Transcendent experiences: Father Theo
The season of Lent marks the 40 days of preparation for Easter: a reminder of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and a reminder of the people of Israel’s 40 years in the desert. Early in this season of penitence, of turning back to God, we have the reading of the Transfiguration (Luke 9: 28–36), the remarkable religious experience of the three disciples seeing something beautiful and wonderful on the mountaintop with Jesus. For a moment they are transfixed as their inspirational leader, teacher and healer, whom they followed since the early days on shore of the Sea of Galilee, is suddenly revealed as something more, someone awesome. Awesome in the true sense of that word: inspiring awe and, in this case, revealing God’s presence. The experience is so powerful that they see two of the key leaders of Israel from the past, two heroes of the faith for them: Moses and Elijah, and they hear God’s voice, revealing Jesus as the Beloved Son.
It is little wonder that they are frightened! But, in a clumsy kind of way, Peter especially realises that he is a part of something bigger. He wants to keep it going, by building three dwellings (tents) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
Have you ever realised that you’re part of something bigger than yourself? I’m not sure when I first realised that: perhaps when I became aware of the fact that we were members of a church, or perhaps it was earlier, when I realised that I was a member of a family. Whenever the precise moment, there was definitely a time when I realised that I was part of something bigger.
At the Transfiguration of Jesus, by Peter, James and John see that Jesus is God’s son. This is their moment, when they realised that Jesus is inviting them to be part of something bigger and more significant than themselves. They can be agents for change in the world and, looking beyond themselves, contribute to the greater good.
As someone who believes that there is more to this life than just the physical, that the spiritual is real and powerful (in other words I believe in God), I am envious of this religious experience. Who wouldn’t want to experience God’s presence in such a powerful and dramatic way? Peter, James and John would have known the tradition: in the history of their people, God appeared in dramatic ways, especially on mountaintops. Both Moses and Elijah experience God on the mountain: Moses on Mount Sinai to receive the law (summarised in the 10 Commandments), the precepts that would guide the people of Israel into the future, that would distinguish them from the revenge driven, and, at times, chaotic world around them. The law that would put limits on revenge, that would demand a better way of living, a way of living that reflected God’s love for his people. Elijah’s experience was equally powerful: he felt God in the sound of sheer silence outside the cave on the same mountaintop as Moses. In this encounter, Elijah’s whole ministry was turned around, when he heard God’s call to be a true prophet to his people. This was likewise a call away from revenge and back to the living God.
So, with the stories of Moses and Elijah in their minds, stories that they knew so well from their childhood, the three disciples experience something extraordinary. They experience heaven meeting earth, the transcendent meeting the ordinary, God meeting the three of them; and, in the middle, is this remarkable man that they have followed since giving up fishing for a different way of life.
However, there are times when the remarkable breaks into our lives, but mostly we really have to be alert to see it. We have to be paying attention. It’s not often, well not for me anyway, that we have spiritual experiences like Peter, James and John on the mountaintop, or Thomas, the disciple I envy the most, who sees the risen Jesus and knows, absolutely, that the stories are true.
Yet, if we are alert to notice them, these moments when God speaks to us, do occur. It’s just that 99% of the time, they’re more subtle.
If we have eyes to see them, God gives us moments of transcendence, of real beauty, when we know that we are part of something bigger, something spiritual, when we truly know that we are all connected, all in this together. On the south coast of Western Australia, where I lived with my family for a while, there is a stunning coastline. It’s right on the Southern Ocean and in winter the Southern Right Whales come close to shore on their migratory journey. It’s a stunning place.
It takes practice, though, to notice God’s transcendent beauty in these moments. It takes a change of mindset, which then becomes a way of life, to notice God’s presence all around us and to give thanks for that.
Just as the Transfiguration pointed to Christ’s resurrection, and gave the disciples a moment of respite from their journey to Jerusalem and the pain they would witness and experience, so too our experiences of the transcendent point to the promise of eternal life with Christ.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall