There are those moments when we are given to experience ‘the NUMINOUS’[i] – described as an awareness of a holy something (or someone) bigger and more sacred than just what we can know or explain, and are changed by it!
Moses experienced it after encountering God at the top of Mt Sinai – where we read[ii] of how afterwards his face was so radiant that it needed to be veiled. He was changed! It’s what I first experienced as an 18 or 19 year old with my brand new girlfriend Linda, as we entered that thatched roof chapel while exploring the mountains of Hogsback in South Africa all those many years ago. It’s what my friend John experienced as he worked concrete with other rough construction guys on a downtown Vancouver building site. It’s what that young woman facing the birth of her first child as a single mom described as she lay in that hospital bed.
And it’s what today’s reading is all about as well. We can’t be sure of what exactly happened that day on the mountaintop – only that it was a deeply numinous experience for each of those involved.
It was probably at night[iii] on the slopes of Mt Hermon. Jesus went there with his disciples Peter, James & John to pray. Jesus was probably wanting to be strengthened in his resolve to go to Jerusalem – wanting to be absolutely sure he was doing God’s will. The disciples had just heard Peter’s confession that Jesus was the ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of God’. But instead of that promising comfort and victory for them over the occupying Romans, Jesus had spoken of his suffering & death that was to come. They must have been pretty shaken regarding what that could all possibly mean.
Christ’s transfiguration is presented as God’s endorsement of who Jesus is and of what was to come! First, Jesus’ face and clothing radiating dazzling light – kind of like the cloud of holiness that marked whenever God spoke in the OT… The Shekinah. Then the figures of Moses & Elijah, with Moses using words like ‘EXODUS’[iv] to link Jesus with the great liberating exodus of God’s people from Egyptian captivity.
Aside: We know the difference between ‘accident’ and ‘essence’ when referring to the nature of things. A drinking cup, e.g., may have the accident of being plastic, size, translucence etc, while its essence remains ‘drinking vessel’. It could be made of glass, or wood, be big, small etc but remain – at its essence – a drinking vessel!
In the ‘TRANSFIGURATION’ what we see is the ‘accident’ of Jesus’ outer form being changed to reveal the essence of what is always there in Christ and in the sacred and wonder-full reality of every act of poured-out, Christ-like, suffering love…
The disciples reacted to it by wanting to capture the moment: ‘build tents’, not wanting it to slip away from them. And then, when they then actually heard God speaking, Matthew describes an even deeper sense of overwhelming, an almost incapacitating ‘phobos’: awesome, deeply awe-full, fear.
We can later imagine Jesus easing them back from that and by pointing them down the mountainside to what they needed to be doing next. But before we go there we’d do well to stay for a moment with that initial reaction. I suspect that – as rational, left-brain-dominated, logical-thinking, largely post-Christendom Christ followers – we don’t allow ourselves to get nearly enough of it!
God is love! And as Emmanuel – God is love which is with us – always! The Troggs were absolutely right back in 1966 when they wrote their theological reflection to that effect: this prayer between God and us: WE START: I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Love is all around me and so the feeling grows. It’s written on the wind, it’s everywhere I go.
GOD’S RESPONSE: So if you really love me, come on and let it show. You know I love you I always will, my mind’s made up by the way that I feel. There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end. ‘Cause on my love you can depend. …It’s written on the wind, it’s everywhere I go, so if you really love me, come on and let it show. I’m not sure that any of that actually was what The Troggs had in mind, but it’s how I’m choosing to hear it, anyway… J
The point is that it’s up to us to take the time, often, to be reminded of that, to bask in the awesome & unspeakable wonder of it, that we may ALWAYS know it, own that, before it’s time to move on and share it with others! We will have ultimately to allow our numinous-experienced not just to bless us – but to be the fuel we need to move on with our faith witness. A powerful CS Lewis image is of the mountain hikers, who, while winding their way through this dark and kind of scary forest, come suddenly into a sun-drenched clearing and a cliff side. Way down below them they see a beautiful village and can just hear the sound of happy laughter. They know that’s where they want to be. But they know too that to get there they will have first to leave that view and return to that dark, winding path through the woods.
How holy-motivated are you? When last have you been given a faith-boost – a sense of that sacred numinosity – that seals into your soul the assurance that God’s unspeakably sacred love is actually actively present everywhere, all the time? To what are you currently being commissioned? This is the question that NEVER leaves us – it’s for us to discern and to embrace whatever valley Christ is longing for you to return to, that you may go to work?
Love is all around us. And it’s only that love which can ultimately fill and move us to be whatever God wants us to be. If we are just NOT getting that, well, it’s perhaps not that it’s not true so much as the fact that we are choosing to stay closed off to it.
Please Dear God, give us whatever it is that we need to sense your holiness – all around us. And then, sensing you, may we be sufficiently inspired towards whatever you would have us be, and do, in Jesus’ Name, Amen
Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2020.
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[i] That’s a term first used by the German scholar Rudolf Otto back in 1917[i] to describe our experience of the sacred – something which he said we are utterly incapable of accurately expressing in language…
[ii] Exodus 24
[iii] Luke 9 tells us that they were sleepy
[iv] See Lk.9:31