Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany and by tradition is therefore Transfiguration Sunday. It was not too many years ago that I would have done anything to avoid preaching on this Sunday. Really – how can anyone make sense of this story? I would have felt compelled to either treat it as a literal miracle or some sort of metaphor, neither of which has much appeal.
But considering the season of Epiphany, the answer is obvious. What is happening here is an epiphany experience, at least for Peter, James, and John. They go up a high mountain with Jesus – one of the places where spiritual experiences are most likely to happen. And suddenly they see Jesus in a whole new way. This experience is marked by luminosity – the brightness of his white clothes, and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. (How did they “know” it was Moses and Elijah?) Not in the usual way.
One of the marks of an epiphany experience is that you see and know things that you could not see or know in the usual way or in your usual life. There is no explaining it. What they hear God say is more understandable. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Although we might be inclined to ask, How did they know it was God speaking?)
Now, lest you might think that people in Biblical times had epiphanies, but no one does anymore, let me introduce you to a new book by Marcus Borg, which was published last year. It’s called Convictions, and attempts to explain the development of his own spiritual life and the convictions that led him into his career as a Biblical scholar and student of the politics of Jesus’s day.
Borg grew up in a conventional, proper, Lutheran and Republican family in the Midwest. His story, like so many others, includes Sunday School, complete acceptance of the religion of that time and place, gathering doubts as he reached puberty and on into college.
He describes two classes that altered his way of thinking about religion and changed his career path. Then he describes a series of experiences that began in his early thirties. These were experiences not based on what he was thinking or triggered by anything that he could pinpoint. They mimic in many ways experiences I’ve had, but he does a much better job of describing it than I could do.
“I was driving through a sunlit rural Minnesota winter landscape alone in a nine-year-old MG two-seater roadster. The only sounds were the drone of the car and the wind through the thin canvas top… The light suddenly changed. It became yellowy and golden, and it suffused everything I saw… Everything glowed. Everything looked wondrous. I was amazed. I had never experienced anything lie that before…
At the same time, I felt a falling away of the subject-object distinction of ordinary everyday consciousness – that ‘dome’ of consciousness in which we experience ourselves as ‘in here’ and the world as ‘out there.’ I be came aware not just intellectually but experientially of the connectedness of everything. I ‘saw’ the connectedness, experienced it. My sense of being ‘in here’ while the world was ‘out there’ momentarily disappeared.
The experience lasted for maybe a minute and then faded, but it had been the richest minute of my life.” (pp 36-37)
It was only after several such incidents that Borg had a reason to study Christian mysticism, beginning with William James’s classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. From that and other sources Borg realized that his experiences had not been as unusual as he thought. There is a whole tradition, in Christianity and most other religions, of mystical experiences similar to his.
These experiences are what we have been calling epiphanies. Whether it’s something that suddenly makes you realize your best friend is lying to you, or it’s something that transforms what you are seeing/hearing/touching/feeling, epiphanies share certain characteristics:
- Ineffablilty. They are difficult, even impossible, to express in words.
- Transiency. They are brief. Your might say they happen in a flash.
- Passivity. You cannot make them happen by any effort of your own. They just come, or not.
- Noetic quality: They include a vivid sense of KNOWING – a nonverbal way of knowing, marked by a strong sense of seeing more clearly than before.
The disciples in today’s lesson experienced this sort of epiphany when they saw Jesus wearing radiant clothes and heard the voice of God declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
It’s important to note that it’s also highly likely that a person who experiences an epiphany, while undoubtedly remembering the experience, may not apprehend the meaning for some time after. Two years ago I preached about what the disciples made of this, why it was an important experience for them just prior to beginning the last trip to Jerusalem, and speculating about how it may or may not have informed their behavior in the turbulent weeks leading up to the crucifixion. How might they have thought of it when looking back from their old age?
Like most of us, the disciples did not understand what the experience meant, but the experience was so vivid, so amazing, that they could not have forgotten it. In the few days that are left in this season of Epiphany, I hope you will look back on your own life to find your own experiences of epiphany and revisit whatever impact they had on you.
If you can’t find even one example, then just keep your eyes peeled. There’s no telling when or how they happen. And your understanding of them may well shift over time.
Just remember not to be afraid of such experiences. The light of God is not something to fear. We all carry it within us and hopefully we are sharing it with others. God is always with us and around us, so open your hands, your eyes, your ears, your hearts, and your minds to God’s presence and to God’s blessings. AMEN