Raleigh Mennonite Church
I want to believe that he talked back to them, his radiant
And I want to believe he said too much was being asked
and too much promised.
I want to believe that that was why he shone in the eyes
of his friends,
The witnesses looking on, because he spoke for them
because he loved them
And was embarrassed to learn how he and they were
going to suffer.
I want to believe he resisted at that moment, when he
Because he could not reconcile the contradictions
That love had a finite span and was merely the comfort
of the lost.
I know he must have acceded to his duty, but I want
He was transfigured by resistance, as he listened,
and they talked.
Mark Jarman, The Transfiguration, Part VII
I suppose that for Peter it went something like this:
They’d spent the morning clambering over the rocks. He could remember the cracked heels of Jesus feet in front of him, the way his muscles strained against the incline. Once, Peter slipped, scrapping his knee, but he barely noticed as he wiped the blood away. They stopped to eat, Jesus fingers covered in the oil of fish, pulling out the bones and guts, tossing them to the waiting crows. They talked and laughed, up the mountain.
Then Peter fell backwards, as if hit by something, the shock of a heavy, weighty light. It was everywhere, this light that hurt his eyes. He couldn’t find the word for it. There was no word for it. Like everything had been bleached out, all the life, and what was left was light.
Peter could start to see, when Jesus turned towards him, Peter’s eyes adjusting enough that he could hold up his hand and peer through the cracks in his fingers. He was still on the ground. He could just make out two forms, there now on either side. And it all came together in an instant, a flood of comprehension. Moses. Elijah. The story remaking itself, all the light finding its way here, joining together, binding together inside these bodies.
Peter could see they were talking, Jesus listening. And he could see that Jesus’ eyes would dart towards him and the disciples, all huddled on the ground, bruised by the light. And Peter could see that the light was coming out of Jesus’ eyes, pools of light sliding down his face. As they talked, the two of them, Jesus listening, Peter could see Jesus was crying light.
If Peter, a Jew by birth, his early life formed through the pages of Torah – if Peter knew anything it is that when God shows up, you build a place for God to stay. If God makes a way here, make a place for God to stay.
It’s a story passed down through the generations. “Tell these stories to your children and to your children’s children,” the Torah tells us. And Peter has heard the story, the story of God appearing in glory, a white-hot fire burning without consuming, a light on Mt Sinai.
The Jews build spaces for this God, dwelling places where God can live among them. God tells them how, gives detailed instructions along the way. They build tabernacles then Temples, ornate buildings and angel-guarded boxes.
So Peter does what God’s people have always done. He asks God to stay. Peter offers to make it possible for God to stay, for God to make a home there. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Because what we need is a God who stays.
Each day I drive past the bus stops in my neighborhood, those outposts known only to the families of our local school. It’s evening by the time I pass the corners of Englewood and Buchanan and Knox. As I get closer I grip the steering wheel harder. My breath catches.
Every day I’m praying that I will not find Monze or Kimberely waiting at that bus stop, hours after they were dropped off, waiting for a mother or a father who will never pick them up. A quarter of our children’s school is Latino, many children born in this country to parents who were brought to the U.S as children, and others who came without papers. They stayed, got jobs, had children, made a life here.
Every day I wonder if this is the day a parent will be picked up by immigration agents before school gets out. I wonder if this is the day a routine traffic stop will initiate the process of deportation, if this is the day their factory will be raided. Every day I wonder if I will drive by a child who waits at the bus stop for a parent who will never arrive. A parent who sits in a ICE van wondering, in panic, who will pick up my child from school, who will feed my child, will I ever see my child again?
I am looking for a god who stays. I do not care for this shining Jesus, head in the clouds, speaking to the glowing dead prophets of old. I need God here, feet firmly planted on the ground, hands covered in mud made with his own spit, arms carrying children, eyes weeping before the grave of a friend. I have no time for this god, bleached white. We have no time for a god like this.
So I’ve read Mark Jarman’s poem every day this week, over and over, side by side with Matthew. Here Jesus, too, is torn in the strangeness of this moment, this moment when the way that God loves and the way that human need God can’t fit together, is pulling at the seams. Here Jesus is caught up in this love, this desire to stay. He loves them, loves these fear-filled disciples. Here the grief of the disciples’ suffering, the agony of what lies ahead – this love begins to pour out of Jesus. All this love.
He accedes to his duty. Jesus knows what is ahead, but the resistance to this, resistance to leaving them–it is enough to set Jesus body on fire.
Then, as suddenly as it happened, the two, Elijah and Moses, vanish. They’re gone. And Jesus is alone. We’ll hear these words again, Jesus surrounded by disciples crumbled on the ground, this time overwhelmed not by fear but by exhaustion. In Gethsemane Jesus will once again be alone, again resisting the duty to leave them, again submitting to his responsibility.
This is why the story of the Transfiguration forms a hinge in the church year. The door swings open into Ash Wednesday, the door that points the way to Jerusalem, towards Gethsemane, towards the cross, towards death, towards dying alone.
I want to stay away from extracting a lesson from this story of the transfiguration. Church folk tend to do this, to pull out timely lessons when it may be that the story needs to sit here, filled with longing and loneliness and incongruity. Maybe the most we can say is that Jesus touches the disciples. He touches them while he still can. And then they aren’t afraid.
On Wednesday eight of us went to the Islamic Association of Raleigh. The Muslim community issued an open invitation to come and learn about Islam, to get to know them, so that they are no longer strangers but friends.
So we said yes, and we toured the school and learned about the Quran and joined in prayer. We came late, after the call to prayer, slipping off our shoes, slipping into the last row of green rugs. As the women before us got up from prayer, they were surprised to see us, surprise followed by delight.
A woman came towards me. Her name was Hajalah. She took my hand. “I am so glad you have come,” she told me, her voice bubbling through her hijab. “Sometimes we feel so alone. We are so afraid. And then visitors come and we know we are not alone. It means so much to me. Thank you for coming. Thank you. Thank you.” I could see through the slit in her flowered head covering that her eyes were filling with tears. She hugged me, holding me to her for a long time, then took my hands again. “Thank you.”
All the fear and loneliness, and suddenly someone is there. We were all filled with light.
Then there are the other times, when your body feels small and alone, when there is nothing you can do to make the world right, nothing to do to fix what is happening here. There are times when the contradiction is too strong, that eternal love and earthly love are mired too deep in conflict, when there is nothing to do but lift your hands and ask God to come, and this time to stay.
There isn’t a way out of this, no way around the trauma of it. There is only believing that once on a mountain love set Jesus ablaze.