Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Have you ever experienced a moment where you connect to something larger or bigger than yourself? Maybe this was a connection to God or just a growing sense of the universe. I know I experienced this a few times in my life, the first time I saw the ocean, the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, the days my children were born. But the one that always strikes me is the first time I truly saw stars. My best friend and I were driving across the country. I had never really been out west. We camped in the badlands in South Dakota, and there was no artificial light around, and it was truly one of the most breathtaking things I had ever seen. Images of stars that I had seen in books were suddenly in front of me. I remember being genuinely inspired by the awe and grandeur of what I saw, feeling very small.
Our gospel text offers us another experience of grandeur. The gospel writer is placing this text to link this moment of transfiguration to Jesus’ predictions about his death and suffering. The cross is inexplicitly linked to this moment of glory. There are also parallels to the garden at Gethsemane. We have some of the disciples present in this moment, Jesus praying on a mountainside; they struggle to stay awake and remain present at the moment. As they are struggling and as Jesus is praying, the text tells us that Jesus is somehow transformed; two other men appear beside him, Elijah and Moses. For these disciples, it is a moment of amazement, a moment where they discover the guy with good stories, who teaches well, the guy who does the miracles, the guy they have been wandering the countryside with, is something completely different altogether. Their reaction is one of terror, and they are overwhelmed by what they see and experience. A voice boomed from the cloud, saying, “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him.” This voice is followed by silence and Jesus being alone. The experience strikes Peter, James, and John that they told no one what they had seen. How often do we hear the disciples silent about anything in the gospel stories? Peter is constantly opening his mouth; James and John are the sons of thunder. But this day, whatever took place inspired them, connected them to something larger, and gave them something to hang on when they would face suffering.
This passage is a call to prayer. They go up the mountain to pray. Jesus is praying as he is transformed. Prayer is the process of discovery in which we find intimacy with God. Prayer is not always easy. But part of our spiritual growth is discovering how we connect to that intimacy. About 14 years ago, I was part of a leadership retreat. There were about 5 of us on the retreat. A local pastor led the retreat. Friday evening, we gathered together in a meeting room. He spoke briefly for a few minutes. We prayed a few prayers together as a group, then talked about silence. He explained that we would experience longer and more extended periods of silence throughout the weekend. That evening we would start with a short period of silence, 45 minutes. Have you ever tried to sit quietly and feel like the noise is louder and louder every time you move? I remember sitting in that room trying not to move and focusing less on prayer and meditation and more on not making any noise and disturbing everyone else. When the 45 minutes were over, the leader looked at me and said, “ So this is your first experience with a silent retreat.
Richard Rohr, when talking about prayer said that “The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul…The secret becomes unhidden when people stop hiding—from God, from themselves, and from at least one other person. Such risky self-disclosure is what I mean by intimacy and it is the way that love is transmitted. Some say the word comes from the Latin intimus ,which is interior or inside. Some say its older meaning is found by in timor, “into fear.” In either case, the point is clear. Intimacy happens when we expose our insides and this is always scary. We never really know if the other can receive what is exposed, will respect it, or will run fast in the other direction. We must be prepared to be rejected. It is always a risk.”
This passage is about preparing the disciples for suffering that they might face. Giving them a glimpse of God’s future glory, something to hang onto when things get tough. The Harry Potter Series has a spell that connects to this story. There are characters in the story called Dementors. They are the personification of evil and suffering. They serve as guards at Azkaban prison. No one knows what they look like; they wear these rotting black robes. When they enter the room, lights flicker, and everything goes cold. They feed off of despair, sadness, and suffering. To kill a victim in the story, they give a kiss of death which sucks all the happiness out of a person. The spell, which is the only defense against these creatures, is called the Patronus charm. For a character to produce the Patronus charm, they must think of their happiest memory and say “expecto patronum.” The person is then bathed in a silvery light, and if they concentrate on their happiest memory, an animal made of light will defend them and drive the dementor away.
This story is Patronus; it is something to hang onto when facing difficulty; it is a call to prayer when we don’t know what to do. It is a call to intimacy with God.