I grew up in Massachusetts, where the winters are cold and grim. The town where I grew up was mostly Irish-American. I went to school with people who had names like Sean O’Leary and Mary Callahan. I myself am English by birth. The Irish and the English have had their differences over the years, but we do have much in common, including a tendency to become as pale as a sheet of paper in the winter months.
Often, people would go on midwinter vacations to Florida or the Caribbean. You could always tell who had just returned from vacation because they were tanned brown, or sometimes sunburned red! You could see their faces looked different. They’d been in the warm brilliance of the sun, and it showed on their faces.
Moses went up a mountain to meet with God, and when he came back down his face was different. He face shined. His face glowed with radiant light, because he had been in the presence of God. He must have looked a little frightening, because he wore that veil to cover his face when he came down.
Perhaps we forget how frightening and unsettling it is to come before the presence of God, even though we receive Christ in the Eucharist every week. Maybe we need to be reminded that God’s presence was once a hazard to our fragile live, and in days of old a person took it seriously to approach the majesty and the terrifying power of the creator of the world.
That isn’t to say that God is terrifying. The saints talk about the deep peace and joy of the nearness of God. And God is a God of love. But God’s world is very different from our own, and to travel to God is to journey into a strange land. It takes preparation, and self-examination, and humility. Above all, it takes the awareness that God is God, and we are not. We are who we are — creatures of God’s creation, filled with divine potential, amazing, astounding… just not God.
Moses came down the mountain with a shining face, because he had stood in the presence of the brilliance of God, and it had changed him. Peter and James and John travelled up the mountain with Jesus, and they saw the brilliant light up there, too. They saw Jesus shine with the full light of his divine nature. As if for the first time, they were faced with the full truth of who Jesus was. Jesus was shining, because Jesus is God. And they fell down in surprise, and awe, and praise.
Light is an ongoing part of our spiritual vocabulary. We call Jesus the “light from light”. John’s Gospel describes the “light that came into the world” when Jesus was born. At our Easter service, the presence of the resurrected Christ is symbolized by a tall candle whose light drives away the darkness. At our evening prayers, we say the old Greek hymn to Christ which praises him as the “light of the everliving father in heaven”.
Light is a symbol of the divine, as darkness is a symbol of our distance from the divine. Jesus is born at night, because it was in the dark night of humanity into which the light of the world brought hope. The church gathers on the night of Maundy Thursday to remembers the Lord’s Supper, but also to remember the gathering darkness of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.
Light is language for our spiritual journey because by light we can see. By the light of Christ we can see the dangers that surround us. But the light of Christ we can see the protection that surrounds us, too. But the light of Christ we know just where we are, and were we are going. We are enlightened.
Light itself is curious. We can’t see light directly. We can see the brilliance of a flame. We can see things that are lit up by light, but light itself is mysterious. Even the brilliant physicists are confronted by the paradox that light is a particle and a wave at the same time. And light comes from mysterious sources – the sun, the flame of a candle lit from some other source, the reflected light of the moon, the glow of Moses’ face.
We call this event on the mountaintop the Transfiguration. We hear this story twice each year; on August 6th which is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and also today, on this last Sunday after Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent. It stands here as a hinge between seasons. We are leaving behind Christmas and Epiphany with their stories about the many ways that humanity discovered the Christ that was in their midst. They are the stories of the dawning of the light in the world, and the dawning of awareness in the people. It has been a season of enlightenment. Now, on this Sunday, the see Jesus at his brightest, literally glowing and radiant and shining with divine glory.
We are meant to carry this vision forward, as we prepare to enter the desert of Lent. We are about to step our on a journey with Christ into the wilderness, into the gathering darkness of Gethsemane, the shadow of the cross, the shadow of the tomb. We have been here before, for the shadows that existed before Christ’s birth can still be found in this world. It can still be found in us.
From this Transfiguration mountaintop we can see across to a taller, more magnificent mountain bathed in a brighter light, which is Easter Sunday, and the event of Christ’s resurrection, and the truth that we are destined for glory too. We can see that mountaintop from here, and it thrills us, but we have to journey through the valley of Lent to reach it.
Lent confronts us with the distance that still lies between us and God. Lent confronts us with the demons that still need to be fought, the passions and temptations that still need to be tamed, the shadows that still exist in the corners of our hearts. We have seen the light of Christ, and now we wade back into the swamp to carry the light of Christ to every last corner.
It will be hard work. We might want to build booths like Peter does and live up here on the mountaintop forever. But the darkness still holds the valleys. Moses, Jesus, James, John, Peter: they all went back down to the valleys where the work needed to be done. But they were changed. Moses had a shining face that reflected the glow of heaven. The disciples were ready to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. They were ready. They were equipped.
And so are we.
Ash Wednesday is this week.