I find this Gospel hard to relate to.
There isn’t much about a Middle Eastern, straight, cisgender man hiking up a mountain with his friends and becoming surrounded by a bright, white light while God proclaims that the man is also God that resonates with me at this moment.
Now, I’ve read all sorts of literary texts by scholars much wiser than I. Here’s what I’ve gleaned: we are invited to see ourselves in the Transfiguration. God can make us resplendent, shining, if only we get close enough to God for it to happen. Are we called here to peel back our layers, to unveil our truest selves in the presence of our creator and dearest friend? Are we called to a God who wants to be close to us, so much so that perhaps we each have a little, tiny, white, shining God inside of each of us if only we’re holy enough to reveal it; as Saint Augustine writes, “If we have been made sons [children] of God, we have also been made gods.”
It’s hard for me to imagine. For starters, becoming transfigured sounds exhausting, and totally out of my reach. The thought of becoming unblemished, of communing with God on a sunbeam, the brightness of the blinding light:
I recoil just thinking about it.
Who among us has the bandwidth for a transfiguration? I, for one, am very tired. Perhaps, I would assert, too tired to be transfigured, or to care to be transfigured. I have an infant, I’m up with them during the night, every night. But, even if you aren’t feeding a baby at all hours— it feels like many of us are tired. We’re in a three-year pandemic. We feel the strains of capitalism, global warming, political tensions… bad news all around us, all the time.
So what about those of us who are too tired for transfiguration, the splendor and gravitas of it?
Patrick Dougher “THE QUIET ANSWER” Acrylic / Designed Paper / Gold Leaf on Wood- 14” x 20”
As I read this Gospel, I had alarm bells going off within me. I read and have been reading womanist theologians like Dr. Christena Cleveland and Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, as well as my friend, the theologian Allison Connelly-Vetter, all of whom talk about the importance of disentangling whiteness from goodness and divinity. In short, believing that white equals good perpetuates the sin of white supremacy within each of us. As Allison writes: “What we believe theologically about lightness/whiteness and darkness/Blackness absolutely has everything to do with what we believe racially about the same.”
How do we reconcile that with this text:
His face shone like the sun
And his clothes became white as light.
I can’t help but hear a song play in my mind. It’s one that Allison re-wrote as part of her songwriting project this past Advent. For the project, she re-wrote traditional Advent songs to get away from an obsession with kingship and light, white supremacy and supersessionism, which is the idea that Jesus replaced the need for Judaism. Allison writes, “For the past few years I have found some of the lyrics hard to sing as my theology becomes more anarchist and more anti-racist and more interreligiously aware. Re-writing these beloved hymns has been an exploration into my own theology – if I don’t believe Advent is about kings or light, what do I believe?”
I’d like to share the lyrics to one of her re-written songs with you. This is Christ Be Our Night:
Scared of the dark, we worship brightness
Scared of the night, we hide in day
Show us anew gifts of the shadows
Dark that we need to grow
Longing for shade, our earth is heating
Longing for coolness, our earth is dry
Make us Your fertile, gestating darkness
Womb of new life to come
Many the gifts, many the people
Wise to the dark, prepared to belong
Let us bear witness to one another
Darkness, our sacred call,
Christ, be our night
Teach us to rest
Teach us to wonder
Christ, be our night
Maybe this is nine months of sleep deprivation speaking, but I can relate to yearning for darkness. Longing for coolness and shade in these unforgiving summer months. Longing for God’s quiet voice, for the peace of the still of night, not a bright, magnificent show.
I’m reminded of pregnancy, a time when I was highly anxious. Not able to see my baby and relying only on blurry scans, I pleaded with God for her health. I couldn’t do anything to make her grow, I couldn’t secure her future, I could barely keep down a meal. Yet, inside of me, in spite of me, the baby miraculously knew what to do. The only thing that brought me peace during pregnancy was not placing my faith in a beaming, transfigured Christ, but trusting in the baby’s wisdom, surrounded as she was by the great Sophia, swirling together in darkness.
Now, if only there were some scriptural precedent for hearing God’s voice in the darkness.
A bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came God’s voice
There’s God, in the darkness.
As Allison writes, “The ultimate Divine action in this story comes not in light, but in darkness, as it is in the shadow of the cloud that a Divine voice proclaims Jesus a beloved son.”
It’s not grand. This Gospel isn’t about becoming big or whittling ourselves down to an inner God. It’s not climbing a mountain under the heat of the sun or wearing blazing, dazzling white robes. This story is about meeting God, without fanfare, in the darkness.
That resonates. It feels accessible and honest. It feels like God actually wants to meet me where I am.
Courtesy of Harmonia Rosales
If I’m honest, the darkness aspect still isn’t the piece of this Gospel that most deeply speaks to me. The line that I instantly relate to is embarrassingly simple, truly low-hanging fruit. It’s when Peter says to Jesus “it’s good that we are here.”
It’s good that we are here.
Peter is so often depicted as a doofus: clamoring to fill the silence, sinking into the water when Jesus means for him to walk, denying Jesus perhaps without fully realizing his own sin. It’s like he’s the happy idiot that Jesus keeps around to prove Jesus’ own benevolence.
The other Gospels corroborate this: in Luke’s account of the transfiguration, Luke writes,
Peter said to Jesus,
Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents…
But he did not know what he was saying.
What if Peter did know what he was saying?
What if being with God doesn’t have to be a spectacular, all healing miracles and feeding crowds and flipping tables and a three-day saga complete with rising from the dead? What if this man was relieved to be done with the hike and wasn’t particularly looking forward to the descent ahead of him? What if Peter was, dare I say, a little tired?
“It’s good to be here” is so un-profound. It’s what we want to say to and hear from our closest friends. It’s a phrase that comes from ease.
“It’s good that we are here.” Just a short string of short words: It’s good to be here. Thank you for this. I like being with you.
Maybe that’s all that God needs to hear from us.
If you, too, are tired —or if you’re a bit anxious— I invite you to shrug off the drama of the Transfiguration. I invite you to sit in the shadows, in the sacred darkness. I invite you to call on the wisdom swirling around you, wisdom that isn’t intellectual but that has always been there in the stardust of your bones from the very beginning of the cosmos. All of our first encounters with God were in the darkness.
I invite you to say to God, “It’s good that we are here.” And I invite you to hear God say those words to you, not from a place of whiteness and power and might. But in the voice of a close, maybe even slightly doofy, friend.
“It’s good that we are here, together.”
As I read this Gospel, I couldn’t help but hear a song play in my mind. It’s one of my favorite hymns, ’Tis Good Lord to Be Here.
A disclaimer: this hymn contains lyrics that strongly suggest that light and whiteness are good, which is totally antithetical to the antiracist, anti white supremacist point I’m trying to make here. I don’t suggest that this song as a whole is helpful.
But. Do you remember the first two lines of the song? They are the key to unlocking this Gospel:
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Your glory fills the night.