The Rev. Melanie McCarley
In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard shares stories of doctors who performed early cataract surgery in Europe. In one of those stories, she tells us that when a doctor removed bandages from one girl’s eyes, she saw what she described as “the tree with lights in it.” Those words sent Dillard on her own quest to find such a tree. She writes: “It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forest of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance …. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it.”
I’m certain that with the plethora of scientific and psychological knowledge at our disposal, we could give a cogent explanation for what Annie Dillard experienced there on the banks of Tinker Creek. We might speak of the firing of neurons, the levels of blood sugar coursing through her veins, the refraction of light in the water and grass, simple wishful thinking, 0etcetera. Or….perhaps better done of us—and hinting at a deeper truth, we could pause, and remember a time when we (you and I) have sensed the presence of the Holy in our own lives. Perhaps we’ve never told anyone about it—but one thing such experiences share in common, is what Annie Dillard expresses so eloquently in her writing; “it was less like seeing, than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and as such, it forms our final opportunity in worship to utter our last gasp of Alleluia before we turn our sights on the season of Lent. As befits a season focusing upon the revelation (the revealing) of the true nature of Christ, today we are bathed in splendor and light. This day, Transfiguration Sunday, offers us a vision of resplendence. Along with Peter, James and John, we are witness to the glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. It’s a brief vision, lasting little more than a moment, and, as such, it is all the more to be cherished and carefully nurtured, before we embark upon the journey of Lent which beckons us forward.
This is what happens in today’s Gospel lesson. In this story, Jesus takes with him Peter, James and John, and together they ascend a high mountain. Now, mountains are important in religious experiences. Traditionally, they are places where people go to meet God. So, it is here, that the four of them ascend, and on this mountaintop, the disciples are gifted with a vision, and in that vision they can see who Jesus truly is. Revealed before them is the very presence of God, in divine form—gloriously, brilliantly bright—a dazzling display. And there with Jesus stand the prophets Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law and Elijah stands for the prophets. In Jewish tradition, both Moses and Elijah were to return before the Messiah. Moses and Elijah bestow upon Jesus their blessing, and then the disciples see Jesus standing there alone. What is revealed is a clear picture that Jesus, himself, completes. He fulfills both the Law and the prophets.
A vision—a true vision, is a moment of clarity. This is what distinguishes a vision from a hallucination. A vision is a revelation—a revealing of what is truly there. By their nature, visions are brief. And they are rare. They are not times of confusion. Instead, they are distinguished by their spiritual clarity. And, in general, they are suffused with light.
Now, about that light. Orthodox Christians refer to this as “Tabor Light” in reference to Mount Tabor, where the Transfiguration of Jesus takes place. It is Tabor light that transfigured the face of Moses, so much so that he had to wear a veil. It is the same light that blinded St. Paul on his way to Damascus. And it is this light (Tabor light) which hovers at the boundary of our souls, encouraging us to persevere in prayer and worship, even when our spirits are darkened by pain, depression and loss.
Several years ago a parishioner of mine spoke to me about a moment of spiritual clarity that occurred during worship. What this person experienced wasn’t a vision, so much as it was the descent of the hand of God, whereby a deep wellspring of peace settled upon her as she knelt at the communion rail. It came to her as an awareness that arrived with all the power of a vision. It was only a moment—but as she recounted the event, what she shared was that the act of recalling this divine inbreaking was such a powerful experience that it didn’t simply bring back a memory, it brought back a deep sensation of clarity—the revelation of the presence and peace of God in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
The good news in this strange, and otherworldly reading for today is this. Each of us who are baptized into the life of Christ share in the that same light which surrounded our Savior on the mountaintop. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples: “You are the light of the world.” God shines in you, and God shines in me. There are moments, aren’t there,—rare moments, to be sure—but moments all the same, when we (and those we love) gleam with the splendid light of heaven. Such experiences are rare—and are to be cherished. They are like a precious cup of water for those who have been traveling through a most difficult time in the life of our world over this past year—and who will soon embark upon the season of Lent. Think of us, like Annie Dillard, as standing by the rippling waters of Tinker’s Creek, “knocked breathless by the powerful glance of God”, bathed, for a moment, in the resplendence of God’s glory. This day, this lesson, and perhaps your own experiences, are gifts to cherish in those times when life is a slog, when confusion reigns and dissention is in the air. Recall this story and those moments, hold them close to your heart, and let them nourish you, reminding you of the true nature of God, as well as the true nature of yourself, as a child of the Almighty. In the name of the one who is pure light, and promises us each a share in the Kingdom of God. Amen.