Lent 4 — Introduction
One of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of being an author is the varied nature of the responses one receives from readers. In recent years I have learned from these that my two earlier Faces… books, Faces at the Manger and Faces at the Cross, were found to be helpful, not only in private, personal devotion life, but also, on occasion, in public worship. Creative pastors, and lay people also, have adapted the musings of the various Faces as dramatic monologues, or even, in one college in Canada, into a whole Christmas Eve service. This week’s meditation, in the persons of James and John, might possibly be adapted (into two voices perhaps) for such use on Transfiguration Sunday.
(Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-10, Luke 9:28-36, 2 Peter 1:17-18)
We thought that this was it,
the beginning of the end,
the inauguration of the kingdom,
that moment we had all been waiting for,
yearning for, hardly even daring
to put into words, especially to him,
but secretly expecting to break in
at any instant.
When he led us off yesterday,
just the three of us, up the mountain,
we couldn’t help wondering what was going on.
Had one of us blundered again,
put his big foot firm into his own mouth
with questions about rank, privilege and status,
or in angry condemnation
of some opposing individual or group?
Was there, maybe, some project on his mind
that required the assistance, or advice,
of a select and smaller group;
an idea to be tried out, perhaps,
before disclosing it to the larger gathering?
Our minds were racing, then,
curious, and also somewhat fearful,
yet we climbed all day in almost total silence.
It was getting on toward evening
when we reached the top
and the sun was casting longer shadows
with those unusually mellow, golden rays
you sometimes get right before sunset.
Then, as he turned around,
as if – it seemed – to welcome us,
the sunlight appeared to gather at his back
and flame right out, not past him anymore,
but rather through him;
so that his clothing looked to be on fire,
blazing with a light so clean and pure
it almost hurt to look at it.
It had changed too, the light we saw,
and was no longer gold or red,
but shining, shimmering, glistening white
all through and through.
We thought it must have been
one of those will-o’-the-wisp illusions;
some strange, uncanny trick of the evening glow
in the thin air of the mountaintop.
But then we began to hear voices
deep within the brightness,
two voices, strong and vibrant,
rich with wisdom, resonant with life,
both of them conversing with the Master
in words such as we could not quite catch,
or even begin to comprehend.
Two figures we glimpsed next,
far within the dazzle around the peak.
Two sparkling, outlined figures,
angels we assumed them to be,
until suddenly Peter recognized them.
Something Jesus said must have given him the clue.
That one’s Moses. He whispered.
And the other one, Elijah.
They’ve come back to help the Master
usher in the age of glory.
We were dumbstruck,
surprised, of course, but terrified as well.
Yet we felt there must have been some good reason
for our being there to witness all of this.
Peter, grasping at straws, as he usually did,
stammered out something about memorials,
or booths, and how we should build shelters
to house the three of them
through the fast approaching night.
I’ve never yet quite figured out
just what he had in mind,
but Peter was usually the one eager for action.
preferring always, needing always,
to do something, anything at all,
rather than just being there.
No sooner had those words spilled from his lips,
when a dark, dense mist rolled up out of the valley
and blanketed the entire summit.
This was followed by a voice –
it began just like thunder,
but then there were words –
a voice of ages past and yet to be,
a voice that echoed all across those lofty peaks
and told us to be still and pay attention.
This is my Son, who bears my love.
Pay strict attention to what he is saying.
Then the mist lifted
just as swiftly as it arrived
and, rubbing our eyes in dazed bewilderment,
we realized we were alone again.
The heavenly visitors had gone.
And our Teacher was already headed down,
on his way back to the crowds
who awaited him below.
He turned, and paused a moment for us,
as we stumbled – half blinded still –
to follow in his footsteps,
and swore us to tell nothing
of what we had just seen and heard
until (as he so strangely put it)
until after he had risen from the dead.
We did not dare inquire of him
just what he meant by that.
There has been so much talk, these past few weeks,
of suffering and death –
of taking up the cross, of all things –
we simply wished to hear no more
of that kind of scary talk.
One of us,
I’m not sure which right now –
but one of us quick thought up another question;
a good one too, and relevant,
or almost anyway, close enough.
It was a question about Elijah,
and what the scholars have to say about his role.
But even then, and despite all our efforts
to shift the focus, change the subject,
in answering, the Master led us back again
to thoughts of pain and punishment
What a comedown, really,
almost like cold water,
or a sharp slap in the face.
After all we had just witnessed,
after our hopes for glory had been raised so high,
to return again to this,
the prospect up ahead of betrayal and rejection,
even, perish the thought, even a cross.
Is he testing us again?
Is this all a way of sounding out
the true depth of our trust in him,
the quality and endurance of our love?
If so, we’ll never fail him.
Did we not just hear him proclaimed
as Beloved Son of the Most High?
Whatever lies ahead, we two brothers,
and Peter too, I’m certain,
will stand by him to the end,
whether that end be tragedy or triumph.
God grant us grace to do so.
Barrie Shepherd retired from historic First Church in New York City in 2000. He currently lives in Wallingford, Pa., and is a parish associate at Wallingford Church.