We hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration every year on this Last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday just before Lent begins. It makes sense. This is an epiphany par excellence, isn’t it? Brilliant light, Jesus seen as they had never seen him before, the two great spiritual leaders of ancient Israel alongside him, the voice from heaven. . . What more could we ask? Might as well get on with Lent, right?
But, you know, there’s something really odd about this story. And that’s Peter’s effort to be useful. It’s just not done. People don’t interrupt epiphanies to announce that they’re just there to help out and they’ll be glad to take care of some of the little oversights in God’s production process. Mark—it’s Mark’s version of the story that we’re reading this year—actually feels the need to apologize for Peter: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” I don’t suppose it ever occurred to him that he could keep his mouth shut.
Our first reading, about Elijah and Elisha, does the thing better. True, Elisha has his own way of inserting himself into the process. He refuses to be put off. He dogs Elijah’s every step. He knows something important is coming. (After all, he’s a prophet in his own right.) He even makes a big request for himself (though only after he’s been invited to): “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah replies that that’s going to be very difficult, but it’s just possible provided he pays very close attention.
Well, yes. That’s what epiphanies are about, isn’t it? God is trying to show us something of profound importance, something that very probably can’t be put into words. God isn’t offering us some propositions or some ethical directives or some new creed, but giving us a new glimpse of our world, our reality, including God’s own self—a glimpse that can renew or transform our whole sense of the world and of who we are in it.
Elisha got it right. All he could do—all anyone can do when God stops us short in this way—is pay attention. “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” He saw the power and glory of God in a new way. And he payed attention.
Now, not every epiphany is a shocker like Elisha’s experience. In our psalm today, we did speak of that kind:
O God, you will come and will not keep silence;
before you there is a consuming flame,
and round about you a raging storm.
But we also spoke of a quieter kind of epiphany that is equally compelling, equally fraught with challenge to our whole conception of ourselves and our world:
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty,
God is revealed in glory.
Whichever kind of epiphany we may experience, our job, so to speak, is the same: pay attention. An epiphany is something that will make our life new. It’s a gift to us.
You can see where Peter went wrong—as Peter so often does. That’s why Peter is so important to us in the Gospel stories. Like us, he keeps getting it wrong. He was so entrenched in his self-understanding as Jesus’ lieutenant—the person who was active and responsible and did things—that he was closed to any other prospect. But, right at that moment, God didn’t want him to do anything at all except pay attention.
Mark says he was terrified. But of what was he terrified? This epiphany isn’t described as being scary. Overwhelming, maybe. But not scary. There was nothing like the fiery chariot that came to collect Elijah. It was, relatively speaking, almost quiet—luminous, but quiet. What was scary, I suppose, was that there was no place in it for the Peter he had become, the busy adjutant, the very essential chargè d’affaires. The scary thing was that, in this context, God was only trying to give him something. God didn’t need anything from him at all.
God didn’t need anything from him at all.
Now, this is not the same as saying that God doesn’t care what we do. This is not making light of human action. After all, to a great extent our actions reveal who we really are. Of course, we need to take that seriously. But there’s a danger for religious people—people like Peter, people like us—that we will assume that our own actions are the central thing. It can be upsetting to hear that they’re not. Isn’t religion about being good? being ethical? being moral? being faithful? Well, I’m in favor of every one of those things, but no.
To put the matter in other terms (and use a phrase that we’ve probably all heard at one time or another and probably nodded our heads sagely): There is a God, and it’s not you. It’s not me. It’s not any of us. It wasn’t Peter, either.
Religion turns so easily into a list of things to believe and things to do. We see it all the time. It happens in every brand of religion. The only difference is in the specific lists. Neo-Evangelicals have their lists, liberal Protestants have theirs. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco actually published his recently. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to be quite the same as Pope Francis’s. And so it goes.
The point is not that having lists is bad (though they are always imperfect). We may well need the little memo of reminder from time to time. What’s wrong is when the lists become more important than God. When duty threatens to outrank the Creator. When we’re so busy with our good deeds that we can’t pause to listen to a love song from the God who made us.
This whole subject is particularly apropos at this precise moment in the liturgical year. Carnival is building up to its Mardi gras climax in places like New Orleans—a period of intense busyness designed above all as distraction. And then comes Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. And Lent, so often, is every bit as much a distraction as Carnival. We are apt to focus on self-examination, self-improvement, the doing of good works: all excellent stuff and I recommend it. But try to avoid letting it come between you and God—this God who is even willing to offer the very best of epiphanies to people like Peter and people like us, running the risk that we may respond that “Sorry, I’m very busy, right now, being religious.”
What God seems particularly to hope is that we will take the time to be open to God’s beauty and generosity and love. And if we can do that, I suspect we won’t have to look around for a project, like Peter. We’ll just kind of know, like Elisha, what to do next.