On the top of a mountain, Jesus kneels in prayer as his friends struggle to stay awake. As he prays, Jesus is suddenly filled with radiant light, his very face aglow. Then two figures from another time and place appear, Israel’s two greatest prophets Moses and Elijah appear to talk with him.
The disciples are awake now, astounded and confused by what they are witnessing. “Let’s stay here forever,” Peter blurts, but even before the words are out of his mouth a great cloud covers them, and a voice booms out, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!”
* * *
Meanwhile, in the valley, another father is begging the rest of the disciples to help his son. A crowd gathers around to watch as the child convulses. He shrieks in agony, foam coming from his mouth.
The disciples are powerless to help. They glance up at the mountain, wondering where in the world Jesus is.
The father sees him first. He picks up his son and runs to Jesus. “This is my son, my only child,” he cries. “Look at him. Listen to him.”
* * *
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season of light. There are three stories that we hear every Epiphany season.
We begin the season with the light of a single star that leads the wisemen to the infant Jesus. Then the next Sunday we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, with the voice of God proclaiming that he is God’s beloved son.
And every year we end the season with Jesus on the mountain top, radiant with the very light of God.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this strange story known as the Transfiguration. And in every gospel, Jesus comes down the mountain and is immediately met by a father pleading for help for his demon-possessed son.
We usually don’t hear the second part of the story. When we read from Matthew and Mark it is not included at all in the Sunday readings. When we read from Luke’s gospel, as we did today, it is an optional addition, one that I would guess is usually left out.
Obviously, to those who planned the schedule of scripture readings what happens on the mountain is the important thing.
But this week, as I read the lessons for today, including the optional portion, I realized that this is the story of not one, but two, beloved sons.
While one beloved son is in glory on the mountain, another is in agony in the valley.
While one is bathed in light, another is immersed in darkness.
While one is joined by Israel’s greatest prophets, the other is surrounded by jeering crowds, gathered to watch his suffering.
I have to confess that the story of the Transfiguration, or as one priest colleague calls it, “Glitter Jesus,” has never really spoken to me. I understand its significance, the joining of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the affirmation of his belovedness.
But the story becomes real to me when Jesus comes down the mountain, when the beloved son is confronted by the grieving father.
It seems like the story has a happy ending. Jesus heals the demon-possessed child. But that does not erase the agony and suffering that the child experiences before he the miracle.
And we know that after Jesus heals the child he is headed toward his own suffering and agony on the cross, a pain which even the miracle of the resurrection does not erase.
These stories of the two beloved sons are the hinge for us between Epiphany, the season of glorious light, and Lent, the season of somber repentance.
This week our journey of faith moves from the mountain top of glory into the valley of the shadow of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Like Peter, we may be tempted to avoid the rest of that journey to Jerusalem and the cross and instead stay on the mountain, enveloped in God’s glory, basking in the radiance of a transfigured Christ.
But the funny thing about biblical mountains is that no matter how glorious we find the light of God’s presence, we aren’t supposed to stay there. Mountaintops are only temporary places of rest and sustenance before we proceed along the rest of our journeys.
Scripture tells us again and again that mountain tops are never places where we can stay for long. Rather, we are always called by God back into the world with all of its joys and sorrows, where too often beloved children suffer.
Jesus and the disciples are given a glimpse of God’s glory, enough to get them through the pain ahead.
Like them, we are called to leave the safety of the mountain, the security of the church pews, and go into the world with God. Believing in Jesus does not exempt us from the troubles that beset the rest of humanity.
Indeed, following Jesus will often lead us straight into those troubles, into the world of pettiness and pain, of squabbling and suffering, of disease and death.
The church has at times promoted the idea that true spirituality happens only on the mountaintop, and that those who want to live a spiritual life must remove themselves from the world.
The story of the transfiguration tells us just the opposite. This story reminds us that spirituality is not just for times and places set apart, but is always manifested in the routine and every day.
And so, as we begin the season of Lent this week, we are urged to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the valley. Into a place where too many mothers and fathers grieve for their beloved sons and daughter, where life-sucking poverty exists, where the threat of war hangs over us.
Into a world filled all too often with fear and despair. Into a world where impoverished bodies lead to impoverished spirits. Into our ordinary, daily worlds.
Surely Lent should be a time of increased prayer and reflection, of taking stock of our lives, of discipline and self-denial. But the object of our reflection and discipline is to make us better able to listen to God’s beloved Son, to take up his tasks, and to follow him into the world’s valleys, wherever he leads.