An Epiphany on the Mountaintop

A Homily for the Transfiguration of our Lord

Text: St. Mark 9:2-9


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Transfigured Lord, the Beloved. Amen.

Today is the feast of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday before Lent.

Ooooooooor is it?

Bear with me for just a moment as I let my liturgical nerd out. Lent begins on Wednesday, forty(ish) days before Easter. It’s been that way for centuries, in the Roman Catholic Church, and later in the Lutheran tradition and the Anglican Communion.

But the Transfiguration isn’t nearly so universal – sure, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans all celebrate the feast, but it doesn’t enjoy the same steady and agreed-upon date in the kalendar. If you ask a Catholic or an Episcopalian when the Transfiguration is celebrated, they’ll point you to a day (not always a Sunday) in early August, and if you grew up using the old red Lutheran hymnal of the 1950s (or, going back even further, the old black hymnal from 1918), there’s a decent chance you might not even remember celebrating the Transfiguration – because we used to observe it in August as well, if a congregation paid any attention to it at all. (Oh how often we skip over feasts that don’t fall on a Sunday! But that’s a lament for a different time, perhaps for after we get Sundays themselves back to normal.)

Why rearrange the calendar and change a holy day?

Far from a point of liturgical minutiae, changes like this have a real impact on the Church; they rearrange the order of readings – which in turn changes the story we re-tell every year as we move through the seasons of the Church’s year.

This week, we transition from the season after Epiphany into Lent. We began this season with the story of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan river, and as Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens opened and a voice from heaven declared, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is an epiphany – a revelation of Christ’s identity as the Only-Begotten Son of God, showing forth his divine splendor, as though the veil of the world were pulled back to reveal the ultimate reality of the Triune God.

And now, as we turn toward the Lenten wilderness and our forty-day journey towards Jerusalem and the cross, in shifting up the feast of the Transfiguration, we find ourselves in the center of the Gospel, having gone up from the valley of the Jordan to the summit of a mountain, and again a veil is pulled back, and again comes a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It is another epiphany, another revelation of Christ’s identity as the Only-Begotten Son of God, showing forth his divine splendor. But this time, the event is so much more tremendous than the one that began the season – transformed into radiant glory, surrounded by the Law-Giver and the Prophet, preparing to move towards Jerusalem – just two chapters away in Saint Mark’s telling!

Our rearranged calendar places these two epiphanies as bookends, beginning and ending with a voice from heaven in witness to the glory of who Christ is, pouring forth the splendor of divine radiance into the mire of this fallen world.

But these glorious bookends do not exist in a vacuum. After his Baptism, Christ was driven into the Wilderness where he confronted Satan for forty days. (Indeed, we’ll read this very story next Sunday as we embark on our own forty days.) And after the Transfiguration, by the time Jesus, Peter, James, and John reach the rest of the disciples, a crowd has gathered around a young boy with an unclean spirit, and Christ once gain embarks on his struggle against the demonic powers of this age.

Epiphanies, for all of their glory, are fleeting. We, like Saint Peter, want to stay on the mountaintop, to bask in the radiance. And in years past, I’ve suggested that we, like Peter, are called down from the mountaintop into the wilderness, for there is ministry to be done below – demons to be confronted, a Gospel to be proclaimed, a coming Kingdom to prepare for.

To be certain, kindred, we cannot spend all of our time seeking out the mountaintops. There is, indeed, work for the Kingdom to be done. But we have spent nearly a year in the valley of the shadow of death, and Lord knows we are longing for the mountaintop again.

The church building has been closed for eleven months, as of tomorrow. We didn’t know when we last gathered at the Altar of our Lord on March 8th, 2020 – the second Sunday of Lent – how long we would be caught in this struggle. Had we known, perhaps we would have stayed longer – knelt before the Lord’s Table until our knees were sore, held the Host more dearly, prayed more fervently, sang more robustly, wept tears of both joy and grief as we departed.

It was good for us to be there. But we emerged back into the world, beset on all sides by unclean spirits.

And today, as we prepare to reenter Lent, in many ways it feels as if Lent never ended, as if Easter and Pentecost and All Saints’ and Advent and Christmas and Epiphany never came (hidden, as they have been, behind the veil of computer screens and car radios). It feels as if we have spent a year wandering the wilderness, beset on all sides, tempted to give up the precautions that have kept us safe or to give in to despair.

Dear friends, know that there will come a time when we again ascend to the Altar of our God. A time will come again when we behold the glory of Christ revealed to us in the breaking of the bread and see the Body of Christ gathered together in the pews again.

The time of epiphanies is coming, where the veil will be pulled back and we will see the glory of Christ, the Son of God, the Beloved.

Amen.

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