Sunday Musings with Diana Butler Bass – The Feast of the Transfiguration

Too much of politics caters to our craving miracles; faith is often about finding some magical safe place. But mystical experiences are about real life. In the season of Ordinary Time, a most extraordinary event breaks into the calendar on this Sunday: The Feast of the Transfiguration, the commemoration of one of the most spectacular and surprising stories in the Gospels.

But who gets transfigured? And how? The miracle might not be what we learned in Sunday school.

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Luke 9:28-36

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. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

If you see this from a window, you know to buckle up. Storm clouds from an airplane, Getty Images

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday evening after a speaking engagement, I flew out of St. Louis. My hosts dropped me off at the airport about three hours before my flight. As I waited, I noticed that the sky grew threatening and my weather app indicated large storms moving toward the city from the west.

“Maybe we’ll beat it out of here,” I said to a fellow passenger, my words wary in a half-prayer and half-cry for assurance.

No such luck. We boarded just as the storm was bearing down on the airport.

As it happened, my seat-mate was an airline pilot who didn’t much like the look of things out of the window. He was glued to a professional flight app on his phone. The weather worsened, and I couldn’t believe that we were actually going to fly through it. I’ve flown a couple million miles in my life and had never seen a plane take off in such a storm. I asked him questions — a lot of them. He could tell I was nervous as we pulled out of the gate.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll be just fine as long as there’s no lightning.”

At that moment, the sky lit up. “Like that?” I asked and pointed out the window.

He looked out and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. My sense was that even he wasn’t completely comfortable. He buried himself in his navigation app.

We took off. It was raining like a monsoon. The plane rose into the cloud, turbulence bouncing us through the ascent. People gasped, one woman let out a scream. I gripped the armrest and my knuckles really turned white. I was glad not to be hooked up to a blood pressure monitor.

It went on like that for about ten minutes — terrified in those clouds.

Then, the plane broke through the top of the storm. Smooth air greeted us. We left the turbulence below. The rest of the flight was uneventful — and the clouds beneath us cleared.

Some Christians believe that today’s gospel story records a literal miracle of Moses and Elijah meeting Jesus on a mountain. I don’t know about miracles — we historians can be skeptical about evidence when it comes to miracles. But I do recognize it as something else.

This episode sounds like thousands of stories from native religions or a transcript of a contemporary psychedelic therapy session. This gospel passage relates a mystical experience that was shared by Jesus and his closest followers. It includes all the requisite elements of such — prayer, the mountain, “dazzling” light, altered reality, hearing sacred voices.

And clouds. The transcendent zenith of the passage isn’t the appearance of Moses and Elijah — the prophets are the prelude to the real point of the story.

The climax is in the clouds:

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

They were terrified as they entered the cloud.

I can relate. Clouds are scary.

There are, of course, different kinds of clouds. If you’ve ever lived by the shore, you experiences clouds as fog. Embracive, protecting, silent fog. Carl Sandberg’s cloudy “little cat feet” is an enigmatic presence: “it sits looking/over harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on.” Or, if you live in the hills, you know the cloud wisps that cling to a mountain at night or in the morning, the sort of thickened mists that beg you to stay inside by the fire rather than venture out on uncertain roads.

They were terrified as they entered the cloud.

That’s a stunning line, if you think about it. Written by someone who never took off in a storm, never descended through rough clouds, it is a metaphor for some experience of God from the ground. Certainly, the author had known violent thunderstorms and desert haboobs. But to describe the divine presence as a cloud — a terrifying obscurity, a kind of blindness — speaks as much to our contemporary experience as it did ancient fears.

The Transfiguration isn’t about celebrating glory. It is about encountering God in the turbulence. You won’t hear God — you can’t know the presence — in temples that commemorate sparkling miracles.

Rather, the Voice speaks in the midst of tumult. And its directive is odd — not “come and see,” a phrase often repeated in the gospels, but is instead, “listen.”

Yes, this is a mystical experience, of the sensory perception of hearing.

And it is also oddly true in its description of life — our ordinary reality these days — and compelling in its practicality. Because the best mystical experiences speak to living with faith in the world. Everyone comes off the mountain, carrying only the memory of what was learned.

The news right now is a bit like staring out the window of the plane in St. Louis or being glued to a weather app while speeding down the runway. There are storms in every direction — and we’re going right into the clouds. There’s no way out but through. And it is terrifying.

But what if that’s where God is? In the turbulence, the instability, the wild windy currents? Longing for miracles — and building lovely temples on a scenic hillside — might be the delusion of our days. Too much of politics caters to our craving miracles; faith is too often about some magical safe place. Promising miracles is little more than planting seeds of cynicism. You may win an election or grow a church, but I promise: the fruit will be rotten.

Learning to navigate amid the storm is what is needed.

Don’t cling to what dazzles, all those glittering images. On Transfiguration Sunday, God comes in the clouds: listen.

When lightning hit the runway in St. Louis, I closed my eyes. We were heading into the storm and there was no turning back. The plane rocked, making a way through the clouds. And I remember hearing inwardly: This is the way home, the only way. Breathe. Trust. You are not alone.


It is we who need to be transformed.

Visit Diana’s website here.

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