“Transformed” Colchester Federated Church, February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday (Mark 9:2-9)

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus goes to the top of a very high mountain with his disciples Peter, James, and John.  They are isolated and alone, just the four of them.  According to Mark’s Gospel, once they were on top of that very high mountain, Jesus “was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white.”[1]  Out of nowhere, there appeared the Prophet Elijah and Moses himself, who talk with Jesus. 

Now Mark sometimes relishes in presenting the disciples as a bunch of helpless (not always very bright) followers throughout his Gospel.  This story of the Transfiguration is no exception.  Peter, who is understandably scared and has no idea what to do as Jesus is transformed, says, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here.  Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[2]  Peter doesn’t know how to respond to this glorious, miraculous moment.  He seemingly doesn’t take the time to understand that the true identity of his teacher, the man he has been following and learning from—Jesus of Nazareth—is being revealed before his very eyes.  Peter was perhaps so afraid or uncomfortable that he responds by just wanting to get down to business.  Maybe offering to build those shrines was a way for Peter to feel useful. 

Now as if Jesus transformed and Moses and Elijah appearing isn’t enough to frighten or overwhelm poor Peter (and James and John come to that)—a cloud appears next.  We hear a heavenly voice, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love.  Listen to him!”[3]  Pretty sure that voice was directed at the disciples to give them another insight about Jesus.  Jesus is the Son of God.  God dearly loves Jesus.  Listen to what Jesus has to say.  The cloud seems to vanish on that mountain, and we’re left with Jesus, Peter, James, and John alone again.  Presumably Jesus is back to wearing his normal everyday robe.  And they walk down the mountain after this miracle, with Jesus telling them not to share with anyone else what they had just seen until after the Human One has risen from the dead. 

The Transfiguration is a Gospel story about the spiritual shining through the material.  It’s a story about how we can sometimes miss the presence of the spiritual in our everyday lives.  Mark tells us that the disciples keep this holy moment to themselves.  It’s worth wondering what they would have said to other people anyway.  Sometimes it is so hard to describe holy moments even when we do see the presence of the spiritual in our everyday lives.  We may feel awkward and self-conscious.  We wonder if people will think that we’re a little off.  Maybe we simply don’t have adequate vocabulary to describe when we experience something that is nothing short of a profound connection with the divine.  Peter feeling scared and bumbling around to try to do something useful and familiar—like build something with his hands—that may be an understandable response.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Peter anyway, so let’s not be too hard on him.

The Transfiguration can make us contemplate a belief found within Celtic Christianity—Thin Places.  The ancient Celts believed that heaven and earth were only three feet apart.  Thin Places were believed to be special places where this distance is even shorter.  Presbyterian minister Mark Roberts in exploring the history and Biblical roots of Thin Places, defines them as “a physical place where human beings experience God more directly.  The metaphor assumes a worldview in which heaven and earth are, in general, separated by a considerable distance.  But some places on earth seem to be thin in the sense that the separation between heaven and earth is narrowed.  Thus, people sense God’s presence more readily in so-called thin places.”[4]  Thin Places are physical locations in Celtic Christianity—we can quite literally point to them on a map.

British writer Margaret Silf wrote about just how amazing Thin Places are in Ireland.  For instance, in County Meath we can discover several large mounds which were found to be cairns that contained passages and burial chambers dating back to around 3000 B.C.E.  These cairns are older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt and contain powerful secrets.  One of the best known is at Newgrange.  If one stands in the central chamber of this cairn at dawn on the day of the winter solstice, the rising sun will penetrate a small aperture—an opening—to flood the innermost chamber with brilliant light.  It’s no accident that the light of the winter solstice at dawn brings this deep inner chamber to glorious light-filled brilliance.  Because the cairns in Ireland were designed to focus on mystery and the movements of the earth relative to the sun and stars.  We can understand them as Thin Places where people can sense the presence of God more readily.[5]  How amazing that people were constructing these sites thousands of years ago, and the meaning has lasted through the ages.

It’s fascinating that the Transfiguration occurs on a very high mountain.  Don’t let that be lost on us today.  The setting of our Gospel story matters.  There’s debate about which mountain Jesus took his disciples up for this sacred encounter, it’s one of those unknowns in the New Testament.  Some say it’s Mount Tabor and some say it’s Mount Hermon among other theories.  When visiting the Holy Land our group went to The Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, so that mountain wins in my book for what it’s worth. 

But think about how often churches, temples, and monasteries are located on the tops of mountains.  Sacred mountains can be found in many World Religions.  Mount Sinai.  Mount Olympus.  The Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China.  The most symbolically important part of any mountain may just be the peak because it’s among the clouds and closer to heaven for people who stand and look toward the vastness of the sky above and out toward the beautiful land below.  But if one wants to get to the peak, a journey has to take place.  Walking or driving along a path to reach a mountain peak may just be symbolic of the whole human journey.

It matters that Jesus was transformed on the top of a very high mountain.  It matters because it speaks to sacred places and symbols all around us today.  Thin Places don’t have to be world famous in order to be places where the distance between God and us or heaven and earth narrows.  The woods around town can be a Thin Place.  The waters of the Salmon River can be a Thin Place.  There are sacred sites close to home that can ground us and give us hope when life is especially difficult or even when we hit the pandemic wall and everything feels overwhelming.  The spiritual can shine through the material.  We can experience the presence of God in our everyday lives.  And for those life-giving moments on our journeys of faith, thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 9:2-3, Common English Bible.
[2] Mark 9:5.
[3] Mark 9:7.
[4] Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts, “Thin Places: A Biblical Investigation” Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/thin-places/
[5] Margaret Silf, Roots and Wings: The Human Journey from a Speck of Stardust to a Spark of God, 64-65.

Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash.