A Celebration of the Transfiguration of our Lord
A friend of mine calls herself a collapsed Catholic. (A collapsed Catholic must be one step farther away from religion than a lapsed Catholic, right?) She called to tell me that the strangest thing happened as she was leaving the grocery store. As she was getting into her car, she found a set of rosary beads on the ground. She made a mentioned of her dad who just passed away a few weeks ago, and how he was such a devout Catholic that he announced on Christmas Eve to his less than observant family that Jesus was his best friend. Then she repeated that she didn’t know what to do with the beads, but she did know that they’re holy. She couldn’t just throw them away. They’d been blessed by someone. It would be a sin to toss them out. So I asked her again what she might do with the beads. She said still she wasn’t quite sure yet, but maybe she’d drop them off at their family’s church. She might be a collapsed Catholic, but she’s raising her kids well.
I segued the conversation back to her father’s passing, and asked how she was coping. She wanted nothing to do with talk about coping, and asked what I was up to. I told her that I was working on my sermon. I suspect that my sermon wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but it’s all good. I told her that I’d been studying Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story. It didn’t take much to jar her memory to the story, but it did take a while to plow through the more ethereal details. In addition to being a collapsed Catholic, and a very smart woman who’s great at avoiding her feelings, she was also nationally acclaimed college debater and is, generally speaking, a huge life skeptic. Finally through with the story, interruptions that were many, I ended by telling her that for me the crux of Luke’s transfiguration story wasn’t whether Jesus had a bodily metamorphosis. If we spend all of our energy thinking about the change in Jesus’ appearance, or the importance of scripture as metaphor, or that the top point of the mountain can look a lot like life…if we spend all of our energy pondering the potentially controversial, physical details of the story, sidestepping the spiritual stuff that so many of us don’t want to talk about, we could be missing the whole point! Focusing on the worldly details of the text can cloud our spiritual lenses so that the lovely little phrase that’s key to the story may go unnoticed!
In Luke’s gospel, you might remember that we’re given the events of transfiguration with this very important introduction: “while he was praying.” In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ purpose that day was to private away with his three disciples to pray. And in the context of his prayer, his transfiguration just happened. While Jesus was up on the mountain with Peter, James and John praying he was joined by the prophets whose stories had helped to shape his life. He was anointed with a message from God that was shared with all of those around. He was never seen in the same way again.
As a matter of fact, Jesus removed himself for prayer each time he was faced with a difficult decision, a large and needy crowd, a long journey, a painful choice, and an important conversation. After the crowds had gathered, Jesus drew to deserted places to pray. After a day of healing in the temple, Jesus went to the mountain to pray. Before he chose his twelve apostles, Jesus went to that same mountain to pray. When the disciples, themselves, wanted to know how to pray, he taught them in his certain place. A thumb-through Luke’s gospel quickly confirmed that Jesus-in-prayer bookends his foreshadowing of his death and resurrection and his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane when he said to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” If God prompted Jesus – his most perfect and chosen son – to set himself apart for prayer before, during and after the most pivotal experiences of Jesus’ saving life, how much God must be prompting each one of us to go to special places geographically or in our hearts to pray and experience God’s transformative power, too!
Harry Emerson Fosdick, for whom the great Riverside Church was built, like Aquinas and Augustine before him said that God gives us a natural inclination for prayer. He calls prayer our “native tendency.”1 He said that we invoke the name of the Lord with regularity and predictability, calling on God to fix this or that or maybe to simply be a part of some situation or another out of frustration, or out of fear, or out of gratitude, or admiration, or hope whether we realize it or not. Prayer becomes like breathing or eating: something we do because we’re human – then we argue about it as best that we can -especially those who wonder whether or not we need to pray (or even ever have prayed).
God hears the skeptics, and the contrarians, and certainly the down and destitute, say, “If our God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, why pray at all?” It sounds like a perfectly valid question. If our God knows everything, is everywhere and controls everything, why in the world would God give us the need or the desire to pray? Many of us would take this one step further. If we were really praying in the way that God naturally inclines us to pray, there should be no more suffering. There should be no more poverty, homelessness, drug addictions, or cancer, from all of the prayers that are perpetually being raised.
But this way of thinking suggests that our intended “result” is the “why” of prayer. Although I suppose that this is partly true. When we’re praying, marvelous, transformative events can happen in our lives and in the world, just like they happened in Jesus’ life and in the world around him with the prayerful lives of his disciples. But I believe that the real transformative purpose of prayer is when we set ourselves apart to rest in the will of our God. It’s then that situations that seem to have no purpose for us become clearer. Things that do have meaning for our lives become brighter. Our lives, themselves, become increasingly filled with hope God’s power feels alive and at work in us, moving us toward a new future, too. Then the peaceful resignation or hope-filled joy or a greater sense of purpose for how we can participate in the work of God – even in our caring – becomes a manifestation of the greatest transformation that we could ask for: a deepened relationship with God.
In the book, A Simple Freedom, Howard Thurman offers us aids to help us achieve a turning toward God in prayer. He tells us to begin with the practice of silence. Silence can begin with a hush of gathering with God or it can begin by going to a place as simple as a room with a door. Then, we calm our mind by reading a scriptural passage or a poem, a spiritual phrase – maybe even contemplating some aspect of Jesus Christ, like his love for the least of these. Maybe if a situation rises in our thoughts and won’t let go, Thurman says that this might an important task God is calling for us to consider. What does this problem do to the hunger for God? If no problem calls us from within, we can enjoy quiet communion with God until we feel the very presence of God. Thurman’s experience was that words will flow from us as God calls to us.
In his reflection on prayer, Thurman wrote about a woman who told him that in one prayer experience, she itemized details of her life, finishing them in rapid petition. Then she said, “Now Father, these are the facts as best I can state then. Take them and do the best you can. I have no suggestions to make.” And she reported feeling fresh meaning for the words, “Thy will be done.”2
From a place of quiet, we can pour out simple thoughts about our situation and others, pour out our praise of God and our thanksgiving that flows from within, pour out acknowledgements of our frailty and our sinfulness and most important of all, pour out our denial of our hunger for God that wreaks violence on our soul and to our sense of goodness and righteousness. We can confess our sins and acknowledge our joy then move from darkness into light. Over time, Howard Thurman believes, this way to pray “creates a climate” in which, like Jesus, our countenance will glow with the glory of God. And the secret is in following Jesus, who “withdrew to a solitary place and prayed.”3
God calls us all to remove ourselves intentionally to pray in the company of our Lord and all the great saints who’ve gone before us. As we stand at the tipping point with Jesus and Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John looking backward and forward – the challenges we’ve faced, and the challenges to come, our commitments, concerns, hopes, dreams and fears – we can look to places of vulnerability and dependence – difficult places to stand because there we have to wait and watch and wonder. We can embrace the story of Christ’s transfiguration as affirmation of the promise of mystical, transformative experiences that we can receive through prayer. As we stand at the tipping point with the great prophets who’ve gone before us and those who are alongside us helping to lead the way, we can look with a new lens of vision: to be the people God calls us to be. It doesn’t take a guy turning white before a circle of his God-fearing peers to transfigure a heart to the will of God being done. Prayer as the starting point of this story gives the story a progressive lens of meaning for us all of us.
As we move into this season of Lent, I encourage you to reflect upon Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration. May you feel compelled to remove yourself from the banality of the world and incorporate an increase of intentionality into your prayer life. May you embrace the truth of how prayer transforms our lives to become God’s will being done, transforming our lives from something rather ordinary and human to a level much more perfected and full of God’s glory. May you embrace whatever experience God intends for you to have through the course of your prayers. Then may you be transformed by the power of this experience with God and all the saints forevermore.
1Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962. p 1.
2Flunker, Walter Earl and Cathering Tumber, Eds, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. p. 94.