Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43
Have you ever looked into the face of someone who understands in a moment something beautiful?
I’ve seen it when someone is talking, reflecting, pulling back and sifting through their thoughts, and then they unearth and they name something so true, so right, so good, so beautiful about who they are and what is real that their face – it changes.
I’ve seen it in people who are doing something creative, something that you just know and they just know they were meant to do. It might be talking about their passions, or making music, or visioning a better future, or dancing, or making art or building something or so many other things. It happens as a person is connected with a part of their creative self, their imaginative self, their compassionate and brave self, that is so right, so good, so beautiful you can see it in their face – and more than their face, in their whole being.
I don’t know exactly how to describe how the face, the being, how it changes. It’s just a stunningly beautiful thing. The face becomes relaxed, unperturbed, un-strained, un-restrained, set free. The body is no longer thinking about itself with any kind of anxiety. Transfiguration. Settled, sometimes just for a moment, sometimes longer, into the essence of who we are created to be, what we are created to know.
It’s a beautiful thing and so, so powerful. So true, so right, so free from the measures and anxieties of this world that it doesn’t threaten, but instead inspires. Doesn’t keep the sprits and the desires of those around it at arm’s length, but invites them to rise up. Doesn’t hoard or worry about its own life, but is just steeped with the knowledge that there really is enough for all. It’s not a beauty that detracts from or lessens another. In-fact just the opposite – it enlivens and promises good things.
Transfiguration – the glimpsing in our lives together, our ordinary lives together, of beauty: a beauty ever ancient, a beauty ever new. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in you. In the way you love and give and care for yourselves and so many others. I’ve seen it and it keeps me.
It keeps me - just as it was to keep Peter and James and John. Just as it was to keep Mary, the mother of Jesus. And Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna and all those others in Luke’s story of Jesus who see who he is and what he brings and who let these things hold them and strengthen them even as they don’t fully understand.
But here is the thing – while it keeps me – I so often forget. And I need help to remember: to keep noticing and to keep remembering. Because things can get so dark.
There was something in this passage in Luke that I hadn’t noticed before. It says that Peter and John and James saw the transfiguration in Jesus because they stayed awake although heavy with sleep. When I read that this time it made me think of the scene before Jesus is arrested when they fall asleep and are not present to hold onto and love and care for their friend as he agonizes over what is required of him if he is to be who he was meant to be. They don’t get to see him somehow finds the strength and the resolution and the faith to face his most difficult trial. They miss in their sleeping a moment of astonishing and heartbreaking beauty.
This time though they stay awake, or they waken more fully from their drowsiness (the Greek is a little unclear) but regardless they are present in a way they are not later in the story, when Luke’s tells us they were sleeping – not present - because of their grief. The contrast I think highlights something important. The need to staying awake.
This time these men get to see something beautiful, something important to their later work. They see a beauty, a power that will makes sense after he is gone and will I imagine hold them as they have to go on in his Spirit and in the work he has called them to. They see a beauty, a power that they will come to know in themselves and that they will go on to share with the world.
We are about to go into Lent. Lent is an old, old church tradition that is there to help us remember, to train us, if you like, in noticing, in staying awake to beauty; staying awake to that ancient beauty, that new beauty that holds us and propels us to offers solace and hope among the grief and the realities of this life.
Lent is a 40-day period that begins this Wednesday - Ash Wednesday - with a service in which we will remember that we really are dust – a dry, parched place in need of the water of life. And then there is a tradition in Lent that takes away our alleluias. This tradition advises us not to shout praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. But instead to enter a quieter walk; a quieter walk during which the scriptures will tell us of Jesus’ own temptation and Jesus’ journey to the cross and the ways he was sacrificed to the world’s passions. And we will confess. We will come together and help each other speak the truth of who we are as a people who forget – who deny that flame of beauty and life. As I think of all this I see nothing but beauty, a willingness to get to who we are and what we need to be all that God created us to be.
But then next to all of this there is during Lent this other tradition. An invitation to a new practice or discipline. A little training if you like that’s there not to remind us how bad we are. It’s not there to say you are so rotten you better give up you wicked way like chocolate or a beer with you friends or whatever else brings you joy. No, this invitation to a new practice of a discipline if there to help us notice. To train us and develop in us a habit of noticing the beauty amongst it all.
Jesus prays in Luke before he is transfigured. He prays all over the place in Luke. Before every big realization in Luke. Maybe that’s a practice that might work for you. To take yourself away and do whatever it looks like for you to pray. To tap into that beauty that exists in you and in the world. For me it’s colored pencils. When I can make color on a page with words and thoughts that I want to hold before God I am more apt to remember again that all of who I am – everything I think and need are beautiful to God and if that’s the case then everything must be and the world is suddenly full of possibility again. This discipline brings me back more readily to that settled place that tells me that I already know who I am and what I must do.
Perhaps for you it’s dancing, or hiking or connecting with others, or helpings other. Lent ask us to adopts something that settles us and helps us remember the beauty of God’s creation as a practice, a discipline, a habit. Maybe it is giving some up – but giving up not a punishment but for the sake of getting rid of something that distracts you from noticing. Or as a mechanism to help you get into the habit of remembering. Folks tell me they will give something up that has become routine, a habit, no longer a real joy, so that when they think of it - and they think of it a lot – they are reminded to make an active choice to notice something beautiful instead.
I want to suggest that this practice - well it might be coming here – because these things, this font, this table, these people, have such a power if we’ll engage them to help us remember.
As we confess who we are in this place as a people who forget, we also confess who we are as a people that God will never give up on, and we confess what the world is as a place of beauty. We confess this over and over in this place not just when we approach the font, but also when we share our lives in prayer and when we sing and when we pray old prayers and new prayers and when we share bread and when we are reminded to go with peace and with joy. Done regularly and with care, these confessions get inside of us and open us to beauty in the world.
Lent is here to help us practice how to keep awake to the beauty that exists in and amongst us. It is here to train us to notice the things that we might draw on for strength as together we make our way through the griefs and the injustices of this life. It gets that habit of noticing inside of us in a way that we might become transfigured, and that we might then in turn light up the world.
As a transfigured people you bring a beauty to the world. A beauty free from the measures and anxieties of this world; a beauty that doesn’t threaten, but instead inspires. That doesn’t keep the sprits and the desires of those around it at arm’s length, but rather invites them to rise up. That doesn’t hoard or worry about its own life, but is steeped in the knowledge that there really is enough for all. That doesn’t that detracts from or lessens others, but does just the opposite – enlivens and promises good things. And in all of this the world gets to see the face of God.
So I invite you to think about Lent and what it might be for you this year. Come Wednesday if you are able and remember who we are as a people who need the beauty and life of God and perhaps take some time to think about whether you are being asked to practice something this year. Something just between you and God that will help you notice, that will give you strength for the journey, that will keep you when it gets dark, and that will move you in ever more deeper ways into being a light for the world.