Transfiguration 2021

Transfiguration is a holiday steeped gin mystery. The Gospel writers reflect that mystery in their descriptions of the events on the mountain. This year after a whirlwind trip through Jesus’ life during the season of Epiphany guided by the gospel of mark with its breathless drive to the end of the book, we have arrived at Mark’s brief description. It takes only seven verses. The first three are descriptions of the trip up the mountain, the transformation of Jesus’ appearance and his conversation with Elijah and Moses. The last there verses cover the voice of God in the cloud, the return to normal appearances and the trip down the mountain. In the middle are two verses in which Peter proposes making three shelters and a classic Mark dig at the disciples, who seem to often be clueless. This time it says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

Being terrified is something we can relate to. We’ve just finished a week of testimony in our nation’s capitol about the terror that people felt when the halls of our government were overrun by a riotous mob intent on violence and disrupting the normal processes of democracy. There were plenty of descriptions of terror in the news.

It was different for the disciples.

They were frightened because they had just witnessed what seemed to be a disruption in the normal flow of time. The gospel writers seem to focus on Jesus’ appearance, and you can tell that words fail them. They resort to analogy and simile to try to describe the transformation, but more startling than appearance must have been the transcendence of the way time normally seems to flow. Suddenly the past becomes present. Heroes of history become participants in contemporary conversation.

No wonder they were terrified.

It isn’t the same, but we’re having our own mini transfiguration here in northwest Washington. This is a place where it doesn’t snow often. We’ve been living here full time since November and before yesterday we hadn’t seen snow enough to stick to the sidewalk. No snow had remained more than a few hours. Then the night before last it started to snow and it kept snowing through yesterday. I shoveled the walks of heavy snow and it kept falling. We trudged around the neighborhood in deep snow, watching locals, who don’t have much experience driving in the slippery stuff. We marveled at the beauty of the transformation. One person, who has lived here a long time said to us, “We might get a snowfall like this every two or three years.”

We had nowhere we needed to go. It was beautiful outside and, unlike South Dakota, it wasn’t cold. I saw the appearance of the weather and donned my parka, but I didn’t need a parka. A sweatshirt was sufficient. We bundled up our grandson to play in the snow, but he wasn’t cold. Like Peter suggesting that the prophets might need shelter, we didn’t need extraordinary precautions. I’m thinking my insulated coveralls aren’t going to get much use around here.

But we have snow. And we didn’t even know how much we missed having snow. It is marvelous.

And then we got news of the huge earthquake near Fukushima in Japan. Experts are calling it an aftershock of the gigantic earthquake nearly 10 years ago. Our daughter and her family moved away from Japan less than a week ago. We’ve felt earthquakes ourselves when visiting Japan. There was a sense of déjà vu as we remembered the tragedy of Fukushima’s earth quaking past.

Time seemed to us, for a moment, to be suspended. Our past concerns for those far away and our past lives in a snowy place came to visit and we talked as if it were all in the present. The distinction between past and present and future slipped for a few seconds.

It wasn’t the transfiguration that Peter and James and John witnessed. Still it was enough to remind us of the extraordinary roots of this particular festival as we stand on the edge of Lent and our annual rituals of recalling grief and living with sorrow and sadness.

Scientists remind us that time is a human invention, a concept that helps us to understand the vastness of the universe in which we find ourselves. There is so much more to the totality of reality than the tiny fraction we are able to experience, so we have created conceptual categories to organize our understanding. We experience time as a flowing stream with categories of past, present and future. Not all humans have divided their sense of time in the same way. There are languages that do not have three tenses. In some there are only two: things that have ended and things that are ongoing. Scientists try to describe the vastness of time in similar ways that they try to describe the vastness of the universe. They speak of tens of thousands of years. They analyze carbon molecules to determine age. They describe the geological functions of the planet in terms of millennia. It is too vast for us to understand, but not too vast for us to imagine.

In geological time, the eras of Moses, Elijah and Jesus are terribly close to each other. The shifts in plate tectonics is barely perceptible in such a short few years. But whenever we have an experience of the presentness of one who died years ago, we are as terrified as were the disciples and we make up ghost stories to explain our fear.

For today, here in Mount Vernon, Washington, it is dazzling white outside. Everything is covered in beautiful snow. If the weather forecasters are accurate, it will start raining later this morning and by bedtime the snow will have melted and been washed away by the rain. By Ash Wednesday it will just be a memory and people will be back to their usual rushing about up and down the Interstate. We’ll take the quiet of the moment and enjoy it without fear. We’ve had snow days in the past. We’ve been through our share of Transfiguration Sundays. We have a sense of what is coming.

For now we will simply enjoy the beauty that we know we cannot describe. In years to come, when we try to tell the story, our words will fail us, but we will remember the joy of tiny snow angels made by a grandson who will never again be as small as he is right now. Like the readers of Mark’s Gospel, those who hear our stories will suspect that there is a whole lot more to the story than the few words they hear.

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