Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a church holiday we celebrate every single year, and one that continues to baffle me. It feels out of place. In this story Jesus doesn’t teach or preach or heal or work a miracle. He ascends a mountain with a few of his disciples and God transforms him into a radiant, heavenly being as the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah come to wait upon him. A cloud rolls in and God makes a proclamation. Then, quickly as it began, it ends, and Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain again, telling them to keep quiet about what they saw. Nothing like this happens anywhere else in the gospels, so it’s hard to know what to do with this story.
As I struggled to figure out what to preach this Sunday, I read as many different commentaries as I could get my hands on hoping that one of them might give me a foothold, some interesting detail to stand on. I read a lot of words, a lot of explanations, drawing all sorts of connections between this story and other stories in the scriptures. But it all just seemed like words. None of the commentaries could tell me succinctly what it means. What does Jesus’ transfiguration mean? How do we understand it? What do we do with it?
And then my eyes fell again on verse 6, and it started to click. The problem is not with the story, but with me.
In the story, Peter responds to the the radiant light of the transfigured Jesus by offering to build three tents or dwellings: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. We’re not certain why Peter wants to do this, but verse 6 gives us an answer. It reads, “[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Interesting. For a guy who is supposedly at a loss for words, Peter sure does talk a lot. But his talk is a cover. He is so overwhelmed by the situation that he babbles. He doesn’t know what to do so he starts running his mouth.
I can relate. Y’all know by now that I’m not exactly a man of few words. I’ve never been accused of being the strong silent type. I’m well practiced in using lots of words to say very little. It’s a nervous response, a cover for my ignorance.
All those commentaries that I read felt like the same. We are all like Peter. We stand in the resplendent light of this story that we don’t understand and, instead of dwelling in the mystery, we try to explain it. We try to contain this wild and enigmatic story by building intellectual tents around it. Maybe it would be better if we just kept silent…
How do you do with silence? Do you like it? Or does it make you uncomfortable? Let’s find out. Find a quiet place and take 30 seconds to be completely silent.
How was that for you?
The seventh century Syrian theologian Isaac of Nineveh once wrote, “if you love truth, be a lover of silence.” There is an intimate connection between silence and truth. In today’s reading, Peter is uncomfortable with what he is experiencing. He lacks understanding. He lacks control. And so he responds the way any of us would: he talks, he starts trying to do something. But nothing he says and nothing he does get him any closer to understanding the mystery unfolding in front of him.
Finally, God has to step in and tell Peter, “This is my son, the beloved! LISTEN TO HIM.” You’ve heard the old expression, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Well, in today’s reading it is as if God tells Peter, “Don’t just do something, STAND THERE.”
Silence and non-action can be scary things. They are vulnerable and revealing activities. In silence and stillness there are no words or actions behind which to hide. Theologian Dallas Willard says that “silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. And in that quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God’?”
What if the root of Peter’s babbling is a deep-seated fear that he is not worthy—not worthy of God’s love, not worthy to be in Jesus’ transfigured presence, not worthy to be a disciple. Peter’s early story is not a success story. In chapter 8 he rightly identifies Jesus as the messiah only for Jesus to then call him “Satan” a few verses later. At the end of the gospel, he’ll betray Jesus completely. Maybe Peter cannot keep quiet on the mountain top because he is worried that there is very little to “just him and God?”
Every month or so I seek spiritual direction with one of the Catholic Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius at the Basilica in Danville. When I first started, Sister Jean asked me what I wanted to get out of spiritual direction, and I wrote several pages of hopes and dreams and goals. She laughed at me. It was a kindly laugh, but still…She was amused by the intensity of it, all the words I had written, all the expectations I had laid out.
All of those things were noise. They were all empty words masking my discomfort that maybe there was nothing to my relationship with God. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, I hid behind my words, afraid to be vulnerable and naked before God. I was trying to construct a tent around God so that God couldn’t look at me.
Sister Jean encouraged me to put aside the expectations and instead practice contemplation. Contemplation is an ancient Christian practice. It is the act of entering into complete silence and sitting in God’s loving presence. In contemplation you sit up straight in a chair with your feet on the ground and your hands in your lap. You close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Some choose a word like “peace” or “still” or “quiet” or “compassion” and say that word over and over in their head as they breathe in and out. Whenever the mind wanders off to something else, they use their word to bring their mind back to center.
Contemplation is a time to suspend judgment of oneself and quiet the mind. In contemplation, we accept that that we are worthy to be in God’s presence because God loves us and God wants us to be in God’s presence. There is nothing to do. There is nothing to say. There is only the contented silence of being in the presence of one you love and one who loves you.
I am no expert at contemplation. The first many times I practiced it, I grew frustrated at my mind’s perpetual motion. But over time, I am slowly coming to understand the value of contemplative silence. It is the practice of being completely in-the-moment, free of anxieties or expectations that pull us into the past or future.
Sister Jean told me that contemplation is simply “a long, loving look.” Maybe that’s what Peter was called to on that mountain. Maybe that’s what we’re called to today on Transfiguration Sunday. Maybe the point is not to understand what Jesus’ transfiguration means. Maybe the point is not to wrap our minds around it. Maybe the point is not to figure out what we’re supposed to do in response to it. Maybe the point is simply to take a long, loving look at Jesus.
The transfiguration is a mystery beyond comprehension. Perhaps then, instead of analysis, it deserves contemplation. Perhaps in those moments when we encounter Jesus in our lives, we need not say anything or do anything at all. Perhaps it is better simply to be silent and sit in the loving presence of Jesus. And there in that stillness, free of expectations, or anxieties, or fears, we can hear the voice of God saying to us, “Listen: You are my child. You are my beloved.”
So I invite you to take a couple minutes and enter into that silent and still space right now.