get that unbearable delicious taste out of their mouths. And when they’re ready, when they can handle it, it will be theirs for the taking. As if heaven can be contained.
The unbearable deliciousness of heaven! It will not be contained. It will not be stopped. I was reminded of this about a month ago when The New York Times Magazine ran a story by a man who had been raised in a home in which no sweets and no junk were allowed. Ever. He was the only child he knew who was forced to eat organic tofu and artisanal cheese floating on bean sprouted-whole-grain bread—while his friends gorged on Twinkies and Twizzlers only after they had their bologna and cheese on a white-bread. Oh, the suffering! Well, a week later, the magazine published a letter that read as follows: “When my son was 6, one of his friends had parents who enforced a strict vegan diet, and made her wear “Don’t Feed Me Junk” T-shirts. They were more concerned with what went into her mouth than into her head. When she came to our house, she was constantly on the hunt for fun food. Once I found her scooping her fist into the middle of a cooling pan of lasagna. (It was meatless, but she was after the cheese.) Every February we held a party to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and Thomas Edison’s birthday. As the kids arrived for the party, they each brought a treat: heart-shaped cookies, Necco hearts, Hershey’s kisses, pink-iced cupcakes. The mother of “Don’t Feed Me Junk Food” brought a mushroom pizza (whole wheat, no cheese). While she put it in our oven to heat, her 6-year-old daughter made a dash for the refreshment table, and before her mother could stop her, she had jammed several Hershey’s Kisses in her mouth. I arrived on the scene in time to see the other children wide-eyed with horror. Finally my son explained: “Mom, she ate the kisses with the wrappers still on.”
Ah, the unbearable deliciousness. Elisha thought he could handle it, too—and he was a formidable prophet. He had walked the walk of Elijah, he bore the same burdens, he risked the same hardships, he knew he would venture into times of both solitariness and solidarity in order to receive and ultimately bear the Word of the Lord. But Elijah had warned him. Elijah had said, in effect, “Look, you may see my ascent and live to tell about it. You may prove yourself capable of seeing into the spiritual realm, to receive a double portion of my spirit. But I’ve got to tell you: the mysterium tremendum, the dreadful, fearful, and overwhelming aspect of God’s appearing, can be pretty overwhelming.” Elisha, in effect, says “Bring it on.” And then, of course, when the whirlwind and the chariots of fire are brought on, Elisha rips his own clothes to shreds while screaming in abject terror.
There’s a potent lesson here. To be a prophet is not to be a solitary voice standing at a distance in order to predict the future or shaking one’s finger as one calls upon the wrath of the Lord. Rather, to be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom one is sent. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the prophet’s message is so potent, for it is driven by the anguish of witnessing the disparity between the grand desire of God for God’s people and the stark realities and struggles that afflict them.
You know, if there ever was a prophet among us, doing the Lord’s work, walking the walk, it is our own Geraldine Johnson. She shared the vision of the Children’s Center’s founders and could see what it would take to create and sustain a preschool for the disabled and disadvantaged children of Richmond. And she’s been at it for over 22 years. But she certainly hasn’t done it alone—her devoted staff is gifted and she has the support of a board that understands her struggles and her vision and has been there for her every step of the way. But Geraldine is the prophet. I know, because I’ve witnessed her prophesy firsthand. She sees what the world doesn’t see. She can look at a child and see the promise that lies within. Geraldine has the ability to penetrate a child’s veil and summon forth the perfection that lies underneath or she can cajole the demons out of a child and banish them. She and her staff know what a child and her family needs to grow into the full stature of Christ; they can discern who God created that child to become. Geraldine has never needed a mountaintop to see God’s glory in human form.
I think if there is one thing Geraldine and her staff have learned over the years, it’s that they can nurture a child’s spirit; they can guide it and mold it; but they cannot stifle it, break it or hide it under a bushel basket. As Geraldine, herself, has said: “Some children are going to do what they’re going to do.” Children have to be allowed to be children. I was reminded of how one’s parenting can go awry when one has the best of intentions, when one wants the absolute best for their child, but how it can backfire when one tries to deny a determined child a foretaste of the “so-called” heavenly banquet.
And so today’s Gospel telling of the Transfiguration is meant for all of us—it is an important turning point in our journey toward Lent. At its essence the transfiguration illumines our own divinity in spite of our humanity. One of the gifts of Jesus’ walk among us was to know that, like us, he doubted; he felt fear; he got angry; he wept; he was vulnerable; he felt abandoned; he was betrayed, and he suffered. And so to see his divinity fully revealed—and not hidden from us—means that it is ours to claim too.