Five years ago last month I was in El Salvador with a small group from Drew University. We were there to learn about the history of the country and to learn about how God’s kingdom is understood in a context other than our own. It’s part of the requirement in Drew Seminary to go on one of these trips – they’re called a Cross-Cultural trip. I don’t believe I could have picked a better more impactful place than El Salvador. We learned a great deal about the events that led up to the Civil War which began in 1980 with the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero and lasted 12 long years. We visited people who had relatives who were “disappeared” – that’s what they called it when their loved ones, who were vocal against the military dictatorship government disappeared without a trace. We visited a church where 4 American nuns were slaughtered by government forces, and I stood on the spot where Monsignor Oscar Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980. We visited a seminary where six priests were executed, and we visited an encampment where rebel troops hid and planned their attacks.
We also visited churches and villages. A lot of them. On our last day, we visited a community that literally lives on the side of a volcano. Throughout our 11 days in El Salvador, we were shuttled around in a van – we called it the Magic School Bus because our driver Ceci was absolutely a miracle worker at getting in and out of tight spaces. She got that van through some extraordinarily tight squeezes and never once got a scratch on it! On this last day however, the van was only able to get us up to a certain point on this volcano where the road ended, and we had to walk the rest of the way to this village up a very steep mountain.
The people there live in tin shacks with dirt floors. There’s no school, there’s no electricity, and there’s no running water. There is a pipe some distance – I want to say about a half mile, three quarters of a mile away that has running water that is turned on once a week in the middle of the night. So the people there carry their empty jugs and containers in the darkness to get water that needs to last them a week.
I don’t remember exactly how long we visited with those people on that volcano, but I do remember playing games with the children there. There was a soccer ball and we were passing it back and forth between the kids and us seminarians. For a little while at least, there was a little bit of happiness on that mountaintop. The war may have ended in 1992, but the impact of it is still felt today. As an aside, if you ever want to know the real reason why people flee countries like El Salvador to come here, and not the nonsense they make up on the news, I can tell you… But that’s perhaps for another day.
I don’t know about you, but I am often struck by the beauty of mountains. They rise up from the plains of our lives and invite within us an awestruck wonder. There’s imagery in most cultures that refer to a mountaintop experience as something glorious and the valley below as something far less so. Even the beloved 23rd Psalm touches upon this imagery when it refers to walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
In the story of the transfiguration, we see Jesus joined with Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law; Elijah represents the Prophesy. And Jesus represents the fulfillment of the two. On that mountaintop, God’s glory is present and the three – Jesus, Moses and Elijah – as it says in verse 31 – are “speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. In this language, it is important that we recognize that the word “departure” is translated as “Exodus”, something both Moses and Elijah know a thing or two about. And later in the Gospel of Luke, the risen Jesus will tell us that Moses and the prophets point toward him. All of this demonstrates God’s glory without question.
In our faith, we often talk about the “mountaintop experience” as those moments when we feel most close to God. The theologian Henri Nouwen writes, “At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us. This may happen when we stand on a mountaintop and are captivated by the view. It may happen when we witness the birth of a child or the death of a friend. It may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. It may happen in church during a service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves: ‘This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here.’”
For me, I think that mountaintop experience in El Salvador was one in which I saw “everything fits”. That day – or in fact for the entirety of that 11 day trip, it was the solidarity I felt for those people. Many churches in El Salvador advocate for these people in the public forum by ensuring that the government doesn’t forget them. And while I was struck by the great work the church was doing, I think the thing that stood out the most was the openness with which we were welcomed into this community. Here we were, a bunch of white privileged American college students, and we came into their community in this big van, with our little notepads and camera phones, and they welcomed us in, told us about their lives, and showed us how they live. They took us to their water source in the middle of the day over rocks and through ditches, and we tried to imagine walking there in the darkness of night. They expected nothing from us, but they were totally giving of themselves in their poverty. The only thing they asked was that we don’t forget them – and how could we? We walked alongside them for just a couple of hours that day. But they demonstrated such openness and humanity that they would be very hard to forget. They awoke within each of us an awareness of the grace of God in a suffering humanity.
Now, in the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, Luke says that Peter, James, and John were “weighed down with sleep”, but they somehow managed to stay awake. In staying awake, they had that moment – that mountaintop experience that Nouwen says, “everything fits, everything I’ve ever hoped for is here.”
There are at least three stories in Luke in which sleeping plays a part in the story. This is obviously one of them. In another instance, just before Jesus is arrested and crucified, these same three disciples are fighting off sleep…unsuccessfully. Jesus asks them, “Can you not stay awake just one more hour?”
And the third story is one in which the proverbial tables are turned. One chapter earlier in Luke 8, Jesus and his disciples are in a boat and the disciples are afraid of the storm, while it is Jesus who is sleeping in the back of the boat.
You see, while sleeping seems like an obvious thing to us, it’s also a metaphor for the disciples’ inability to see what was happening right in front of them. They seemed to miss the point in the transfiguration and in Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, while they also seemed to be overly worried about the storm around them even though Jesus demonstrated that it was not something to worry about.
We often look at the story of the Transfiguration as the ultimate mountaintop experience, and it’s right that we do. But I think the mistake that we make is that we look at Jesus’ glory in that moment and we envision it as entirely in one direction – looking up to heaven. Up there… somewhere. And we decide in that moment to build monuments to God’s glory – the three tents that Peter foolishly suggested they erect. But what we’re missing when we do that is the humanity of Jesus.
This is what Peter, James, and John did in that moment. They saw the glory of Jesus and only looked up toward the source of that glory. I’m sure it was on a subconscious level, but they wanted to keep it to themselves, hoard it as though there would ever be a shortage of God’s glory if they started to share it. As people of Christ, we should always be mindful of the fact that we are created in God’s image. It says so in the very first chapter of the Bible. But when we keep that fact in our minds and then only see God’s glory in the transfiguration, then we are, by default, defining ourselves in that one-dimensional perspective as well. And friends, there is unfortunately, no shortage of examples of how humanity tries to hoard God’s love as though it could ever run out. Sharing God’s love does not mean that we have less.
And yet Peter, James, and John, as they came down from that mountaintop experience with Jesus himself, they’re still looking upward to the mountaintop, and they completely miss the opportunity to offer healing to that child.
It isn’t Jesus’ power to be transformed that should capture our attention, but Jesus’ ability to have solidarity with the poor. If we ever truly want to see the glory of God and have a genuine mountaintop moment, then we must not simply look upward; we must look into the eyes of those who are suffering, those who are victims of persecution and war. We must stand in solidarity with the innocent bystanders while power-hungry dictators try to rob them of their humanity.
Jesus’ glory is found in his humanity. Our transfiguration, our genuine mountaintop moment comes when we see that humanity in Christ and strive to live into it ourselves. When we consider Jesus’ heavenly glory, it is certainly magnificent and worthy of our praise and worship, but it’s unobtainable. When we consider Jesus’ humanity however, we find the true prince of peace.
Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in his book God has a Dream, “To treat a child of God as if he or she were less than (human) is not just wrong, which it is, not just evil, as it often is; not just painful, as it often must be for the victim; it is veritably blasphemous, for it is to spit in the face of God.”
It certainly is nothing new, but our world is broken once again by war. And we can listen to the powerful who make claims about why this violence is necessary – as if violence is ever necessary. And we can – if you really want to – get into a long protracted debate about who’s right and who’s wrong. But that does not change the fact that there are innocent people caught in the midst of this violence; innocent people who are adored by God. If we want to see the glory of God, if we want to see the transformation of God’s kingdom here on earth, we have look into the eyes of those innocent people in Ukraine who have lost their homes, who have lost family members, who have lost their identities simply because of one man’s unquenchable ego.
Oscar Romero wrote, “This is the commitment of being a Christian: to follow Christ in his incarnation. If Christ, the God of majesty, became a lowly human and lived with the poor and even died on a cross like a slave, our Christian faith should also be lived in the same way.”
Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that unless we get out of the habit of only looking up for God, the transfiguration for us that shines light into the lives of the poor and the marginalized, the victims of war and oppression, we will never know what transfiguration really means. I invite you to see the glory of God by seeing the humanity of Jesus. It is by doing this that we will know what transfiguration truly means and we will – I promise you – be astounded at the greatness of God.
We don’t need to be sinless to walk in solidarity with our community. We simply need to be human… just like Christ
To God be the glory.