I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 19, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lectionary texts cited are Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9, an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
I wonder if this has ever happened to you: you come to church on a Sunday for Mass, and the service moves you deeply—the music is transcendent, and the prayers are full of meaning, and maybe (we pray!) the sermon is even inspiring or thought provoking. And then you receive communion and you emerge out into the world, basking in the radiance of love and light and liturgy…
…and then someone cuts you off in traffic. Or you get home and your dog has eaten your favorite pillow. Or you have an email waiting from that frustrating coworker. Or you see the news and some dire, troubling thing has taken place somewhere. And suddenly all those warm feelings, those lingering memories of song and silence and candlelight collide with the less-than lovely-realities of life as it is.
If you know what I’m talking about, rest assured that you are not alone. It is, I think, a challenge shared by all worshipping Christians to experience the disjuncture between the glimpse of heaven at the altar—that ordered vision of life and eternity grasped in our prayers and rituals and hymns—and the decidedly messier truth of days spent navigating a fractured world.
This has been true for members of the Church for a very long time. The elaborate beauty and deep feeling we cultivate in worship is intentional. It reminds us of the beauty of God for which we long and the beauty of one another, too, which is often harder to sense amid the traffic and the emails and the gloomy headlines.
But the contrast between liturgy and life, between the transcendent and the prosaic, is not entirely by accident. It also has its roots in a rather pragmatic need identified by the early leaders of the Church.
A brief liturgical history lesson: In the 4th century, when the decidedly countercultural followers of Jesus suddenly found their traditions absorbed by the ruling elites into the power structures of the Roman Empire, a curious thing happened. What had been a grassroots, underground movement, subject to persecution and shaped by fervent commitment to an alternative way of being in the world, gradually became an institution for the powerful and the fashionable.
Whereas once baptism was more akin to the Mark of Cain—a seal of divine promise in the face of peril—it now became more like a badge of honor and access and status. People showed up to be baptized not because they necessarily understood how Christ had transformed their existence, but simply because it was the thing to do.
And as a result, the bishops and other church leaders decided that they needed a new way to make an impression upon these slightly passive, comfortable new members of the body of Christ. If they couldn’t compel them with the bracing possibilities of martyrdom or a new, radical communitarian ethic, then they would dazzle them into awe and reverence with liturgy. Spectacle would stand in where, perhaps, substantive conversion of life fell short. And so liturgy, over the years, become ever more elaborate, ever more majestic, to remind people that Church was not just a social club, but a sign of eternity.
Now I admit this all sounds a bit cynical, as if liturgy were a tool to play with people’s emotions. I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s just that we, as human beings, especially when we are enmeshed in myriad concerns, need potent reminders that another world, another way of being in this world is possible.
And the more our daily lives are entrenched in the predictable patterns of consumption and competition and zero-sum thinking, the harder it is to perceive the alternative. We, like those Roman converts, are deep in the valley of Empire, stooped over, scrabbling for our daily bread, and it takes the power of something bold and wondrous, a mountaintop experience, to draw our gazes heavenward, to remind us to dream again. And so we come here.
God knows this about us. God knows we need to be dazzled sometimes in order to believe. Perhaps that’s why mountaintops figure so prominently in the two theophanies—Godly manifestations—in our readings this morning.
Moses is called up the cloud-draped mountain where the glory of the Lord has come to meet him, “like a devouring fire…in the sight of the people of Israel.” It’s that last phrase that matters here—in the sight of the people of Israel. Remember, Moses himself had been in communication with God ever since the burning bush; he did not need to go up a mountain in dramatic fashion to trust in the word given to him.
But the people, newly released from the land of their bondage, uncertain about what was true and what was possible for them—it was for their benefit that God gathered like a cloud and burned like a fire. The spectacle reassured them that whatever Moses found there at the top of Mt. Sinai was Real with a capital R. It was God. It was the answer to their deepest fears and longings.
And then we have Jesus with James and Peter and John, on another mountain sojourn. Immediately before this, Peter has already confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—and so his head already knows what is true, but Jesus, in his wisdom, knows that seeing is believing, and that the road ahead will be hard, and so now the disciples’ own eyes behold the Transfiguration of Christ’s body into the glory of the Lord, another spectacle, his face blazing like fire, like sunlight, like certainty.
Two mountaintops, two dazzling visions to imprint themselves on the memory and on the heart. Maybe we need these transcendent visions, just like we need our transcendent liturgies. We are creatures of sensation and feeling contending with a world that sometimes drains us of both, and so perhaps it is part of the strange mercy of God to to slay us with beauty so that we might survive for another day.
But here’s the thing we cannot forget, whether in our own experience of liturgy or in our reflections on these two texts: spectacle alone cannot save us. To be moved by beauty is not, by itself, to be transformed. Those church leaders of the 4th century knew this—they just hoped to make a big enough impression in worship to keep people engaged in deeper formation the rest of the time.
And Moses knew this, too, for he came down from the fiery mountain not with more bedazzlements for the people but with Commandments and instructions for how to build a real life, a real society worthy of the glorious vision.
And Jesus knew this, too, he knew that his transfiguration would soon be followed by his crucifixion, and that his disciples would need to build a living community based on an ethic of sacrificial, self-giving love, not just a pretty piece of performance art and some pious recollections. Because whether on the mountaintop or in the sanctuary, we were not made children of God and we were not given the glimpse of heaven’s perfect beauty simply for the enjoyment of a private holiness, but for the exercise of a public wholeness.
And these two things—beauty and responsibility, spectacle and sacrifice— must work together if we actually want to BE a transfigured people rather than people who simply admire the Transfiguration. We can love our worship, as all Christians in all traditions should, and we can give our hearts over to it on Sunday and give the best of ourselves to its enactment, but we will not be changed into bearers of the beatific vision until that day when our liturgy spills out into the streets and its fire and its light are no longer reserved for the mountaintop but instead become the flame we carry within us in the hard, dim, disordered, necessary work of everyday life, the work of loving the world into the newness life that God has ordained for it. Yes, even when we get cut off in traffic or get a troubling email. Even when the news is dire. Especially then.
Because although God can indeed be glimpsed in the mountaintop moments, and God is in the bread and the wine and is dancing in the flame upon the altar, and although God will continue to show us how wondrous, how beautiful, how spectacular is the glory of his presence in this place, it is in the unspectacular moments, the ones after the formal liturgy ends, the moments that make up most our lives, when we will see not just who God is, but who God has formed us into and what, we pray, his glory has wrought in us.
Are we radiating with his light? Are we helping build his just and peaceful Kingdom? Can all who see us feel both the power and the gentleness of our love, like a devouring fire, like a cool mantle of cloud?
When we do these things, and when the world can see these things, then on that day the true spectacle will not be the beauty of God alone, but of God alive in us. On that day, God’s glory will no longer be reserved for the liturgy, for the mountaintop, but will be everywhere. And on that day, the Transfiguration will be complete.