The Power of Presence

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And Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white....Peter did not know what to say, and they were terrified. Luke 9:28-36

Plenty of situations in life render us speechless. Perhaps they began early in life when we heard the scary pronouncements:

You didn't make the team. or You have failed the exam.

Later, there are moments of deeper, more traumatic fear:

You've been fired.

There's been an accident.

Your child seems to have an unknown disease.

These test results do not look good.

Your mother has died.

In these situations, we are face to face with fear, with pain. How are we supposed to feel when everything in our body seems numb? What are we supposed to say when all our tongue can do is stammer?

Usually, we are expected to say something, either someone else expects us to say something or we put that pressure on ourselves. We feel we must say something. In our confusion, or in our fear, we realize only later that it sure was the wrong thing to say.

Today, August 6, has been observed as the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Christian Church for almost a thousand years. It is today when we remember that central point in the Gospels when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

Peter, on the mountaintop, seeing Jesus turn dazzling white before him in this weird event we call the Transfiguration, Peter probably realized only later that he really did not know what to say. Of course, his experience is described not in suffering or painful terms at all. Apparently, it was a dramatic and almost mystical experience but he was terrified all the same. Peter had a vision. He saw Jesus turn glistening white before him, and he saw two of the Jewish heroes standing talking with Jesus. Moses stood for the law in the Jewish tradition; Elijah stood for the prophets. The two of them together with Jesus meant that Jesus was the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Peter knew this too, deep inside.

The reason for this vision had come only a few days before. Eight days before this Transfiguration was the first time Jesus had told his disciples that he would have to suffer a great deal and then die--not the expectation for a messiah at all. The sequence of these events is exactly the same in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They all agree on this. As soon as Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus begins to talk about his upcoming suffering and death, not about his glory at all; and then Jesus takes his most trusted disciples--Peter and James and John--to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured before them. Then a cloud appears and overshadows them.

The disciples don't want to hear about suffering. They refuse to admit its possibility. That's part of the reason Peter wants to make three dwellings on the mountain, three places to stay and dwell on this marvelous experience. But it is the wrong thing to say.

The reason for the Transfiguration is to empower Jesus and the disciples with the strength and vision to enter this way through suffering together. Following the Transfiguration, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem where he knows he will suffer and die.

The event leaves Peter, at least, not knowing what to say, and he is terrified when he enters the cloud.

This date in history, August 6, will be forever tied to another incident that leaves us speechless and which probably terrifies us too. This date in history, August 6, marks the occasion of another sort of cloud. On this day 65 years ago, the first atomic bomb fell upon Hiroshima. Most of us have seen the horrific images of that bomb's effect.

On that day, August 6, 1945, the world was transfigured in a different way. The world became white, not with dazzling beauty, but white with terror unspeakable. Even those who argue that bombs are necessary also admit that they are terrible. Yet there is still something in the human condition that wages against peace, something is us that surrenders to violence time and time again.

In the midst of our sin, we human beings would rather transfigure the world around us to our liking and our transfiguration becomes dis-figuration. We dis-figure one another in the violence we inflict.

Into that violent transfiguration, however, God speaks this Jesus Transfiguration. It is a sign to us, yes, but it is also an example. We, too, are to be transfigured in the face of suffering or of great violence.

Remember: the very placement of this event in the Bible, the Transfiguration, is quite deliberate. It is meant to offer us a heavenly vision, even a lesson, about our own suffering and death. Suffering will not be the last word. Violence will not be the last word. The Transfiguration means that there is hope.

There will be situations in life which render us speechless, situations of personal loss or of world drama. Sometimes there is no completely right thing to say in the midst of suffering and pain. Sometimes anything we say is only an intrusion, almost blasphemous compared with the gravity of despair around us.

But even without the right words, we can be a presence. When someone we love is about to die, we can be present. Being present means being who you really are in the midst of the illness or suffering around you. Being present means being attentive and being real.

Sometimes people don't even remember what we said or they remember something totally different from what we remember saying.

Peter did not know what to say for he was terrified. We have known Peter at our bedside before, not offering us much except foolish talk. We have been Peter before at someone else's bedside, sticking our foot in our mouth, being so terrified that we did not know what to say.

In either case, we have known the fear of suffering, whether it's been our own suffering or that of someone dear to us. Jesus and his disciples have known it too. For them, God provided this mighty and mystical event where Jesus is transformed if only for an instant by the presence of Moses and Elijah with him.

Yes, Jesus was transformed by God, but it was God working through the presence of Moses and Elijah. I believe that Jesus, about to enter suffering, was being comforted by the very real presence of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was remembering the law and the prophets, the stories and scriptures and divine life that had comforted him before and which he would need even more powerfully to comfort him again.

Jesus needed the presence of those who had come before him. Jesus needed the presence of others who had suffered in the presence of God. And in that presence, Jesus was transfigured.

Such a transfiguration awaits us too. If we are the comforters, the transfiguration will come as we acknowledge openly and honestly our own suffering, our own confusion, even our own terror. If we are the afflicted, the transfiguration awaits us when we seek the presence of those who have traveled this way of suffering before us.

Today, our transfiguration comes as we seek the presence of Jesus himself. This Jesus, who willingly endures the cross in order to enter glory, will change us, will change us, into his likeness.


Please join me in prayer.

O God, who on the holy mountain revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured in raiment white and glistening, mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold Jesus in his beauty, who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns one God forever and ever. Amen.

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