Transfiguration: The Thin Places

February 7, 2016

Luke 9:28-36

There is in the Celtic spiritual tradition something they call the thin places.  We are to imagine places in the beautiful wild landscape of Ireland or Scotland or Wales that open up to a sense of the holy.  A thin place is a place where the wall between the physical world where we live our daily lives, and the spiritual world that undergirds all reality, is particularly thin.  A thin place is a good place to spend time, to let oneself quiet down, to be at peace with the landscape.  When one does, one can sense the spiritual pulsing through the physical landscape around you.

I don’t know if this description of the thin places rings true to you, if you have experienced your own thin places.  Some thin places may be public, may have been sacred to generations of people: mountaintops, wells, coastlines, places that make you feel like you are on the threshold of another world.  Others may be quite private, special just to you.

For me, I think of a small lake in the billion year old hills of the Laurentians north of Montreal, where we have been going for more than 20 years.  In that place, there are moments of heightened awareness. I think of that hour of dusk on a summer evening, where the birdsong from all sides of the lake swells to a chorus and then slowly dies away.  The peace of that moment when the last bird calls is pregnant with eternity.  Or I remember on a couple of occasions slipping out in a canoe on a dark clear night, where the brilliant stars above are reflected in the lake below, where vast height is suddenly doubled below, so that one feels suspended in the dizzying depths of infinite space, the solid world reduced to a black ring of hills all around.  A thin place is a place that brings you face to face with eternity.

It seems to me that this idea of a thin place might help us to understand what is going on in this strange story of the Transfiguration.  Jesus and a few of his disciples have withdrawn to a mountaintop, to Mt. Tabor.  Now mountaintops appear to be thin places for the people of Israel throughout the Bible.  We remember Mt. Sinai, of course, where Moses encountered God face to face; Mt. Moriah, where the harrowing story of Isaac’s sacrifice was played out; Mt. Zion, the navel of the world, where the Temple was built. Mountaintops are places removed from our daily lives, places of beauty and vast panoramas, places on the threshold between earth and sky – it is no wonder that they again and again appear as holy places, as thin places.

And now, up on top of this mountain, in the presence of Jesus, and in prayer, the disciples are granted a vision.  It is as though Jesus’s familiar form, this body as warm and dusty and sweaty and solid as their own, suddenly became transparent, and they see his true identity shining through. In the human, the divine has become momentarily visible.

There is a wonderful story in the Hindu tradition about Krishna, the god who was born in human form, that might equally be applied to Jesus. The story tells of the nurse who was holding the baby Krishna.  Looking down  on him, she suddenly saw vast stars and galaxies swirling inside his mouth, and was overcome with awe and fear. In just the same way, the Transfiguration is a story where Jesus’s true being becomes manifest, just for a moment, just a glimpse.

His face and his figure are transfigured in a brilliant light.  The Eastern Orthodox tradition makes much of this light of Tabor.  It is, they say, an uncreated light. That is to say, it is not the physical light of this world, which came into being in the beginning; rather it is the eternal light of the energy of God’s own being.  On the thin place of Mt Tabor – or perhaps more in the thin place of Jesus’s own coming among us – physical reality has suddenly become transparent for the spiritual reality behind it. It is the uncreated light of Tabor, in the Orthodox tradition, that is the true goal of all mystical contemplation: we are to seek a glimpse of God’s glorious being which underlies all reality.

The word Luke uses to describe this divine reality that has become visible is “glory”: they beheld his glory.  Now glory is one of those words we use in often in church and not so often outside, one of those words that have become so old-fashioned and so vague that they have come to mean everything and nothing.  We still have some sense of the Biblical meaning, that of God’s energy made visible: we think of the “Glory shone around” of the angel choir at Christmas. But the word has also been co-opted by tyrants throughout the ages, to refer to the fame that they seek: glory won through warfare, by subjecting and crushing others.  This is a Satanic glory, a false and shameful idea of glory – but it is pervasive in human history.  And it has entered and infected our understanding of the word in the church. I am thinking of those 19th century hymns, written in the heyday of the British Empire, “Zion’s King shall reign victorious” and the like.  Glory has become, at best, ambivalent.

We need to reclaim the word, to learn to speak of and think of and look for glory not as something we can or should ever possess, but as the wild and mysterious presence of God just beneath the surface of our world.  To quote another, different 19th century voice, the greatest of the Victorian poets, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. . .

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. And it remains for us to pause sometimes in our busy lives, to quiet down inside, to come to peace, to seek, perhaps, a thin place, and to let ourselves sense the glory of God’s living energy beneath the surface of our world.

The Transfiguration story comes at a very intentional point in the gospels.  It comes more or less right in the middle.  The first half of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tells of Jesus coming, and of his early ministry.  Then comes a turning point, the three predictions Jesus makes of his death, and the latter half of the gospels places him on the road to Jerusalem, to the cross and suffering.  The Transfiguration comes right at this turning point, right after Jesus has asked the disciples the crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and predicted his death for the first time.

We have come to remember the Transfiguration at a similar point in the church year.  It is the last Sunday in Epiphany, the season where we contemplate Jesus’s shining forth in this world.  Over the past weeks, we have been reading stories of his early ministry.  We began Epiphany with the story of his baptism, and the words that establish his identity: “This is my well-beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.”  We close Epiphany with an echo of these words in the Transfiguration, the clearest revelation of Jesus’s true identity. It is a fit end to Epiphany.

But the end of Epiphany means also the beginning of Lent. This week we embark upon a darker time of forty days preparation that eventually will lead us to Holy Week and to Good Friday.  Lent is the church’s annual journey to Jerusalem, the very journey that Jesus is now about to embark upon, knowing what lies at the end of it.  The Transfiguration looks back to Jesus’s baptism, but it looks forward also to his resurrection.  Jesus’s resurrected body was bathed in the glorious light of Tabor, even if that was not always visible to his disciples.  The glory we glimpse today reminds us of the glory to come.  But it is only a glimpse, now.  Before we come to its fullness, we must face the darkness.

The meaning of Transfiguration became clear to me many years ago through a sermon preached by a good friend of mine who visited me in my first parish. She used an image from her childhood, of being sent by her mother to fetch a jar of something from the cellar.  She hated the cellar as a child – it was dark and dank and creepy. She remembers getting to the bottom of the stairs, and turning around one last time to look at the light shining from the door at the top, before plunging into the darkness to do what she had to do.

That is the purpose of the Transfiguration: a glimpse, just a glimpse, of light and glory, to give us hope and courage before we plunge into the darkness of Lent.   Indeed, we might say that that is the purpose of glory in the Christian life, and vision, and prayer: not to be a place we can stay and bask in, cut off from the world; but to be a glimpse of comfort and inspiration, to give us courage and hope to face the dark places of this world, and see them through to their end.