When Peter saw Jesus transfigured into a being of light he wanted to build dwellings so that they could stay up the mountain. (Transfiguration Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21.) But Jesus led them down again to the plain and the valleys, to the life that was awaiting them. Why? Maybe because the plain and the valleys are where we live. Maybe because the darkness is where light is needed. And maybe because the darkness and everyday life also have gifts for us.
If you would like a considered reflection on all the readings and a more traditional understanding of the Transfiguration please take a look at what I wrote three years ago.
Many of us long for an experience such as Peter’s – to be present to the transfiguration of Christ, to see the light that lightens and enlivens everything, to hear the voice that declares our teacher and ourselves Beloved, to know that we are at the place where everything comes together and law and history and love are met in this moment where we are! No wonder Peter wanted to build three booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so that he and the other disciples could stay in the moment indefinitely. Surely this was the pinnacle of existence.
And yet Jesus calls the experience to an end and effectively says: “Brush yourselves off; gather up your wits, it is time to go down the mountain and to go back to ordinary life. Don’t concentrate on what you have just seen until the time is right, after I have done what I must do, and am gone. Then think about all that has happened including this. For this moment of glory on its own does not make sense without all that is yet to come.”
And so, in a sense, we too live in this inbetween time – the time between glimpsing the glory of Jesus the transfigured being of light and on the other hand all that we need to draw near to again in the journey of descent that is Lent and Easter. We too live on the plains and in the valleys of ordinary life. We too live in the dark where the light of Christ is needed. And we too need to receive the gifts and lessons of the dark that ordinary life is full of.
The Christian tradition has become very focused on the light and the desire for our troubled world to be flooded with light. And this is surely mostly a good thing – our world needs more light, life and love. But maybe this has led to us becoming uncomfortable with struggle, suffering, failure, even with mystery which are often associated with darkness. In our movement towards bringing our intellect to our faith experience, which is a good thing, we may sometimes exclude important things simply because they are not visible enough for detailed consideration.
So let us consider the inference that Jesus told Peter and his disciples, and therefore presumably us, to come down the mountain to the plain and the valleys where us ordinary folk live and work out our salvation. Indeed the moment Jesus reached the lower slopes those in need of healing found him and begged for his ministry. And of course by this point in the gospel story Jesus knows his time, his showdown with the powers of the day, is almost upon him and that he has his life’s work to do down among the ordinary folk, in the Temple, in the garden, in an upper room, in a courtroom, on a cross, and in a tomb. Jesus did his greatest work and most significant loving after he came down from the mountain.
And maybe we too, for all that we long for moments of mystical insight, feelings of being flooded with divine love, have our greatest work and opportunities to love and be given gifts here on the plain, in the valleys. Indeed if we cannot love and find the gifts in the everyday then can we really say we love or are open to receiving life’s gifts? If we shun the plains and the valleys and only want mountain tops do we really love the world? For the one’s that God loves, including ourselves and our beloved ones, live here! We need time and practice, a lifetime, to integrate, to take into our own being and life, to make real the light of Christ in such a way that we shine with the fullness of who we truly are, and can share that with our neighbours.
And we have only to watch the evening news or talk with family and friends to know that there is a great deal of darkness in need of light, in need of a beacon of hope, a truth revealing beam of revelation, an imaginative light show of what could be. Whatever light we have had revealed to us, whatever light has been ignited in us, there is great need here on the plain of human and creaturely experience, the valleys of fear and suffering. Whatever humble measure of love we have it is needed here. Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel (chapter 24) Jesus makes it clear that whatever we do for one of the least we do for him.
But not all darkness is about sin or suffering, or negative. The darkness of night is as much part of the design of the universe as the light of day. The true and proper nature of the deep earth and oceans is darkness. What mysterious gifts the night and the depths hold. For while we often refer to a dark night of the soul as a time of trial and suffering which we pray to be relieved of there is also a sacredness to the lostness, to having to learn to navigate by trust and process rather than by sight and knowledge. After all how many of God’s prophets have heard their call in the night? How often have the psalmists wondered about their suffering and then found their solace in the night while they lay upon their beds and trembled? Those who look to the heavens know that the far away stars and heavenly bodies can only be seen when there is an absence of other lights. While I too celebrate the light and prefer to live most of my waking hours in the light I do hesitate to abolish darkness for I have stumbled across enough blessings and gifts to acknowledge that indeed God is to be found in the dark and the light.
Let me share some heartening words from Barbara Brown Taylor: “Even when light fades and darkness falls – as it does every single day, in every single life – God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no-one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings your false gods down – but whether you decide to trust the witness of those who have gone before you, or you decide to do whatever it takes to become a witness yourself, here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”(Learning to Walk in the Dark, page 15-16).
And so we give thanks for moments of illumination and light and we give thanks that Jesus and his disciples have brought the light down the mountain to where we live.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and enlighten our hearts so that we may walk by faith and not only by sight.
Lent begins next week with Ash Wednesday. If you are not yet decided how to journey through the season do consider my devotional course.