Thin Places

Feb 9, 2013

The Transfiguration story speaks to that part of us that longs for the mountain-top experience—for the epiphanic moment when, even for an instant, we perceive through the veil of clay to the numinous glory beyond. If only we could find a thin place, maybe we could eradicate those quiet suspicions that faith amounts merely to wishful religious thinking. If only God, the overshadowing mystery, would appear in blazing light, maybe our doubts would scatter forever.

Why do Peter, James, and John get this special treatment? Why does Jesus invite them, and only them, on this little field trip? Those of us who do not feel especially spiritual might wonder whether these three are being rewarded for something. Perhaps for Peter’s confession in the last chapter: “You are the Christ”? That was the tryout, and now Jesus is choosing his varsity team? This story might trigger a little jealousy in us, not only of these three, but of all the giants of faith who seem specially marked for extraordinary revelation—the great mystics of history or people in our own lives for whom the presence of God seems readily accessible. We might pray—a little frustrated—in the words of the hymn, “I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasy…” Look, Lord, I don’t ask to be Julian of Norwich, but could you at least “take the dimness of my soul away”?

The passage does not tell us why only the three disciples were given this gift. I don’t think we can know why some people have mountain-top experiences and others don’t. Or why we have one great encounter with God—perhaps around a campfire or at a concert or with dear friends in prayer—and then for a long time feel strangely numb, and wonder whether something has gone wrong. Why these experiences come and when they come is a mystery.

We do notice that the disciples had been following Jesus for a good while before this happened. They prepared for the mountain-top moment by tramping along behind Jesus in the ordinary moments. This is rather like Mary Magdalene, who, in the gospel of John, is privileged to be the first witness to the resurrection. Even in a time of unspeakable grief and confusion, she determined to do what she always did: attend to Jesus’ ordinary needs. She came to the tomb to care for his body; and in the midst of her usual habits, she received a world-shattering revelation.

So perhaps the best response to our longing for epiphany is simply to cultivate habits during ordinary times that keep us in Jesus’ presence. Prayer, worship, Bible study—the usual routine. We have to stick to the usual routine even when we don’t feel particularly holy or special or joyful or close to God, because this is the tramping around behind Jesus that we need to keep on doing if we ever hope to catch a glimpse of him in his transfigured glory.

As for the purpose of this experience for the disciples, I have more questions than answers. Was this some kind of dream or hallucination, or maybe a trick of the light? What is Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah about? What did the three guys think was going on? Why on earth does Peter propose building shelters?

Matthew is actually rather kind to Peter about the shelters. Luke and Mark both feel the need to apologize for the idea. In the NIV, Mark says Peter “did not know what he was saying because he was frightened.” Luke just says Peter did not know what he was saying. The meaning of the term for shelters or booths is a little uncertain, but it seems to refer to a wilderness tabernacle, Old Testament style. At any rate, nothing comes of the idea. It seems we are not wandering Israelites anymore, and the mountain is not a place to set up camp.

Instead, the disciples hear a voice. Matthew’s gospel is structured with three signposts of extraordinary revelation, and this is the second one. The first is Jesus’ baptism, and the third is the resurrection. The voice we hear in this passage is the same voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism. In fact, it’s precisely the same line from Matthew 3—“This is my Son whom I love. With him I am well-pleased.” Except now there’s a new part. This time the voice adds: “Listen! Listen to him!”

Evidently, the disciples find this a terrifying command—it blasts them right to the ground. Well, fair enough. The things Jesus has been saying have been difficult all along: blessed are those who mourn, turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, sell all you have. And lately he’s been talking about suffering and crosses. So yes, we understand that listening to Jesus requires courage. He tends to tell us painful truths, even when we don’t want to hear them. He tends to assign challenging tasks. Yet listen is what the divine voice tells us to do. That’s what these thin places are for—to reveal to us who Jesus is so that we take his words to heart. Difficult as it is, we need to live the question every day: what is Jesus saying?

Happily, Jesus’ next word to the three is all kindness. “Get up, don’t be afraid.” The Greek actually means “be raised.” This suggests that the epiphanic moment is not meant to last forever. Remember Mary at the tomb again. She wants to hold on to her resurrected Lord, she wants to dwell in the glorious now. But Jesus says, “Don’t hold on to me.” Why? Because the purpose of the moment is to prepare her for what comes next, for the task ahead: “Go tell the disciples what you have seen,” Jesus says.

On the mountain, too, the vision of glory fades, and the little group tramps back down to reality. The epiphany was an affirmation, an assurance, but even more, it was a motivation for the work ahead. And in this case, the work will be especially difficult.

The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus asks the three at this point not to tell others “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead”—a revealing detail. Jesus knows that if the disciples were to tell about their experience at this point, they would not be telling the whole story. The task assigned to them now is to walk with Jesus into the darkness. They will only understand their experience in retrospect. They won’t understand what they’ve seen on this mountain until they have walked the whole way with Jesus to that other mountain, Calvary, and beyond.

True, the disciples don’t do that task very well either. The next time Matthew shows us these three disciples together is in Gethsemane. And what are they doing during Jesus’ most desperate hour? Sleeping. Come to think of it, maybe our heroes were asked to the mountain not as a special privilege but because they needed an extra workout—not so much the varsity team but the ones who need to run a few extra laps after practice.

After all, at every point of the way—before, during, and after this glorious moment—Peter, James, and John fail to model heroic perfection. This is the graciousness of the Gospel, since in their failure they are wonderful models for us of God’s grace revealed. We, too, may do our best to cultivate the habits that open us to God’s glory. We may do our best to listen. We may do our best to accept the tasks Jesus asks of us. Hard as we try, though, we will probably not do any of these things very well very often.

Nevertheless, we have this promise: through our baptisms, we have already walked with Jesus into the darkness, we have already been raised with him. This week we pass once again through Ash Wednesday’s gate onto the path, the one that leads to darkness. We may stumble, and we may only understand it all in retrospect, if then. But by grace, we please God most in our companionship, our very unity, with this one, this Jesus, with whom our God is well pleased.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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